At the end of August the Communication Workers Union (CWU) announced that we would be balloting 110,000 frontline postal workers for strike action in Royal Mail. The last time we did so, back in 2017, we delivered a huge 89% Yes vote on a 74% turnout. As one of the few truly national and strongly unionised employers in the UK, Royal Mail is heading towards one of the biggest industrial disputes we have seen in this country for years — and it’s a dispute that has its roots in the course of liberalisation and privatisation that began in October 2012.
While the CWU ran a huge public campaign to prevent the sell-off in the first place, once it happened we needed to protect our members and the public from the inevitable attacks that private ownership would bring. All of the commentary from City investors in the run-up to Royal Mail being sold was that staff were being overpaid, and it needed to adopt the sort of bogus self-employment model that new parcel companies like Yodel and Amazon were relying on. Ditching the longstanding legal obligation to provide a mail service for six days a week, they said, would help realise billions in cost savings and profits. To the banks and hedge funds our 500-year-old public asset was little more than a get-rich-quick scheme.
In the run-up to the sale we balloted our members and Royal Mail was forced to negotiate what was a groundbreaking legal agreement with the union, which restricted what the new private management could do. This prevented it from joining the race to the bottom on employment standards with a ban on the introduction of zero hours contracts; prevented any moves to water-down existing terms and conditions or to introduce a two-tier workforce; and brought in tight controls on the use of temporary, part-time, or agency work. These were significant wins for staff in Royal Mail. Alongside this, the agreement prevented the outsourcing or selling off of any part of the company and embedded the voice of the workforce through the union at both a local and a national level.
Of course, this hasn’t prevented every problem from privatisation. Shareholders have still been able to take out over £1 billion in dividends and scale back services for the public. But it has blocked some of the worst attacks Royal Mail staff and those who rely on its services would otherwise have seen. So, inevitably, this agreement and the public ethos of Royal Mail have come under increasing pressure. In 2017, the union was again forced to ballot our members and we secured a fresh deal that built on the legal protections. This meant Royal Mail committed to a flightpath to taking four hours off the working week for full time staff. At a time when workers have been under increasing pressure across the board, these sorts of deals demonstrated the value of a strong workplace trade union.
But now this is something Royal Mail wants to call time on. In 2018, it appointed a new CEO, Rico Back, who had previously been in charge of GLS — Royal Mail’s European parcel business. He’s no stranger to a decent pay packet, having received a £6 million ‘golden hello’ just for taking up his new job, not that the workforce he employed in GLS would know it. Like many parcel delivery companies in the UK, it has relied on bogus self-employment to pay frontline workers as little as €3-per-hour. Günter Wallraff, a journalist with German TV channel RTL, spent months working undercover in GLS. He exposed people working 14-hour days without a break, suffering harassment, and being ‘ruined physically, nervously, and financially’ by what he described as ‘modern slavery’ in the business.
The culture Rico Back has brought to the top of Royal Mail appears to regard these Victorian working practices not as a relic from the past but the model for the future. Meeting the union for the first time earlier this year, he told us that Royal Mail is his company, he can do what he wants with it, and he sees no reason to engage with the CWU. And he’s been true to his word. In the past four months alone there have been three major announcements that will significantly hit staff without any discussion with the union — despite our agreements requiring proper strategic engagement.
The 2012 legal protections, which stopped the rapacious asset-stripping the private shareholders have been pushing for, are being torn up by the new management team. They have also made the first moves to separate, and ultimately break up and sell off, parts of the company — starting with Parcelforce this October. And, under their new plans, Royal Mail would scrap the protections for staff that have prevented a race to the bottom on terms and conditions. There appears to be no desire on Royal Mail’s part to honour our agreements and to give the union a say.
Most worryingly for the public, it is also refusing to commit to the six-day universal service, with its legal obligation coming up for review by the regulator Ofcom. Not only is Royal Mail refusing to defend it, but its new strategy is designed to take profitable work away from the core service, which will inevitably make it unsustainable in the future. This is the beginning of the end for a daily postal service provided to all parts of the country, something that many small businesses and individuals rely on. For staff, the move to a five-day service will mean 20,000 job losses at a stroke.
These are crucial times for the future of the industry. But in the here and now too CWU members are making it clear that they are sick and tired of the relentless demands on daily workload, which has created a culture of bullying and constant cost-cutting, directly threatening the wellbeing of the workforce. As a result, we have seen a huge spike in conduct and attendance cases being used to target staff and union representatives.
And of course, technology is playing a role in this battle. Royal Mail is trying to track and monitor delivery staff every second of the day while they are out on their rounds. For postal workers — who once enjoyed the freedom to engage with customers and who were previously empowered whilst out on delivery — this all-too-often feels like wearing a prison tag. We understand the need for technology to improve services and as part of an agenda to grow the business, but this method of ‘modernising’ an industry will do neither.
So, once again, we find ourselves in a place where we have to take a stand. At the end of September the CWU will be balloting over 110,000 frontline workers in Royal Mail for strike action. Our reps are already holding gate meetings with members across the country in a show of strength that few unions in this country can match. And we are asking the public to back their postal workers in a dispute that goes to the very heart of how a company and a service should be run.
So please show your support on social media. Our members are using the hashtag #WeRiseAgain to show their determination to fight for a better future for themselves and their customers. Let them know whose side you are on. This battle is not just for postal services — it’s a milestone in the fight to protect every service our communities rely upon from the corrosive impact of privatisation.