Article about recent wildcat strikes and disputes in the UK post office from Subversion in 1996.
In their drive for Quality and Customer Care Royal mail are trying to eradicate second deliveries. On the one hand Royal Mail trumpet the British postal service as the best in the world and on the other they say that in order to remain competitive the American model of a postal service must be introduced here. The post in the USA, of course, is one of the worst services in the world. Could it be that Royal Mail is not interested in providing a good service and would prefer to increase its profits at the expense of its customers and its workers? Surely not! Still, if Royal Mail doesn't make itself attractive to investers then privatisation (which is still high on the governments agenda) won't be the moneyspinner it is supposed to be. Indeed, the government has recently increased again the amount of money it takes from Royal Mail profits, this could be seen as a punishment for Royal Mail bosses for not winning the recent privatisation argument but it is also another lever to use against workers to justify extracting more work from them and in kicking them out.
As wage slaves (we don't work for them out of the goodness of our hearts, we do it to survive!) we are not interested in making any business successful, or efficient, or flexible. We want to be able to earn as much money as possible for doing as little work as we can get away with. Our bosses, of course, want us to work as hard as possible for as little as possible. The only reason we may object to privatisation, for example, is because it is likely to be a means to make us work harder for less, that's if we don't get sacked, and also because it will be a means to weaken our resistance to the plans, whims, threats and daily brutalities of our bosses. We couldn't give a toss about the job, if it was possible to pick up our wages each week by working some sort of clock-card scam whereby we didn't even have to turn up to work each day - well, only a fool wouldn't do it.
Over the last couple of years Royal Mail has been trying to cut delivery staff, in the lead up to scrapping the second delivery, in a piecemeal way at various small offices around Britain. Sometimes the delivery office manager has proposed the idea (which is to make certain positions part-time and then get the full-timers to cover the part-time delivery's second delivery) only to realise just in time that it would be impossible to introduce due to the staff taking industrial action. Sometimes though they go ahead with it anyway. This is what happened at the Portobello office in Edinburgh last November. It lead to a wildcat (unofficial, that is, unballotted) strike across Scotland that, by some estimates, brought out 12,000 posties. The workers won this week long action, Royal Mail negotiators admitted that they had a had "a great punch on the nose", and the plan to downgrade four jobs (out of the 24 in the office) to part-time positions was withdrawn.
Posties may have won this battle in Scotland, but the war is by no means over. Only a few weeks ago there was an unofficial strike in London over the same issue, and there is a general feeling that a national, official strike over the issue will occur this Spring. The posties union (Communications Workers Union) may want to orchestrate a strike themselves in order to quell this rash of wildcat actions. They are also worried that Royal Mail is trying to make decisions without consulting them, thereby freeezing them out of their position as middle-men. The last time the union called a national strike, in 1988, it was more because Royal Mail had stopped talking to them than anything else! Of course, now, as then, there is a great deal of resentment and anger building up over various issues in Royal Mail. For delivery staff the future looks bleak. They know what has happened to sorting staff at the big offices around the country over recent years.
For the union to retain its position of authority it has to channel its members anger in ways it can control. Apart from the reason that they are hard to control, unofficial strikes are opposed by the union because if Royal Mail can prove in court that the union did not do its utmost to stop the action then it can be fined (as it has been). The threat of a fine still hangs over the union if any wayward shop steward endorses the action at their particular office. Shop stewards opposing such widely supported action makes them look ridiculous. (Organising a ballot takes about a month). This tension between the Union and its representatives on the shop floor could lead to the emergence of some kind of unofficial shop stewards committee, especially in the cities.
Shop stewards, of course, are pulled in two directions, by the demands of their fellow workers and by the demands of the union, which at all costs wants to preserve its position in the hierarchy and to maintain the health of the business. It would be a step forward if any potential unofficial shop stewards committee was in fact an unofficial workers committee. Shop stewards in the 1970's were aware of the limits of the shop stewards movements of that time. The union was perceived as an enemy of working class action (more a friend of the bosses and the status quo, etc) but there was not the ability to go outside of it. Maybe now there will be, as has happened in various industries in other parts of Europe in the last few years. (But don't hold your breath!!).
Recently there was the threat of an official strike in Royal Mail in Reading over changes in work practices. The strike was eventually called off before it happened because management backed down. However, before the little creeps lost their bottle they managed to give a jackanory to the local press. In a front page article they said that the average take home pay of a postie was £335 a week! Unfortunately only some simple maths tells you that (with an hourly rate only just over the proposed national minimum wage, and an overtime rate consequently not much better) a postie would have to do over 30 hours a week overtime to achieve this "average" sum.
Those nice bosses at Royal Mail also claimed that in order to get more overtime - and indeed merely because they were "lazy" - posties strung out their first deliveries past the 9.30am national cut-off time for first deliveries. This is a great joke because, although all deliveries are supposed to finish by 9.30am, the size and weight of deliveries now makes it impossible on most days, even when posties come into work early (and unpaid) and use their own cars for delivery, which is what far too many are forced to do these days.
After reading these nice comments, posties around Reading suddenly saw a new use for lamp-posts and old bits of rope.....