Royal Mail workers get ready for ‘the fight of their lives’

Ikenna Azụbụike Ọnwụnabọnze reports on the struggle of Royal Mail workers and the Communication Workers Union to protect the four pillars agreement.

When the news broke, the response from most of us at Royal Mail was shock. 

It is less than two years since a new agreement was reached following a resounding ‘yes’ vote for industrial action from the Communication Workers Union (CWU) members. The agreement called Four Pillars of Security and Pay National Agreement aimed at taking care of the angst felt by both Royal Mail and its employees in anticipation of the future challenges in the industry. 

The legally binding four pillars agreement was reached, under the leadership of Moya Greene, as a response to the increasing automation of labour. It aimed to reduce the hours of work to 35 hours a week by 2022 for full-time employees, while the part-timers will have a commensurate pay adjustment. This was to help address the automation of work for mail sortation and guarantee a job and retirement security for the employees, and better workplace culture, free of bullying and harassment. 

However, under the new leadership of Rico Back, who is also in charge of General Logistics Systems (GLS), this agreement is under threat. Adding to this is his plan to dismember the organisation – in particular, Parcelforce, which deals solely in parcels. While there is a decline in the sending of letters, parcels have seen a considerable increase, thanks to online shopping. The CEO’s strategy seems to focus, solely, on the more lucrative part of the business. His plan is to make Parcelforce a separate legal entity and Limited company which will enable it to make its own decision. This will put 20,000 jobs at risk. The implications of this move are manifold, with its impact reaching the workforce, the business itself and the company’s obligation to the public. 

Royal Mail Group employs one in every 175 people in the UK labour market, with the largest of its employees concentrated at the operations level. Its trade union, CWU, is one of the strongest in the UK and has stood firmly on the side of its members in negotiating better terms and condition of employment. The employees fear that should Rico Back succeeds in separating Parcelforce from Royal Mail Group, the next step from there would be to separate the Delivery Offices and make them subsidiary companies. 

This is what Dave Ward, the CWU’s General Secretary, called ‘asset stripping’. This will mean the shrinking of the workforce which the upshot appears to be the weakening of the workforce’s power to fight back in the face of threats such as these. 

The CWU and Royal Mail employees are right to be concerned given that the government’s controversial Trade Union Act mandates a 50% turnout for a strike ballot. With a weak and powerless workforce, the trade union would be as good as nonexistence.  

There are examples of the possible future faced by Royal Mail employees, should this move be successful. Other companies in the industry, such as Hermes, Yodel, DPD etc., employ people on zero-hour contracts and use agency staff in their operations. A lot of these workers have no pension and very little employment rights. A video making the rounds on the internet very recently showed an investigation into the operations of Rico Back’s GLS.

GLS workers in Germany are pushed to breaking point for what one of the interviewees called a ‘slave wage’. The other said, ‘you practically only go home to sleep and return to work’. Another said, ‘you are standing with one foot in jail. To simply make the time specified by the customers, one must ignore the highway code’. 

One would need extra persuasion not to believe this is the business model Rico Back plans to introduce to Royal Mail.  A business model where the well-being and safety of the workers and that of the public is put at great risk. To what end? 

Can this move be seen as innovative? Or merely a ‘growth plan’ that refuses to take the hardworking women and men along but instead seek to decreases their livelihood and well-being while compromising the standards of operation and the safety of the public.

With this precarious and uncertain future awaiting the employees of Royal Mail, the CWU deputy general secretary, Terry Pullinger, is right in saying that ‘this is the fight of our lives’. 

Dave Ward stated the CWU’s goal in this dispute clearly: ‘to defend thousands of jobs, defend the high quality of service we provide to the public and to defend our industry’. He continued:

[Rico Back’s team] has been less than honest [in their dealing with the CWU]. We are in opposition to all aspects of [their] strategy. 

[The] objective of the dispute is to reach an agreement not necessarily a strike action. For this agreement to be reached a massive turnout of members will be necessary. The goal is to deliver the biggest possible ‘yes’ vote, which will mean securing a better future.

A ‘no’ vote will mean dismembering the organisation and a move to a low cost business model for employees of Royal Mail. 

The ballot is open from 24 September to 8 October 2019




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