Royal Mail bosses on the back foot

Following last months unofficial strike action by postal workers management seem to have been put temporarily onto the back foot. This is in marked contrast to the period following the recent narrow rejection of a national strike over pay and conditions. At that time, Royal Mail management could not conceal their pleasure. Cockey jumped-up managers all over the country engaged in a new offensive against the workforce. Top managers were bragging that they had the full support of the government, the DTI and Patricia Hewitt in particular. Following last months unofficial strike action by postal workers management seem to have been put temporarily onto the back foot.
This is in marked contrast to the period following the recent narrow rejection of a national strike over pay and conditions. At that time, Royal Mail management could not conceal their pleasure. Cockey jumped-up managers all over the country engaged in a new offensive against the workforce. Top managers were bragging that they had the full support of the government, the DTI and Patricia Hewitt in particular.

As a reaction to this organised provocation from on high, unofficial strike action spread like wildfire across London and elsewhere. Once again, postal workers defied the Tory laws to defend themselves. The left leadership of the CWU, while repudiating the action for legal reasons, certainly welcomed this unofficial action.

Royal Mail managers were left with their mouths open. They had completely misjudged the mood after the failed strike ballot. On October 31 the editorial in the Financial Times called on Royal Mail to "use the full force of the law" against the union leadership who had not called the strike or even expected it. But Royal Mail had no alternative but to retreat. Suspended union reps were reinstated. No one was victimised. Everything was done to bring things back to normal and clear the backlog of mail. A national agreement to this effect was signed between Royal Mail and the leaders of the CWU.

Nevertheless, there are many outstanding issues to be settled. Firstly, the dispute over London Weighting Allowance has not been resolved. Secondly, Royal Mail management, despite making £3 million profit, are seeking to cut costs. They want to get rid of the second delivery. They originally proposed 30,000 redundancies, but have since retreated somewhat on the figure. They would like to pull off a long-term deal with the union, but can't be seen to be making too many concessions, especially in the short term.

In the past period Royal Mail imposed a pay deal without agreement, which included an extra £300 to all workers in the Royal Mail group. This attempt to "resolve" things by dictat has solved nothing. The imposition was correctly opposed by the union, which is now involved in negotiations under ACAS and independently with Royal Mail.

In the run up to the dispute, some local offices were pressurised into a local agreement to cut costs. Some have negotiated a 5-day week as part of introducing a single delivery. While a 5-day week is a welcome step, it has come with "strings". The management has demanded "savings", "targets", and other cost-cutting measures in return. It has meant job losses on a voluntary basis. 

Management wants to cut man-hours to cut wage costs. In one case, they wanted to save 30 hours as a base line, calculated on a June workload. This resulted in a bonus of £26.28 for all workers involved. However, during the autumn and winter, the workload rises and the workers were asked to save not 30, but 130 hours to get the same bonus. In the cold light of day, this has stoked up great resentment and opposition. One local office in the South West, which initially accepted a local deal, was so incensed that the union rep issued an "Open Letter" on behalf of the workers condemning the deal and saying they were conned.

Compared to the previous poor rightwing leadership of the CWU, the present leaders will hopefully not be rushed into an ill thought out deal. Reaching an agreement will not be easy despite the fact that a deadline has been set for 10th December. 

Provocations

Even now local managers, where there has been a history of anti-union activities, are still provoking the workforce. In West London in particular the union reps have faced a lot of trouble. There three union reps are facing dismissal for minor offences in a deliberate bid to undermine and victimise union officials. Such actions are simply an attempt to punish people. As a consequence there has been a greater back-log of mail than before. Top management have washed their hands of this, saying they are unaware of what is happening, despite the post-strike agreement. In this case, territorial personnel managers have been asked to step in and sort things out. This shows the authoritarian manner in which local offices are presently being run.

Nevertheless, the management of Royal Mail remain committed to "economies" at the expense of the workers to make the industry more "competitive". With Adam Crosier and Allan Leighton in charge things do not bode well for the future. Leighton's record speaks for itself - and not just in the post office. As deputy chairman of Leeds United, Leighton has presided over the club's relegation to bottom of the Premiership and debts of some £50m. What's more, Leighton has spent a lot of time as an "independent" director of BSkyB selecting Murdoch's son as chief executive of the company. 

Postal workers face major challenges ahead. Whatever the sweet words emanating from Royal Mail, their drive to introduce "market principles" into the postal service can only spell disaster. The bloody-mindedness of profit-minded managers will only serve to cause more disputes. Already the failure to agree on Christmas mail handling has pushed the union to authorise a number of strike ballots on the issue.

The post office should be run as a service and not as a business. The attempts to open it up to wider "competition", and all the consequences that entails, should be opposed tooth and nail. Only a service, run as a service, under democratic workers' control and management can offer a way forward.