Britain  •  CWU - Communication Workers Union  •  Industrial

Threat of mass walkouts foils Royal Mail bosses’ sneak attack

04 May 2020

Postal workers need to build on victory with rank and file organisation

The timing of the attack by the new anti-union Royal Mail management couldn’t have been more cynical. On 28 April, the eve of National Postal Workers Day, the company announced it would impose a cut to letter deliveries from six days to five, as a “temporary” measure for the corona crisis to “ease the burden on workers”. The move effectively derecognised the CWU postal union, whose negotiators were not informed and only heard about it on the news!

It is true that, with parcels flooding the system and many staff forced to self-isolate at home due to coronavirus symptoms or vulnerability, offices are chaos and staff are working non-stop to clear them. But these announced changes had nothing to do with helping posties. The change would have ripped up agreed shift patterns, deleting those that give workers more time off in some offices (a long time target of managers).

More dangerously, this “temporary” measure was clearly meant to lay the groundwork for another strategic goal of the new downsizing management team of cutting the Universal Service Obligation, the requirement that the company deliver letters to every address six days a week, while moving parcels into a separate afternoon delivery service. This is a key goal of the restructuring plans of the new anti-union management under millionaire Rico Back. Cutting the USO to a five-day delivery would see at least 20,000 jobs go, a huge boost for profits.

The Tories and the neoliberal regulator Ofcom have moved forward a USO review from 2023 to this year for just this purpose. Both gave the greenlight to Royal Mail’s five-day letter delivery, proving the collaboration between government and management that many union activists suspected.

A grossly cynical attack

Worse, the CWU had dropped industrial action, despite our massive 94% strike vote in March. Union leaders claimed the public would not support a strike during the corona crisis, proposing to suspend action if Royal Mail suspended its attacks on the union. Instead the CWU suggested we become an “emergency service” delivering food and medicine to crisis-hit homes.

Needless to say Royal Mail made no such concessions. Neither did it have a “public service” bone in its body. Only after the company’s lack of care for staff health hit the news, prompted by a union exposé and workers dying of corona, did it reverse gear and buy wipes, gloves, along with a “thumbs up for your postie” social media campaign to recover their public image.

But at the same time bosses carefully planned an offensive, banking on the union’s fear of a backlash, to press ahead with its downsizing agenda under cover of the crisis and “helping” postal workers. The surprise announcement on 28 April was followed by a blitz of changes and shopfloor diktat, coordinated by top managers and aimed at overwhelming workers’ resistance.

Reps were told disagreement would not be accepted; change was happening; previous agreements with the union were ripped up. The new working was to scheduled to start in four days, on Saturday 2 May, and staff threatened with disciplinaries or even dismissal if they tried to stick to old shift patterns or deliver letters on Saturday. Big shift reorganisations would be forced through by the second week.

Profitable parcels would be delivered, while NHS letters would sit in frames for days, along with the rest of the mail. This experiment in the five-day week was only possible because the government had relaxed the USO temporarily already due to staff shortages – these concessions would now be abused to enable the restructuring.

Our union leaders’ fear of strike action during the epidemic left their arms tied behind their backs; Royal Mail bosses would have it completed by the time the corona crisis was done.  That this was the intent is shown by the fact that the new policy would make no real savings, much less help staff. In fact the change would mean more staff working Monday to Friday, making social distancing even harder. This was cynicism on a grand scale, even for Rico’s anti-union consultants!

CWU leader Terry Pullinger, in an online briefing of members on the evening of the 29th, slated the company, saying “They have declared war on this trade union, they have declared war on this great public service and they have declared war on the employees of Royal Mail.”

Bosses blink first

But Rico’s team were in for a shock. With their backs to the wall, CWU leaders still did not call members out on strike for fear of fines, but came close with a statement to members arguing for non-cooperation: “In defiance of the company’s unilateral action, all members should continue to adhere to their currently agreed duty/attendance arrangements.”

This call left the rank and file to deal with the problem, but nonetheless it met with an enthusiastic response from below. Weeks of anger and frustration over the blatant profiteering and lack of PPE reached a boiling point. Managers announcing the changes were greeted with open hostility. Offices seethed, while reps meeting online with the new social media tools planned to defy management diktat.

A smattering of walkouts occurred in the days before the 2 May deadline. While union officials were still preparing the paperwork to issue notice for official industrial action, everywhere workers were preparing to defy the changes on the shopfloor. A nationwide unofficial walkout, the biggest ever, was on the cards.

Then at the last minute, the bosses blinked. The Tories and Ofcom – fearful no doubt of the union exposing Royal Mail’s abuse of the USO and of news reports with photos of offices full of undelivered letters – stated in writing that the period was only a temporary measure to clear the huge parcel backlog, was limited to six weeks and would be reviewed every two weeks.  The public and media would want to know why these “hero” keyworkers were suddenly walking out en masse in the middle of a health crisis, and Royal Mail’s plans would be exposed.

Rico suddenly turned up for negotiations after blanking the union for weeks and signed a deal ensuring that any changes to shifts would be voluntary and agreed with local union reps. He promised negotiations on the dispute’s larger issues to begin the following week. On Friday evening 1 May, CWU leaders briefed union members in a live Facebook report on the climbdown: Workers 1 – Bosses 0.

Workers’ control

Rank and file organisation took a big step forward in the PPE crisis of March-April, as reps stepped up to deal with the issue and Royal Mail dithered. Since then Royal Mail has prioritised parcel delivery over letters, and workers are angry that NHS or other urgent medical letters were being left for days along with other mail, harming the people in the community they deliver to and identify with. The intent to defy bosses’ USO decree and continue to deliver letters signified a first small step towards contesting priorities with management and imposing workers’ control.  Unfortunately the union has left the issue aside instead of loudly exposing in the media, as it angles for negotiations.

Demoralisation and confusion began to set in after two court injunctions and then the pandemic prevented strike action. Of course many members agreed we couldn’t strike because the public might not understand or agree with us. But Royal Mail’s latest nasty manoeuvre has clarified just how unscrupulous the stop-at-nothing fat cats we face are. The momentum is back on our side.

Workers are rightly buoyed from having won this battle, but the war is not over. Rico and Co. will not sit still licking their wounds. They will be preparing for the next round. Reps and activists should build on this victory with workplace committees and local online meetings to debate our next steps and regularly discuss the dispute. We should insist on transparency in the coming negotiations and watch our leaders to ensure there are no compromises on worker’s safety, the public service and our future.  No one should forget that massive unofficial action in 2007 saw Royal Mail plea for negotiations, only to walk out of them weeks later, once we were back at work. The CWU tops climbed down and “defeat was snatched from the jaws of victory”.

Even as the corona crisis hits, Royal Mail’s actions show the fate of our industry and our livelihoods are still on the line. We should demand postal workers’ control: over how we deliver the service in this time of crisis, prioritising the public’s need and our safety, not the company’s bottom line; and over union negotiations and decisions on when to strike and for how long. 

Royal Mail’s botched attack has resulted in union momentum and a groundswell of rank and file militancy. Let’s build on it to prepare for when they come back at us, to win once and for all.

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