A right royal bust up

The CWU represents members employed in the Royal Mail Group, the Post Office Limited, BT and workers in call centres and shops for mobile phone companies like EE, O2, Vodafone etc. Recently, we have been confronted by both our major employers, Royal Mail and BT, seeking to close their defined benefit pension schemes and move every pension member on to defined contribution (or worse) schemes which will provide much worse outcomes and seriously reduced pensions for everyone concerned.

The position in BT is still the subject of consultation but in Royal Mail the company informed the CWU last year that they would be going ahead with their plans to shut the defined benefit scheme in March 2018. This, along with proposals to dramatically change our internal industrial relations structures, sweep away existing sick leave and absence agreements, make any future pay increases dependent on unagreed and unknown productivity ‘improvements’ and arbitrarily change the internal mail ‘pipeline’ which would result in a vastly changed and inferior delivery pattern of mail for customers (both business and domestic), led to the CWU being in serious dispute with the company.

These proposals were exactly as the CWU had predicted at the time of privatisation by the Tory/LibDem coalition government in 2012/13 and once again highlighted the farcical promises of Cable, Cameron, Osborne and their fellow ConDems that privatisation would lead to improved services for the mail users and would also bring about investment in the company and its operations.

Instead that privatisation has led to diminished services for all mail users and no real investment in improving the network while the board increased vastly their salaries and pension pots and the shareholders, mostly mysterious hedge fund investors, were getting a year on year minimum 5% return on their shares which had been promised by the board and the Tory/LibDem coalition at the time of the sale.

These factors in addition to the company’s failure to invest in new and improved services had meant that the terms and conditions of CWU members, those who actually provide the service, were being attacked and undercut at all levels which in turn meant that there were a lot of seriously dissatisfied and discontented postal workers across Britain.

Into this already combustible atmosphere, Royal Mail proposed their pay and conditions settlement as listed above. The company believed that they had a workforce who were ready and willing to accept these attacks on their terms and conditions because of the so-called threat of competition and  that the workforce would accept this ‘drive to the bottom’ since their jobs and the services they provide depended on them being delivered at the lowest possible level of remuneration and working conditions as companies like DHL, Hermes, Whistl etc were otherwise going to take away Royal Mail’s ability to provide a universal service obligation (USO) for letters and deliver parcels and packets to customers at a uniform price and service for the user.

However, we knew that was an entirely false picture and that postal workers were sick and tired of the drive downwards and the attacks on their lives and livelihoods. Through our ‘4 Pillars Campaign’, we spoke directly to our members in and at the workplace – if we could not speak to them in their work we would arrange meetings outside the gates of the delivery offices and sorting centres. We used modern means of speaking directly to our members through extensive use of Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp in addition to e-mail and text messaging but core to our campaign was face-to-face discussion and explanation of our campaign and it’s properly crafted arguments and solutions to the company’s negative message. Our campaign message had been reached over the last two years through involvement and debate within the CWU to find ways of improving the terms and conditions for our members within the workplace.

Our message of hope and improvement quite clearly resonated with our members in opposition to the company’s message of despair and its ‘race to the bottom’ culture. This resulted, when we went to ballot our members on possible strike action, in the fantastic result, despite the Tory anti-union laws, of a magnificent 81.7% in favour of strikes from an over 73% return of votes from our members.

This caused Royal Mail to seriously change its negotiating stance on the future of the industry and meant, despite taking us to court over a previously agreed ‘mediation’ clause, that when we sat down with the company and the mediators Royal Mail was shown up to be the one guilty of failure to protect or invest in the industry and its workforce as well as provide a solution to the pension dilemma which may well be acceptable to our members.

Although it will require Westminster government approval, it will not require legislation to implement as it was part of a previous pensions law and will only require a secondary order in council to be introduced as a means of improving pensions and providing a proper ‘wage in retirement’ as the union movement has been calling for over many years and decades.

As I write this, our agreement with Royal Mail is out to a members ballot. Hopefully, they’ll have voted in favour of the deal reached which will lead to not only improved terms and conditions for our members but also bring about an improved mail service for the users of Royal Mail across Britain.

John Brown is the Scottish Regional Secretary of the CWU communication workers’ union.

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