POSTAL WORKERS face a big new threat which could hit wages and conditions and point the way towards privatisation. They will be pushed towards competing with courier firms to shift goods for supermarkets and other big stores. Some local managers have even suggested pizza deliveries and milk rounds. The attacks are a direct result of a bosses' plan called Shaping for Competitive Success (SCS) which fits perfectly with New Labour's vision for the Post Office. Stephen Byers, the trade secretary, may not dare to say the government will privatise the post. But the government stresses that the market has to be brought into the postal service, which workers will be made to pay for.
UNDER the SCS plan, workers who presently work for Royal Mail will suddenly discover that they have been reassigned to a different business. Royal Mail has already set up 17 of these 'support units', called Transaction Services, New Enterprise Unit, and so on. The first workers redeployed were administrative staff. But early next year many Post Office drivers will be fully handed over to a unit called Logistics. They will be expected to do deliveries for firms such as Tesco as well as shift the post. Management has refused to say what terms and conditions will apply, and what the future holds.
The implications of all this were raised when the Communication Workers Union (CWU) held a special conference last weekend for its members in Royal Mail. As delegate Moss Haley said, 'Once they get separate pay bargaining our membership will be split up and weakened.' Peter Kotz from north London said that management 'benchmarked' pay outside the Post Office and were looking for rates around £4 an hour.
Although the bosses' plan was not directly discussed on the conference floor, an important fringe meeting discussed the issue. The meeting was backed by a number of leading branches such as Scotland No 2, South East Wales, Merseyside and the London Divisional Committee. The meeting saw plenty of feeling for a fightback, with those present resolving to organise further meetings and to put pressure on the union leaders to fight.
If the government sees a weakness on the workers' side it is likely to move to sell off the postal service. Yet the CWU union leaders have shied away from head on confrontation. They need to be pushed into resistance.
Long hours trap
THE EUROPEAN Working Time Directive (which restricts the working week to 48 hours) could have a huge impact in the Post Office. Because basic pay is so low, practically every worker puts in huge amounts of overtime. Some workers actually fear the 48 hour limit because it would reduce pay. The situation is so desperate that some workers are trying not to claim their full holiday entitlement and are scared to take a day off sick. Royal Mail wants new rules to make it clear that workers are not allowed to come into work during annual leave periods to work overtime or extra shifts.
Union leaders should be saying that they will launch a massive campaign, backed by action, to ensure that people can earn a living wage in 35 hours, let alone 48. Instead they are conniving with the bosses to introduce the Working Time Directive in the worst way possible and have failed to launch a real fight over pay. The executive opposed (and narrowly defeated) a call to fight for at least £250 a week basic. Kevin Simpson from Essex told the conference, 'Our members work overtime to survive. They don't like doing it. We should be getting at least £250 basic. Why not £300? It's no more than we deserve.'
The way the Working Time Directive will be introduced means that workers will only be restricted to an average of 48 hours a week averaged over an entire 52 week year. Meal breaks, annual leave and sick leave are not counted as part of 'working time'. So workers can in reality average around 54 hours a week and still meet the regulations.
There is a new mood of resistance inside the Post Office, with six unofficial strikes in the last week alone.
'More pay and no one bossing us'
THE CONFERENCE last weekend was called in the wake of postal workers' rejection of the Way Forward agreement in August. This deal, backed by Royal Mail and CWU leaders, offered a rise in basic pay - but at the expense of the loss of bonuses and with much worse conditions. Humiliated by the vote, management and union leaders went back for more talks. They are now close to a new agreement. But it is likely to be essentially similar to the one thrown out in the summer.
The details on pay were not available last weekend and delegates took the chance to set out conditions which had to be met to make a new deal acceptable. Union leaders repeatedly warned that some of the proposals were unachievable and would 'wreck the deal'. They said that this would throw away a great opportunity to improve basic pay and that the only alternative to the revised agreement was a strike ballot.
On most occasions this threat, playing on delegates' uncertainty about whether they could win national action, was enough to defeat the motions the executive disliked. But delegates voted to back a crucial amendment from branches in the north east of England, despite union deputy general secretary John Keggie saying that it would make a deal impossible. Delegates also voted to demand that any proposed deal would have to return to a union conference before it could go to a ballot of the membership. This is a further block on the executive's ability to rush a deal through.
Postal workers desperately need a rise from their present basic pay of £201 a week. But if all the allowances go, some workers will actually see their earnings fall. In addition Royal Mail is looking to ram through massive changes in methods of working to impose further discipline and jack up productivity. CWU assistant secretary Billy Hayes moaned that the conference seemed to want 'more pay, less hours and nobody bossing us about', and that this was not a coherent strategy.
But the feeling that Billy Hayes noticed reflects the immense bitterness in the offices after years of low pay and long hours. A delegate from London told Socialist Worker, 'I deliver to some really posh houses. You go round these homes and you can see the wealth oozing out from under the doors. I'm at work at 5.30am, I do 46 hours a week and I get £260. It's a disgrace that all of us with kids have to spend our breaks going through the forms for the Working Families Tax Credit, seeing if we can work out how to get a few quid extra on benefits to keep our heads above water.'
That reality is why delegates were absolutely right to demand that their negotiators push for a much better offer and to impose the strictest scrutiny before it goes to ballot.