The outcome will decide whether Royal Mail continues to exist as a public service—or is smashed up and run down for profiting billionaires.
Chief executive parcels millionaire Rico Back is used to getting his own way. His plan to transform the postal industry in Britain involves slashing tens of thousands of jobs and scrubbing out hard-fought-for working conditions.
But standing in his way are some 120,000 postal workers—members of the CWU union—gearing up to ballot for national strikes.
It could very well be the fight of their lives.
“I don’t think people realise yet what’s at stake if we don’t win this dispute,” CWU rep Paul Garraway told Socialist Worker. “Most of us will be on the dole.”
It’s easy to miss how devastating Back’s plans are.
One major change involves taking next-day delivery parcels and packages larger than a shoebox out of Royal Mail’s normal workload. Instead they’ll be delivered from separate automated “parcel hubs”.
That might not sound like a big deal. But it means taking away an increasingly important source of work—a move that on its own could end tens of thousands of jobs.
And it’s only the first step towards breaking up Royal Mail completely, splitting it into a profitable parcels company and a run-down letters service.
Back has already announced plans to turn Parcelforce—currently part of Royal Mail—into a separate company.
“The figure is 20,000 job losses,” said Paul. “I think that will be a splash in the ocean if we let Back carry on.
“Letters are shrinking, packets are where the future is. He’ll set up his company and take all the packets, and we’ll be left with the declining work.”
If that happens, everybody will notice the difference.
There’ll be far less delivery workers because there’ll be much less for them to deliver.
You probably won’t see them at your door as often either. Royal Mail bosses hope to eventually scrap the universal service obligation (USO) which guarantees letters can be delivered anywhere in Britain six days a week.
It also means workers in the mail centres where post is sorted lose work and face the sack too.
If Parcelforce is split apart from the rest of Royal Mail, workers will be replaced by others on worse contracts.
And it even affects those in workplaces you might never have realised existed. Adam Cochrane, who works as a mail scanner at London Stansted airport, says that if the USO goes his job will probably go with it.
“If we don’t defend this, we’re at the jobcentre straight away,” he said. “The only reason we’re still open is because of the USO—they need us to get letters flown to Scotland and the north of Ireland.” While Back’s plans mean a massive jobs cull in the letters company, they’ll cause misery on the parcels side.
Parcel courier companies that compete with Royal Mail such as DPD or Hermes employ their delivery drivers on much worse terms and conditions.
Many 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.
It also means they aren’t entitled to sick pay or paid holidays—and bosses can punish them by giving their delivery routes to someone else.
Drivers have to provide their own vehicles or rent them from the company, and pay their own expenses. So in real-terms, their salaries can fall below the minimum wage.
Their employment structures mean workers are isolated from each other—which makes organising strikes and protests difficult. Workers have organised strikes and protests in these firms but remain on worse terms and conditions.
Back has made his name running parcel couriers just like that in Europe. It’s almost certain that he wants to do the same to parcels in Royal Mail.
When Parcelforce becomes a new company, its workers will transfer over with the same terms and conditions. But the law says their contracts can be changed after a year, and the CWU is sure there’ll be an attack on working conditions.
And there’s nothing to stop the company employing new workers on much worse contracts, creating a two-tier workforce where those on better conditions are undermined.
Paul says it’ll be a “race to the bottom. It’s going to be along the lines of minimum wage, zero hours, no sick pay,” he said.
Altogether Back’s plans amount to a transformation so far reaching that CWU general secretary Dave Ward compares it to “what happened in the print industry and the mining industry.”
Royal Mail as its workers and users know it today simply won’t exist.
That’ll be a tragedy not only because of the jobs and conditions massacre it means for its workers, but because it’ll mean the end of an unrivalled public service.
Royal Mail delivers more than half of all parcels in Britain.
Other companies just aren’t able to carry as many parcels as it can, or deliver them to all the places it can reach.
The same goes for letters—still the vast bulk of the post Royal Mail handles. Most of them are from big businesses such as energy firms that send out bills. Other companies might compete to collect these letters—but they generally have to rely on Royal Mail to deliver them.
There’s no reason why Royal Mail can’t adapt to changing mail volumes without running itself down and destroying jobs in the process. But how those changes happen depends on whether they’re made in the interests of profit or people’s need.
In an industry run on the basis of competition and profit, Royal Mail bosses think the only way forward is to slash and burn and mimic their rivals.
An alternative based on people’s needs ultimately means a struggle to renationalise Royal Mail.
But right now, it means supporting Royal Mail workers as they fight to stop the coming onslaught.
Every trade unionist and everyone who hates the Tories should back them.
Rico Back was made Royal Mail chief executive last year with a deliberate plan to smash it up.
Royal Mail paid him £5.8 million pounds to buy him out of his old job as head of European parcels company GLS—which it owns anyway.
He trousers £790,000 a year in salary and benefits. Even Royal Mail shareholders revolted against a
£1.3 million bonus he was promised on top of that.Royal Mail’s board must think its worth if to force through the changes he has planned.
A German documentary exposing conditions in GLS under his control shows what future Royal Mail workers face.
Delivery drivers worked up to 13 hours a day for very little money. Some described falling asleep at the wheel.
“What kind of life is that,” one of them asked.
A steady stream of unofficial strikes at Royal Mail workplaces across Britain over the past months is one sign that Back’s assault on workers has already began.
Bosses want to pressure workers into taking on more work in the same amount of time, leading to walkouts over bullying and harassment.
Top managers also want to deny workers a promised hour off the working week unless the union agrees to cuts and “efficiency” measures.
Royal Mail and the CWU union agreed to cut the length of the working week to 35 hours in a deal signed in early 2018.
For the union, this is a way to protect jobs in the face of automation. But it was tied to ongoing negotiations with bosses over making work more efficient.
Now managers are refusing to implement the latest reduction in hours unless officials agree to cuts the union says are unacceptable.
They also want to use technology such as the handheld devices workers carry to monitor them and push them to work harder.
“Managers are already using technology in breach of national agreements,” CWU rep Mark Dolan told Socialist Worker.
“That’s why delivery offices are walking out.
“All of it is about making people work faster, harder and cheaper.”
If they vote to strike, Royal Mail workers could walk out as a new film about the misery of life in a parcels courier firm is released.
I, Daniel Blake director Ken Loach’s latest film Sorry We Missed You tells the story of a family torn apart as they struggle to survive on low-paid, casualised work.
It begins as Ricky takes a job as a parcels courier. He’s promised potentially well-paid work on a self-employment contract that promises he’ll be his own boss.
The reality soon turns out to be much different.
With all his work monitored and tracked through a handheld computer, he’s not in control at all.
Instead he’s constantly pushed and pressured to hit delivery targets by his manager who can threaten to take his work off him at any time.
Being his “own boss” does mean he has to pay for his own van—so he’s in debt right from the start.
He can’t even take time off unless he organises his own cover, or else he faces a fine and a sanction. Ricky works far too long hours. His wife faces the same problems as a carer, who’s only paid for the visits she makes to client’s homes—not for time spent travelling, or overtime.
The work wrecks their lives, and even their relationships with those closest to them.
But when the stresses seeps into their family, they face a crisis their jobs won’t allow him space to fix.
They’re trapped in a spiral of sanctions, debt and stress.
Sorry We Missed You exposes the misery of work on zero-hours, bogus self-employment contracts and the damage it does to people’s lives.
Trade unionists have courageously tried to organise in these sections. But in general their conditions and pay are much worse than in unionised areas.
It hits home because the film reflects a number of real life examples of the fatal impact this industry can have.
Figures such as 53-year old Don Lane, a DPD driver who collapsed after being fined by the firm for attending a medical appointment, cast a long shadow over Sorry We Missed You.
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