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By a CWU member
It was announced on the 3rd of October that in a ballot of Royal Mail postal workers an overwhelming 89.1% had voted for strike action on a 73.7% turnout.
The Tories 2016 Trade Union Act now requires a ballot turnout of 50% of those entitled to vote for there to be a legal strike. This is part of the Tory government’s attack on trade unionists to try to prevent strikes from happening at all. There are 111,082 CWU members in Royal Mail which meant that a minimum 55,541 members had to vote in order to jump through this legal hoop. This was easily exceeded with 81,867 members voting in favour of a strike. The CWU then called for a two day strike for the 19th & 20th October.
Royal Mail responded with an application for a High Court Injunction to prevent the strike. At the hearing on the 12th October, Mr Justice Supperstone granted the order saying: “I consider the strike call to be unlawful and the defendant is obliged to withdraw its strike call until the external mediation process has been exhausted”. Using the five year 2013 ‘Agenda for growth’ agreement between the CWU and Royal Mail he argued that, despite eight months of failed talks and the announcement by Royal Mail of the closure of the final salary pension scheme next March, the CWU had not formally referenced the dispute to external mediation until the 5th October.
The 2013 agreement lays down a legally-binding procedure which requires the appointment of an external mediator within seven days and four weeks for the mediation process. The parties must then meet within a week of the process concluding to decide their response to the mediator’s report, after which there is a two week cooling-off period. Then under the new Trade Union legislation 14 day notice has to be issued for any intended strike action. A mediator from ACAS has been appointed and the arbitration commenced on the 26th October. This means that industrial action cannot now be called legally until after Christmas.
In his judgement Justice Supperstone mentioned that “Just one day of strike action will cost millions of pounds in lost revenue” and will jeopardise Royal Mail’s “reputation in a highly competitive market where reliable service is essential to businesses”. With ‘Black Friday’ sales on November 24, when many people do their Christmas shopping online, Royal Mail would be at their most vulnerable and strike action would be most effective. This judgement is clearly aimed at weakening the members’ ability to defend themselves from Royal Mail attacks.
This is the same judge who last year blocked a criminal trial for the construction bosses in the case of the blacklisted workers. It demonstrates that the courts and their appointed judges cannot be relied upon to defend the interests of workers. Last year the Sutton Trust educational charity found that although just 7% of the population attend independent fee-paying schools, 74% of top judges working in the high court and appeals court were privately educated and attended Oxford University. This is indeed the case with the Hon. Mr Justice Suppertone, educated at St Paul's School, London and Lincoln College, Oxford! The judiciary reflects the interests of the bosses. The adoption of the ‘Agenda for Growth’ agreement, which helped head off strike action over privatisation in 2013, with a reliance on ‘legally binding agreements’ has now backfired badly on the CWU and the members.
The issues that led to the strike ballot result centre around the Company’s demand for closure of the Royal Mail final salary pension scheme, an offer of a £250 lump sum payment instead of a consolidated pay increase and with future pay rises linked to productivity targets, removal of legacy allowances, changes to starting and finishing times and 20% lower pay for new entrants. There is also an attack on paid release for Area TU reps and a change to the negotiating structure.
There is increasing pressure on workload with the hours to complete the job reduced through increased sorting times and pressure to take on extra workload through ‘absorption’ of delivery walks that are not covered with overtime and bullying of workers who cannot complete deliveries as a result. Last April the company gave notice of the closure of the Direct Benefit final salary pension scheme from the end of March 2018 and its replacement with a money purchase scheme, meaning pension cuts of around 30%. The DB scheme was closed to new entrants in 2008 and so will only affect 69% of the workforce. Workers employed after 2008 are on an inferior money purchase scheme. The company are proposing to marginally increase their contribution rates and place the entire workforce onto the same scheme.
The CWU responded to these attacks with ‘The Four Pillars of Security Campaign’. The campaign centres around the attack on the pension scheme, with the CWU seeking a lasting pension solution that ends two-tier provision and delivers a decent DB ‘Wage in Retirement Scheme’ for all members, the extension of the Agenda for Growth agreement, demand for a 35-hour week and a ‘re-designed pipeline’ that would protect early deliveries.
The company attacks on its workforce are driven by the demands of the venture capitalists that now have the majority shareholding in Royal Mail. Since privatisation in 2013, Royal Mail have handed £626m to non-employee shareholders, currently paying out almost £500,000 every single day in dividends. Last year alone, the chief executive of Royal Mail enjoyed a pay increase of 23 per cent taking her pay and perks to £1.9 million. To pay for this, across the country delivery offices have been closing as part of a £200m property sale by Royal Mail, meaning customers face lengthy round trips and long waits to collect parcels if out at the time of delivery. The only solution to retaining a postal service that serves the public is to renationalise Royal Mail as promised at the general election in the Labour manifesto.
Now Royal Mail have successfully used the courts to delay action until after Christmas, it is likely they will make a slightly improved offer during the ACAS talks sufficient to ensure the legal imposition of a new ballot. CWU members will need to show determination to fight the company with a resounding majority in any new ballot in the New Year.