Postal workers: right to strike


2:35 pm - October 19th 2009

by Dave Osler    


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The 48-hour postal strike planned for later this week represents ‘a suicidal move’ for the Communication Workers Union, according to Lord Mandelson. A leader writer on the Financial Times compares the CWU to Turkeys voting not just for Christmas but Thanksgiving as well.

But if any fatalities ensue, they will not be self-inflicted. As a leaked PowerPoint presentation documents, Royal Mail management has already drawn up plans to derecognise the union, and is ready to make good on the threat by recruiting 30,000 strikebreakers.

Meanwhile, TNT – Britain’s largest private mail operator – is also gearing up to handle a slice of the work. Trials have already taken place in several UK cities, according to one leading trade press title.

What we are witnessing, for the first time since the miners’ struggle of 1984-85, is a meticulously plotted and perfectly deliberate scheme to smash a strong public sector trade union, with full connivance from the state, in order to push through privatisation in whole or in part.

Presumably aware of the parallel, CWU leader Billy Hayes last week even compared his position to that of Arthur Scargill a quarter of a century ago. By implication, we now have a Labour prime minister cast in the role of Margaret Thatcher.

I am not an apologist for the shoddy service all too frequently on offer from the Royal Mail and the Post Office. There is clearly a need for substantial investment in new sorting equipment, for instance.

Working arrangements are in as much need of modernisation as the technology. But given the abysmal take home pay of most postal workers, there is plenty of scope for buying out Spanish practices.

However, these aims can best be achieved by persuasion, not by bludgeoning the workforce into submission. Already some 50,000 jobs have gone since 2002. The imposition of a pay freeze, attempts to make some overtime unpaid and compulsory, and proposal to replace almost all full-time jobs with part-time positions can only be designed as a deliberate provocation.

Royal Mail boss Adam Crozier – reputedly the highest paid person in the entire public sector – should cut the macho management crap, stop viewing himself as Ian MacGregor reincarnate, and negotiate the necessary change.

I’m told by journalists who are following these events more closely than I am that there is a fair chance the strike will not happen on Thursday and Friday, and that both sides will soon been round the ACAS table.

But what if the walkout goes ahead? A postal stoppage this close to Christmas will inevitably be unpopular with the public. The CWU must make it plain that if Mandy and Crozier get their way, the postal service will be slower, more expensive and even less reliable than it is now. The union is justified in calling the strike, and it deserves the support of the entire left.

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About the author
Dave Osler is a regular contributor. He is a British journalist and author, ex-punk and ex-Trot. Also at: Dave's Part
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Reader comments


Mandelson is entirely to blame for this by insisting on his doomed part-privatization scheme.

He is a Tory wolf clothed in Labour wool.

“Mandelson is entirely to blame for this”

Not exactly objective is it, let’s hope ACAS is better

Wait – so the strike will result in the derecognition of the Union, destroy the business of Royal Mail, and is being held in part to prevent reforms to working practices that you are in favour of. And you think it’s a good thing?

Does the Union still pay into NuLabs coffers?

I’ve moved my business to another operator because of these problems. Clearly, I’m not exactly Amazon, but I’d guess there are a lot of previously ‘happy’ Royal Mail customers who are now seriously considering alternatives for the first time.

“The CWU must make it plain that if Mandy and Crozier get their way, the postal service will be slower, more expensive and even less reliable than it is now.”

The problem is, they’re going to find that very, very hard.

Because it’s a piece of shit right now.

I’m not very pleased about Royal Mail having lost £50 worth of my books the past 3 months, for example. And I am aware of the declining circulation of letters (due to the rise of electronic communication) and so find it no surprise that the postal service is shrinking.

And I know that this is mostly due to under-investment and unbelievably incompetent management. But at the same time, I’m fucking sick to death of Royal Mail.

So when strike action is threatened, I already have barest sympathy, until I step back and try and think of it in a detached way, from all points of view, etc.

But I’m on the left, sympathetic to collective action. Many – most? – are not. The posties need to really think about that. A lot of people are pissed off with Royal Mail. Striking now just seems like suicide.

So, for perhasp the first time ever, I think Mandelson has a point.

7. Dick the Prick

@Kate – ‘He is a Tory wolf clothed in Labour wool’ – no, he’s not. I could understand a Tory ‘doing this’ – (although incredibly underhand etc but, tried & tested) but there is absolutely no way you can in any way claim that Mandy is a Tory. I genuinely cannot figure out why they’re playing such high stakes, why now, what their motives are (as I don’t understand the left that much) and what possible benefit they expect to accrue.

If you wander down the conspiracy theories of the Lisbon Treaty, that Brown was merely hanging on to sell us down the river – well, that’s fine – but surely any fule would just bang a bit of cash at it, keep schtum and wait until after June to screw Royal Mail. Me no comprende.

8. Donut Hinge Party

“Royal Mail management has already drawn up plans to derecognise the union, and is ready to make good on the threat by recruiting 30,000 strikebreakers.”

Good. I’m usually fairly libertarian and standing on the barricades, hunched around the brassieres, and all that, but I fail to see how the nation is best served by running to the courts just because the board an union can’t agree. Temps are almost twice as expensive than regular staff, so this can’t financially be a long-term option, plus if the company does want to take someone on they generally have to pay extra.

Imagine if there was a nurse’s strike, and the NHS was banned from hiring locums (loca?) to help people in the meantime. The country’d be up in arms!

Good. I’m usually fairly libertarian and standing on the barricades, hunched around the brassieres, and all that,

Apparently what’s needed to correct that is a larger cup size, and a smaller band. Very common problem, so I’m told.

This article in the London Review of Books by a working postie should be compulsory reading for any policy maker, pundit, journalist, before they comment on the upcoming strike

http://www.lrb.co.uk/v31/n18/maya01_.html

I’ve read the article that Bill’s linked to and he’s right, it should be compulsory reading.

11. I read it, but having read it I don’t understand what is so good about a state-run postal service and why we shouldn’t just let the market take care of it all. What makes the delivery of post more special than all the other areas of our lives that private business takes care of?

“What makes the delivery of post more special than all the other areas of our lives that private business takes care of?”

The private sector can’t (without state subsidy) provide a national service with next day delivery to all parts of the UK. Or post offices which are the hub of a community but which don’t make a profit. Both of which are things that lots of people want.

14. Private with some public ‘top up’, then?

The market cannot and is not meant to “take care” of anything. Indeed it trashes non-market institutions that previously worked well. The Halifax Building Society that became HBOS a case in point, the Trustee Savings Bank another. There are a lot of things the market can’t or shouldn’t do. We might also wonder whether we actually need a certain requisite variety of different kinds of organization, that we don’t put all our eggs in the market-basket, so to speak. Not all institutions work best as businesses, and the problems with Royal Mail are nothing to do with its form of governance.

16. Shatterface

‘What makes the delivery of post more special than all the other areas of our lives that private business takes care of?’

What? You’ve not seen that Kevin Costner movie about the apocalypse?

They’re the bedrock of civilisation.

Seriously, anyone who can listen to Mandleson pontificating about postal workers without going postal themselves might as well give up on left-wing politics and join the Labour Party.

I had the honour of taking my union rep training under members of the postal union and urge people to show their support.

Bill,

Thanks for the link, it’s an interesting article. But it also characterises the failings of the union’s attitude. For much of the article, the author complains that Royal Mail management is fiddling the figures – claiming that the number of items delivered is down when, in actual fact, volumes and weight are up.

But how does the article start? With the confession that the author and all the other posties at the office routinely lie about the weight they take out in their bags.

In other words, he helps management to fiddle the figures.

By striking, posties not only undermine the business, they piss away real public sympathy. A better strategy would surely be a work to rule – by refusing to lie about their bags and by working no overtime, they would still cause disruption but not (quite) as much and they would expose management’s alleged fiddling of the figures. By striking, they make themselves the focus of public dissatisfaction about the state of the post office.

Management at the Royal Mail seems to be very slow-witted. We all buy more things by mail-order or online than we used to. Only an unusually badly run organisation could fail to exploit the Mail’s infrastructure to turn a profit in such circumstances. And yet, it is at least possible that part of the reason for the management’s failure to raise their game that it spends a lot of time dealing with a truculent union unready to innovate its way out of an on-going loss of market share.

If “Roy Mayall” is right then the Union should be advocating an alternative set of reforms to privatisation – renegotiation of the deregulated contracts, proper recognition of the figure fiddling (such as the bogus items/box figure), and finding ways to offer better services*. At the same time, it should make clear that postal workers are doing all they can to make the Mail work better and how much more work that is than they are paid for. Moreover, the posties themselves should be making the most of the fact that they meet such a large number of people every day, to drive home one key message – how getting Royal Mail employees what they want will get the public the postal service it wants.

If they can’t come up with that message then they don’t deserve the special status they are pleading for.

* When you get a “sorry you were out” card through your letter box, the sorting office you need to collect your parcel from is likely to be vastly nearer than the nearest DHL depot. That is a huge commercial advantage. Why piss that advantage away by only allowing collections 8.30am til one o’clock? Being able to pick up a missed parcel after you get home from work on the same day would be a huge customer benefit. One that might make you choose them instead of another courier. And there are lots of other little ways RM could innovate which would make people feel good about the service.

It is seriously time for the unions to start moving to break their ties with the Labour Party. Sadly the Labour Party is no longer part of the Labour Movement.

George V. You’ve never had a job, obviously, where your hanging on to it depends on you doing more than you’re actually paid to do, or working longer hours. There is some intrinsic advantage in carrying heavier bags than is good for you so you can get your work done in the hours you’re paid for ?

But otherwise, actually, there is something in what you say, and for the union movement generally. In my own occupation, my union is stuck in old-school industrial action mode, when with some imagination it could really make common cause with the people who are forced to pay for us, and are mightily pissed off a lot of the time. And also same is true for me in terms of collecting parcels. One courier’s “local” depot is 18 miles through urban traffic away, and unreachable without a car. The Royal Mail depot 5 min drive, 10 on bike or bus. But often a loonng queue when I get there.

But also, check this out. It really is the bosses who are revolting

http://www.lrb.co.uk/blog/2009/10/16/roy-mayall/attendance-procedures/

The union is justified in calling the strike, and it deserves the support of the entire left.

The governments revenues currently cover about 3/4ths of its spending. If Gordon Brown wins the next election he is going to have to launch a quite spectacular cost cutting exercise throughout the public sector, over the course of the next Parliament. During this exercise how much support could a Labour Prime Minister expect from the Left?

To judge from this article – none at all.

He cannot even hope for support in reforming the Post Office, let alone the NHS, social services etc.

Both sides have failed to offer an adequate explanation of their positions and what they hope to achieve. Also the The UK postal service needs to be compared to other countries so we can assess the effectiveness. I cannot see how small businesses which rely on the mail going bust, is going to help the posties.

it deserves the support of the entire left.

Eh, no.

I read a report today that there is new technology available that will electronically sort the mail on a postal route so that it is in the correct order for the postman to deliver but the CWU will not allow it to be used as the greater efficiency that would accrue would lead to job losses.

Surely they realise that their competitors will have no qualms about harnessing such technology and that will ultimately mean that there will be no Royal Mail and no jobs.

And no CWU.

Turkeys and Christmas.

18 – “When you get a “sorry you were out” card through your letter box, the sorting office you need to collect your parcel from is likely to be vastly nearer than the nearest DHL depot.”

Perhaps. But then, I’m from Merseyside, where the sorting office has been closed. Liverpool is is a major metropolis, has one of only five single letter postcodes nationally, (e.g. L1), and has no sorting office – I suspect, due to the “meticulously plotted and perfectly deliberate scheme to smash a strong public sector trade union” referred to in Dave’s article.

I think there is a very obvious need for a postal service in this country, and not just to appease ‘Granny Smith’. I also think that Post Offices are ideally placed to act as community hubs – e.g. providing simple banking services, NS&I products, even internet access (for those still unconnected) – but that it would be near-impossible to run such an institution “for profit”.

(Especially with the frankly obscene bias that currently exists in the system – see the (excellent) article referenced by Bill and Nina (@11 and @12) for details.)

The tragedy, to steal Mandelson’s turn of phrase, is that it is a Labour government that has so betrayed the system – and that stories such as Roy Mayall’s remain largely undelivered, whilst the media happily trills the anti-union message so beloved of Thatcherites and neo-Thatcherites, repeating the quite blatant lie: “figures are down”.

I absolutely agree that the strike deserves the support of the entire left.

25. Alisdair Cameron

Mandy brings in the scabs,then. All those lauding him at the Brighton conference as somehow a good thing, I hope you’re choking on your sycophantic words now. The man is not of the Left, and is another pillar of the plutocratic clique that seems to control everything, but are accountable for nothing.
Nothing can be allowed to stand in the way of managerialist ‘progress’, which entails spunking huge sums on Chief execs of risible ‘quality (that’s you, Crozier, you spiv), even more on management consultancy snake-oil and bullshittery, and readying for a sell off to cherry-picking private corporations who will take the Govt to the cleaners and leave the nation with both liabilities and an end to a universal postal service.
That’s not f*cking progress in my book,is disgraceful from any Govt, let alone a nominally Labour one, and is fittingly symbolic of how vile New labour have perverted and infested a once principled, noble, party.

Bill,

I have actually, and I didn’t feel good about it then either. But that misses my point. I wasn’t saying that you should never do more than you’re paid for. I was saying that, if the workforce is helping out management by doing more than it is supposed to do, then the withdrawal of that co-operation is a plausible alternative to striking.

Moreover, by emphasizing the extent to which the postal workers are already helping out the bosses, it helps the union portray itself as the good guys. Striking helps the bosses portray them as the wreckers.

I think Jay’s point also echoes my feeling that there are huge amounts of untapped value in the Royal Mail and, ultimately, that is what the business needs to do – to find a way of offering the public more of what they want. At present they have been very bad at this – as anyone who has ever set off to collect a parcel on their lunch hour, only to discover that the office closed at one, will know. If the union could paint a picture of the mail service it want to provide, it will get a more sympathetic hearing.

27. Joy_to_the_world

Sometimes you have to cut off your nose to save the face of the country.

I realise this strike is an inconvenience and annoying, but you need to look at the bigger picture.

If the union capitulates and gives into the Royal mail’s “job cuts by the back door” then our post is doomed anyway.

They are deliberately running it into the ground so they can justify selling it. Anyone who is over 25 should remember the same with British Rail. It was massively under-invested in for years and the Government claimed it had to flog it. However since then many private companies have made a fortune from running the railways – so how can that be?

It’s not down to the efficiency of the private sector – it’s down to reducing real wages and working conditions of the staff.

Just because you, me and 80% of the population have been foolish and given up their working rights – why should we deny the privilege to the P.O. workers?

Surely the signal from RM “we’ll negotiate once you agree to our demands” – i.e. call off the strike is a clear indication of who is the bully and who is not.

P.s. DHL are only interested in the profit making areas such as cities – they don’t want to deliver mail to John O’Groats as they can’t MAKE A PROFIT FROM IT.

Aren’t you getting it yet? – this is why it needs to be a public service and not a private one.

If the union capitulates and gives into the Royal mail’s “job cuts by the back door” then our post is doomed anyway.

The Mail is doomed if it is made more efficient? Really?

The Royal Mail is owned by the government. The more money it makes, the more money the government has to spend on other things. I think that a lot of people on the left tend to forget that.

To pager. These machines you talk about are walk sequencening machines and have been in Bristol for a year now with full union agreement. Don’t be led down the path by the minister of no responsibility


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