Thanks to our comrade who made this interview about the Royal Mail dispute that has been rumbling on now since last August. Further Royal Mail strike reports can be found here and a previous interview with our postal comrade here.
We initially had an interview with a CWU rep in a large mail centre outside of London, but this was pulled because they feared reprisals. Over two hundred reps have been suspended (without pay) by Royal Mail management since the strikes have started. Picketers addressing workers on strike days – as is their legal right – were threatened with suspension ‘for acting in an intimidatory way.’ Baseless accusations, bureaucratic loopholes and workforce spying were all tactics used by management to suspend reps and activists. This has effectively gagged many workers from speaking out.
The two interviewees have echoed each others’ perspectives though, especially around the company’s seeming self-sabotage in the short-term (losing £200 million to industrial action, seeing their competitors pick up more business, having to employ more agency workers on higher wages etc.) in order to push through their longer-term restructuring plans. In order to move more into the highly competitive parcel delivery market, they need a much cheaper and casualised workforce, which is the context for trying to slash terms and conditions for the current workforce, many of whom have worked there for decades. Smashing workers’ rigidity and shop-floor solidarity would be a prerequisite and a price the management seems willing to pay for.
They also agreed on the negative impact of the Royal Mail managers, Unite union members, who voted to accept the new terms and conditions to then effectively have to impose the worse terms and conditions on the rest of the workforce. Sometimes managers were effectively bribed with additional payments (we heard one case where managers were offered £1500!) to scab during the strikes.
Our postie in this interview said his experience was of agency workers crossing the picket line, but our previous interviewee said it was a more mixed picture where they were. Regular agency drivers wouldn’t cross their picket and Christmas casuals who hadn’t crossed the picket line weren’t penalised by their agencies either.
General discussions about workers on strategy for how to proceed with the struggle also seemed pretty thin on the ground in both accounts. Like all other TUC unions, there seems to be quite a big gap between the Executive Committee and normal workers. However, this hasn’t affected the most recent mandate for strike action, where a huge 96% voted to continue strikes unless the deadlock was broken. And this despite the fact that they don’t get any strike pay. The question is, will more of the same make a difference in a situation where the CWU General Secretary himself has said that they believe “there are thousands and thousands more jobs at risk than the 10,000 the company has put forward.”
The CWU had a chance to strengthen the Royal Mail workers position by joining their strike with the recent industrial action at British Telecom, but they decided to settle the BT dispute. It becomes clear that the Royal Mail workers will have to break the encirclement by addressing co-workers in the private parcel services and logistics companies that de facto undermine their terms and conditions. This would require a different quality of self-organisation.
When we look beyond the Royal Mail dispute, we are in desperate need for reflections by active workers about their strikes, from rail workers to NHS staff. We need an independent forum of militants who want to hear more than the official union announcements – who want to learn from each others experiences and build links of support for the future.
I work in central London. Been working for Royal Mail, on the delivery side, for around 22 years. I think the latest dispute we’re having with the management is probably the most vicious one we’ve had so far. They’re trying to push through lots of changes by executive action. And we’ve been out on strike for 18 days over a six-month period.
Have you ever been on strike before?
Oh, yeah. When I first started. We were out. Probably a couple of times. I think we were probably out for about 10 days or something like that over a few months. There was also another time we were out for roughly a week on unofficial strike. That’s probably about 20 years ago when there was some local union rep in west London that was suspended. The difference was, we were in the public sector back then, so I think it was probably slightly easier than it is now to organise and negotiate with the management back then.
Could you give background about the working environment before the current dispute?
Things have been brewing for a little while. To be honest, I think they’ve had a few different CEOs since we went private. But I think with this current lot, it feels like this dispute has been prepared for. We’ve had different CEOs before that have made a few changes here and there, but still within the normal framework of agreement with the unions. That is, until now.
The new management have been in charge for the last couple of years and they’re really going big on executive actions. Trying to force things through without agreement. Lots of revisions to our conditions that aren’t being agreed on. A few drivers still have a driving allowance, a weekly allowance, I think it’s about 30 quid or something – that’s being taken away. They’re saying that we’re going to start having the delivery shifts starting three hours later, because they’re moving the processing part of the business away from being done locally to these Super Hubs, up in the Midlands. It will cause delays with transportation of items from these Super Hubs pushing deliveries into the late afternoon, which have a knock on effect for people’s home lives. People have to pick up the kids from school and stuff. And that’s no good. Where we are, we had a union meeting and at least locally, in London, it seems like it will hopefully only be like an hour later. But we don’t know if that’s true or not.
Other than the centralising of the processing hubs, is there much implementation of new technology, processes or machines?
Not so much in the way of machines locally. But we’ve got the PDA machines we use to scan items while out on delivery. They’ve been using that basically as a tracking device – finding out how fast people are doing their deliveries. And I even heard of them calling up security in blocks of flats, checking how long it’s taking for the worker to deliver and that kind of thing. They use it to see when a van has been “staying dormant” for more than 15 minutes. Instead of signing in to work on paper, we now have to digitally sign in, so they can see exactly when we’re arriving and leaving. The technology is all about cutting down jobs and spying on us.
It was a huge turnout and ‘yes’ vote in the first ballot. What was the atmosphere like in the workplace preceding that vote?
I think overall, in Royal Mail, there’s always been a fairly strong culture of people being pretty pro-union. So getting a yes vote isn’t particularly difficult. There’s still very much a culture ‘of us and them’ with the management. It’s always been like that. So it wasn’t much of a surprise. But yeah, I think, to begin with, the mood was pretty positive. And I think now, after all these days of strike – there’s been quite a few now, we’re six months down the road – and people are beginning to get a bit more depressed and worried about the loss of money. I don’t think people see it as a dispute about a pay increase anymore. Even though it’s obviously still part of it. We see it more like fighting to preserve as many of the conditions we’ve already got. Not losing too much. More defensive. As always, there’s a few people that are basically saying that, “this pointless,” “they’re going through executive action anyway, so what’s the point” and stuff like this.
But I think overall, despite everything, I think many people are still up for a fight. But some are looking into leaving the job. They’re just fed up with the jobs and basically hanging on so they can take redundancy or take the pension and stuff. A few younger people went on long- term sick, they haven’t come back, and we kind of think they might look for other jobs outside and things. So there’s lots of people like that who want to leave at the moment.
When it comes to the demands made of management in the dispute, how much consultation has there been with the workforce from the union?
The demands are pretty obvious, really. It’s the normal stuff; people want to have the basics left alone. It’s the basics that they’re starting to attack. Management wants to change the sick leave so that you won’t get paid for the first couple of days and things like that. It’s all about worsening conditions. They want to take away the bonuses we get for delivering the junk mail. That’s about £27 a week. We’ve got a performance-based bonus, which, in some places, is quite a lot of money, £100 a month or so. It’s a sizeable chunk of money they’re taking away. So we’re starting to think that even if we get that pay increase, it won’t even cover what we’ve already lost.
On top of that, there’s management’s efforts to cut jobs and revise roles. They’ve been saying to people that if you want to be able to stay in your local office, you’ve got to start driving. If you haven’t got a valid driving licence, it’s a big issue. It’s clear how it’s going to work out. The strikes have got Royal Mail to roll back on their threat of 10,000 compulsory redundancies. They’ve now agreed there won’t be any compulsory redundancies, but they definitely still want job cuts. And the problem is that we work for Royal Mail, not our local office, so they will be using all these tactics to offer us jobs elsewhere and if we don’t take them, we’re out.
How effective have the strikes been so far? How much have they affected the company? Is the effectiveness of the strikes being undermined by what you’ve been saying about people responding individually in the dispute now (thinking about looking elsewhere, waiting for redundancy etc.)?
The strike is very much a top-down kind of thing. So it’s not like the workforce is encouraged to be very active, apart from attending the meetings. And obviously encouraging them to stay at home on the strike day. A couple of times the strike was called off. We were supposed to have a strike from 16th February, and that got called off because I think Royal Mail’s legal team found some mistake that the unions did or whatever. Same happened in November last year. So people are kind of getting a bit pissed off with that kind of thing. The amount of money that goes into the union membership fees, you’d think that CWU’s legal team would be able to prepare themselves properly. But things happen. People do get disillusioned with the union and there is a bit of a distrust. People end up not being very optimistic and begin to think that all they’re going to get from this deal is basically damage limitation.
Did the BT workers settling their dispute have any effect on the Royal Mail dispute at all? Was it discussed amongst the workforce much? Was there ever any opportunities for linking those disputes up?
There wasn’t any talk about it at all. I think people see it as a separate dispute. Even though we’re in the same union, you know?
Has there been much talk of or any reports of, acts of unofficial action at all? Overtime refusals, go slows, sticker campaigns….?
In my local office, you get a few idiots that are still running around like mad, but most people have started to do the job more properly. So we take our full breaks, only start on time and stuff. A bit of a “work to rule” situation going on in most places. But I think that’s the whole problem, I think most workers would agree that the only thing that would really hit the company would be an ‘all out and stay out’ strike. The problem with that is that because we don’t have a strike fund, more people would feel like they’ve been forced to cross the picket lines, so we don’t know if it would get the support needed. If we had a half decent strike fund, it would make us much more powerful. We could stay out longer, do it properly. It just feels like going on strike for a few days here and there just isn’t working. They’ve been using agency staff and things like this. Personally, it doesn’t feel like it affects the management that much, obviously it does with backlogs and stuff, but it’s almost like they don’t really care. It makes you wonder what their plan is. You know, if they’re prepared for a temporarily loss of profits in order to push through what they want to push through anyway.
Are there groups of workers – in certain regions or in certain departments – that appear more militant? And are there others that seem less able or eager to participate?
From what I understand, it is the bigger offices, offices in the big cities, that are probably seen as the most militant. More workers seem to stay out on strike. It tends to be the more rural ones where they were less militant, more likely to cross the picket line. There was a case of at least one office, a more rural office, where they were saying that the union hasn’t even bothered to interact with the staff there for a very long time, so they felt abandoned, so the whole office decided to come in during the strikes. There may have been more cases of that. It’s the bigger ones that have maintained the culture and tradition of militancy. London especially.
What’s the role of agency work has been in dispute so far?
They’ve been quite distant from it. I’m not really sure how it works with them. I would imagine that quite a lot of them have come in, because they don’t have much of a choice. They might have been supportive, but some of the management teams have private links with the recruiting firms they use. So they have to be careful. And aside from that, there’s been one or two agency workers that have been basically completely useless. They’ve been paying them a hell of a lot more money, even more than we get paid, and they haven’t been particularly good at their jobs. So they’ve been on jobs and haven’t delivered letters correctly, things like that. The priority is now on the parcels because that’s where the money is and the agency workers haven’t been very good at this part as they haven’t been trained on the job. They go out to deliver for a little bit and then they come back and sit around for three or four hours.
Is there a strategy for getting them more involved in the dispute? Is that something that’s needed do you think?
Basically, I think the union is trying to protect full-time contract jobs and they’ve been saying that if management wants to cut jobs, they should cut the agency staff instead of the regular staff. Another common sense position would be to insist that agency workers, especially the long term agency workers, should be brought over onto the full-time contract so they could participate with the union as well.
We remember hearing a while back that there was talk of agency workers being part of the dispute. That there was going to be pressure applied to management to get agency workers onto the full-time contracts?
I think the position has been a little sketchy over the time of the dispute. During negotiations, management actually agreed to stop using agency workers during the dispute. That’s actually part of the agreement for negotiations, but obviously there’s still agency staff around in lots of places. We don’t see so much on that on our floor though. They’ve not used many agency where we are.
Generally speaking, how much talk is on the shop floor of the union strategy? Not only, “things aren’t going well”, but, “could things be done differently”?
At the moment, it seems like people feel that the union hasn’t got any real power, because they can only see the management putting things through regardless. People are pissed off and they are still fighting, but as I’ve been saying, people are feeling a bit like we’re fighting a losing battle here.
What are the picket lines like?
That’s another thing. Really, I don’t know how it works in other offices, but in central London, the union hasn’t been actively pushing that. We’re not asking anyone to turn up on the picket lines. So the people that do turn out to the picket lines tend to be the same people. I’ve managed to get a few more people to turn up because I’ve been going quite a bit. Perhaps people are worried about their jobs and not turning up. I mean, considering that we’re in such a central position and central place in London and there’s so many people working at our site there’s not that many there really. It would be good for boosting morale. More people would have turned up if the local union would have pushed for more people to turn up. There’s still very much a feeling that the union is something separate from the membership.
Has there been any decent discussions on the picket line?
It’s just the general kind of chit-chat about what the management has been doing and what they’re saying and stuff.
Has there been much support from the public?
There has been lots of support. Lots of bus drivers hitting their horsn and the delivery vehicles showing support, volunteers coming to the pickets and things like that. One of the most positive things in the strike has been the support from the general public. Some people walk past the pickets, don’t really say much, but it’s mainly supportive. There’s lots of other disputes going on at the same time, so I think people do feel like we’ve got a lot in common. We’re all fighting. The way it is at the moment with the economy and cost of living crisis…. I don’t think the government was really prepared for how supportive workers will be of each other. They thought they would carry on the same divide and conquer tactics and the media would be able to get everyone going against us, but it’s not working. You hardly ever see Rishi Sunak commenting on the strikes, maybe some of his ministers, but they’re mostly absent. It hardly reminds me of this Thatcher period or whatever, when they managed to turn lots of people against each other.
Are there any discussions of fundraisers? Is that something that the workforce would welcome?
Fundraisers would be a good thing. The union is talking about setting up some form of crowdfund. There’s been people that have been granted some hardship fund payments. It’s not big money, but still, there was something. So I think, yeah definitely. I think any form of support would be greatly appreciated. We have set up a PayPal that people can donate to. But I don’t really know the ins and outs or how successful these have been. From what I’ve heard you have to be pretty destitute before you get anything from the fund. Locally, we have a lot on long-term sick, so workers have been doing overtime to make up their money. There’s normally some shifts going if you want them. I’ve heard that at other offices management have banned overtime and only offer the shifts to agency workers. So it really depends on the local management.
Of all the current disputes at the moment, yours seems the most bitter. The company threatening 10k redundancies, threatening de-recognition of the union, the wholesale suspension of reps….. Why do you think that is? Is it this particular set of senior management, market competition…..?
The new set of managers that have come in over the last couple of years ago, they’re dead set on the changes. They have a vision of the way they want it to be. And they are prepared to be pretty vicious and deploy any type of tactics in order to get what they want. They’ve employed union busters that have worked at Ford and other places before. They’re trying to demoralise us, try and get us to just give up and leave, using social media and stuff. It all appears part of an intentional plan to transfer us over to a parcel only company, very similar to Amazon. So in order to compete, they’re hell bent on making our conditions worse – they want a cheap labour force. The unions been saying for a long time that there’s going to be change and that we should sort of go along with it, but obviously try and make it less harsh.
Has there been tensions on the shop-floor? For example, the managers, as members of Unite, accepted a pay out to change their terms and conditions to force through the changes to yours..?
I mean, every time before when we went on strike, they’d always cause problems for staff, so it’s no surprise. We expect it of them. There’s a big disconnect now from management. You used to get more managers that were ex-posties, that understood what was going on more, but a lot of them have retired and you’ve got newcomers that are completely clueless. They’ve never been out on a delivery before, they don’t know what it’s like. And they’re basically there to do whatever the people on top say. At least the old management knew how it worked.
Have you heard of any rank-and-file postal workers groups emerging during the dispute?
Not that I’m aware of. I mean, there used to be, I remember years back. There used to have all these different groups of socialist workers. They used to have postal workers’ groups. But I haven’t seen or heard anything in this dispute. No formal rank and file stuff. I think surely that’s what is needed. People are so scared of being victimised and losing their jobs. Too scared to even think like that. There’s also been a very big push from from the union to not do anything like that and to hold to the official routes because they’re scared about their own finances being affected by unofficial action. One of the main things they’ve been saying all along is to stick to the official stuff, “or else it will affect the whole balance.” I don’t agree. I don’t think it really would. And I’ve heard some older posties saying that if this doesn’t work “we’ll have to go back to the old guerrilla tactics.” There is pretty strict control of the strategy down to the local level though. All the suspensions and sackings of union reps doesn’t help either.
You spoke about unofficial action 20 years or so ago. What made that more possible? What was the reason for that level of confidence?
Obviously, people were used to more strikes and especially those people that were more senior than me, that had been there a long time. They were really used to just walking off the floor all the time. Back when we were in the public sector, there were less repercussions for an unofficial action than there is now. That’s what created that general confidence in the workforce and the union back then.
Do the workers talk much about any support that workers should or shouldn’t be getting from certain politicians?
Generally people are sceptical about Keir Starmer and the New Labour stuff. Everyone knows that we can’t expect anything from the Conservative government. Normally people aren’t that deluded. Workers have enjoyed the select committee hearings, when they’ve been roasting Thompson [Royal Mail CEO]. People really like the Labour MP that was grilling Thompson the most. They’ve been sending him lots of information about the things the company is up to. Giving him lots of ammunition for the next select committee hearing. It’s not clear what’s going to happen though because Thompson may have gone on long- term sick, trying to get out of it because he did such a shit job in front of the select committee last time. People enjoyed that.
Have demonstrations had much of an impact during the dispute so far?
To be honest, most demonstrations just attract the usual people. I don’t think demonstrations have much effect normally. The big demonstration in Parliament Square was pretty good though. Yeah, quite a few people off the floor went along. Lots of people got in there. It was a bit of a one-off.
Does the Enough Is Enough campaign have any sort of presence on the shop floor?
Nothing really. The only critical voice that gets on the floor is this Trotskyist group called ‘Workers Fightback’, standing outside of the offices handing out leaflets. People tend to take it because they’ve got quite a lot of information about what’s going on the floor with management. So they tend to have the latest gossip and they slag off both the union and the management. They’ve been doing that for years. That’s their thing. So they get a decent hearing I think. People don’t always discuss the newsletter, but they pick it up and read it.
What’s the atmosphere been like around the second ballot? How’s it different from the first? And do you think it will return a strike vote?
It’s definitely going to be a yes vote. It’s gonna be a majority. It’s going to be fairly high. It might not be as high as a lot of time because there’s always going to be people that have given up. Some people probably won’t even bother to vote. It’s going to be a fairly big yes vote because that the union has been pretty big on outdoor meetings and getting the vote out. Local reps have really been telling people to vote so we get a high majority to present to management, else they are going to look at a low turnout and say, “look everyone is coming over to our side.” Lots of mind games going on, but yes it’s going to be a big yes vote but we may have lost a bit of momentum.