National Postal Strike Looms Unless Company Changes Direction

Royal Mail will never succeed just by relying on the parcels market. Instead we are calling for real change, a far more ambitious growth strategy and proper empowerment of the company's greatest asset - its workforce.
Lewis Whyld/PA Wire

This week the CWU is in the final days of talks with Royal Mail management aimed at securing an agreement to avoid a major national industrial dispute. Unless Royal Mail significantly shift their position on pensions, pay, shorter working hours and its operational strategy, then CWU will ballot our members for industrial action in early September.

As a union we aren't oblivious to the issues the postal sector faces from changes in technology and society. I should know - the job I started out in, working as a telegram boy, no longer even exists. But the pressure workers in Royal Mail are being put under to work ever harder and faster for cheaper than ever before, has got as much to do with decisions successive governments have taken as these societal changes.

Firstly, there's the privatisation of Royal Mail. Far from bringing in investment as we were promised this has sucked money out of the company. In just three and a half years, Royal Mail has paid out £770m in dividends to private shareholders. By April next year, when Royal Mail is planning to slash the pension entitlements of 90,000 postal workers on the grounds of affordability, this will be on course to exceed £1bn.

When hundreds of millions of pounds are being paid out every year to hedge funds, while the workers who deliver the service are denied a pay rise, there is something fundamentally wrong with the business model. And this isn't just a question of fairness. The new "commercial freedom" we were told privatisation would herald for Royal Mail has all too predictably delivered the tired old thinking of asset stripping and cost cutting.

Alongside the pressure on staff terms and conditions, Royal Mail is cutting around 3,000 full time jobs every year and since privatisation almost £200m of property has been sold off as a fifth of mail centres and more than 5% of delivery offices have been shut. This isn't a strategy for growth, innovation or of putting the customer first.

Perhaps an even more significant factor here is the combined effect of competition and the almost non-existent protection for workers across the postal sector as a whole. The regulator in the UK has created an artificial form of competition that makes about as much sense as the structure of the rail industry, with Royal Mail being forced to carry out the expensive delivery operation for companies that get a tidy profit from simply collecting mail from big businesses.

And when it comes to the parcels market, a whole industry has been created on a socially destructive business model. Workers are being exploited by being falsely classed as "self-employed" to deny them some of the most basic rights, like the minimum wage or sick pay. With some people earning as little as £2.50 an hour, this exploitation has been subsidised by the taxpayer in both benefit payments and tax avoidance. When you look at the postal industry, it is no wonder the country has a productivity problem.

In Royal Mail, through years of strong union representation, the CWU has set the benchmark on terms and conditions for workers across the sector. Yet the regulator Ofcom, via a warped view of efficiency, has relentlessly attacked the company and our members by demanding that it adopts "flexible" employment models. The only things that have stopped this so far in Royal Mail is the CWU's strength as a union and our legally binding agreement with the company - so it comes as little surprise that Ofcom has criticised as a barrier to efficiency.

Alongside our industrial stand to defend our members, we are also calling for political change. Royal Mail should be brought back into public ownership. We cannot allow unelected regulators to take their cue from the city in pushing socially destructive business models. And we need a bold new deal for other workers in the sector that brings an end to the exploitation that should have been consigned to the Victorian era.

Our vision of the postal industry and the future of Royal Mail is very different to the stale and short-term thinking of the board, the regulator and the Conservatives. Royal Mail will never succeed just by relying on the parcels market. Instead we are calling for real change, a far more ambitious growth strategy and proper empowerment of the company's greatest asset - its workforce.

No other organisation in the UK has people on every street, in every part of the country, six days a week the whole year round. From tailoring more services to specific local needs, to putting postal workers at the heart of community services and internet transactions, there can be a positive future for Royal Mail, its customers and our members. In taking a stand now it is this vision that we are fighting for.


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