Postal depots around the country erupted with cheers – and even spontaneous outbreaks of song – as news broke earlier this month of the abrupt resignation of Royal Mail’s hated CEO Rico Back.
Royal Mail also took the opportunity to announce a £200 bonus payment to each worker for this month, supposedly in recognition of their efforts during the coronavirus crisis.
In reality, there are serious strings attached to this bonus; many workers will not receive nearly the full amount (it will be given on a pro-rata basis and details of how this will be decided are not clear). In many ways, it is first and foremost a PR exercise. Nevertheless, it is a sign that Royal Mail bosses are now in retreat.
This is a victory for the Communication Workers’ Union (CWU), which organises postal workers. The coronavirus crisis has led to a rapid ratcheting up of already high tensions within Royal Mail. Management have cynically attempted to use the crisis as a cover for an attack on the militant trade union.
But Back’s removal signifies a retreat (in the short term) by the Royal Mail board from the aggressive strategy that they had previously been pursuing against the union. Without a doubt, he jumped before he was pushed.
Royal Mail Group have parted company with CEO Rico Back— The CWU (@CWUnews) May 15, 2020
The CWU have secured a Covid19 payment for all members
It’s now time to build the postal service our members and the public deserve pic.twitter.com/CY3tWIRDjW
At the end of April, Royal Mail management triggered a sharp escalation of the bitter conflict. On 28 April, in a unilateral move taken without consulting the CWU, Royal Mail announced that they would cease Saturday letter delivery with immediate effect.
As the CWU have pointed out, this move, which risked up to 20,000 jobs, would have torn up prior agreements with the union. It would have been tantamount to derecognition.
Royal Mail made the absurd claim that this move was being taken to protect posties from coronavirus. But this is pure hypocrisy from the bosses, who have consistently put the lives of postal workers at risk.
As previously reported, in April there were walkouts at postal depots all over the country in defence of social distancing measures and safety in the workplace. In one shocking case, Royal Mail called riot police over a dispute, in which workers refused to cooperate with management’s demands.
Royal Mail have refused to pay workers sick pay if they are self-isolating to protect vulnerable family members. They even initially refused to provide hand sanitiser in depots, something that the CWU had to do from its own budget for the first few months of the crisis.
And all this at a time when delivery volumes, as a result of lockdown, have been running at around 150% of the seasonal average – an absolute bonanza for Back and his cronies.
Royal Mail’s actions at the end of April were not a ‘safety measure’ but a provocation, pure and simple. This was an extraordinarily cynical attempt to utilise the COVID-19 crisis as a weapon against the CWU. They understood that there could be no compromise between posties and management, so they tried to strike first by attacking the union.
However, this quickly blew up in their faces. The CWU immediately struck back, calling on posties to defy Royal Mail’s plan and refuse to implement it. Furthermore, the union announced that they were preparing to utilise the massive mandate for strike action that was won in March.
This implicitly raises the demand of workers’ control within the postal service. Indeed, the need for this had already been raised by the coronavirus crisis itself.
The CWU has demanded that Royal Mail be converted into an essential (non-commercial) public service, in order to keep communities connected, assist vulnerable residents, and prioritise essential deliveries such as food, medicine, and PPE.
But the reality is - as recent events show beyond a doubt - that this demand will not be met so long as Royal Mail is run by profit-hungry bosses.
If management were to be ignored – then why were they needed in the first place? As one postie from Suffolk recently told Socialist Appeal:
“Everyone knows in Royal Mail that ‘we can run the office without them, but they can’t run it without us’. They don’t actually do anything! Every problem that arises, we sort it out, whilst they sit in their offices playing solitaire. We do all the work for none of the reward!”
Royal Mail had hoped to draw the CWU into a fight and then isolate them from public support, pointing the finger at the union and hypocritically attacking them over public safety. However, management seriously miscalculated.
They were completely shocked by the fact that so many members were not only willing to strike, but also to work in defiance of management’s orders.
As a CWU source told Socialist Appeal, “many of our members have done years in the postal service and taken all kinds of shit. But this was a step too far even for the most company men.”
Royal Mail bosses could now see that their provocation had the unintended potential of opening up an intense struggle in the depots, whereby the union would begin to take control and direct certain operations. And, as millionaires like Back know only two well, appetite comes with eating. An explosive situation was brewing inside Royal Mail.
Seeing this, Royal Mail rapidly folded. On 1 May the CWU announced that they had been given assurances that the changes to Saturday letter delivery would be limited to six weeks only (and subject to fortnightly review); that attendance times would not change without the agreement of staff; and that there will be no job losses.
Struggle not over
The postal worker in East Anglia we spoke to described how, at his depot, workers erupted with joy at the news of Back’s resignation.
“It was like no celebration I’ve seen at work before”, he told us, “more joyful than any bonus or other good news announced in the past. Workers were jumping up and down, singing ‘you can’t touch me, I’m in the union’, singing ‘bye bye Rico bye’, ‘we don’t want Rico back’ and ‘solidarity forever’.”
Even the lower rungs of management - who themselves have been put under immense pressure by a culture of bullying and harassment that stems from the top - were beaming.
But as this same postie explained to us, the struggle is not over. Management are beating a temporary retreat and changing their tone - but only to prepare for more attacks in the future.
Industrial relations are not a question of tone or ideology, but of the objective dog-eat-dog laws of the capitalist system. As Michael Hewson, Chief Market Analyst at CMC Markets UK told the Financial Times:
“The hope is that any new [Royal Mail] CEO will be able to work more collaboratively with the unions to make the changes that are needed to improve the competitiveness of a company, which lags behind most of its peers.” (our emphasis).
In other words, in order for Royal Mail to stay profitable, attract investment, and survive, postal workers will need to accept the same barbaric conditions as their brothers and sisters endure at DPD, Parcel-Force and FedEx.
Prepare for war
In the long run, there are only two ways that this struggle can go: total victory for the CWU, or total victory for management.
This means that when the next set of management attacks come, it will be necessary to transform a defensive struggle into an offensive one, with union members organising to strike, take over depots, and broaden the struggle beyond Royal Mail and into the workforce of ‘competitor’ firms.
The task now is to prepare for this fight. The CWU should take the opportunity of this temporary lull to campaign for the renationalisation of Royal Mail, and to organise postal workers in the depots with this militant perspective.