In defence of the postal picket line

Adam Booth 26 October 2009

On Thursday and Friday of this week, postal workers across the country will be taking part in industrial action over Royal Mail’s failure to reach a national agreement covering the protection of jobs, pay, terms and conditions, and the cessation of managerial executive action.

So far, the media has tried to depict the postal workers as a menace, and have been more than happy to endlessly quote Peter Mandelson, the (unelected) Secretary of State for Business, Innovation, and Skills, whose desire to see the Royal Mail privatised is no secret.

Even Thatcher did not attempt to privatise the Royal Mail, but Mandelson has embraced the concept, with the Economist describing him as “rushing in headlong”. Comments by Mandelson back in March 2009 that there was “no alternative” but to part-privatise the Royal Mail were met with opposition by over 130 Labour MPs. Only this week, Mandelson tried to arouse anger against the postal workers, claiming that a strike would “only serve to drive more customers away from Royal Mail” and that its reputation for reliability would be “irrevocably damaged”.

Postal workers, however, are not trying to annoy or disrupt the average Joe Public with this industrial action, but are in fact protesting against the Government’s latest attempt to try and break the Communication Workers Union (CWU), which is the only thing stopping New Labour from privatising Royal Mail.

These postal workers know that privatisation would lead to a loss of jobs, not to mention a reduction in pay and increased working hours for those who manage to retain their job. In short, these workers are fighting for their livelihoods.

Royal Mail bosses, with media backup, have claimed that mail volumes are down by almost 10% and that thanks to the internet, people aren’t sending letters anymore, so job cuts are inevitable. This argument fails on many accounts. Firstly, although some people may be forgoing letters in favour of e-mails, Royal Mail is used by many companies, such as Amazon, to deliver parcels and goods ordered online. The volume of these deliveries has massively increased in the recent period. Secondly, Royal Mail is responsible for the final-leg of deliveries in 99% of cases, with many private delivery firms paying Royal Mail to do the last mile.

Thirdly, whilst mail volumes may be down by 10% (Royal Mail figures in May actually had mail volume down by only 5.5%), there have been over 40,000 job cuts so far this year – a decrease in the Royal Mail workforce of 30%, resulting in a much greater demand on each postal worker. Finally, if people really aren’t using Royal Mail anymore, then why is anyone complaining about the postal strikes? If nobody sends letters, then surely the strikes this Thursday and Friday wouldn’t affect anyone!

The reality is that Royal Mail is actually a very healthy business; so healthy, in fact, that many private firms would like to have access to taking it over.

A recent Economist article mentions that “the Royal Mail group showed a pre-tax profit of £321 million for the financial year ending in March”, whilst Adam Crozier, the chief executive of Royal Mail “earned” more than £3 million last year, along with another £2 million in bonuses, giving him a yearly salary of approximately 157 times as much as the postal workers he bosses around.

New Labour is keen to sell-off Royal Mail, and the Tories will be no different if they win the general election next year. The Government complains that, despite the £321 million in profit that Royal Mail generates, the company is a burden due to its £9 billion pension scheme.

Again, this argument is absurd. Firstly, this huge pension figure has only reached this level because the Government failed to pay into the pension fund for many years. Secondly, even if Royal Mail is privatised and sold to another firm, the potential bidders are not going to take on the burden of the pension scheme; any buyer of Royal Mail is only going to purchase the profitable parts of the company, leaving the Government, and the average tax-payer, to foot the bill for the unprofitable bits.

It is no secret that the British economy is in tatters. The Economist said in a recent editorial that “The Treasury forecast in April that public borrowing would exceed 12% of GDP”, and all three major political parties have claimed they will massively cut public spending if elected next year.

The postal workers are the first to realise that national action is needed to protect against these cuts.

University students will be equally hit: the cap on tuition fees is likely to rise, and of the 600,000 people applying to universities this year, 170,000 were turned down due to a lack of government funding.

Because these cuts on public spending will affect us all, we should show solidarity with the postal workers. Students should go down to the picket lines to offer their support, and donate what you can to the fighting fund. Don’t believe the media myths.

Adam Booth