Welcome to Stay Classy – a regular column about the class war.
On the 29th of October, the 90 workers at the Bristol Royal Mail distribution office walked out. Posties, customer services and cleaners all stopped work and headed for the front gate. Management had allegedly sacked one of their colleagues with no notice and without following due procedure. Outside the gate they held a meeting and voted unanimously to demand a ballot for strike action unless the company reinstated their colleague.
These workers were taking part in a wave of unofficial strike action. The last couple of months have seen unofficial post-workers’ strikes at eight Royal Mail sites – Wigan, Maidstone, Bristol, Meday, Swansea, Newcastle, Tarporley and Hamilton.
The background to this wave can be found in The 2016 Trade Union Act. Its contents were drafted by the opaque right-wing think tank Policy Exchange and swallowed whole by the Tories. The act was a clear attack on the rights of trade unions and their 7 million members. Its headline measure was a new 50 percent turnout threshold for strike ballots. Industrial law academics said the law was so heavy-handed that it was crossing the line into authoritarianism.
The Communication Workers Union (CWU) represents Royal Mail staff. In Autumn 2017, they were the first union to ballot their members nationally for strike action under the new law over changes to their members’ pensions scheme. When the results came in, 89 percent of workers had voted yes to strike action, with 73 percent turnout. Only a last-minute injunction by a judge saved Royal Mail from facing a national 48-hour strike.
Royal Mail bosses knew they were in for a fight, and so offered the union a deal: a 5 percent backdated pay increase; a one-hour reduction in the working week; a commitment to get down to 35-hour weeks by 2020; and a new pension scheme. In February 2018 CWU members voted to accept it and end the dispute. A sense of confidence spread amongst the workforce – they had taken on the bosses and it had gone pretty well. As John Woodhouse, Newcastle CWU branch secretary, put it: “the members saw what we can do when we stick together.”
Since then, Royal Mail hasn’t had the best year. In July, 70 percent of its investors voted against an executive pay deal that would have given retiring CEO Moya Greene a £900,000 pay-out and hired the new CEO, Rico Back, on £640,000 a year. At the start of October its share price fell by 24 percent in two days following a warning that the company would miss its annual profit targets by 20 percent.
Those failures of top-level bosses are now being taken out on workers on the ground. CWU sources report that delivery staff are being told to make more deliveries per shift and work more hours. They claim that long-standing agreements between the union and management are being flouted. Worst of all, they say there more managers have engaged in workplace bullying.
Gary Williams, a CWU branch secretary in Swansea, said that the number of complaints about bullying nearly trebled in October. Royal Mail, on the other hand, claim that “Royal Mail is committed to ensuring that our workplaces are free of bullying and harassment and our colleagues feel respected and able to thrive.”
According to the union, some workers who fail to meet the targets of this new workplace regime end up facing disciplinary action. When these processes are seen as unfair, workers have stuck together. The resulting unofficial strikes have often been successful, with disputes in Medway, Swansea and Newcastle solved in a matter of hours. News of victories spread from workplace to workplace via social media. As a result, more and more workers are taking matters into their own hands. Williams says that if the speed up continues, so will the strikes.
Some evidence already points to more embittered disputes emerging, as local managers try to hold out against the pressure. The strike at Hamilton distribution office, just south of Glasgow, began on the 16th of November. The workers stayed out for four days, before finally winning a deal they were happy with and returning to work.
What’s at stake in all these walkouts is control. If workers allow managers to crank up the intensity and fire whoever they like, then there would be nothing stopping them implementing the kind of questionable treatment of workers associated with Amazon warehouses in the Royal Mail. Workers can’t sack bad bosses or set the pace of work, even though they understand the job better than a manager sat in an office who’s never done a delivery in their life. But when they walk out together, they can take back control.
Rob Wotherspoon, branch secretary of the CWU Bristol branch, said that he can’t remember another time when there has been so much unofficial action taking place in distribution offices and parcel depots.
Royal Mail’s position is that they are “always disappointed if any instances of unballoted industrial action take place at any of our operational sites. Delivering a high quality of service to our customers is very important to us and any such action only hurts our customers and damages our drive to build a strong and sustainable future for Royal Mail.” Royal Mail management also claimed that two of the work stoppages were in fact not strikes but “union meetings” – so that’s, erm, multi-hour, unscheduled union meetings that take place during working hours and involve everyone stopping work.
While the union is legally supposed to disavow unofficial strikes called by their rank-and-file members. CWU General Secretary Dave Ward has been enthusiastically tweeting about these walk-outs. Wotherspoon argues that this shows how fragile the anti-union laws are when they are actually challenged. When workers decide they aren’t going to put up with management’s shit, there isn’t much anyone can do to stop them.
Back at the Bristol distribution office, the union will soon be balloting for formal strike action to defend the victimised worker. “Strike ballot papers will soon be hitting doormats,” says Wotherspoon, “and we are confident that we will see a resounding ‘YES’ vote to defend Barry from victimisation. If Royal Mail don’t see sense then the stage is set for strike action in the run up to Christmas.”