The Communication Workers Union (CWU) is the British union representing around 200 000 workers in the post and telecommunications sector. Especially for the postal workers in Royal Mail, CWU is bargaining on different levels for decent working conditions, pension funds and a better wage. After the privatisation of Royal Mail in 2013, the company went on a cost-cutting programme and is increasingly attacking its former industrial agreements, joining the race to the bottom on terms and conditions for postal workers. At the same time, the company is able to make large profits and paid out almost £800m in dividends.
In that context, CWU launched the #FourPillars campaign for social security and better working conditions in Royal Mail. The campaign pushes on a decent retirement security, a shorter working week, extended legal protection and a secured operational system as well as a substantial pay rise above inflation. Jane Loftus, President of CWU, speaks here about the challenges of CWU and unions in Britain.
UNI: Today, a stunning 89.1% of workers in Royal Mail agreed on industrial actions, what will be your next steps?
Jane Loftus: The postal executive will meet on Thursday to discuss the ballot result and what options, in terms of industrial action, can be made. Under the new trade union legislation, we have to give two weeks’ notice before taking any form of action. In that time, we will still be negotiating with the company to get an agreement, obviously the ballot result helps us to get an agreement but if we don’t have an agreement, we will strike in support of the CWU.
UNI: You negotiated for quite a long time with Royal Mail before calling for a ballot vote, how did you involve the workers and union members in the campaign and what made you succeed?
JL: The negotiations have been on and off for over a year and have intensified when we called for the ballot for industrial action. Until the ballot result came now, I don’t believe Royal Mail have treated these talks seriously. The CEO and the leading players of the company have not been in those talks, so even though we’ve been in the room, it has not come out with anything meaningful on the big issues. The big issues are obviously pensions, a consolidated pay agreement, job security for the future and how the operation works in the future. That will now come about because I believe, overwhelmingly, the referendum shows that people agree with the union don’t agree with Royal Mail and they have lost their workforce.
In terms of how we kept our members involved we used social media but we also put out a bulletin and an update from the General Secretary on a weekly basis. Telling people where we are, if there is any progress and what needs to be happening. That has engaged people and we made sure all of that is accessible on our websites so that the people can find out what is happening and what the vision of CWU is and what we would say in detail about the #FourPillars campaign.
UNI: What do you think about the privatisation of Royal Mail, what changed for you as a union and which challenges are you facing in the postal sector in Britain as a follow up of the liberalisation of the market?
JL: Prior to privatisation, we had an agenda for a growth agreement, which enshrined our legal rights, meaning that Royal Mail were not permitted to outsource labour. Also they had to recruit people on proper contracts so not to contribute to the casualisation of the workforce. However, we already knew that those agreements would be up for negotiation, as well as pensions and the legal agreement. As long as those agreements where in place things were fine, but we always knew that we would come to a point, given the shareholders demands for dividends putting money out of the industry, that they would have to attack the workforce.
We are now at that crossroads where Royal Mail wants to lessen our agreements, push down the terms and conditions of postal workers and pay them less pension contributions in retirement, which will mean people can’t retire. At that point, as a union, we have to say that they moved away from our agreements and we need to hold them to account. But like every other privatised company, they will always come after the workers for more efficiency and make you work harder casualise the industry.
So, it’s no surprise that we are where we are now. That is the nature of what we could say as capitalism undermining industrial democracy. We are in the private sector but we still deliver a public service and therefore we believe the public deserves better and so do postal workers.
UNI: A couple of weeks ago, the Trade Union Congress (TUC) conference decided on several actions, especially against the salary cap on public service employees. CWU is one of the first unions to have a ballot vote on this action, so how will this influence the work of the TUC and other unions in Britain?
JL: The salary cap has been in the public sector for over seven years, and people are really struggling, from nurses to fire fighters, to civil servants. The public service has seen 100 000 jobs slashed, so the new trade union law was created to put them off actually fighting that cap. Hopefully the actions of the CWU will infuse other workers to say enough is enough!
If we did not deliver, that would suit the Conservatives’ programme to attack the ordinary workforce. What they call “austerity” is basically us paying for the banking crisis that they induced. So yes, our campaign and the ballot helps, but what we need to do, public and private, is to organise people in their workplace so that they have representatives dealing with day to day issues. Which means they have a relationship, not just a national relationship but a very locally based relationship.
There is a mood in the country that enough is enough and that is represented by Jeremy Corbyn as the leader of the Labour Party. We, as unions, now have to go out into the workplace and if we need to fight, then we fight, but we have to defend each other no matter where we come from.
UNI: The Conservative Government under Theresa May has implemented new laws for trade unions. CWU has described them as ‘draconian’; what are the main changes and challenges for the work of British unions?
JL: Basically, the new law involves higher thresholds for organising industrial action. Now, we need more people to vote before going on strike than we did before, so that can be a barrier for people who do want to fight. In my experience, even when people did not vote for strike action, when we did go on strike, 100% of people participated. We would like to see public servants like nurses and firefighters get paid a decent wage but this law is just designed to make the rich richer.
UNI: The Postal Sector is rapidly changing at the moment, new providers are stepping in, especially in the parcel delivery service and there is a strong decline in the volume of letters. What are your demands to secure decent work for postal sector employees?
JL: Yes, a lot has changed in the past decades, but in many ways for the better. There are now more people coming to your door delivering things, but in a deregulated postal system, competitors are doing that delivery. People appreciate a secure postal system because if people are ordering goods, they want to have a trusted delivery and we would like to see Royal Mail being that trusted delivery. We believe that it is not about competition, but about quality service.
What is going on with internet shopping and parcel delivery has to be seen as a good development because this means more work for the post. We have to redesign how and when we are delivering, we think it is no problem to have a delivery in the morning and one in the evening but it has to be secured so that the people doing the delivery have proper contracts and decent working hours. We can provide that service as a public service institution, but you can’t do that on the cheap. There are many things that we can do in order to modernise, also in terms of automatisation, but at the end of the day, it will still mean someone walking up to your doorstep. The question is, will that service be provided by five people of five different companies or is it one company delivering a brilliant service throughout the day? We think we can do that.
UNI: On the topic of privatisation and liberalisation, CWU is demanding the renationalisation of Royal Mail, but how do you see the deregulation of the postal sector and what are you fighting for on those terms?
JL: The UK was very early in deregulating the postal sector, ironically it was a Labour Government, under Tony Blair, who did that. It was thought that the free market would deliver, but as everyone knows, the free market is not delivering for anyone. But what liberalisation proved has is that postal services are still needed. If we look at economies of scale we have to admit that having five different companies going up and down the country delivering things is just does not make economic sense. What works is one delivery company, and I see that as being Royal Mail.
The postal worker is still an important part of the local community who knows who is ill or talks with elderly people, so to say that it does not matter who is delivering your post is just not true. For the last twenty years the mantra of liberalisation has proven one thing, whether it’s a letter, it’s a packet or a parcel, there is still need for postal services as a part of the public service of a modern country.
Interview by Luca Tschiderer