The rumblings of a brewing storm in Royal Mail have grown louder over the past few months—and could soon burst into a huge national strike.
The coming battle will pit postal workers against their bosses, Tory anti-union laws and the forces of privatisation in a fight for their livelihoods.
Royal Mail management want to drive down almost every aspect of workers’ pay, pensions and conditions.
The workers know what’s coming and are up for the fight.
As Southampton postal worker and CWU union activist Michael Goozee told Socialist Worker, “There’s a lot on the line.
“This is the first big dispute we’ve had since Royal Mail was privatised in 2014,” he said. “It’s probably going to be the first big fight of many.”
At the heart of the dispute is an attack on pensions that could cost some Royal Mail workers thousands of pounds a year in their retirement.
Bosses want to close the defined benefit pension scheme—where workers get a fixed yearly payment based on their average wage—claiming they can’t afford it.
They want to shift all workers onto a defined contribution scheme, where the amount paid out depends on how well bosses have invested the pension fund in the stock market casino.
That means workers won’t know how much they’ll get until they retire, but they will certainly get less. Some could lose thousands of pounds every year.
On top of that, bosses are also coming for pay.
Instead of a proper pay rise next year Royal Mail wants to fob its workers off with a paltry lump sum of just £250.
Compare that to chief executive Moya Greene who got a 23 percent pay rise last year—to £1.9 million.
Just last year Royal Mail made £712 million in profit. And the company’s shareholders got £230 million.
Yet they’ve still got ambitions to cut workers’ wages even more with attacks on sick pay and allowances for extra duties.
The scale of the attack has provoked a bitter and angry response from workers. As Michael said, “It’s their futures at stake.”
Large numbers of CWU members have turned out to workplace meetings up and down the country over the past few weeks in a show of strength and anger.
One postal worker, who didn’t want to be named, told Socialist Worker, “There’s a feeling that we can’t let this go without a fight.
“My own office has never been one for fighting—they’ve always been more reluctant to support disputes. But I think there’s going to be a strong response this time.”
A steady drip feed of unofficial walkouts has added to the sense that CWU members are ready for a real fight.
Paul Garraway, a CWU rep in Oxford said that at every workplace he’s been to “the response I’m getting from members is, ‘Why aren’t we going now?’”
Privatisation at heart of bosses’ attacks on workers
Royal Mail managers are already feeling the heat. Just this month they announced they were backing down from plans to cut workers’ sick pay and allowances.
The CWU leadership has given Royal Mail bosses until 6 September before they formally notify them of a strike ballot.
It said it wants to give Royal Mail bosses one last chance to reach a deal through negotiations.
In the union’s timetable for action, the ballot will begin on 14 September and close on 3 October. That means workers could strike in the Autumn, when the increasing volume of mail in the run up to Christmas means their action will have most effect.
But some CWU activists hope that if they can deliver a strong enough yes vote, they may not need to strike at all.
Michael said, “Our executive’s attitude is, the stronger a vote for action we get, the less likelihood of industrial action because the more we’ll get from Royal Mail in negotiations.”
However, it would be a mistake to base a strategy on not taking action.
Since Royal Mail’s privatisation in 2014, the pressure from competition means bosses are looking for ways to cut costs and maximise profits.
That pressure is behind Royal Mail’s attacks on pensions and pay—and moves to increase numbers of part-time workers and put back deliveries.
That means conditions are already getting worse for postal workers, as one told Socialist Worker, “We’re getting more and more work heaped on us all the time. Targets are getting more unrealistic.
“Every time someone who worked full time leaves, they’re replaced with a part?timer—that’s if they’re replaced at all.”
And Royal Mail bosses will keep coming back for more.
Paul explained, “Privatisation drives it—it’s a race to the bottom.
“If Royal Mail get just half of what they’re looking for, they’re only going to come back for the other half in a couple of years.
“If we don’t fight this we’re going to lose everything.”
Union can beat the ballot threshold
If the CWU strike ballot goes ahead, it will be the first strike across Britain since the new Tory anti-union laws last year.
Those laws say that for a ballot to be legal, at least 50 percent of those eligible to vote take part. In other unions there’s a real worry that this means getting a national strike without defying the law is all but impossible.
That doesn’t mean that the argument can’t be taken up—or that national strikes can’t be delivered, illegal or not.
The CWU is confident that it can smash the threshold hands down. If it does, it will show that the new laws can be beaten.
Anger at the planned attacks in Royal Mail is likely to fuel huge support for a vote to strike. The CWU has strong organisation inside Royal Mail—as recent big workplace meetings have shown.
This is partly a legacy of the militant—often unofficial—action that the union was known for in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
Following the CWU’s example in other unions means a focus on ways to build up a base of activists and members who can be actively involved.
Taking action is the best recruitment sergeant to show the relevance of the union when it fights. But it is also about relating to the political mood that exists for an alternative to Tory austerity.