Britain - Postal workers junked by the CWU

Apr/Jun 2010

It was primarily the bypassing of Communication Workers Union officials by Royal Mail management, which caused the leadership of the union to initiate the current dispute back in the Spring of 2009. This involved 130,000 workers in the Royal Mail Letters division.

Almost a year later, after calling off an impending national strike in the run-up to last Christmas, and after 4 months of behind-closed-doors negotiations with Royal Mail, the CWU is recommending the resulting agreement entitled "Business Transformation 2010 and Beyond"to the membership.

The title speaks for itself. And given that the function of this agreement is quite blatantly to re-establish the union machinery's "partnership" with Royal Mail, above all else, it is an open question at this stage how the union membership is going to respond.

Ironically, the ballot's closing date has had to be extended by a week, to 27 April, because "a number of ballot papers were not received due to delays in the system"

What can one say? Yes, the mail is often delayed these days. There are not enough workers, working enough hours (thanks to the introduction of part-timers), with the right kind of training, conditions and equipment to do the job properly.

And yet this "agreement" would allow, just for starters, 24,000 more job cuts, will remove the time limit on postal "walks" (delivery rounds), extend Saturday working, will place more load on yet fewer workers throughout the operations and to crown it all, it accepts that junk mail should become an integral and compulsory part of a delivery postmen's responsibility! We will come back to these details later.

Over the agreement's course - which is 3 years - automation would be brought in. That is what is supposed to justify the stepping up of Royal Mail's never-ending "redundancy programme". Only, for the time being RM has already overstepped its own mark and in many offices up and down the country it has let too many workers go. So naturally the workers who are retained cannot cope with the job and those who are totally fed up and want to leave are told that they are not eligible - despite the active redundancy programme.

In fact the first "wildcat" strike since the agreement was published was precisely about terms of redundancy. Workers from the main Liverpool delivery office - recently shunted there when their sorting office at Copperas Hill was closed against their will - walked out over the conditions of work, but also because the redundancy terms were not being stuck to.

Not over till the thin postie sings

Quite evidently, there is every indication that the postal dispute is by no means over yet, whatever happens in the ballot over the agreement.

So let us briefly recap what led to the strike and what has happened since.

It was after "Lord" Mandelson's proposed private sale of a 30% share in Royal Mail (with management control included), was knocked back last year, that RM bosses began to move in with their knives, slashing wildly at jobs and conditions under the pretext of "modernisation".

This action was all the more surprising, because the 3-year "modernisation" framework agreed with the Communication Workers Union (after a long series of strikes in 2007) was still in the process of implementation, with final "phases" of change to be rubber stamped by the union officials - but everything was agreed, in principle.

What is more, this "flexibility" agreement actually incorporated most of the cuts and changes that Royal Mail bosses were now forcing through, without waiting for union officials to give their (already guaranteed) "OK".

In CWU parlance, this direct action by RM has become known as "executive action". For managers, it has been a far quicker way of achieving the same result. Provided, of course, that the workforce does not throw a spanner in the works, by doing its own bypass operation on the union officials and staging a strike without waiting for permission!

In fact this puts in a nutshell the specific problem of the CWU leadership. It is caught between a workforce which has been used to defending itself against attack by management - both "legally" and "illegally" - having begun some time back already to regard union HQ with some suspicion, and a management which at least to some extent, knows how to utilise the union bureaucracy's weaknesses and which dispenses with their services when it thinks it can get away with it.

It is on such occasions that the CWU leadership has played victim, to try to regain control of the action, by exhorting workers to "support" it and asserting that, by ignoring the union officials, RM is out to destroy the union, even if this is patent nonsense.

Last Spring, RM management miscalculated, however. Its "executive action" resulted in wildcat strikes in Scotland, offices in the Midlands, the south and east of England, Bristol and to a lesser extent in London. The strikes and walkouts were mainly in delivery offices, where the computer programmes (Pegasus) which were supposed to allow managers to restructure the delivery "walks" so that more items could be delivered by fewer workers, gave idiotic results, resulting in walks which were simply impossible to do by one person in the allocated time. On top of this, the previous round of job cuts had already reduced most offices to the bare bone and many managers coped only by using and abusing temporary part-time workers. "Revisions" of duties were proposed and when workers refused to put their names forward for these often implausible, (but utterly flexible!) jobs, the revisions were imposed anyway and workers were randomly allocated to them.

In fact some of these changes were on the cards, but only after the new sorting machines were installed - which supposedly cut down pre-walk sorting times. However the new machines were yet to arrive, so in fact what managers were doing was making delivery posties' jobs literally undoable.

The mail centre closure programme (the aim being fewer, larger, more automated centres) was also suddenly speeded up, so that workers had little time to prepare themselves for a possible transfer to another town or indeed redundancy, if a move was out of the question.

All of these actions by management led to a great deal of anger and many isolated incidences of unofficial walk-outs and strikes, up and down the whole country, especially in the hot spots mentioned previously.

Union officials advised workers in London not to take unofficial action, however, but to wait for an official ballot for strike, which they said, would be aimed at sorting out all their problems and would reverse the consequences of the "executive action".

Isolating London

The strike ballot was duly held, but for London only. The result was an overwhelming 91% "yes" vote with a 70% turnout. But immediately Royal Mail bosses served an injunction to stop the strike in two of the most important offices - the biggest sorting office and the City's delivery office, Mount Pleasant Mail Centre and Rathbone Place delivery office which is just off Oxford Street.

Despite the grounds for the injunctions being extremely weak, the CWU decided not to contest them and the first 2-day strikes were held without these two main offices joining in. Then a reballot was then held of all London offices. Again, the result was nearly 90% for strike with a similar turnout.

So why had the leaders opted for "London only"? The obvious answer is that the top union leadership did not want a strike at all. But a strong ballot result was (and is always) very useful as a bargaining chip. London offered this. By staging a solid strike in London, which the "loyalist" London union bureaucracy could keep well under control, the CWU leadership hoped to strengthen its hand in front of Royal Mail. At the same time, it helped to let off some of the steam building up among the workforce, thus reducing the pressure on union reps who were coming under fire for their weak stance and capitulation under the "sell-out" contained in the 2007 Modernisation agreement.

Apparently it never occurred to the union leaders (or they did not care) that by dividing London from the rest of the country in the context of a longstanding tension between the London workforce and the rest of the country (because of London's perceived privileges) they would exacerbate this tension.

The London CWU officials laid it on quite thick. According to them, Royal Mail was out to smash the union by their "executive action". For this reason "members" should "support their union by voting for strike" in order to save it!

If only supporting the union and defending your job and conditions (and pension) were one and the same thing! The CWU's ongoing problem is that too many of its members know very well that this is just not the case. It has bargained away so many jobs and conditions in a long series of agreements over the years - and after each one gave away a bit more ground, more and more workers spoke about giving up their union membership cards.

Luckily for the CWU, that in the end, most workers realise that even a bad union is better than no union - and they have mostly stayed with it. But it is not out of support for the officials. So if the workforce voted for strike in the summer and again in the autumn of 2009, which it did, overwhelmingly, it was with one reservation - that the CWU leadership really was not fit to lead the fight against Royal Mail bosses which was needed.

The rolling strikes don't roll over 'em

From June to September, London postal workers, plus workers from various offices scattered around the country as well as a significant number in Scotland joined in the, now official, action. The other offices had managed to be "incorporated" into the strike thanks to their own initiatives: by holding their own individual strike ballots over the course of the year - and in fact as the months passed, more offices joined in.

The strike itself took the form of a series of 1, 2, and 3-day strikes where sections (deliveries, distribution, sorting) struck on different days in a rolling fashion, rarely together, to achieve what the CWU always refers to as the maximum effect for the minimum cost. The strikes were very solid. There was much sympathy from the public too, despite campaigns in the media to discredit postal workers.

But this way of conducting the strike - even if a considerable back log of mail accumulated - only served to prolong the whole affair, without the union leaders getting anywhere close to imposing their "indispensability" on the bosses. Obviously it was bad for the strikers too, as they never felt, nor were able to utilise, their full strength. They were out for a day or two and then back in, confronted with piled-up mail and increasingly intransigent and bullying bosses. But worse, Royal Mail carried on with their job cuts and merging of jobs, their imposition of change without agreement - all the while accusing the union of reneging on the 2007 Modernisation accord. So workers would return to the job after 24 hours to find it had changed beyond all recognition! RM also employed temps to clear the backlog in two large warehouses outside London, much to the CWU's indignation - although it never did anything about it.

By September, the CWU leadership felt backed into a corner, since Royal Mail had ignored all of their appeals for "negotiations". Billy Hayes, the general secretary of the CWU at this point was quoted as saying that Royal Mail would not hold serious negotiations with the CWU without the threat of nationwide industrial action.

So the much overdue national strike ballot finally took place in the last week of September, after having been delayed twice. The reluctance of the union leadership was palpable!

...and the strike that never was

The result was announced on 7 October: 76.24% voted for strike on a 67% turnout. The leader of the CWU's postal section, Dave Ward declared: "This is a huge vote of no confidence in Royal Mail management. The company has tried to make out that problems only exist in some local offices, but postal workers across the UK have now spoken and they say no to Royal Mail's arrogance.

Yes, Ward gives a clue as to his intentions - to use the vote to regain the confidence of Royal Mail! Because that is exactly what the CWU leaders did.

As far as they were concerned, they were the ones best placed to advise RM on how to modernise the business. This is what Ward also said: "Royal Mail has never really been engaged in modernisation. They've been running down the business, running down services and cutting costs and it's that business plan that postal workers have overwhelmingly rejected today." Yet which worker felt he or she was "rejecting a business plan"? No, it was CWU leaders who wished to propose their own alternative "business plan" and prove what equal - if not better - partners they really could be.

Anyway, Ward also assured RM that there was still time to avert a strike if RM gave assurances on job security which would cover redundancies and full-time/part-time ratios (Billy Hayes had already told the Times: "You'll never find a bit of paper that says we don't recognise that there are going to be job losses.".

Ward explained further: "We've seen cuts and increased workloads and now we need an agreed roll-out of real modernisation. Aligning the interests of customers, employees and the company as a whole is a prerequisite for the successful modernisation of Royal Mail"

But the problem is that he really meant it: the intention of the leadership was to "align" workers interests to those of a management bent on making a profit out of them. The CWU has no problem with this. Not once did it put forward the aim of a non-profit, public service. Quite the contrary, as we will see when it comes to its new policy on junk mail.

Anyway, strike dates were announced. The first being a 24-hour strike for Friday 6 November. But at 6.30pm on the evening of the 5 November, less than 12 hours before the action would have started, the strike was called off!

An "interim agreement" was suddenly and suspiciously speedily, produced out of the CWU and RM's large joint top hat. This agreement said that the "executive action" would be stopped and changes made so far would be reversed, pending a new agreement: "In offices where change has been implemented without agreement the local parties will engage in genuine negotiations to reach local agreement. In reviewing the current position the mutual objective will be to identify improvements in line with the full range of principles of the Pay and Modernisation Agreement 2007."

But in offices where change had been steamrollered through, managers claimed that this was exactly what had been agreed "by your union" in 2007! This agreement left units to fight their own battles locally, when it was precisely such isolation that landed them in the current mess in the first place! And in fact, as it happened, in many offices these problems have not yet been resolved.

Talks were to be held for a period of 4 weeks in the first instance - which the CWU proposed should be overseen by the arbitration body, ACAS.

The CWU claimed later that it was ACAS who insisted that the talks should be secret and that the CWU officials should not be allowed to reveal any of the content to its membership, until a final document, agreed by all, was produced. But if the CWU insisted on the presence of ACAS in the first place it means it had no problem with "secret" talks, whatever excuse it now uses. Anyway, the CWU leadership has always agreed to keep the workforce in the dark when it has been negotiating with Royal Mail in the past!

In addition, Roger Poole, erstwhile chairman of Northern Ireland's Parades Commission was co-opted to oversee the negotiations. He is also a former trade union leader (from the pre-merged days of the public sector union NUPE, which became part of Unison). But this choice too, was symbolic of the purported difficulty in "bringing the two sides together".

In the end, of course, no sparks flew. But the talks dragged on... and on... for 4 months instead of 4 weeks.

Eventually, the new agreement was produced on 8 March. The CWU, Royal Mail and the media chose to present it first and foremost as a deal which delivered a big pay rise and generous supplements: a 6.9% pay rise, £2,500 in bonuses. Except this was over 3 years! And postal workers on less than £300/week (in London just over this, before tax) had a pay freeze in 2009. For 2010 they were being offered 2% (1.4% below inflation), for 2011 just 1.4% and for 2012, 3.5% - but what will happen in the next few months, let alone the next 3 years?

As for the bonuses, they consist mostly of money already owed from the 2007 Modernisation deal - and while tied to productivity in the past, they are now tied to the full implementation of the deal - what the difference is, is anyone's guess.

Indeed as the introduction to "Business Transformation 2010 and Beyond"says "This agreement reaffirms the 2007 Pay and Modernisation Agreement, concludes all outstanding Phase 4 negotiations and builds upon the November 2009 Interim Agreement Key principles - thus enabling the successful transformation of Royal Mail into a modern, dynamic and word class company" In other words, Royal Mail was telling the truth when it said that the CWU had already agreed to its proposed changes under the 2007 agreement. The problem was that it had not admitted this to the membership, because it knew the membership would not swallow it.

Selling the pig in the poke

So now the CWU leaders' task is precisely to get the members to swallow this totally unpalatable deal, which has got much worse with the additions put into it since November 2009.

No wonder the top union officials have put such incredible (unheard-of) effort into convincing the workforce that the deal is good for them. They put on a "Road Show" which travelled all around the country - but only for reps - to force-feed them with tasty "facts" to then dish out to the workforce back at the office. They stayed afterwards for as long as required, to answer reps' questions and discuss with them in person.

There was a slide show, particularly to explain how Royal Mail needs to capture the market for junk mail from private companies which have "stolen" it, thanks to the refusal of "short-sighted" postmen and postwomen - and to the cap of 3 items per week paid at 1.67p each! Bob Gibson, the full time official responsible for Deliveries pushed this case as if his life depended on it, bullying and even insulting his critics. He even cursed the postman "Roy Mayall" in absentia, who wrote "Dear Granny Smith" a little book which decries the loss of the public service ethic and rightly rails against junk mail.

Gibson argued that this "advertising mail" was a market which was rising (even if his own slides did not actually show that!) and which had to be "recaptured" by Royal Mail against its competitors! He asserted that the union had done a wonderful job by negotiating a flat payment of £20.60 per week (not pensionable) for every delivery worker to carry an unlimited amount of junk mail every single day of the working week! So surely it would be worth it?

Strangely enough, most workers on the ground do not think so! This mail, called D2D - door to door - for short, is commonly known as "door to dustbin", for obvious reasons. But Gibson would not understand that, since he has not had to do a delivery round for far too many years!

The London Division added in their leaflet recommending that workers vote for the deal: "Last year the business turned away £30-40m worth of D2D contracts due to the cap [of 3 items/week]. No trade union can continue to defend that position. How can anyone justify turning work away against the current economic backdrop? The whole culture of D2D must now change. It will be treated the same way as any other item."They sound just like the boss! And one might well ask how any trade union can agree to job cuts "against the current economic backdrop".

A feature of the way that the CWU has presided over the 60,000 (at least) job cuts - and these are ongoing - over the past 3 years, is that they have "bargained" with Royal Mail for a direct share of the savings made out of job cuts. This is part of the culture which has somehow crept its way into the trade union movement over the past decade and it is utterly reprehensible.

Of course, it is just one of a long list of what have become "acceptable practices", even before the recession, after which the line was finally crossed and wage cuts were offered by union officials! The list already included productivity deals, often almost a return to the old "piece rate", overtime (the 8-hour day no longer exists!), signing opt-outs of limits on the working day or night, agreements which allow less than 11 hours between shifts, and so on.

To help postal workers decide to vote "yes" for the deal, they were given a DVD with Dave Ward, CWU leader being interviewed for "CWU TV" on the merits of this agreement. And there he claims that no other trade union could have secured such a deal in the current climate.

It is really amazing that Ward can make such an assertion when in fact this whole deal turns out to be a sleight of hand, where the union leadership has actually made all the concessions and gained nothing for the workforce.

Let us summarise the worst: they have actually agreed a pay cut over 3 years. They have allowed Royal Mail to dress up bonuses already owed as new bonuses to be paid over 3 years and tie new strings to them (acceptance of operational change), they have agreed to facilitate the closure of mail centres, with the loss of probably 24,000 more jobs and worst of all, they have removed the time limit on delivery walks and agreed to integrate junk mail into the round with a small "tip" in payment to sugar the pill.

The union leadership turns out to be the sole beneficiary of this agreement. As the London Divisional Committee says in its leaflet: "The Business Transformation 2010 and Beyond puts the CWU right back in the room." Too true. And that is not all it does. It provides a framework through which the union officials will be expected to help implement the same revisions which the bosses had to reverse, temporarily, as it will turn out - and they will be expected to act as the "policemen" of every stage of "change". That is, if the workforce allows it. The odds are that they will not.