More than 130,000 postal workers who struck solidly for a total of eight days in their battle with Royal Mail have spent more than a week in suspense, as their union leadership debated a revised offer from the company.
While the union’s postal executive talked, workers endured ten days of tension and rumours, hopes and fears.
On Monday this week came the announcement that the executive had voted to accept the offer, and recommend it in a ballot of the union’s members.
Earlier five of the fourteen executive members had voted against it.
It issued a statement, saying, “We now have an agreement that cements our role, again, in the workplace and allows us to negotiate on all the major issues we face.”
But the deal is a bad one, and sells many hard-won benefits and conditions for relatively minor concessions by management.
In no way does it measure up to the fighting spirit shown on picket lines up and down the country, and it repays little of the sacrifices made by so many during the course of the strike.
Dave Ward, the union’s deputy general secretary, says that, “the result of the dispute is a strong union and a workforce whose opinions count.”
It is true that the CWU has grown in strength through the course of the dispute, and that management had hoped that the strike would see the union seriously weakened, if not destroyed.
But the deal which Ward helped broker opens the way for a host of new attacks.
Here is why the deal fails in the three key areas:
The union accepts that the current deficit in the pension scheme is “unsustainable” and that it “leads inevitably to the conclusion that either employee contributions must rise or benefits reduce or both”.
Yet the crisis in Royal Mail’s pension scheme arises partly out of the company’s 17-year pensions holiday (the period in which Royal Mail didn’t pay into the fund).
The executive says nothing of the government’s responsibility towards the pensions scheme of a public sector company, preferring to treat the matter as being internal to the company.
Normal retirement age will be increased to 65 from 1 April 2010.
Existing members of the scheme will retain their right to take their pension at age 60, but will face cuts which will rob them of thousands of pounds.
The existing scheme will be closed to new entrants, leading to a two tier workforce.
The offer says that there will be consultation on pensions related issues – but that the union is required to support these changes in principle.
Royal Mail continues to insist on demands for “total flexibility”. This means that staff are fitted to the way that mail comes into the offices, and every second of time is squeezed out of them.
This is being done to eliminate overtime pay.
Some of Royal Mail’s other flexibility demands are to be trialled locally, but others are to be implemented immediately.
lLongs and shorts: Existing shift patterns can be permanently ripped up in order to meet the demands of the business.
For example, workers could be told they will now work only seven hours on a Tuesday – instead of the usual eight – but will work nine hours on a Friday. As total weekly hours are not affected, no overtime will be paid.
lVariation of hours: Workers can have their duty times varied on a temporary basis by up to 30 minutes on a “swings and roundabouts” basis – a form of flexitime, but on managers’ terms.
Bosses can insist on an extra half an hour’s work one day, with half an hour returned at some later date. Again, no overtime will be paid.
A figure of 6.9 percent has been widely leaked to the media – it is nonsense. The real rise is just 5.4 percent over two years, and this therefore works out as a below-inflation 2.66 percent per year!
The 6.9 percent figure has been reached by adding a 1.5 percent extra payment. But this is conditional on the implementation of the entire flexibility package, and many offices won’t get it.
There is to be an extra one-off payment of £175. That comes from the ESOS company bonus scheme – and that is money that has already been earned.
In addition to the end of Sunday collections and night working in delivery offices, the union also appears to have accepted the imposition of new start times in delivery offices. This issue has sparked widespread unofficial industrial action in London, Merseyside and many other places.
Royal Mail has been forced to make some limited concessions, allowing the CWU leadership to claim a purpose to the strikes.
On the important question of sanctions against union reps, the company has agreed that all facility time removed will be restored.
However it is unlikely that this will be extended to all union reps that have been sacked or suspended during the course of the strike, such as those in Oxford.
A number of changes to working practices that have been imposed by executive action (without agreement with the union) – including the start times of workers at mail centres and in the network – are to be dealt with through further national negotiation.
It is unclear whether the decisions to close mail centres by executive action will now be rescinded, and instead discussed through the normal industrial relations framework.
What is clear is that this deal falls far short of the demands that motivated thousands of CWU members to take strike action. Activists must urgently build opposition to this deal.