what is the london postal strike really about?

8 10 2009

Sheila Cohen (NUJ) interviews a London Divisional Rep and a workplace rep from North London to find out. Overall, the situation appears to be that top Royal Mail management are determined to follow a “New Labour” agenda of targets and savings on the backs of postal workers – however little sense that makes.

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Workplace activists are equally determined to resist the intolerable impact on their members’ incomes and working lives. In some ways, it’s an irreconcilable impasse between the logic of neo-liberal capitalism and the reality of an industry which can only rationally be run as a public service. As our Divisional Rep puts it, “There’s a War Going On” – and as the workplace rep comments ruefully on the 2007 strike, “We had Royal Mail, and we let it go”.

(Download PDF of this interview in pamphlet form: To order online for 50p + 50p postage,  ‘donate’ the money here, making sure to specify in the text box what you are ordering)

THERE’S A WAR GOING ON…
Mark Palfrey, CWU Divisional Rep (2nd October 2009)

Myself and another divisional officer, Martin Walsh, represent 12,000 CWU members across London. London is most to the forefront in the dispute. There are other areas of the country, Scotland, Bristol, Plymouth, areas of the West country, but predominantly it’s London. The reason for that, we would say, is that our members enjoy the best terms and conditions, have the best agreements, and that’s where Royal Mail (RM) have attacked the hardest.

We’ve been in this dispute now for over 15 weeks. How it started is very complex, but it’s been simplified by the media and RM saying what the dispute is about is our “failure to modernise”. In fact, our last national dispute in 2007 was resolved by an agreement called Pay and Modernisation, and on the back of that agreement we entered into local negotiations which involved the loss of a significant amount of jobs. On the basis of us improving attendances, increasing productivity and reducing costs, what we got out of the agreement was improvements in people’s terms and conditions, particularly people moving onto four-day weeks without loss of pay. That had to go through an audit process guaranteeing that it was cost-effective, it achieved savings, etc. RM signed up to that in October 2007.

But since then RM has made a number of policy changes. One is they will no longer “Pay for Change”. We previously had deals where the staff would share in the savings that RM made, in the form of a bonus – so for instance if they saved £20,000 operationally in a sorting office, RM would receive £10,000 and the staff would get £10,000 between them. It was 50-50. But now they will no longer Pay for Change, as they call it. Basically they decided that they needed to rip out cost on the front line, and London would be the area that they would target. They would revert our members back from any four-day weeks back to a five-day week and reduce earnings and jobs. So we made the decision in London that we weren’t going to have that.

Basically, RM completely went back on an agreement they had made – there’s no other way of putting it. They’ve broken their own agreement. They’ve broken the terms of the existing national agreement, and they’ve broken large numbers of the local agreements our branches have. Since about June of this year they’ve introduced what they call revisions, which are basically job reductions. They’ve done this by what they call executive action, which means without agreement.

Another issue is what they call “absorption”, which came in gradually after we defeated team working in the late 1990s. What that means is you’ve got to take on someone else’s round at no extra pay – if someone can’t do their round for whatever reason, their work is just “absorbed” into yours. What people are being asked to do are unreasonable levels of absorption. If you’ve got the right agreements, protection, you can do that, but that’s another thing RM have just run ahead with.

The dispute is degenerating into unprecedented levels of bullying and intimidation. RM has come up with its own unagreed work standards. They’re unachievable work standards that they’re bringing in, they’re not by agreement. RM and the media would let you believe that our people use “Spanish practices” and all this stuff – but we’ve seen thousands of jobs go, people are working harder and harder. In a typical delivery office a revision of work load will come in and our people are expected to do that work within the same time span, when it’s additional work. When they find out that they can’t, whether it’s a weight issue of carrying the mail or their work load is unmanageable, they are then bullied, intimidated, threatened and in a lot of cases taken off pay. That means they’re not paid for the day and threatened with being disciplined under the conduct code. People are filmed by managers using their mobiles whilst out delivering, and in work there’s a whole range of issues taken up by management in order to try to crush our members. The internal procedures are absolutely useless to deal with it – they’re only used against reps.

What it’s basically about is that each year now the RM budget is reduced by 10%, so each year each function, each office has to reduce its cost by 10%. We used to share in some of the bonus for achieving that, but now the only people who receive a bonus if those targets are achieved are the managers. The whole culture of the industry is based on achieving these targets, from Crozier at the top down – that’s how he earned £3m last year. So we’re a company that’s posted a profit of £25m during one of the worst economic recessions that the world has seen since the 1930s – and then offers its workers a nil per cent pay increase, has seen the closure of its final salary scheme, with no reward for productivity and the loss of 60,000 jobs since 2003, in the words of Adam Crozier himself.

A lot of our members have seen their pay reduced through loss of overtime and other factors by £4-6000. At the same time they have to work 46 days more a year – and work harder when they’re there. RM’s slogan is “It’s a Great Place to Work” – well, it’s no longer that. Workers are being put on jobs that they wouldn’t necessarily sign up for. We used to have what’s called a “re-sign” agreement based on seniority, meaning you can select your job, but now even when we haven’t agreed to it management have allocated jobs in a way that means, in some cases, people who’ve done 20 to 30 years in the job have been given the harder routes – things like that. Rank and file postal workers are very angry, very frustrated – they feel that they’ve been used by the company, not valued, they’ve seen their standard of living drop, no job security, pensions attacked. There’s a lot of anger, particularly anger towards this government.

Another major issue is the pension. The new chairman who’s been brought in, Donald Bryden, has already said that if the deficit is higher than previously posted, which it will be, anywhere between £10 and £15 billion, they will close the current scheme, so we are going to be in an even worse situation. That isn’t even the final salary scheme, that’s the replacement scheme – so that’s the end of it, finished, there will be no pension scheme.
The deficit is now £10-15bn, because RM had a 13-year holiday from contributions. But the assets of the current pension scheme are over £25bn – bigger than some economies in the Third World – so you can understand why the government would like to get its hands on it. And that would not cost the taxpayer one penny – we’re not asking the taxpayer to pay anything – we’re asking the government to underwrite our pensions, and that’s no more no less than they owe the company.

What happened a number of years ago was that RM were forced by PostCom to pay the current deficit back within 20 years – and in order to do that they have to pay £300m a year on top of their contributions. So that’s 30p of every pound in revenue that they get – that’s why they’re bankrupt. So RM management aren’t just nasty people – they’re running an industry that has been milked by government and placed under unfair competition by government.

That’s what is really hurting the business – the competition. The government has creamed off the mail to private companies and then put it back into our system for us to deliver at 13 pence a go, which means that you’ve got volume up and revenue down. None of these private companies would ever want to take over the running of the mail. What they’ve got is called Downstream Access where RM will actually post the mail, for 13p. It’s called the “Final Mile”. If you look at your letter that comes through your front door now, not many times will you see RM in the corner. I’m talking about average mail that’s generated from councils or gas and utilities – these companies now do our mail. So what we’ve got is unfair regulation where we’re subsidising the competition – it’s not a level playing field. These companies don’t want to deliver to council estates – they want the network, they want the mail centres, they want all the lucrative bits.
Now unless the government deal with that issue and make RM able to perform on a level playing field then we are just going to degenerate into this process where the end state is that the public see a later and later service. Less and less jobs, worse and worse service.

But RM top management buys into all this. What they’d like to do is to copy what’s called the Dutch model used by TNT, who run the Dutch post office – basically it’s a predominantly part-time workforce, mail is delivered at 4 o’clock in the afternoon, 87% of the people employed in Holland in the Post Office there are on 16-hour or less contracts. And that’s no way to run an industry. This is what the British public is set to suffer under “modernisation”. You used to get two deliveries a day. RM and the government then said that they were doing away with the second delivery. Well, they did away with the first delivery – you don’t get your mail at 8.30 am. They want to deliver that mail later, because the later they deliver the mail the more stuff they can put through the machines.

In RM, because it’s a 24-hr service, you have to have some form of plan and structure. But what RM have got is chaos management, where instead of sitting down and saying we need to plan deliveries, and the delivery time is going to be from 9 o’clock to 2 o’clock or whatever, so how do we then ensure that the work arrives in order to meet that schedule? But what we’ve got at the moment is just cost-driven, the business is looking to reduce costs, that’s what it’s always about.

Unions are often accused of surrounding themselves by militants – what Adam Crozier, the highest-paid public servant in the UK, has done is surrounded himself with hawks. You’ve got a situation where anyone who’s a bit pragmatic on the Board is seen as being “weak”. So we haven’t even got hawks and doves, we’ve got all hawks. And these people aren’t in it for the duration, they’re in it for five years, six years, eight years, and they move on. They don’t build anything, they don’t create anything, they just destroy what’s in front of them – the British Post Office, which for 350 years was the envy of the world. The bottom line dictates – there’s no looking at the service.
I’m not saying that the people we were dealing with 10, 15, 20 years ago were benevolent, but they came from a RM background. Some of them, their fathers had been postmen, they had been postmen, and they actually cared about the industry. I don’t believe these people care. They only care whether their targets have been achieved. If their targets are so far diluted that they can achieve them, then there’s millions of pounds to be earned for them. And that’s the way industry’s been created – in the health service, everywhere – everything’s based on targets. Budgets and targets are the mantra.

All the “Total Quality Management” values are there, they’re enshrined in the boardroom. In TQM everything’s against cost. If anything interferes with the bottom line, whatever you’re providing in your sorting office, if it “isn’t necessary” or it can be delayed. It’s what’s known as lean production – it’s come in from manufacturing industry to service industries like the Post Office. Part of it is supposed to be about “worker empowerment” – RM often go on about “empowerment”. But I’ve worked for RM since 1979, and I have never seen such a centrally controlled RM. From the top to the bottom, there is no deviation – if you deviate from their line you’re removed. The Iron Curtain may have been removed but it’s alive and well in RM and its name’s the RM board. And that’s how they operate.
There are a lot of issues the public doesn’t realise. I haven’t got sympathy for RM, but I understand the problem – without government intervention there is no solution to the problems we’ve got. What we’ve got is unfair competition, introduced and sustained by the government since 2003, when regulation was brought in, then since 2006 when this government liberalised the UK postal market.

RM keeps claiming that the problem is a reduction in volume – there is a reduction, but not to the degree they’re saying. Are people using the Internet more? Using texts? Yes, of course they are. Are people sending emails? Yes, of course they are. But what’s equally generated out of all that is – there’s a jargon name for it now – Fulfilment. They call it Fulfilment where basically you go on Amazon, and we get a package. So we get the benefit. The profile of the mail is changing – it goes to packages and different types of advertisements and things.
We’re in a major recession. So of course revenue’s dropped, volume’s dropped. But if you look at the history of RM, you will see that it survives those dips, and as soon as the economy picks up people start advertising again. Whether or not it’ll ever go back to what it was previously I don’t know, but the problem is everything’s about short-termism. Nothing’s built to look at the future. It’s all aimed at downsizing and selling off the silverware, selling off the premises and relocating in some industrial estate in the middle of nowhere.

It was in response to all these problems that the London Division balloted our members in late June and got a 91% yes vote for strike action. Since then we’ve staged or will have staged fifteen 24-hour strikes. Even RM has admitted to our national negotiators that the strikes are still being supported by 95% of our members. That figure shows the level of support that we have had and continue to have. Some have taken more action, depending on what’s going on in each locality. Basically RM has declared war on its workforce and particularly the postal workers in London.

The members’ resolve has strengthened and hardened over the few last weeks. We saw a slight bit of drift after June, when the strike started, because the work tends to be lighter during the summer, but now the members are supporting the strikes just as much as they did in the outset, and those you speak to in the meetings are adamant. They’ve now lost over £1000 in wages, but they’re adamant that they’re going to see it out to the bitter end, and that’s before we even get into the national ballot declared on 8th October – we’re confident of getting a big Yes vote nationally on that. So our members’ resolve is magnificent, their support has been magnificent, and they understand the issues, that’s why they’re so strong.

Because of the privatisation issue that was going on last year, we passed an emergency motion at the 2009 CWU general conference that should privatisation go in we would cease to fund the Labour Party. That’s still on the stocks. However, because of all that’s gone on during the dispute, London postal workers have demanded that they be balloted on that issue. Under the rules we can only do that on a consultative basis, but we have, and the results are that overwhelmingly people blame the government. We don’t want to lose our political voice, but we feel that we should not be funding the Labour Party or “New Labour”. And that has come from the ordinary postal workers. It isn’t a political initiative from anyone, it isn’t being driven by what I would call the usual suspects, it’s come from the picket lines, it’s come from the sorting offices, and it’s come from their experience of what this government has done to our industry. It’s one of their main frustrations. Speak to any postal worker about what they think of RM, about the government, and they’ll tell you quite clearly.

There’s been a lot of public opposition to this dispute, helped along by the media. The notion is that postal workers are acting deliberately just to be disruptive. I know how false that is, because I have to deal with some of the hardships – terrible hardships people are going through. Some of our part-time members who only work 20 hours a week – when they take a day’s strike it’s a quarter of their pay gone. But they’re still solid, because of the issues. The struggle is not that we want to destroy this industry. We want to see a growing RM, but what the British public don’t realise is liberalisation was brought in to reduce the cost to big business.
How these top 50 companies – I’m talking about outfits like HSBC, massive, multi-multi-millionaire companies – were able to cut their costs in half…That wasn’t some European thing dreamt up by some bureaucrat in Brussels, it was worked up by big business – they went to our government. As a result of their so-called “liberalisation”, requested by big business, granted by this government, we’ve lost tens of thousands of jobs. Britain now, in my opinion – you tell me who’s got a good job? We ain’t all going to be nurses, we ain’t all going to be trained – you used to be able to go into gas, this that and the other – the only industry that’s still left for most what I’d call working class kids is something like the Post Office. Once you kill that, where do those people go?

There’s a war going on…We’re in a war with Royal Mail, a war that we must win.

TO MAKE A CONTRIBUTION TO THE LONDON DIVISION’S URGENTLY-NEEDED HARDSHIP FUND, SEND CHEQUES PAYABLE TO “CWU LONDON DIVISIONAL COMMITTEE” TO JOHN DENTON, CWU LONDON REGIONAL SECRETARY, SECOND FLOOR, 33-41 DALLINGTON STREET, LONDON EC1V 0BB.

“We Had Royal Mail – and Then We Let It Go”
By a North London rep.

Our office in North London is one of the “better” ones – we’ve hit our targets and saved Royal Mail (RM) significant amounts of money – right now with RM saving is the name of the game. But this year they came in and wanted more savings, and they’re cutting duties, so of course there was disagreement.

What used to happen is the company and the reps would discuss any change and the response would usually be a compromise, and if there’s no agreement it goes through stages – first stage agreement, second stage, the third stage is where the big boys come in, the full-time union reps and district managers, and they come to some arrangement. Very, very rarely they use Executive Action, which is when they just put in what they want.

Then they cut our overtime from 7 hours to 6 hours with no discussion – it was Executive Action. They came in – bypassed the union – just said “On this day we will do this” – just brought it in. So of course that angered the staff. Not only did they cut the overtime, they also cut down the rest day, which usually gets full pay, to 6 hours as well. Again, Executive Action. Didn’t speak to the union.

It means a deduction in our members’ pay. They were saying because it’s the summer months, there’s less work, we don’t need to do an hour’s sorting in the morning when we come in, or work your rest day or overtime, they take that away. You must come in at 8.00am for the overtime, instead of 6.00, and then just take the mail out. Because you’re coming in at 8.00, the walk should be sorted on the frame so all you have to do is wait for the mis-sort run – letters that get sorted wrongly. But of course the plan never works the way it should work.
Members are angry – all round London this is going on and even in some places worse than ours – and of course there’s a pay freeze as well. In October 2007, after the strike, we got a pay rise and bonus, then in 2009 a pay freeze. And what you’ve got to remember is RM is making record profits – the whole of RM is in the black for the first time. And of course the pensions are another thing as well. So when you add it all together I think people are really angry.

Even before the strikes started we decided to stop using our cars. People come in early because they want to finish early, and also they use their cars because that way they don’t have to wait for the vans to bring the mail out. You go into the sorting office, get the delivery, put it in your car. People stopped doing that and that caused uproar – it caused a substantial meltdown in the office. When they stopped using their own cars, our office didn’t have the facilities, i.e. the vans, to get the people out on time.

We call it “Do the Job Properly”. At the end of the day, it’s how the job ought to be done. It’s not even work-to-rule. We’re not going against what RM is saying – we’re having our breaks at the right time, not using our cars, coming in at six. But that caused big problems in our office. For a while people stopped doing any overtime, and of course there were times when duties were left over, not touched for one or two days. On the frames, not delivered. They called in the casuals but there was no way they could deliver it, so it was left in the office. If the postmen did that there would be instant dismissal. If I left work in the office, didn’t get it out, they’d call it “wilful delay” and I’d be sacked. But more than once, on a few occasions, duties were left in the office untouched for one or two days. We questioned management about the work, about the customers, and they said they couldn’t get it covered, so…They could not get it covered, so that was it.

Then we had the strikes – but in between that, they brought in what they called “absorption”. During the summer the volume of letters goes down, so they can collapse the duty, split it up between 5-8 people to take out before their own duties. So some workers have to do other workers’ work. They just say OK, you’re here, we’ll collapse it – you guys, you do that duty, 5-8 of you, and you go out, do that duty, come back to the office and take your own duty out.
You can imagine the workers’ reaction. They did it, but it caused big problems because the duty that is absorbed never gets done, so by the time they all came back to do their own duties they could not finish their duties in the time allotted. So work either did not go out, or they went out with the work and a lot of the work came back to the office.

So you could say all this stuff about mail being held up and all that being blamed on the postal workers was also due to absorption. It was. Absorption had a big effect, but of course RM wasn’t going to say that. It was going in conjunction with the strikes, but at the time absorption was hitting RM harder than any of the strikes.

But I don’t think that in particular was the one issue causing the most anger. I don’t think it’s just one thing. I think it’s their attitude. RM don’t want to talk to the union, they don’t care what you say, we’re bringing this in – Executive Action. There’s a set way of talking to the union which they’ve totally ignored.

But with the strikes, our daily work is a bit different than it was before. Now people come in and see all their work and I wouldn’t say they’re happy, but they see the amount of ways it’s really messed up RM and they’re quite jovial.

Of course, there’s also the issue of whether the union should go on funding Labour, the way the government have behaved. With the consultative ballot that the CWU in London has carried out, the general feeling is that we’ve been paying this money to Labour since they’ve been in power, 12 years now, and they’ve done nothing whatsoever for the postal service. It would have been better if that money was saved and put in a fund for strikes like this – then we’d have maybe some money to give to our workers.

In 1996, 1997, we had a strike over team working, and I think Mr Blair at the time told us to go back to work – he would not discuss it. We won that dispute, and team working went away, but since then it’s been a constant attack on the unions plus the pensions deficit, when RM went on a pensions holiday with the government knowing – and they were making profits all during that time. Maybe even record profits. So the question you ask is Why. No one’s ever explained it to us, no one’s really questioned why they did it. All they’ve said is It’s happened, that’s it, and we’ve got to pay for it, but no one’s said Well why did it happen?

60,000 jobs have gone in five years and still they’re seeking “change”. The 2007 strike was never fully finished. We had RM, and we let it go. We should have sorted it all out then. The union leaders caved in – the things we were fighting against then never went away – now we’re fighting again. Absorption, cuts in overtime, pensions.

The things we’re fighting against are the things they’ll say have got to stay in – that’s our biggest fear. That’s where it gets into an impasse, because the top management insist that what we won’t stand for is what has to go through. Even though the junior management know what’s going to work, the senior management won’t listen to them. We’ve got to win this next strike, we’ve got to get what we’re asking for, or this will never be resolved.

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5 responses

14 10 2009
Derek Fraser

Mark thanks for putting together an excellent analysis of the issues around the current call for national action. In Manchester there has been little action for a while but all your words ring true with every postal worker and others who work under such conditions. It is crucial we all get the message you put so precisely to the public so they can see who is behind this attack on a great public service.

Derek Fraser
M/C Respect

14 10 2009
c0mmunard
16 10 2009
Keith Martin

I agree absolutely with all you say.We used to have public services that were good no matter what our politiical masters told us to the contrary.

Gas and electricity,
Then along came “SID”with the promise of cheap energy, look at the the state of the energy “market” today. Cheap energy my arse.!

Transport
All privatised with the promise of more efficiency and cost.
Cheap transport my arse! .

PFI inititives.
S aving public debt for the future.

Everything that has been privatised costs us all more because the bean counters know the cost of everything but the value of nothing.

Crozier et al should like all the other bean counters be made to do the tasks that they want introduced and if they are not up to scratch should be cast into the dustbin of where they belong.

I think the refuse collectors would do unpaid overtime and quite enjoy it!!!

2 11 2009
Rosie

This is such an informative and interesting piece of writing – I am so glad to be so well informed.

While I really support your decision to strike, I think that the Government have you over a barrel – there really is nothing you can do – they have all the power. If you put up and shut up you have horrible working conditions and jobs and if you strike, it just makes it easier for them to sack you all and helps gain public support for a sell-off.

I also can see how short-sighted and foot-shooting it is for a country to (effectively) get rid of its national posting service, but it’s there are just SO many examples of stupid things like this that get done, that I think the wisdom (or otherwise) of this move is unlikely to affect the outcome. The reality is that it really doesn’t matter whether the UK public support you or not, big business don’t and they will get their way.

The thing I can see happening next is companies (who then work out) that they actually need to have the “last mile” covered (e.g. for delivering their bills) in order to be able to make their business work, will actually end-up paying more in the long-run.

It’s also likely that whoever buys bits of the mail service is likely to be from a commercial background and will know that there is a cost to treating your staff badly (simple ones being high staff turnover and poor performance) and are likely to treat their staff better (because it makes more money for them). Also, with the government control over the post gone, the cost of the services can go up (which can pay for increase in staff numbers, improved working condition and the pension scheme).

So, like other people have said, the costs will go up (as has happened with many other privatised industries – although not for telecoms) which is probably only good news for postage workers.

Ultimately, in a few years businesses will be paying more for postage services, post will be privatised and the government will no longer be able to put its hand in the till (it will just be the board of directors who can!).

While from my perspective there’s little chance of winning in the industrial action, in the long-run this could be really good for post workers.

P. S. – isn’t it strange how people with really large salaries seem to be happy to accept they are motivated by money (when, really, the difference between earning 3m GBP/pa can’t be that different from earning 2m GBP/pa) and don’t understand that the difference between living on 500 quid a week and 800 quid is massive?

3 11 2009
c0mmunard

Hi Rosie, thanks for your comments.

This sort of fatalism – “we can’t change anything, they’re all powerful” is very common. Partly that’s because in the UK we’re not used to seeing workers win outright.

But think about this. The Conservatives have quite openly said that they will only privatise Royal Mail if the union can be smashed: there is simply no way a commercial buyer will be able to increase the rate of exploitation to the required level with the union in place and strong.

Can the dispute be won? The real danger is not that workers do not have the capacity to fight hard enough, but that the strategy will not match their courage. For instance, many London post workers have been on strike for 18 days since June. If they’d done that all out, in a row, they’d probably already have won a large proportion of their demands. These things – strategy – are within union members’ influence, although its not always an easy decision, or easy to use that influence; and that is the hope for victory.




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