Today is ‘National Posties Day’. Postal workers have offered themselves as an emergency service during the lockdown, and there have been walkouts against unsafe conditions at Royal Mail. We spoke to one CWU member about these events.
The last few weeks have seen impromptu walkouts by postal workers at depots all over the country, as fear and anger grows over Royal Mail’s callous handling of the threat to its workers from the coronavirus crisis. This comes on the back of two successful strike ballots in the recent period, following a series of attacks on jobs, pensions, and working conditions.
Socialist Appeal reporters spoke to a CWU member from Suffolk about a recent walkout at a Suffolk sorting office.
Socialist Appeal: Can you tell our readers about the walkout? What were the causes?
Since the start of the coronavirus crisis, about 50% more mail – mostly parcels – is going through the office. It is up there with the weeks before Christmas, and then you have to add on top the number of staff off sick or self-isolating. Parcels come in and are sorted through metal cages in the small office.
We normally operate with 120 people in a small unit, back to back, side to side, although currently we are working split shifts to maintain social distancing, which is something we demanded as a union. On the day of the walkout, management tried to install a further 30-40 of these cages to help cope with the parcels coming in. With these additional cages, social distancing in the office was an impossibility.
Every single worker walked out and after one and a half hours management conceded our demands and we resumed work. I want to stress that this was not unofficial industrial action but a temporary walkout on health and safety grounds, which means we should still be paid. However, the CWU is arguing this point with Royal Mail nationally.
SA: Can you tell us a bit about the background to this dispute and the mood amongst the workforce, even before the pandemic?
Well, in the last five years or so – since privatisation – we’ve been in battle mode, but in the last 12 months it has really accelerated. In this time we have had two action ballots, both of which have produced overwhelming yes votes. As I’m sure you’re aware, the CWU is a strong, fighting union, and there was a lot of anger in the business even before the pandemic. In Suffolk we have a particularly strong branch and militant workforce.
A lot of staff have done 30 or 40 years working for Royal Mail, in some areas of the country something like 50-60% have been there for two decades or more. We can see how the business is changing, but the knowledge is there, the strength is there, and we know our rights.
The time is now. Vote YES #IAmTheUnion ?♀️?♂️ pic.twitter.com/FQSCrgYfYg
— The CWU (@CWUnews) February 25, 2020
SA: And how has the pandemic changed things?
Most postmen are happy to be working. The essential stuff, you won’t find a postman who will disagree with delivering that, we’ll do it. But 90% of what we’re delivering is non-essential.
We suspended our strike action after a massive ballot in favour, because we wanted to be used as an essential emergency service. We know our customers inside out. Many of us have been delivering to the same customers for 20 years.
In some villages, the postie will know everyone in the village. And they’ll know that Mrs Smith at number 87 is vulnerable, and needs someone to check in on her. We are in a unique position in that respect. But we need time to do so. Instead, we are more rushed than ever, as Royal Mail don’t want to reduce unnecessary deliveries.
The increase in post is a bonanza for Royal Mail, particularly the parcels. But almost all of it is non-essential. They’re going to make huge profits out of this, it’s shocking.
The online retailers are to blame for this as well. Mike Ashley wanted to keep his shops open to sell sports equipment for goodness sake! He was forced to close them down, but the warehouses are still open, and we put ourselves at risk to make these deliveries.
At the same time, our working conditions are still unsafe. From the very beginning we should have had hand sanitizer, masks and so on. In the end it had to be provided by the CWU. But the major problem is not outside, it’s in the offices, where there isn’t enough space to socially distance.
The public have been brilliant. We are seeing lots of working class solidarity. People are leaving signs in the window showing their support, even leaving us gifts on the doorstep! This is very welcome at a time when we are working harder than ever.
But while we are putting our lives at risk, our CEO, Rico Back, is living it large in Switzerland. He doesn’t deal with what we deal with. We are working harder than ever, and management are rubbing their hands together at all the extra income.
The CEO of Royal Mail says he understands how hard these posties are working when at the min all he’s doing is sitting in his mansion in Switzerland. How about Rico Back actually goes out and does a round and sees exactly how hard they are working
— Jenny CB (@cairney81) April 28, 2020
If you need to self-isolate for two weeks due to your own health, you get sick pay. This is much better than workers from Yodel, DHL, Parcelforce and so on. Those workers are even worse off, because of their much worse terms and conditions.
However, one thing that really angers me is that if you have to self-isolate for 12 weeks or more, and the doctors’ note doesn’t name you specifically – if it’s a family member, a partner, or someone else that you live with that is high risk – Royal Mail won’t pay you. You can take annual leave or unpaid leave, but they won’t give you sick pay. Postmen can’t afford to go three months without pay! Royal Mail is refusing to furlough workers in this position, so even with the government scheme, because you’re off sick, not officially furloughed, you don’t qualify.
SA: You’ve talked about using Royal Mail as an emergency service. Beyond taking the time to check on vulnerable people, what else would this mean?
Well, we should be working with the supermarkets for one thing. A lot of vulnerable people are struggling to get delivery slots for food, but we have the largest fleet of vehicles in the country. We should be putting them at the disposal of the supermarkets to help the vulnerable and the elderly.
We should also have been used to deliver essential goods to the NHS. As we all know the PPE, the ventilators and so on don’t exist in the first place, but it should have, and we had been expecting to spend a lot of time making this sort of delivery. We should also be delivering prescriptions and other essential items.
SA: You’ve described unsafe working conditions, unnecessary deliveries, and a failure to convert Royal Mail into the emergency service that it should be. What do you think is necessary to actually make these changes?
Under the current management team, it’s not even worth discussing! It’s not going to change. We need to be renationalised. The strike ballots show how low the morale and high the anger was before this even started! All we get is constant attacks – and once this is all over, we’ll still be under attack. There will be no thanking us for this, they’ll go straight back to asset-stripping and attacking the workforce. I hope that the public remember what we’ve done, and back us, because we’re going to have to fight. This is a fight to the death for us.
“…we are seeing thousands and thousands of workers being forced to go to work – crammed into packed tube trains and risking their lives to help protect the ‘essential’ profits of the bosses.”
Nationalise the Royal Mail! Let’s put lives before profits.https://t.co/LRn9ShEsbz
— Stan Laight (@tristanlaight) April 16, 2020
SA What do you think about the demand for workers’ control? Say the union were to call a gate meeting, and organise you to go in, but – over the protests of management – to organise Royal Mail as an emergency service, and with the proper social distancing and PPE that is needed?
That’s a great point! I agree, this is what we need to do. I’m not convinced that we could organise it in just an individual office, but if it was backed by the CWU at a national level, then yes, the support would be there. This is something we should agitate for in the union!
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!
One colleague suggested to me that after the pandemic, we should refuse to return to work until we win proper rights. But for this, we need international solidarity, so that they can’t pit one country’s workers against those of another, in a race to the bottom. In the 19th century, cotton workers in Lancashire went on strike against the slave trade. We need to bring these ideas back into the labour movement!