The CWU postal workers’ union announced this week that it will resume strikes at Royal Mail after management walked out of talks aimed to settle the dispute over pay. It is now likely that the union will call action before the end of September.
Four periods of strikes by 130,000 workers over the summer forced management to offer new negotiations.
In these, bosses offered the union a pay deal worth 6.7 percent over two years – effectively 3.3 percent per year, and therefore still below inflation. They also offered additional lump sums for the introduction of new working practices.
But in return for better pay, bosses demanded the “total flexibility” of the labour force.
That would mean that no postal worker would know what job they were doing from one day to the next, and that the union would be shut out of the decision-making process.
“Royal Mail wants flexibility for two reasons,” says Bob Gibson, the CWU assistant secretary outdoor. “First, it wants to cut costs. It believes it can employ less staff and work us harder.
“But flexibility is also ideological. It means that in the future bosses can make any changes they want without negotiating them with the union, regardless of the impact on workers.”
After talks ended, management said that the “period of calm” was over, and they would now press ahead with the introduction of their “new business plan”.
That could mean that long-threatened changes to the start times of thousands of delivery workers will be implemented shortly.
“During negotiations management refused to comment on that threat – even when we questioned them about it directly,” says Bob. “But they are likely to attempt the changes in a few areas initially – trying areas where they believe they can get away with it first.”
The company has also reiterated proposed changes to the Royal Mail pension plan, which would mean reduced benefits in retirement, increased contributions while working and a later retirement age.
The break-up of talks has resulted in widespread anger among postal workers, and many see the hand of Gordon Brown behind management’s hardline stance.
Some union activists believe that management used the “period of calm” simply to recover from the successful strike action, while attempting to harass and bully union reps in offices around the country.
“Our strikes hit management really hard,” says Scott Fuller, assistant rep at the Woodfood Green delivery office in east London. “There were millions of items stuck in the system, and that’s when management said they wanted to talk.
“Our CWU branch could see that the talks were not going to get the result we wanted, and two weeks ago we started preparing the ground for new strikes.
“But I’m not sure that we should ever have called the strikes off in the first place. In some offices that has caused a loss of momentum for the strike.
“It would have been better to do what the RMT rail workers’ union did during last week’s London Underground strike, by keeping our industrial action on while we were negotiating.”
The CWU is now discussing what form of strike action should take place, with some leading activists saying that functional 24-hour strikes – where mail centres and delivery offices walk out on separate days – will not hit management hard enough.
That strategy did create chaos for Royal Mail, but it also led to widespread confusion among postal workers who were sometimes instructed to cross each other’s picket lines.
The union is also planning a big push to ensure that all CWU branches implement the “do your job properly” strategy.
That means delivery workers refusing to come in early or stay late in order to finish their delivery rounds, ensuring that they take all breaks that they are entitled to, not using their own cars to do deliveries and not taking out bags above agreed weight limits.
“Where we have pushed the ‘do your job properly’ strategy hard, management have been completely unable to cope,” says Bob Gibson. “There has been mail stacked up all over the place. That would be a great response to all the threats that we are getting now.
“The union is going to give this campaign a big boost by producing stickers that say, ‘Help your manager get his bonus – use your car’.
“It will also produce a pledge card that reminds workers of the key points of doing your job properly and a phone number to call in case someone is being bullied by management.”
As Socialist Worker went to press the CWU was organising a national meeting for key activists, at which the dates for future strike action should be announced.
A good time for the strikes to take place would be during the Labour Party conference, which takes place between 23 and 27 September. A hard-hitting strike then would step up the pressure on Gordon Brown and Royal Mail management.