‘Making a killing’ or protecting Royal Mail workers’ rights?
Most of the media focus has been on the government’s ‘hugely successful’ sale of our 400+ year-old Royal Mail at a knockdown price to their chums in the City. Over at the postal workers’ union, they have been busy protecting the people most likely to lose their jobs or have their pay-and conditions affected after the looting is over. Perversely, these are the people who deliver the mail all over the country making it a profitable and the few ‘free share’ bonuses they received will not compensate them for when the rationalisations kick in. Nor will it profit ‘Joe Public’ – not even the small number of those with a spare £750 to buy 200+ shares – when the price of a stamp soars or the rural areas find the service disappearing.
So, I’m really proud of the job my union, the CWU, are doing. First, the heroic battle which the postal workers have fought against privatisation of the Post Office and Royal Mail over the last 20 years. No other union can match their record, since the first attempt was made to privatise the Post Office in 1994. The union, then led by Alan Johnson MP, launched the first and most truly impressive campaign, (‘Stand by Our Post’) in Parliament and in the country. So effective was it, that scores of Tory MPs in rural seats,forced Heseltine and Thatcher to back down. Sadly, it was a Labour government which next tried it in the 2000s. To his credit, Gordon Brown as PM, was persuaded by the unions, in the context of the ‘Warwick Agreement’ of 2005, to keep the business in the public sector. Since then the CWU also secured Labour Manifesto commitments which gave the Opposition a strong anti-privatisation policy in Parliament, albeit unable to stop it being privatised recently by the Conservative and Liberal Democrat Coalition.
It was to minimise the impact of the CWU’s overwhelming ballot of Royal Mail’s workforce – those with the greatest interest, next to the public - against privatisation, that the Ministers and Stock Exchange brought forward the sale before the ballot result. That remarkable expression of the entire workforce’s and most managers’ wishes would normally make the headlines as a weighty consideration. Instead, it was used by the Minister, Vincent Cable MP and the brokers handling the sale, as an excuse for their, at best, negligent haste, at worst, profiteering, decision to pitch the value of the company so low – £3.5bn instead of the £10bn valuation they were advised privately.
With such a powerful conflict between the interests of greed and working people, this government again demonstrated which side it is on and so ‘The Private Mail’ is a company like any other -
it can surely no longer legitimately call itself ‘Royal Mail’? But the union has not gone away. With its threat of industrial action now validated by such a huge majority, it forced the management to come back to the negotiating table with a much improved pay and conditions offer. The CWU negotiators are now in there seeking legally binding procedures to terms and conditions of employment in the private business – itself a novel demand in British industrial relations. The company offer is a very limited three year protection, but Dave Ward, their Deputy General Secretary and lead negotiator, has made it clear that they want to extend the range and scope of any deal. They are also seeking to protect the organisational integrity of the company, addressing potential dangers of franchising, outsourcing and fragmentation. They look like getting a good deal. Here is an effective union in action.
The union is negotiating a separate (also legally-binding) pensions deal. They have so far managed to protect the defined benefit (final salary) scheme – how many of us have managed that in the private sector these days? They got all members to send in a pensions protest on post-cards to convince the employer of employees’ concerns. The union is also mindful that 10% of the company’s shares have been kept back for employees. Despite their disappointment with losing the benefits and security of being a publicly-owned business, Dave Ward sees the union’s job now to fight for its members’ interests, regardless of who owns it. To this end, they are now exploring actively with expert advic, the potential of setting up a CWU Shares Trust to co-ordinate their members’ individual voting rights and collective influence. He thinks this could provide a crucial extra voice and influence for postal workers.
These negotiations are naturally taking some time, but anybody who believes the media image of this union as a bunch of mindless, strike-happy militants, rather than as an intelligent, imaginative and effective collective force, had better think again. Is this not the way forward for other unions also?
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