For the first time in more than a decade, in the summer of last year, the leadership of the postal workers’ union (the Communication Workers Union, CWU) called a national postal strike. The context was, of course, the worst cost-of-living-crisis in 40 years - and Royal Mail bosses were attacking jobs and conditions. But the union leaders’ “normal” response over the past decade had been to help their employer-“partner” to impose its desired changes. Indeed, workers recall with bitterness that when Royal Mail was privatised 10 years ago - the biggest ever attack against the postal workforce - union leaders just sat on their hands.
This time, however, they reacted. Their noses were seriously out of joint. The Royal Mail Board - chaired by CEO Simon Thompson - had introduced changes without undertaking to sit down with them first. The bosses bypassed them completely when they imposed a 2% pay rise, at a time when RPI inflation was running at 11. 8%. And then they went further, instructing local managers to impose radical changes in workers’ duties without any of the usual consultation with senior union officials.
So when the CWU leadership organised strike ballots (not one, but two! ) the vote to take action was overwhelming: 97. 6% voted for strike action over pay (on a 77% turnout) and 98. 7% voted again to strike against the attacks on working conditions and jobs (on a 72. 2% turn out).
The first 24-hour strikes were held on 26 and 31 August 2022. These were to be followed by a 48-hour strike on 8-9 September. However the Queen happened to die on the 8 September. Strikes were called off by all union leaders for the duration of official mourning - even though many workers did not go along with this. But then the strikes resumed and one- and two-day strikes took place every few weeks, with walk-outs on Black Friday and Cyber Monday (big online “sales”) on November 26th and 28th - and over the Christmas period. These strikes severely disrupted the mail.
But leaving weeks of normal working in between strikes meant a full recovery of the business (and a lot of overtime-working), not to mention the opportunity for managers to victimise the activists among the strikers. The older generation of workers who had participated in “real” strikes - that is, all out for as long as it takes - wondered why these were no longer even conceived of by the union leadership. One day strikes are at best “token” strikes. Worse, the leaders called sections of workers out on different days, claiming that this was more effective due to a knock-on effect. But instead it just prevented workers from exercising their full strength, or even feeling this strength themselves. And obviously, it needlessly prolonged the dispute.
Then there was the overall context of these strikes: the unprecedented strike wave taking place over the whole country which began in the summer of 2022 among railway workers, civil service workers, NHS workers, dockworkers, etc. . .
The 115,000 striking postal workers happened to be this strike wave’s biggest single contingent. But while there was plenty of talk about “solidarity” and an “Enough is Enough” campaign was jointly launched by railway workers’ leader, Mick Lynch and the CWU’s Dave Ward, in the end, only one day of joint strike action involving postal workers and railway workers took place - on 1 October 2022. A well-attended rally at Kings Cross station in London was held on the same day, but that was the beginning and end of it!
Yet most strikers clearly saw the point of co-ordinated action across all sections of workers. Many even mentioned a general strike and said they were ready for it. On the mostly sparsely-attended postal picket lines - sparse, thanks to complacent lack of mobilisation (the reps said “we can take care of the picketing ourselves”! ) everyone discussed the need for all workers, right across the economy, to come out on strike together as the best way to win.
But one year and 18 (mostly 1-day or 2-day) strikes later, the Communication Workers’ Union and Royal Mail’s management have stitched up a deal together, which effectively implements all of Royal Mail’s attacks against the workforce - and even more.
Yet another rotten deal
On 2 March 2023 the CWU leadership notified all union branches that they had “concluded a joint statement, under [a] new process for talks, committing both parties to reach a full national agreement by Sunday 12th March”. It was no coincidence that the union leadership had struck this deal just after workers had voted overwhelmingly (by 96%! ) to renew their 6-monthly strike mandate (a legal requirement). The media took the joint statement to mean that the dispute was over. In fact it was.
Union general secretary Dave Ward had, however, still to put it to the vote of the union membership. It was obvious to most workers that the deal was rotten. Many were saying that they would vote “no” in the ballot. So the union leaders now went to great lengths to sell it to the workforce. Ward and his deputy, Andy Furey, posted a number of lengthy live Facebook videos on the internet. Union representatives were invited to attend four “Unit Rep Briefings” in York, Birmingham, Glasgow and London, to be “schooled” in the way to present the agreement to the workforce in order to convince them to vote for it.
In fact the leadership waited almost 4 months before it dared to open a ballot over the agreement. When the vote was finally held, it was arranged over 3 weeks, from the 25 May to 14 June, instead of the usual 2, to ensure that enough workers would vote, so that the result would appear decisive. In the end the turnout was just 67. 1%. The “yes” vote was 75. 8%. Ward hailed this result as an “overwhelming endorsement”. But the deal had been accepted by only half of those entitled to vote - 17,000 workers had voted against it and 35,000 did not even bother to cast a ballot.
Over the past year, in fact, CWU membership has shrunk from 115,004 to 104,259. It is likely that this is not only due to workers giving up their membership because they have left the job, but that it is a reflection of anger and frustration over the fact that the union leadership has once again let its members down.
So what is the content of the 3-year agreement which union leaders signed? Royal Mail claimed it was increasing pay by 10%. But this was a lie. In the middle of the cost of living crisis, with soaring inflation, the company has in effect, cut real wages. It had already imposed a first 2% pay increase - for April 2022 to April 2023, when the Retail Price Index for the financial year had hit 12. 9%! This meant a pay deficit of over 11%. For 2023-24 (inflation in March was 10. 6%), the pay rise awarded was 6%. And for 2024-25, again, only 2%. In addition, there is a one-off £500 lump sum, which is non-pensionable. So yes, 2%+6%+2% = 10%. But the reality is that this amounts to a 15% decrease in pay relative to inflation since 2022. This, when postal workers are among the lowest paid “public” service workers.
Then there are the job cuts. Held up as some kind of “victory” by the union leaders was a supposed pledge made by Royal Mail bosses that there would be no “voluntary” redundancies. However, in May 2023, Royal Mail’s non-executive chair, Keith Williams (a former British Airways boss) announced that the company had already “completed revisions in every delivery office and processing
Letter written by a postal worker at the Mount Pleasant Mail Centre in response to the deal, dated 20 August (minimally edited! )
In the year 2022 the CWU and workers voted a resounding YES to fi ght for our rights because of wrong, obnoxious and scathing decisions made by management against our rights and our future! ! !
Strikes took place which continued almost every few weeks. In striking we, the workers hoped for a positive outcome of all this and felt the management would buckle under pressure and resolve the issues which concerned us. But NO, it has amounted to NOTHING! ! !
Now we are in 2023, and we all generally feel let down in Mount Pleasant. . . in fact we can all say Mount Pleasant has become “MOUNT AWFUL”.
The chief executive Mr “useless and selfi sh” Simon Thompson said that if we go on strike, we’d lose money, business and customers. But at the same time, this man got paid a fat lump sum and bonuses for bringing Royal Mail to its knees as well as the shareholders. . . this is UNFAIR! ! !
And to make things worse, management has decided to cut down the hours drastically of both full time and part time staff as if they don’t know or feel the pinch of the cost of living. And the impact it brings to our families. . .
We are getting no compensation for lost hours in which the management claims “there’s no extra money to compensate us”, which is a big FAT LIE! ! But they have money to pay managers bonuses for coming to work during strikes as well as paying the fat cats at the top big bonuses.
THIS IS UNJUST AND AN UTTER DISGRACE! ! !
And a lot of the most senior staff have lost their right to pick a duty they want due to the new RE-ALIGNMENT PROCESS. Senior staff have lost their hours and duties as well as jobs! ! It was a con by the management! ! !
Some light duty holders, who have health or mobility issues, are forced to stand long hours or do manual duties against their will because if they don’t do it, the management starts intimidating them to do the job or take retirement and leave the business! ! !
Bullying and harassment is rife in MOUNT PLEASANT and its like it goes unnoticed. . .
Now management is forcing junior staff to work on Saturdays and Sundays as a new “three day duty”. Saturday, Sunday and the odd weekday night from 10pm to 6am, which nobody really wants, but we’ve got no choice if we want to stay in the job. Otherwise we would end up being FORCEFULLY sent to another office against our will. . . THIS IS OUTRAGEOUS! !
Mount Pleasant used to offer a 2-year voluntary redundancy pay package. Now this year, they’ve reduced it to 9 months and if we don’t fight their greedy selfish and unfair scheme, they (the management) will end up saying that the 9 months has become 6 months! !
And right now, the management has said they are not offering voluntary redundancy for the “meantime”, simply because they don’t want to pay those who want to leave. They’d rather frustrate them and let staff go for free or find a way to sack them on medical, attendance, misconduct or trivial matters. And save money by sacking them to save the management from paying them off. Whilst they (managers) get a pat on the back or a handshake for a “job well done”. THIS CANNOT AND MUSTN’T GO ON! !
unit, which means starting this year with around 10,000 fewer full-time equivalent employees than last year”. In other words, 10,000 full-time jobs had been cut during the dispute - which Williams went on to say saved the company “£150m going into this fi nancial year”.
According to the union leaders, these are not really job cuts, since workers left “voluntarily”. Of course the workers mostly did not leave voluntarily. All the old tricks were (and still are) used to force them out: mail processing managers move workers onto heavy and impossible jobs, so that they have no option but to leave.
As for future redundancies, the agreement states that Royal Mail won’t impose “compulsory redundancies until April 2025”, which implies that the company can force workers out involuntarily after that - and with union “permission”!
In fact, Royal Mail is still cutting jobs. In the middle of the dispute, in February 2023, workers in most Mail Centres received letters telling them that they were to be regarded as “supernumerary” - meaning that their duties were no longer needed. On 20 September this year, Royal Mail announced it would cut another 1,300 jobs, for the sake of “productivity and efficiency”.
These cuts are facilitated by the 2021 “Pathway to change” agreement with the union, under which, in the name of improving “productivity and effi ciency”, union leaders gave the go-ahead for the use of new scanning devices and a clock-in/clock-out system. These allow managers to constantly monitor workers’ activity, in order to identify “surplus” duties, which they then cut.
One of the bosses’ objectives is obviously to cut mail processing jobs, which are increasingly automated, in order to redeploy workers onto deliveries, where a lot more workers are needed today, given the shift to online shopping, etc. . . So “supernumerary” workers on processing have been given the “choice” of cutting their hours (by 1 to 10 hours, which could mean a wage cut of up to £150 per week! ) or else be “redeployed” to other, mainly delivery, offices or hubs. And if they disagree, they are “advised” to take voluntary redundancy.
This is another scandal. Redundancy now comes at bargain-basement cost to the company, since the redundancy package has just been cut by 62. 5%! This change was imposed during the dispute without any warning. Royal Mail used to pay workers, in addition to the statutory redundancy pay, an additional amount equivalent to 2-years-worth of wages. This has now been cut to 9 months. And so far, there has been no challenge whatsoever from the union leadership. Did they agree to it? Nobody knows.
As for the other attacks on working conditions, there are so many listed in the 35-page long agreement, that it is not possible to list all of them here. They include flexible shifts, an end to the possibility for part-time workers to increase their hours, cuts to sick pay, cuts to allowances, later start and finish times which will mean deliveries are conducted after dark, and de facto forced Saturday and Sunday duties.
These attacks can be seen as the direct and long-term consequence of the privatisation of Royal Mail in 2013. As far as the bosses were concerned, the postal “business” had to be slimmed down and turned into an efficient and competitive profit engine for shareholders. There was absolutely no room for the half-decent conditions which postal workers had fought for and won over many, many, decades. The workers’ defeat in the 2022-2023 dispute has seen the axe fall on what was left of them.
In this context, therefore, it is worth recalling how postal privatisation happened. All the more so, because it transferred the so-called “Universal Service Obligation” - or USO - into private hands. The USO obliges the postal service, by statute of parliament, to deliver letters to all 32 million addresses in Britain, six days a week, so that official notices, election material, and, as was required during the pandemic, Covid-related mail, can be distributed to the whole population. Ironically, it is for this precise reason that the postal service in the USA remains in state hands, at least for now!
Postal privatisation was not a Tory idea. Tory Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, famously recoiled from a postal sell-off because it was unpopular with her favourite constituency of small shopkeepers and businesses, who benefited from Royal Mail’s universal, guaranteed and cheap service.
It fell to Tony Blair’s Labour government (in fact his former Chancellor, “Lord” Peter Mandelson) to propose it, in 2008 - a bad year, of course, when the banks crashed and there was financial turmoil. In the absence of prospective buyers and the presence of a £10bn black hole in the Royal Mail workers’ pension fund, the idea of a sale was abandoned.
It was thus the subsequent Conservative-LibDem coalition government which eventually took the decision. Its Postal Services Act 2011 gave the government the option to sell up to 90% of Royal Mail’s shares to private investors. The flotation began on 11 October 2013 when an initial 52% of the total share offering was put up for public sale. The government kept 38% (plus as a 10% “stake” reserved for postal workers). Once share applications opened, they were oversubscribed to such an extent that it was obvious that the £3. 3bn valuation of Royal Mail, whether by design or error, was far too low. In just 4 days, the price per share went from £3. 30 to £4. 55. . .
In fact the “success” of this flotation - though met with some surprise - had been guaranteed by the government. It underwrote the dividends to be paid in the first year after the flotation, but most importantly, it had taken over the Royal Mail Pension fund, with its £10bn liabilities.
Anyway, Royal Mail was a profi table business: in the two years before the fl otation its revenue had been £556m, thanks to systematic attacks on jobs, working conditions and pay. Indeed, for the 10 years preceding the privatisation, there had been a raft of cuts, with mail centre closures and 30,000 jobs disappearing. And as with other privatisations, it was the government which provided the funds for the capital spending necessary to modernise operations (automation of sorting, new vans and articulated lorries, for instance).
Of course, pencilled in for the immediate post-privatisation period were further job cuts and closures, including of those large delivery offi ces which had a history of militancy.
The opportunity lost
Were postal workers in favour of the privatisation of this public utility? Of course not. The postal privatisation was the last “big” public utility to be sold off - after telecoms, gas, water, buses, rail and council housing stock. . . with huge losses for the working class, which every postal worker was familiar with. So how come this privatisation went through without a fight?
The fact is that the workers - and not just the postal workers alone - were ready to mount a strike against it. Instead of a strike ballot however, in June 2013 the union leadership held a “consultative ballot” among postal workers, asking: “Do you oppose the privatisation of Royal Mail? ”. 96% voted “yes” - on a 78% turnout. The union leaders then sat on this vote and instead of proceeding to a strike ballot, which workers expected, launched an anti-privatisation campaign, which in the end relied entirely on convincing Labour MPs to act on their behalf.
In the run-up to the sell-off, a strike vote was held, not to fight privatisation, but over that year’s pay offer! A total 78. 29% voted “yes” to strike on a turnout of 62. 74%. A strike was announced for 4 November, but it was cancelled just a few days beforehand, after the bosses came back with a slightly better offer.
By then the union leadership had abandoned any pretence of fighting privatisation. The “yes” vote for strike action was used as a mere bargaining tool to secure their future seats at the bosses’ negotiating table - because there was no guarantee that a privatised company boardroom was going to welcome them as the “partners” they had been to Royal Mail bosses for so many years.
Dave Ward, then deputy general secretary of the union, summarised the leadership’s position by claiming that: “we couldn’t fight privatisation, because none of the mainstream political parties opposed it”. Indeed this was the case. But it was a clear admission that the Labour Party’s official position determined Ward’s position. Labour in opposition was not only “for” postal privatisation, but against postal workers’ mounting a strike which, if it had taken place, would have had a hugely disruptive impact. Yes, it could have prevented the privatisation, but the Labour Party in opposition would have been blamed for this, no matter that it was against the strike. So this 120,000 potential workers “army”, was demobilised.
Yes, in order to preserve the narrow political aims of this degenerate “party of the trade unions” the whole postal workforce (and the wider working class) were sacrificed, indeed, thrown to the capitalist shareholder “wolves” by the union leadership.
After the successful flotation, the CWU leaders made no apologies to the workforce (of course not! ), but they did accuse the government of “grossly undervaluing Royal Mail” . . .
Royal Mail is not like any other private company
The “private” Royal Mail inherited a big non-profitable burden - that is, the USO. Its Board constantly complains that because of the need to provide a letter delivery service to every household, it is unable to compete on an equal footing with its rivals. The postal sorting and delivery “market” is increasingly devoted to parcels, as letters are replaced by emails and online services. And Royal Mail bosses have certainly helped this process along by increasing the price of stamps to extortionate levels: before privatisation, a 1st class stamp cost 46p; today it costs £1. 25! And a 2nd class stamp - 36p in 2013 - now costs 75p!
In the light of the “challenge” from the likes of parcel delivery companies like DPD, UPS, DHL, Hermes, TNT, etc. , the bosses of Royal Mail have consciously implemented policies to prioritise parcels over letters - contrary to their statutory Universal Service Obligation.
So the past 10 years have seen a significant deterioration in letter deliveries: last year, only 73. 7% of 1st class letters were delivered next day and only 90. 7% of 2nd class letters were delivered within 3 days. And now that delivery workers are supposed to add collections of mail from post-boxes and also from customers to their walks as part of a new “service” this can only get worse.
During the same period, parcel volumes have shot up from 1. 7 billion items to 4. 2 billion – that is, an increase of 250%! So while Royal Mail management cut jobs, mostly through Early Voluntary Retirement programs without replacement, which has decimated the workforce, postal workers are now asked to collect, process and deliver a growing number of parcels.
And Royal Mail is making a killing out of it! During the pandemic, when the number of online orders peaked, Royal Mail recorded the two largest profits in its history: a total £1. 45bn for 2020/21 and 2021/22 alone. Its largest shareholder, Vesa Equity, which is controlled by the Czech billionaire Daniel Kretinsky, got close to £100m in dividends during the first year of the pandemic!
And now, Royal Mail bosses are investing in the “upstream” parcel business, in order to undercut their rivals (DPD, UPS, DHL, FedEx, etc). They have spent close to £1bn in the past 3 years on infrastructure, including automated “super-hubs”, in Warrington and Daventry. The Daventry parcel super-hub is the size of 30 football pitches, and has its own integrated rail link connecting it to the West Coast Mainline, so that dedicated Royal Mail trains can run from the hub to Glasgow’s Mail Centre. Apparently 1,200 workers will be employed to process 1. 5 to 2. 5m parcels per day – but on what terms? To compete in the “upstream” delivery market, Royal Mail doesn’t just need the infrastructure, it also needs to drive working conditions down, by “Amazonising” working conditions.
Today it means longer delivery rounds on foot and in vans, and the end of dedicated duties, workers moved from one area to another, wherever needed. Casual workers are now brought in all year round, to make up numbers, when the rule used to be that they could only be employed during the Christmas rush.
These changes have all been endorsed by the union leaders, who justify this in the name of protecting Royal Mail against its rivals! They were never going to admit that all they want is to get back their lost “partnership”, even though the bosses only accepted them at their table in the first place, thanks to workers fighting and tipping the balance of forces in their favour!
Diverting strikers’ attention
So, coming back to the 2022-2023 strike, how did the union leaders contrive their final sell out? As mentioned above, by January 2023, postal workers had taken a total of 18 strike days altogether.
When a final 24-hour strike was called for 16-17 February, it was challenged by Royal Mail as illegal: bosses claimed that it “would affect workers’ duties on 18 February, a date not covered by the current strike mandate”. The union leadership immediately cancelled the strike. Never mind that the ballot to renew the strike mandate on the 16 February had already given an overwhelming 95. 9% “yes” vote!
Workers were still ready to fight. But the union leaders had no intention of calling another strike. This vote was now to be a bargaining chip in their new negotiations and nothing more than that.
However there was a useful distraction on hand. In January 2023, a parliamentary select committee responsible for overseeing the Universal Service Obligation called Royal Mail’s CEO Simon Thompson and his fellow bosses in to answer questions over their compliance with the USO. This was shown live on TV, allowing postal workers to watch their bosses squirming as the committee chair demanded they explain themselves. They were asked why they were prioritising parcels. They denied this. But the evidence was there for all to see: a poster (one among many) typed by management and put up in a Delivery Office instructing workers to deliver packets first, rather than letters. . .
The CWU campaign now launched a “sack CEO Thompson” campaign, as if the across-the-board attacks against jobs and terms and conditions were a question of an individual “rogue” boss. Union officials even addressed themselves to Royal Mail shareholders, advising them to get rid of Thompson for his “lack of integrity”! Their “open letter to shareholders”, was a prelude to their sell-out. In it, Dave Ward and Andy Furey argued that they would do a much better job than Royal Mail’s bosses, explaining how “the CWU has often been at the forefront of pushing to develop new products and services and we’re in favour of change and modernisation”. They went on: “the infrastructure Royal Mail has, is a competitive advantage which should be used to grow revenues, increase shareholder value and build success for Royal Mail”! They were not only proposing that to solve the dispute, all that was needed was to sack CEO Thompson, but they were begging shareholders to implement the CWU leaders’ “vision” to “grow the business” and “increase shareholder value”.
Systematically victimising the activists
During the strikes, the strikers had no choice but to look to their own local union reps for leadership and in most cases these reps did their very best to provide it. This is why they were systematically targeted by management in the periods between the strikes. It should be remembered that over the 9 months of this dispute, only 18 strike days were called, so every time workers returned to work after a strike-day, reps would be exposed to management’s victimisation.
The fact that at least 400 union reps and activists among the strikers were either suspended, disciplined or sacked during the dispute says it all. And while a “review process” over these sackings was launched by the CWU - presided over by ex-TUC leader “Sir” Brendan Barber - there are still hundreds of reps who, to date, have not been reinstated.
Despite this, local reps remained more or less the only active element of the strike. However, many of them saw no need for regular workers to be involved in the strike pickets. The round-the-clock gate meetings (not mass meetings) addressed by union offi cials at the biggest delivery offices and mail sorting centres, attended by one shift at a time, never gave workers the chance to measure their strength, to set objectives for the strikes, nor to discuss how to make their action more effective.
Under the pressure of the union machinery and given the absence of a counter-pressure from local structures involving the strikers in an active way, even the reps who wanted to take the strike further found themselves isolated. And yet, as is explained above, this strike had real potential – especially given its national nature, the huge workforce it involved, and the fact that other sections of workers were also taking strike action at the same time.
In conclusion. . .
The final deal which the CWU signed up to, re-established the commitment by Royal Mail’s management to refrain from bypassing the CWU machinery when implementing cuts. So for the union bureaucracy the strikes were a success. Dave Ward summarised it, when he said “after witnessing unprecedented levels of attacks which were designed to remove the union from the workplace, the deal puts the CWU back into the workplace, in every function of the company. On revisions, finishing times, network change and all other key issues, the CWU is back in the room and at the table at every conversation”. That says it all. Mr Ward is right back, helping Royal Mail bosses drive a “coach and horses” through workers’ conditions.
It is certain that not many postal workers are surprised by the CWU leaders’ latest sell-out. Not only do they have a long history of stitching up deals behind workers’ backs, but the conduct of this latest strike from day one was yet more proof of this.
There are lessons for the future fights to come. Obviously first and foremost that workers would need to be mobilised to participate actively in their strikes so that they can, when it counts, take control out of the hands of the union bureaucrats. In addition, however, is the political aspect of the strike. That is, the understanding that in these fights, there is more at stake than the victory of each sectional struggle. And that even isolated victories might require the collective force of a more generalised cross-sectional fight. Ultimately, one can hope that through the experience of their struggles - the gains and the losses - that workers will come to understand that the system which exploits them - capitalism - has to go. And that therefore the fight has to be broadened to the level of the whole of society. This has (nearly) happened only twice in British working class history: in 1926 and in 1979. What was absent in both instances was a revolutionary political leadership that could provide an alternative to reformist Labour and its cowardly “props” in the union bureaucracy – which are by their very nature, always too afraid to rock the boat.
As Trotsky wrote in the 1920s: “Only a revolution can save the British working class and with it its organisations. In order to take power it is essential for the proletariat to have a revolutionary party at its head. To make trade unions equal to their future role they must be freed from their conservative functionaries, from superstitious dimwits who are waiting for ‘peaceful’ miracles from god knows here and finally, simply from the agents of big capital and renegades after the Thomas style [the rail union leader who betrayed the 1926 General Strike]. The reformist, opportunist, liberal Labour Party can only weaken the trade unions by paralysing the initiative of the masses. . . ”