Monday, October 19, 2009
Myths of the Royal Mail strike posted by lenin
So, this is the first point: when you hear government ministers urge the CWU to 'return to the negotiating table', the reality is that Royal Mail management are the ones refusing to negotiate, with government backing. The business secretary and prince of the Brighton prom, Lord Mandelson, has already tacitly acknowledged the existence of the document, and ruled out the use of ACAS to arbitrate the dispute. The CWU has made repeated overtures, which have been rebuffed. This tendency on the part of Royal Mail's management to ignore conciliation and adopt bullying tactics is one reason why the vote for strike action was so overwhelming: 76% voted 'yes' for strike action.
In this connection, bear in mind what a future in Royal Mail without strong union representation would mean for a postal worker. It has been announced that Royal Mail has scrapped its anti-bullying week. The reason why this measure, among others, was introduced in the first place was because Royal Mail's management culture is one of the most retrograde in the whole of UK industry. Not only is the use of bully-boy management typical of the way Royal Mail handles disputes. It has long been part of the culture of management at sorting offices and depots across the country.
In 2001, an inquiry into Royal Mail's industrial relations by Lord Sawyer, Nicholas Underhill QC, and Ian Borkett of the TUC, was initiated by both the CWU and Royal Mail management to find ways to reduce the frequency of conflict (you can read the full pdf document here). This was after a series of unofficial actions brought sections of Royal Mail to a standstill - 95% of work days lost in 2000-1 were due to unofficial strikes beginning locally and then spreading through wildcat action. The report started from the assumption that workers' militancy was the problem to be averted, expressed disapproval of excessive worker involvement in managerial tasks, and was sympathetic to Royal Mail's 'modernisation' project. Yet, its findings highlighted an abysmal "authoritarian" culture in Royal Mail management, with managers insisting that workers ask for permission just to go for a slash or get a drink of water. Management knew how to apply punitive measures, even where they were inappropriate, but not much else. More senior managers, they found, were of a similar mentality. They refused to punish or confront "unacceptable behaviour" by frontline managers, evidently because they didn't find such behaviour to be "unacceptable".
What kind of behaviour might be hinted at in this cool terminology? Well, in 2003, it was disclosed that some 20% of staff had suffered bullying in the form of physical and mental abuse. Sometimes the abuse has taken on racist dimensions. In 2002, management had to make an unprecedented pay out of £100,000 to the family of a black postal worker who was driven to suicide after racist bullying by a group of managers. In another significant case, Mahmood Siddiqi was awarded almost £180,000 after it was revealed that he had been the subject of racist bullying for years that was condoned by managers on at least ten occasions when they might have acted to prevent it. Consider what might happen, with that sort of management culture operating without the constraints of a strong union. And think about that whenever you hear about 'union bullies', as you surely will.
Another part of the picture is that management want to reduce the cost of labour, to enhance the company's capacity as a profit-making institution. The inquiry led by Lord Sawyer acknowleged that aside from working in an unpleasant environment, postal workers traditionally suffer from low pay. The CWU points out that the average pay for a postal worker is much less than the average for skilled workers, even though managers enjoy lavish pay settlements with bonuses rivalling some of those bestowed on the oligarchs of the City. Royal Mail management would like to reduce workers' pay even further if they can, with proposed pay caps costing some workers £180 a week. This issue has been fuelling strikes across the country recently. (Royal Mail managers have responded to the strikes by scabbing). So, aside from job cuts, Royal Mail's current strategy involves forcing through a pay freeze, which is a de facto pay cut, while insisting on compulsory - but free! - overtime.
The next part of the story has to do with what the government intends to do with the postal service. Had Mandelson had his way, part of the Royal Mail would already be privatised. That had to be shelved last year, in part because of opposition from the backbenches. The major source of opposition to the privatization programme, though, is the organised Royal Mail workforce itself. So, in preparation for a renewed privatization drive, the government wants to decisively beat the union. Now, Mandelson has been very clear that this part-privatization proposal is just the first step toward full privatization. As Blair's secretary for trade and industry, he had always wanted Royal Mail "to be progressively private, even if if initially part of the company stayed in the Government's hands".
Already, the introduction of private competition has allowed companies like TNT and Citypost to bid for Royal Mail's more profitable contracts, while still using the Royal Mail's socialised infrastructure to actually deliver the mail. That has clearly been done in such a way as to make Royal Mail uncompetitive, and to blackmail its workforce into accepting changes that may not be for either their good or that of customers. Thus, in respect of the current strikes, The Guardian has reported - falsely, as it turned out - that the Royal Mail had lost a major postal contract for Amazon. The moral is clear, and cited by government ministers everywhere: strike, and people will just find other ways to get their mail delivered. Royal Mail managers have also claimed that the amount of mail being handled has declined, and that this in itself justifies substantial job losses in adaptation to a changing market. But postal workers have spotted the ruse behind this:
Mail is delivered to the offices in standard-size grey boxes. In the past, the volume was estimated by weighing the boxes. These days it is done by averages. There was an estimate for the number of letters in each box, decided by national agreement between management and the union: 208. So the volume of mail passing through each office was worked out: 208 letters per box, multiplied by the number of boxes. But in the past year, Royal Mail has arbitrarily reduced the estimate for the number of letters in each box from 208 to 150.
Doubting the accuracy of this number, the union ordered a random manual count. On average, those boxes which the Royal Mail claims contain 150 items actually carry 267. This manipulation explains how the Royal Mail can say figures are down when every postman knows that volume is up.
These myths - about union intransigence, about the economic necessity of job losses, about the superior efficiency of private competitors, etc. - are being deployed for the purposes of turning a low-cost public service provider into a marketplace of competing providers in accordance with the extraordinarily resilient neoliberal orthodoxy. This brings with it the usual problems - soaring costs, as companies seek to make a profit, duplication of capacity as they fight for market share, and poorer service as low paid, casualised and de-unionised workers are less committed to the job, and less likely to have the time and training necessary to develop their skills. Royal Mail, for all its faults, is one of the last bargains in town. Less than forty pence for a first class letter to anywhere in the UK is nothing. What else would you spend that money on? You couldn't even buy a pint of milk or a Mars bar with that money. Additionally, as much as businesses might whine when there is a strike on, capital makes a big efficiency gain with Royal Mail, especially if they use the metered mail service which gives them a further discount. Admittedly, the Royal Mail is not as cheap as America's socialised mail service, where a first class letter can cost as little as $0.44 (£0.27). But we can't all be as communistic as the yanks.