Biggest possible majority needed
Eddie Ford argues that strike action will pit postal workers not only against Royal Mail bosses, but against a union-smashing government too. Mass solidarity is vital if victory is to be won.
This week the Communication Workers Union began a national ballot of its 110,000 members over industrial action, the process closing on March 17. In a statement, the CWU condemned a campaign of “management propaganda, an insulting so-called ‘pay offer’ and impositions of drastic changes without agreement” - a reference to Royal Mail’s failed bid to avert the strike by offering postal workers a pathetic 6% pay rise over three years.
Of course, it would be more accurate to say reballot, as in November 97% voted for strike action on a 76% turnout. A pretty convincing mandate, you would think, compared - for example - to the 51.89% on a 72.21% turnout who voted ‘leave’ in the Brexit referendum or the 43.6% on a 67.3% turnout who voted for Boris Johnson’s Tories in the general election. And it far surpassed the legal threshold imposed by the 2016 Trade Union Act. But, no, it was not good enough for the mail bosses or the Tories - with a high court injunction putting the kibosh on the strike. Apparently, the CWU had engaged in a “a form of subversion of the ballot process” - by which the courts meant that some individual union members had filmed themselves voting for strike action in the actual sorting office, even if the law says you are only allowed to do so at home, whilst opening the bills and watching the BBC telling you to be sensible.
In reality, Royal Mail was panicking because the strike action would have taken place at the busiest time of the year - not just because of the pre-Christmas period, but also the general election campaign. Hence the intervention of the courts, coming to the aid of the bosses - the same old story. Tellingly, Royal Mail’s entire case was on the witness statement of one single manager - no CWU members, needless to say, had complained about “improper interference” with the ballot. But their voice counts for nothing in the judicial system. One manager, one vote.
For all of the bosses’ shenanigans and the genuinely “improper interference” of the courts, there is little doubt that the reballot will deliver another thumping majority against the oppressive management practised by Royal Mail’s chief executive, Rico Back - a German businessman, despite the name. Interestingly, Back was a founding member and managing director of German Parcel, bought in 1999 by Royal Mail and subsequently rebranded as General Logistics Systems (GLS) - Royal Mail’s European subsidiary. He receives £790,000 annually, plus up to £1.3 million in bonuses - not forgetting the £6 million ‘golden hello’. Clearly he is someone who will understand the ordinary concerns of postal workers, struggling to cope with their workload.
Anyway, Back and his colleagues are determined to press ahead with their assets-stripping plans to create a separate parcel company and abandon its tiresome obligation to deliver letters six days a week - in that way they can run down the postal service and go for gold. All this could lead to a possible 40,000 job losses and further casualisation. Of course, the remaining workforce will have to work even harder - the bosses wanting, 1984-style, to use postal workers’ hand-held delivery devices to monitor everything they do, or even fit Amazon-like tags or bracelets that vibrate to nudge the workers in a different direction. In other words, treating the workforce as virtual robots - another lesson in the liberating wonders of technology under capitalism. Given that Royal Mail wants to bring in automated parcel-sorting hubs and delivery schedules, maybe it should rename itself Robotic Mail.
Naturally, management’s proposals would mean a further deterioration in the service across the entire country - more frustrations for you and me - but that is an insignificant consideration. After all, Royal Mail is a capitalist firm that has to make profits - it was privatised in 2013 allegedly to make things ‘more efficient’, Vince Cable the business secretary arguing at the time that this was the only way to make it sustainable. The company has 16 major competitors in the delivery market, including Amazon (which now handles over one in 10 parcel deliveries), Hermes, Yodel, TNT, DPD, UPS, etc.
To this end, Royal Mail in February posted a video on Twitter which makes you weep in sympathy. Presented by a female actor, it told us that “there is no time to waste: our competitors are circling” - these predators “aim to take business away from us because of the industrial relations issue”. The company, we learn, will not be able to reduce the working week by another hour “at this time”, because every hour reduction costs the business £100 million - sorry, folks. But, looking earnestly into the camera, she continued: “We want to see - no promises - how in the future we might grant more of the shorter working week” and invest £1.8 billion more to “turn around” Royal Mail, which is “your business”. Smile, pan out, end video.
A fundamental part of the company’s “turn around” strategy is to renege on the so-called ‘four pillars’ agreement with the CWU, reached in January 2018. Essentially, this calls for a decent pension in retirement, a ‘redesign’ of the company’s methods, an extension of current agreements and a shorter working week from 39 to 35 hours by 2022, “subject to productivity improvements”. Naturally, for a 21st century boss like Rico Back, such an arrangement represents unacceptable inroads into profits.
Boris Johnson would dearly love to cripple the CWU, which would be a major scalp - the government also has the RMT, Aslef and the TSSA in its sights. In fact, the Tories explicitly said so in their manifesto last year - targeting the rail unions for the initial attack in an effort to prevent all-out strikes. Train operators and unions under ‘minimum service agreements’ (MASs) would set in advance the number and nature of staff who would remain at work during any strike. In the absence of an MSA, strike action would be unlawful.
The Tories have not yet stated what that proportion could be - although they have said that similar measures in other European countries, such as Belgium, France, Italy and Spain, have set the mark at between a fifth and third of regular services. Grant Shapps, the transport secretary, has righteously remarked that rail strikes “damage the economy” and “force people to use less sustainable means of transport” - nicely playing the green card, albeit totally hypocritically. Quite rightly, Mick Cash, the RMT’s general secretary, has pointed out that banning strikes is “the hallmark of the rightwing junta” - whilst Mick Whelan of Aslef remarked that the proposed legislation was an attempt to introduce a form of “slavery and forced labour”, adding that Boris Johnson “only acts on behalf of the boss class in Britain”. Never a truer word said.
Clearly, solidarity with the postal workers is absolutely vital - of the sort previously outlined in this paper. Like the TUC calling an emergency conference to rally practical support from the whole trade union movement, whilst raising money to support the strikers - maybe even calling a national day of action in support of the CWU. Or Unite drivers refuse to cross picket lines at sorting offices. And solidarity demonstrations of many thousands, given that the law limits pickets to just six people, with the aim of reducing or eliminating scabbing, especially from agency workers and other delivery companies. We must develop imaginative ways to reach out to, and organise, those in the ‘gig economy’ and on zero-hour contracts - that must include the casuals already working in Royal Mail. These are the kinds of measures that militants in the CWU should be agitating for.