Socialist Worker

Why we should all back the post workers' strikes

Socialist Worker looks at the issues behind this week's industrial action in the postal service

Issue No. 2071

  (Pic:» Leon Kuhn )

(Pic: » Leon Kuhn)

Why are postal workers on strike?

The issues behind this dispute will strike a chord with millions of workers in Britain.

They are about defending public services, about pay, job losses, terms and conditions, and the future of the company pension scheme.

Bosses are offering a 6.7 percent pay increase over two years – which equals about 3.3 percent per year.

That the offer is above Gordon Brown's 2 percent pay ceiling for public sector workers is testimony to the effectiveness of the strike action that the postal workers' CWU union has taken so far.

But the rise is still well below inflation. In return for it Royal Mail is demanding the removal of everything that currently makes the job tolerable. It aims at ultimately rendering the union powerless to resist management's diktats.

What kind of changes to working practices is Royal Mail demanding?

Bosses want workers to embrace 'total flexibility' – meaning that workers must accept being told to start work up to two hours early, or stay up to two hours late, on the say so of a manager.

Royal Mail also wants the right to permanently change workers' hours, with just seven days notice.

There have also decided to change the start times of thousands of workers from next week, without any agreement with the union.

These changes will wreck people's lives. Those who have carefully arranged their childcare and family lives around their shift patterns will find that that their managers can destroy their plans at a stroke of a pen.

What impact will 'total flexibility' have on the union?

Management's aim is to break the power of the postal workers' union. At present most post workers have contracts that specify which tasks they are expected to perform.

There are a host of agreements between the union and the company that give union reps some power to ensure that there is no favouritism in the way duties are allocated.

'Total flexibility' means that managers will have the right to instruct workers to do any job that they are trained for without the union having any right to object. This will allow managers to award easier duties to those workers who are responsive to their demands, while punishing those who are known to be loyal to their union.

Will these changes mean that workers will lose pay?

Yes. Royal Mail is already in the process of axing work that would incur overtime.

But the company has admitted that its ultimate aim is the introduction of annualised hours – this system will effectively abolish overtime.

During quiet periods workers will be sent home early. Then during busy times, such as the run-up to Christmas, they will be expected to work up to 13 hours a day for nothing more that their basic pay.

Postal workers will be expected to respond to the needs of the business as though they were a machine to be turned on and off.

Basic pay in Royal Mail is low and so many workers rely on overtime in order to make ends meet. Lots of people have taken out mortgages on the basis of expected overtime.

How many jobs do Royal Mail want to axe?

Bosses say that Royal Mail is 40 percent overstaffed, that they want to cut 40,000 jobs and that five workers should do the work of six.

The company has already announced its intention to close mail centres in Oxford, Paddington and Reading, with the loss of thousands of jobs.

How will postal workers' pensions be affected by these changes?

Royal Mail wants postal workers to pay for an estimated shortfall in the company pensions scheme.

It plans to increase the pension age from 60 to 65 years old and reduce benefits by converting it from one based on 'final average salary' to one based on 'career average earnings'. The scheme will also be closed to all new entrants.

These savings will net Royal Mail around £1.6 billion – about £10,000 per working member of the scheme.

Royal Mail insist it needs 'flexible working' in order to compete with the private sector. Is that true?

The government has not yet been able to privatise Royal Mail, but by forcing it to compete with the private sector it has created a pressure to drive down costs.

The government will allow private firms to 'cherry pick' lucrative Royal Mail contracts, in which they collect and sort mail and then pass it on to Royal Mail to deliver to your door, for a fixed price per letter.

The effect of this, combined with the unfair approach of Postcomm (the government's postal services regulator), means that Royal Mail is struggling.

Private firms deliver only a tiny fraction of Britain's mail.

They are making huge profits by employing people on the lowest possible pay, and on the worst possible contracts.

Yet they do almost none of the 'final mile' deliveries – they are rarely the ones who put letters through your letterbox.

The answer is not for workers at Royal Mail to try and undercut the scandalously low rates of pay at private firms. This will lead to a downward spiral, in which all workers will suffer.

Instead the battle for decent pay and conditions has to be combined with a political fight to eliminate unfair competition by private companies.

What is the role of the government in this dispute?

The government is backing Royal Mail bosses all the way, and are insisting that they take a hard line with the union.

Gordon Brown was instrumental in creating the 'competitive environment' that has benefited the private firms, and he is central to the attempt to limit pay rises in the public sector to around 2 percent.

The fight with Royal Mail will not affect only those who work for it, but also every other public sector worker too.

That is why Brown cannot afford to allow the union to win, and why millions of workers cannot afford to allow the union to lose.

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