The coming strikes in Royal Mail are make or break for postal workers. Their outcome will shape the future of what it’s like to work for Royal Mail—and the whole structure of the workforce.
Underlying the dispute is a battle between two different visions of how public services—and society as a whole—should be run.
On one side is the ruthless vision of Royal Mail’s shareholders and directors. They think the post should be stripped down and run for profit.
The alternative is a service not oriented on the market’s needs—where workers are paid properly and treated fairly.
Privatisation drives all the attacks on postal workers’ terms and conditions. Royal Mail has faced competition since 2002, when the Labour government opened the industry up to the market after an order from the European Union.
Full privatisation in 2014 finished the job. Royal Mail now competes with other private companies, particularly over parcels.
Those companies pick and choose the most profitable areas to deliver in and employ their workers on horrific terms and conditions (see below).
Meanwhile Royal Mail as “universal service provider” has to give the same service and prices to every area of the country six days a week.
Bosses’ answer is cuts and attacks on wages and conditions, spurred on by government regulator Ofcom which demands “efficiency”.
For years Royal Mail bosses have piled the pressure onto postal workers, extending deliveries with no extra time to do them in. Now they want to bring workers’ conditions much closer in line with worse ones at rival delivery companies (see below).
Bosses want to push back Royal Mail’s delivery times until later in the afternoon. They say this is to accept and process parcels later in the evening in time for the next day’s delivery.
But that also means they’ll be able to slash Royal Mail’s overnight distribution network that gets letters to delivery offices by morning.
And they’ll phase in a new workforce on much worse terms and conditions based around the new delivery times. The postal workers’ CWU union has a different plan.
Instead of slashing Royal Mail, it wants deliveries from morning until evening. It also calls for a shorter working week to protect full time jobs in the face of automation.
The union says this means Royal Mail could compete for letters and parcels without destroying workers’ jobs and conditions. That sounds a better plan. But the logic of privatisation drives bosses the other way.
Bosses pretend the attacks are the only possible response to changes in the industry. But they’re driven by the idea that competition and the market provide the best public services.
In fact privatisation means the postal industry is being run down—and users and workers of all delivery companies are paying for it.
It’s perfectly possible to have a postal service that meets everyone’s needs without having to attack the workers’ terms and conditions.
But fighting for that needs a bigger political struggle to break from the system where crucial services are run for profit.
Fewer letters don't spell the end of workers’ power
There are big changes happening in the postal industry. This means Royal Mail may have to reorganise its network.
The biggest change is in the volume and type of mail it has to collect and deliver. The number of letters that Royal Mail handles is falling yet the number of parcels is going up.
That’s down to the internet—emails are replacing letters while online shopping is fuelling the growth in parcels.
Royal Mail bosses use this change to justify their attacks on workers. And one of the biggest threats they’ve used to stop workers striking is that big businesses will take their post to private companies.
Bosses want workers to give in to worse terms and conditions because of competition over parcels.
Yet Royal Mail workers aren’t as powerless as their bosses like to make out.
For a start Royal Mail still dominates parcels. Royal Mail’s own most recent figures showed it handled 53 percent of all parcels in 2015. And it’s not as easy for companies to switch delivery companies as bosses like to make out.
But workers’ real power still lies where bosses say they’re weakest—letters.
It’s true that that the number of letters sent in Britain is falling—dropping from some 14 billion a year in 2011-12 to 12 billion in 2015-16.
But that decline has slowed down since 2012. And the bulk of Royal Mail’s letters comes from “downstream access”.
These are letters that are collected in bulk by private companies but passed on to Royal Mail for delivery.
Private companies rely on Royal Mail because its network is the only one that can handle such vast amounts of post. That’s the same network Royal Mail bosses are so keen on running down.
Most of those letters come from big businesses such as energy firms that send out bills. They account for more than 7 billion letters a year—and that’s stayed fairly constant.
That means Royal Mail workers are still very powerful. Their action can have a knock-on effect on big businesses—and the private delivery firms—that all rely on Royal Mail.
Race to the bottom of the mailbag
Twelve other companies carry out country-wide deliveries—and many of them employ their workers on horrific terms and conditions.
Those companies can offer some very fast delivery times relatively cheaply in some areas, especially towns and cities. But they can also charge extra for deliveries in more remote areas such as the Scottish highlands, and deliver less frequently.
Two of the biggest, Hermes and Amazon, classify their workers as self-employed. That means they’re paid per delivery or a fixed amount per route—and are under pressure to make as many deliveries as possible.
Being self-employed also means those workers aren’t entitled to sick pay or paid holidays—and bosses can punish them by giving their delivery routes to someone else.
Workers have to provide their own vehicles or rent them from the company, and pay their own expenses.
That means workers’ real-terms salaries can fall below the minimum wage.
Royal Mail bosses plans point in this direction. Bosses want to pit delivery workers in a race to the bottom.
Unions have to fight to raise working conditions for everyone.