The latest UnionDues podcast takes us on an epic industrial journey through the twenteens as seen through the eyes of the Communication Workers’ Union’s 100,000 plus postal members.
Response to postal privatisation
“Royal Mail has been privatised for seven years now,” explains DGS Terry Pullinger, “but we’ve done well in keeping the company together and protecting terms and conditions.”
It was the union’s assessment of the risks of privatisation that lead to the rarity of a legally-binding collective agreement struck in 2014, and Terry’s assessment is that it provided a key incentive – for both sides – to keep negotiating to avoid court action: “It certainly gave us more protection than trouble.”
However, the real economic damage was inflicted by separating the Post Office (and Post Offices) from Royal Mail, keeping the former in the state sector but denying the latter a nation-wide, high-street retail outlet, and leading to regrets about the role a unified business could have given. Terry observes “most successful postal organisations around the world have kept their retail and delivery arms together and used them to innovate around services…..there’s massive opportunities where the Post Office could have been extending its reach.”
Then in 2018, Rico Back arrived as CEO and the union quickly realised, according to Terry, that this was “the big fight”.
Terry sighs. “You know figures lie and liars figure….when he [Back] got the nod to be CEO of Royal Mail, I think he saw his opportunity….to create this massive parcel company in the UK but in truth knew that he would have to remove the trade union to do it.” Back’s lack of affinity with delivering letters or the all-important Universal Service Obligation which demands a standard tariff for anywhere in the UK, ultimately lead to his sudden departure.
This tumultuous period lead to two industrial action ballots, both resulting in 90%-plus Yes votes on 80%-plus turnouts, a profound verdict on the prevailing management style. That, says Terry, was hard work. “We realised that we had to win the workplaces. We can boast about having workplace reps but it’s really about how you can get down into those workplaces.” In this ultimate stress test, the union’s organisation and strategy – which included virtual meetings by Facebook with 70,000 participating – was shown to be effective.
A human stampede to insecurity
What stands out from the discussion is that the politics of the Covid crisis hasn’t deflected what Terry calls “the human stampede to insecurity.” He speculates on whether the crisis – “this pandemic is like a war” – will lead to something akin to the Beveridge report and a rebuilding of civic society. Whether it does or not, the need for strong unions has been reinforced.
“It seems to me, and it has done all my life, that it’s always ordinary working people that pay the price. It just shouldn’t be that way…..you’ve got to keep shouting, you’ve got to keep standing up because everything they propose for our people is worsening our working lives, and that shouldn’t be the case.” The “they” in this case are currently the Daily Telegraph and intuitional shareholders.
And decrying the insecurity that Terry says drives “aggressive behaviours”, he makes the point that “Ordinary people are not asking for the earth, and this pandemic, when people make out that it’s [state aid] has got to be paid from somewhere and we’re spending billions of pounds on nuclear armaments…….…”. Anyone reading this will have heard this type of argument but there’s no doubt that Terry articulates it with passion and conviction.
In other news…
Also in this episode, an update on the campaign to save Unionlearn in England as some Conservatives lambast the CBI over firm-level training, gloves off over BT plans for compulsory redundancies, and USDAW’s plea to Welsh shoppers.
Some important Thank Yous
This is the final episode in our second series. Thanks to all who have taken part, particularly my guests Simon Parry, Doug Nicolls, Shavanah Taj, Jamie Briers, Pamela Morton, Paul Evans, Kate Dearden, Kat Molesworth, Nicole Ocran, Rozanne Foyer, Becky Wright, Christina Colclough and Terry Pullinger. We will be back with series 3 early in 2021.
Do let us know who or what you’d like to see featured on the show – self-nominations are perfectly acceptable! Contact details below.
UnionDues is part of the Labor Radio Podcast Network of over 70 union-related podcasts, accessible via the LRPN portal. You can also stream or download this and all episodes from https://uniondues.podbean.com/ . Contact the show at [email protected] or @DuesUnion
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Stay safe everyone.
Featured image – a CWU demonstration from 2015 (credit – author)