CWU activists including Royal mail workers at a rally at Mount Pleasant in December (pic: Guy Smallman)

What happens in the Royal Mail fight for pay and jobs is important for workers beyond the post. If Royal Mail workers win, it will show strikes can beat even the most ruthless bosses. If they lose, the sense could take hold across the union ­movement that a real victory—securing a proper, above inflation pay rise, holding on to core working ­conditions—isn’t possible.

And of course, it matters most to Royal Mail’s 160,000 workers. Their jobs stand to be changed for the worse almost beyond recognition. That’s if they get to keep their jobs at all. Yet—with the results of a new strike ballot set to be announced on Thursday of this week—the dispute is in a critical state.

Royal Mail CEO Simon Thompson and the rest of the board haven’t backed down. In some ways, they’ve furthered their assault with threats of job cuts since the dispute began. Despite this, CWU general ­secretary Dave Ward insists that a deal to end the dispute could be close.

At several points during the dispute Ward suggested that the mood in talks has changed or that they’re moving towards the union’s position. Thompson always responds by trashing his promises, and by saying publicly that he hasn’t dropped his plans at all.

Royal Mail workers have ­supported every strike solidly.  They’ve caused big problems for Royal Mail at points—with major backlogs across the entire network in December. They’ve shown how they could win.

But, lasting 24 or 48 hours at a time, Thompson and his corporate henchmen—backed by the ­government—have been able to ride the strikes out.  Thompson then uses the ­following periods of talks to delay more action and clear the backlogs.

Now Ward has argued that a strong ballot result will be enough to get a good deal. But with Thompson steaming ahead—determined to smash up Royal Mail and the CWU with it—there’s very little reason to believe that.

Adam, who works at Stanstead Airport in Essex, is prepared for harder action—and he doesn’t want union leaders to pin their hopes on getting a deal after the ballot.  “They’ve bet the whole house on getting this deal,” he told Socialist Worker.

“But how can we say the talks are going well when around the ­country managers are bullying members, sacking members and imposing revisions? He added, “The strikes got to a point last year when the network was completely jammed. But then they let Royal Mail catch up during negotiations.

“There comes a point where you have to say, right let’s have a fight now.” Adam says if the union calls action he knows his workmates will “go again.” 

So does collections worker in Coventry, Surjit. But he thinks strikes of just one or two days won’t be enough. “They just absorb it—they clear the mail the next day,” he said. “I think we’re still standing firm.  “But now ­sometimes I think we need to up the ante.”

Bully bosses are trying to force devastating changes in conditions

Simon Thompson’s plans are about destroying workers’ jobs and livelihoods for the sake of profit. He wants a “flexible” workforce that works later, longer and cheaper. Some of the most far reaching attacks include introducing owner-drivers into Royal Mail deliveries. 

These are workers who own their own vans and work on bogus self-employment contracts without the same sick pay or holiday entitlement as the core Royal Mail workforce. This has already begun—as have longer hours and lower hourly pay for new staters directly employed by Royal Mail.

Bosses also want to introduce “flexi hours”. This involves making workers stay beyond their contracted hours if they can’t complete their deliveries within them. 

Larger parcel deliveries are being moved to hundreds of specialised “parcel hubs”—already operating—where Sunday working and later hours are the norm. It’s an attempt to replicate the harsh terms and conditions that are common at “gig-economy” parcel couriers like Evri. And it will cut work—and therefore jobs—from delivery offices.

Thompson wants to slash at least 10,000 jobs to see his plans through. Now, managers have already begun forcing through “revisions” to delivery and collections duties—merging and extending routes. 

They’ve ditched the usual negotiations with CWU reps—and in many cases begun bullying and pressuring workers to take on the extra work.

Adam says that in delivery offices, “There are people with anxiety, being bullied, resigning.”  And a collections worker at Bristol Mail centre told Socialist Worker, “It’s the thought of this that’s costing people sleep.

“I woke up in the middle of the night worrying about it and wondering why am I thinking about this now?” None of this is about creating a better service—it’s about maximising profits. It’s something that Royal Mail bosses have wanted for years.

But they can’t do it without destroying workers’ jobs. That’s why there can’t be a deal or compromise. Concessions would mean giving up jobs, pay and rights in order to boost bosses’ profits—and opening the door to more attacks in the future.

After the ballot announcement this week there has to be a shift in the union’s strategy. Only an all-out strike can deliver sufficient pressure on the bosses.

Break the law to win

Waging an effective fight at Royal Mail also means being prepared to confront the law. Twice in this fight, bosses have used the threat of legal action to push union leaders to call off strikes. Most recently, union leaders decided to call off a 24-hour strike even though they thought they could beat a bosses’ legal challenge in the courts.

In fear of the law, union leaders have also told workers to stick to picket lines of six “official” pickets and not to stop agency scabs going in. Meanwhile, Royal Mail has suspended up to 200 CWU reps and members, supposedly for strike-related activity. One of them—Dai Thomas—was sacked last week after 39 years in the job.

Until very recently Royal Mail workers had a tradition of defending workmates and standing up to bullying managers with unofficial walkouts. They were quick and effective—and often won the backing of union leaders.

One of the best examples happened in Merseyside in 2019. CWU members in a delivery office in Bootle walked out after a manager directed racist comments at a Muslim worker.

The strike spread to the Warrington mail centre after drivers were suspended for rightly refusing to cross the picket line. The workers at Warrington went back after the drivers were reinstated. But those at Bootle stayed out until they were told to go back in after Royal Mail got a high court injunction against them. 

Bosses then targeted 21 one of them with disciplinary action—sacking two of them. Workers won some concessions by threatening an official strike. But since then, union leaders have been careful to discourage unofficial action.

They say if the law was used against them, it could threaten the whole dispute. But if the threat of the law is pushing union leaders to limit action, then it already has. One collections worker at Bristol Mail Centre told Socialist Worker that, when bosses tried to push through route changes, workers sat down in the canteen and refused to do them.

But, he said, “The rep baulked at it, and said the national dispute was more important.  “That could have been quite good—it could have been a moment.” He added, “Everyone involved in the union as an activist is twitchy about taking action that might be unofficial. I understand that because people are worried about their livelihoods.

“But if you don’t go on strike and support the action you won’t have your job, you won’t have your conditions. “There’s an adherence to these anti-union laws, and we’ve been beaten by them. At some point someone has to break the law to get rid of the law.”

What are the demands? 

Simon Thompson is ruthless and determined to destroy Royal Mail and people’s jobs. Workers have to be equally determined and ruthless to stop him. They should demand—

No pay deal below inflation—and pay not to be linked to worsening terms and conditions
No to a “no-strike” agreement
No compulsory redundancies
No owner-drivers, self-employed workers or increased use of agencies
No one forced to accept later hours, seasonal hours or Sunday working
The same pay and conditions for new starters
No use of technology to monitor or intensify work
No changes to the attendance management procedure
No attack on ill‑health retirement provisions
All workers sacked or suspended during the dispute be reinstated

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