The answer to a Royal Mail in the red is renationalisation not cuts

Everything was quiet since the threat of a postal workers’ revolt ousted anti-union Royal Mail boss Rico Back in May. Then on 25 June Royal Mail announced its annual results – that it is losing £1 million a day due to the corona crisis and “change” would have to accelerate, starting with 2,000 managers losing their jobs as part of £130 million savings in “people costs”.

CWU heads Terry Pullinger and Dave Ward were fiery when Back was trying to impose changes and bust the union, but now they are singing a different tune: the company is in bad shape and “we know things have to change”.

After behind-the-scenes talks between management and the Communications Workers Union (CWU), a Joint Statement on 1 July revealed 600 disagreements will be cleared off the table to allow office revisions and efficiency savings – all before talks have really begun. The aim is to negotiate an agreement by the end of July.

We’ve been here before: CWU members need to watch our leaders. We shouldn’t accept any climbdowns on our current terms and conditions, the promises made in the 2018 Four Pillars Agreement, or cuts to the USO. The clock is ticking until our ballot runs out in September.

The immediate danger is that postal bosses take the cuts from revisions, then turn around and burn the union, just like in the 2007 dispute. Let’s make sure it doesn’t happen this time, and demand the union agrees no concessions and campaigns for renationalisation as the only long-term solution for the postal service.

Joint Statement and jobs

While Royal Mail might be exaggerating its losses, its annual results showed falling letters and revenue even before corona hit. The first phase of cuts in “people costs” (our jobs!) will partly come from revisions, while longer-term plans aim to speed up automated parcel sorting to cut more. 

And if there was any question that bosses had changed their stripes, struggles have continued over management putting profits over safety, most recently in the walkout at Barnsley where they couldn’t be bothered to adequately clean the office after a staff corona outbreak. These health and safety clashes are likely to continue while middle management remains full of Rico-era hardliners and the top priority is saving money.

The Joint Statement committed Royal Mail to the Four Pillars (again), as well as working jointly to defend the USO. But will they give the hour off the working week blocked since last October? More likely that’s up for negotiation of “timescales”, to be pushed into the future, so in reality this amounts to renegotiating the Four Pillars Agreement. 

For now, the only commitments are revisions in return for a pay deal. Terry let the cat out of the bag when he said “how can we make some savings”, and revisions “can go the members’ way in some places”, recognising that they won’t in most, hiking workloads and cutting hours and jobs, so part-timers are further away than ever from going full-time.

In a video to members, Dave Ward and Terry Pullinger justified revisions by pointing to Royal Mail’s commitment to reverse its moves to separate Parcelforce, saying we need to show we are committed to negotiations by offering revisions savings. While Parcelforce is a welcome retreat, we shouldn’t need to reciprocate. Removing all executive action was the minimum needed to show management were serious about negotiations after their attacks on the union.

Groundhog Day

In the video there are several worrying signs of the leadership’s mindset. Both Dave and Terry repeatedly insisted “we have to show we are prepared to change”, emphasising what a bad situation Royal Mail is in. Whenever CWU leaders start repeating the change mantra, workers know we need to watch out for a bad deal. 

Terry insisted that “the new chairman and new CEO are refreshing, and agree we should be about growth. Their recommitment to it is massive step for us as negotiators.” Really? That’s what Royal Mail said in 2018, 2014, 2010, 2007… Next comes the talk about “mutual interest” and “shared values”. The woollier the words get, the more we should examine the small print.

Workers should be sceptical about pledges to look at “minimising letter decline”, “diversifying” deliveries with other jobs to prop it up, or nice claims about the “green new deal”. Some of that might happen and even be welcome, but it won’t save jobs. Only the 35 hour work week, or a process to share out the work with no loss of pay or jobs, will do that.

Meanwhile the press assumes that any pay rises and other benefits in the Four Pillars will be paid for in full by productivity and efficiency gains – correct.

Royal Mail bosses have changed tack, not their overall plans

The union was strong enough to force the bosses to the table, but without a strike, the shoe is on the other foot. CEOs will point to Royal Mail’s budget hole and ask the union for “joint solutions”, aiming to get us on board for restructuring in exchange for pay and promises.  

How far down the line will the union leaders go to get a deal? Postal workers need to get organised, with office meetings and reps meetings, online if necessary, to discuss the joint statement and ensure there are no concessions.

Posties should remember what happened after the Four Pillars was signed off in 2018. The rule is what we are promised in the first year is what we can count on probably getting. Future gains are left for “reviews” and “working groups” to find ways to pay for them – or for Royal Mail to block them, ripping up the deal.

Watch your leaders and get organised

Terry gave the usual lecture against those resisting Royal Mail’s blackmail: “We can’t always be in dispute mode, we have to move things forward. If nothing moves, we end up with no industry and no job.”

In other words, if we don’t make cuts and redundancies voluntarily, they will be forced on us. CWU leaders are desperate for a deal now because they can’t see an alternative to Royal Mail’s falling profits other than hiking them first as the basis for pay and then a deal. 

The deal will likely mean ripping up our current worklife, with many suspecting a deal based around new Sunday parcel deliveries offsetting job losses from a five day USO – but that’s 20,000 job losses to offset! Whatever the final deal, Martin Walsh, head of CWU’s London Division, warns “be in no doubt that these negotiations are going to be possibly the biggest since the ending of the second delivery and will mean major change”.[1]

There is an alternative way forward, but it means a step in a radical new direction: for the rank and file to get organised to impact on the talks and ultimately take control. We can start with meetings to discuss the joint statement and revisions, publicising the views taken and demands on social media and between offices and branches, encouraging others to do the same.

But we should aim higher. Militant offices and branches should come together and demand the union kicks off a national campaign to nationalise Royal Mail and fight the coming austerity alongside the rest of the trade union movement.  

Radical measures

Terry Pullinger and Dave Ward did a great job motivating the members in the current dispute, explaining what was at stake, exposing management in the harshest terms, and building up the strike. But they are now turning towards a deal that meets Royal Mail halfway – or worse. It was inevitable, even before corona, that Royal Mail would use its worsening finances to blackmail the union. Both of them pointed out, in many meetings with reps, that Royal Mail cannot make a profit delivering parcels on our wages and conditions – what’s changed? That puts a big question mark over the 35 hour week.  That’s why we need a rank and file movement in the post – so that we can go forward when the leaders hold back or fail us.

Radical times demand radical measures. After two years of the stress and strife of our first major post-privatisation dispute, postal workers need to act now, and ensure “the fight for our life” doesn’t get downsized itself, with the union leading the way, into another deal that sells away our strength for pay and a false, temporary peace. If we have to, let’s have the fight out to defend our jobs and campaign for a more lasting solution: renationalisation.

Now read Nationalise Royal Mail, Defend the USO!


[1] https://www.facebook.com/CWULondon/posts/592873844765492