The Postal Workers are Struggling for More Than a Living Wage

As we go to press, the Communication Workers’ Union (CWU) have called off the latest one day strike by postal workers planned for August 9th. They have entered into a deal with management to halt all further action until September 4th. In the meantime, the CWU leaders have committed themselves to reaching a “negotiated settlement”.

In some ways this is a surprising turn of events. All the signs were that the Royal Mail management, especially hand-picked by the Labour Government to restructure Royal Mail, were intent on aping the policy of the so-called private equity capitalists, i.e., selling off as much of the real estate assets as quickly as possible and then cutting the work force and wage bill to get a high headline profit, before the consequences of what they had done began to bite and the business ran into more difficulties later. At the same time, they were awarding themselves huge bonuses for their actions. The Chief Executive, Adam Crozier, was given over £300 000 to bring his annual salary to £1 million, whilst Chairman Allan Leighton has been awarded £100 000 on top of his salary. Not bad for one day’s work a week! All this despite the fact that Postcomm, the postal services regulator, had argued that efficiency targets of 3% a year had not been reached. The difference with the private equity buyout is that the Royal Mail cannot currently be sold off to another private equity outfit and, as the postal workers have demonstrated, the Royal Mail management are not faced with a workforce which is already demoralised and desperate for a job at any price.

In fact, the postal workers have better reason than most for not trusting the management. Leighton has already condemned the Royal Mail workforce claiming that they need to earn 20% less and work 40% more (a bit rich, as you might say, given his remuneration and hours!) but the whole style of the management since Crozier and Leighton were appointed has been provocative and bullying. Little wonder that there have been scores of wildcat strikes covering depots from Redhill through Northampton to Preston over the last few years. The recent discovery that sub-post offices were being told to only tell the press the official reasons for their closures was typical of manipulation that the Royal Mail has indulged in.

These sort of provocations have paved the way for the ballot of the CWU in which 77% (on a two thirds turnout of the 130 000 members) voted for strike action to reject the derisory 2.5% wage offer. This was a big advance on 2003, when the vote went against a strike by roughly 48000 votes to 46000. What reinforced the anger of the workers and thus the vote was the knowledge that management is being forced by the regulator to further cut jobs (from 40,000 to 100,000 are given in different estimates) and increase workloads in order to meet efficiency targets arbitrarily set by the government. On these latter issues, Royal Mail has stated that there can be no negotiations.

The Return of the Wildcat

Why then has the Royal Mail - which claimed it could cope with a long term strike or series of strikes - decided to enter into new negotiations after only three one day stoppages? The first is that the solidarity within the workforce has taken them by surprise. In Edinburgh on August 1st, workers refused to handle mail from Glasgow and Wishaw (Lanarkshire) who had gone on a wildcat strike the day before. Wildcat strikes were also reported in sorting offices throughout England. However, as usual, the union was on hand to snuff out spontaneous action. In Edinburgh, Bill Steel, a member of the executive council of the CWU told The Scotsman that

We met with the management and offered an immediate return to work ... A resolution was agreed in Glasgow which allowed us to reconsider our position ... We were then able to convince workers that unofficial industrial action is not the way to go.

But was it not the wildcat strikes across the country that made the Royal Mail turn face? Or was it that the CWU had demonstrated to management that it alone could control the workers and therefore getting back to discussing with them was the quickest way to achieve their objective. As to the CWU’s objective, we know that they are against the 2.5% wage rise and the restructuring plan, but how far are they ready to go in these negotiations to accommodate Royal Mail? Currently the CWU leaders have almost a blank cheque to decide what is acceptable or not.

One of the few demands the CWU has put forward is an easing of the cap on postal prices. According to the Financial Times, the Postal services regulator Postcomm is about to concede this. Until now, the price of a second class letter was capped at 26p until 2010, but Royal Mail have argued that this has not allowed them to generate enough revenue to cut prices to bulk business customers. No doubt this will be used to sweeten whatever bitter pill the CWU tries to get postal workers to swallow. But bitter it will be, since Royal Mail has been offered a loan of £1.2 billion by the government, but only to buy labour-saving machinery and on condition of thousands of job cuts.

Postal Workers are Fighting for All

It is clear that Royal Mail are obviously hoping that a month without strikes will calm things down and that any deal will then get through on the nod. This may be a false illusion given the level of self-activity and determination shown by postal workers across the country. However, as long as these negotiations go on in secret (and the CWU has signed up to a silence clause for their duration), how do postal workers know what is going on? A struggle conducted on such terms is a nonsense. The same initiative to take unofficial action should be used to set up strike committees in every workplace to prepare for the outcome of September 4th. These committees should coordinate across the country and report on an immediate basis to each sorting office.

At the same time, on the picket lines and in demonstrations in various towns and cities, workers from other areas joined with posties to show their solidarity. Many of these workers are also victims of the 2% wage freeze for the next three years. This is in effect a wage cut of 2% given that inflation in basic commodities is above 4%. No wonder there is much discontent in the health service, in schools, in the civil service and local government, and in various transport sectors, at the injustice of the Brown wage freeze. We are talking here about hundreds of thousands of the lowest paid workers in the country, all doing vital jobs for bugger all. Individually, the ruling class can pick off any group in struggle by turning the full power of the media against them and waiting until they are too short of money to go on. Collectively, though, they could create such a movement that it would be irresistible. Solidarity strikes are, of course, illegal, but then so are wildcat strikes. In any case, striking for your own demands but in unity with others is not. It has been a long time since a sizeable section of the working class took on our rulers but given the decline in the real value of wages and the increase in the amount of work demanded of us, it is not before time. In this sense, the postal workers are fighting for us all but they can only win if we fight with them.


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