Friday, 30 October 2009

The CWU is right to escalate the strike action

So the postal workers' Communication Workers' Union (CWU) has decided to announce 'all-out' strike action for next Friday and the following Monday. By all-out they mean all functions out together rather than seperately as they have been. So mail centre staff, MDEC staff (people who key addresses that the sorting machinery cannot read into a computer) and delivery and collection staff (the postie on the street) will all be out on the same days.

I believe this is absolutely right. Why?

There are a number of reasons. First there is the tactical issue of when and how to strike. I can see the sense in different functions striking on different days. It may, in theory cause more disruption, which is of course the whole point in order to put more pressure on the management to do a deal. It also keeps the issue in the news for longer. But the trouble is it raises all sorts of difficulties for certain workers. Should lorry drivers deliver mail to delivery offices that are on strike when they are not on strike that day. Similarly should collection staff deliver mail into a striking mail centre when they are not themselves striking. Most staff would refuse to cross a picket line, but would it be legal? All postal workers striking on the same day cuts out all of this confusion. It also cuts out confusion for the public. I have been criticised by members of the public for not being on strike until I have explained that I am not on strike until the next day.

Second, striking for two days next week is an escalation from the previous strikes, even if those strikes were spread over more days. This is important because it is quite clear that Royal Mail is not taking these negotiations seriously. Many postal workers I have spoken to are concerned that the CWU may do what they did in 2007 and accept a shoddy deal that Royal Mail has no intention of sticking to and we will have to do this all over again in another year or two. Far better to escalate the strike now, show Royal Mail we are serious and force them to think again.

Third and most importantly, it is right because the strike action is in a just cause. So why are we on strike?

Let us be clear, we only have the 2007 Pay and Modernisation Agreement because the postal workers went on strike then. Before that Royal Mail were making changes sometimes with local agreement but usually without any agreement. The 2007 Agreement was supposed to be a framework for introducing change in four phases. In each phase there was supposed to be further negotiation with the CWU. Again, this has happened in places but increasingly it was done through 'executive action'. This is where Royal Mail impose changes regardless of the union's position. It is Royal Mail's equivalent of industrial action. This predates the local strike action in London and other places. My unit (office) was not in local dispute at all and yet we were served with executive action at the start of the year because we did not accept their plans for the year. So it is Royal Mail that have broken the Agreement, contrary to what I have heard in the media, and it is Royal Mail that, at the risk of sounding childish, started it.

So what are Royal Mail's plans? There is much talk of modernisation. This does not mean, again as I have heard in the media, that postal workers are opposing the introduction of new 'walksort' machines that will speed up the sorting process, even though this may result in the loss of jobs. Royal Mail is using this as an excuse to casualise an increasingly part-time workforce, on less pay and with less good conditions and job security. They call it 'flexibility'. In the past year around ten full-time postal workers (40 hours a week) have left my office. They have all been replaced with workers on part-time contracts (22.5 hours a week). None of these workers can do the Inward Primary Sorting (IPS), or sorting the office's mail into each round or 'walk', which still needs to be done, nor do they sort their own round. The full-timers that are left must do the IPS, sort and tie up their own round and sort and tie up the round for at least one of the part-timers. So while the part-time workers do not get enough work to be able to earn enough to support themselves and their families, the full-timers are made to do more and more work for no extra money. And of course management tries to set the two groups of workers against each other so they are not standing up to them together. Meanwhile both groups are frequently going over their hours but are bullied and harrassed by management to both do the work AND not claim for overtime.

They call this process 'taking hours out of the office'. On at least two occasions we have been told that hours have to be taken out of the office but that once it has been done, we will not be expected to have any more hours taken out. And each time they came back to us again demanding more hours. Last time it was 176 hours. Even the manager said it couldn't be done. So he was moved to another office and a different manager was brought in who did think it could be done. And it was. From January 2010 they want another 144 hours. This is typically done by 'collapsing' a walk. This is where a walk is divided up into small chunks and a bit is added to each of the other walks, thus depriving a postie of his or her walk and making everyone else do more work for no extra pay. This was initially introduced for the quiet period during the summer and was known as 'summer savings'. But now we are expected to do it throughout the year only now it is called Phase III savings.

These are just some of the issues around modernisation, there are many more (for example, Royal Mail want us to deliver MORE junk mail and no longer be paid extra for doing so). Royal Mail's 'reason' for making these changes that are trotted out at the end of every news report is that mail volumes are falling due competition from other mail services since deregulation was introduced and increasing use of the internet. But is this actually the case? Postal worker Roy Mayall (possibly not his real name) has written a brilliant article explaining how Royal Mail have been fiddling the figures to make it appear that mail volumes are down when our experience and back aches tell a different story.

So the dispute is about working practices or modernisation but it is also about pay, pensions and privatisation. Although pay is not a big issue in this dispute it is galling that Royal Mail managers are getting between £2ooo and £9000 bonuses, depending on their seniority, while we are getting a pay freeze. In order to get these bonuses managers have to ram through these changes in their office(s).

The pensions issue is not actually part of our dispute with Royal Mail but it is connected with it. The Government, as sole shareholder of Royal Mail is supposed to pay the employer contribution of postal worker's pensions. We have been paying in our contributions but the government decided not to, taking a 'pension holiday' for over ten years! Now, not surprisingly, the pension fund is in deficit and the government is using this as an excuse to (part) privatise Royal Mail. They say the 'business' is in crisis and so they need to raise money from the private sector and to make it more profitable. But the two things are not connected. That is money the government owe us and they should pay it immediately. Pensions are not a bonus, they are deferred wages and not to pay it would effectively be fraud. Without the pensions deficit that the government should by rights make up the Royal Mail is actually in pretty good shape. Last year Royal Mail made £321 million profit.

So what this dispute is really all about is Royal Mail, backed up by the government, running down a much-loved service so they can try to get the public to accept privatisation. The Tories have already said if they are elected they will fully privatise Royal Mail. This will undoubtedly be disastrous as has been demonstrated by all the other utilities that have been sold off. We need to win this dispute to prevent privatisation and defend this public service.

As the leaked Royal Mail document shows it is also about smashing the CWU. The government wants ordinary working people to pay for the financial crisis. Therefore it needs to smash union power in order to get working people to accept a lower standard of living and so the rich can carry on making huge profits. By taking on a big, militant union and winning it will make it harder for other groups of workers to fight back.

Postal workers are leading the fightback against the government. If we win, every other group of workers will be strengthened in their fight. Please support us.

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