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A Magazine for Sheffield

"We object to ‘modernisation’ as a euphemism for asset-stripping": Why posties in Sheffield are on strike

We ask a Sheffield postie of 15 years, Ben Cockayne, why strike action is needed to protect workers' pay and conditions – and maintain a service with a 500-year history of integrity.

CWU postie strike 2022

Strikers on the picket line at Tapton Hill Road Post Office.

Ben Cockayne

Ben Cockayne is a Sheffield postie representing the Communication Workers Union (CWU) at Royal Mail, whose members are striking across the country in the lead-up to Christmas.

With so much focus on pay disputes in media coverage of many current and planned strikes, we asked Ben to share more background about why he and his colleagues believe action is needed in order to protect the historic service.

Why are Royal Mail workers striking? It's not just about pay, is it?

Of course, one of the things which provoked this industrial action was the pay offer made by Royal Mail. Having announced £758,000,000 in profits, and having given a sizeable lump of that to its shareholders, it was clear that a pay rise far below inflation would be an insult to the people who generated that revenue.

This insult was quickly compounded, and indeed eclipsed, by an attack on our terms and conditions: seven-day attendances without set start and finish times, after-dark delivery spans, sick pay removal and redundancies (with leavers replaced by new entrants on an ‘owner-driver’ basis) were all strings attached to the pay deal.

In short, Royal Mail wants to transition to a casualised employment model. It aims to expedite the end of letter deliveries in a bid to 'streamline' the operation, and to offer the level of service all of this implies.

In your view, what's the motivation behind the imposed changes that striking workers are opposing?

Royal Mail is profitable if managed correctly. Half a millennium’s experience building the required infrastructure puts us in a unique position. We have a USP in our reputation for integrity, as well as an inherited monopoly on letter delivery.

But Royal Mail wants to manage the decline of this part of the service (letters), not because it can’t be profitable, but because it is not as immediately profitable as delivering parcels only. We are at the stage of smash-and-grab capitalism, where boardrooms see a revolving door of executives, each tasked with maximising this year’s profits, regardless of detriment to the firm’s long-term viability. They are incentivised accordingly – and then they are gone.

Conversely, our workers are long-termist. We know the truth about the sector’s vagaries, through experience. Many of us hope to retire from this service in several decades’ time. We therefore do not oppose – indeed have embraced – change essential to our survival. We take it on the chin when it’s necessary. This is not. It's ideological profiteering. We are not Luddites, but we do object to ‘modernisation’ as a euphemism for asset-stripping.

Covid provided Royal Mail with a bonanza. It was given an exemption from the USO – Universal Service Obligation, to deliver to any and all addresses, six days a week – and concentrated on the upswing in parcels. The government paid the company to deliver millions of Covid test kits throughout the pandemic. The shareholders did better out of this than did the workers who delivered them. Never mind the socialist case for re-nationalisation: here is one for those conservatives worried about the 'public purse’, and value for money. Straight out of your payslip and into a tax haven.

After that, a return to more modest yet healthy profits post-Covid would not satiate the beast. On that basis the decision was presumably made to both manage, and manifest, a decline in the letters market, to thereby reduce turnover, and to cherry-pick the items presenting the best margin.

To facilitate this, the USO would have to be modified or abandoned, and Royal Mail will need, and probably get, the government's cooperation. In truth this obligation has been broken frequently over the past few years. Botched management revisions to a system which wasn’t broken, as well as understaffing, have caused persistent failures. These have gone unpunished by (unreported to?) Ofcom. So much for the regulation of privatised utilities.

It has been substantively inferred that strikes were provoked, in the first instance, to deliberately reduce the share price, allowing a preferred investor to gain a large chunk of the business cheaply. This stake will afford that investor a big say in the running of the operation and we can assume their vision aligns with the reforms I outline.

Royal Mail probably didn’t expect a record-breaking level of solidarity or the least-broken strike of its scale in memory. It certainly didn’t count on the public being too switched on to turn against the strikers. Less still did anyone expect the usual client journalists, having gauged this temperature, to turn coat. It was never imagined that CEO Simon Thompson would have to take a defensive stance against the likes of [Sky News'] Kay Burley.

But while he makes for a good bogeyman, we must make no mistake; he is only there at the will of the boardroom and stakeholders. A renegade character at the helm makes a good scapegoat for the viciousness of their installers’ shared ideology (the Tory Party know a thing or two about this). We’ll be glad when he’s gone, but they’ll find another. Thompsons are ten-a-penny in that milieu.

Is it a challenge for Royal Mail to maintain its services with so many competitors operating within the 'gig economy' - zero-hours contracts, little to no rights for their workers? Are you worried that the organisation is moving in this direction in the name of being 'competitive’?

Royal Mail claims that to remain competitive it must align its business practices – and so too its conditions of employment – with those of its disreputable competitors. We disagree.

We often talk about a 'race to the bottom’ in the trade union movement, and that is certainly happening here. But there is a similar concept from the business side. If Royal Mail decides to align itself with its gig-economy competitors, while discarding or reducing letter deliveries, it will be throwing an indistinguishable hat into a crowded ring. It will leave a gap in the market for a more respectable rival to offer a service with the integrity Royal Mail has forfeited.

The CWU’s long-term plan for Royal Mail would involve growth into other forms of doorstep service. We have a long reputation for community participation. A far-sighted company could exploit what remains of this kudos to expand into other avenues, such as assistance for the vulnerable and elderly.

Royal Mail does not have to be compete with fly-by-nights while ever it sets itself apart. It made substantial profits every year – nine figure sums, throughout my 15 years – for the Exchequer to spend, pre-privatisation. It has made bigger ones still for its shareholders since it was privatised fully. This year it's announcing losses and it's blaming strike action. The strike action was taken as a result of threatened changes, supposedly necessitated by sudden loss making. The shareholders got half a billion, the executives several million. Neither the timeline nor the figures add up.

This 'need to compete' is a variation on the spin favoured by government to get us to swallow austerity. The cupboard is only bare because it has been raided in the name of profit. We are not short of work and it's not unprofitable. It’s just that there’s an itch to wring a bit more out of it, and this will kill the goose, along with your level of service, and our livelihoods.

CWU postie strike 2022 2

Striking CWU members with Olivia Blake MP.

What can the Sheffield public do to show support for their postie this Christmas?

People in Sheffield and elsewhere can continue the moral support they have lent since the beginning of this dispute, and to others in similar conflicts.

At pickets and on the street the backing has been almost unanimous. I think that is because people have twigged that the forces destroying our jobs are the same as those squeezing us all as consumers, i.e. unregulated profiteering. For decades we have been conditioned to identify more readily as consumers than producers, and this has served bosses well at times of industrial action.

But the envelope has been pushed too far, and this time the public realise we are all in the same boat, all held to ransom by the oligopolies created after the ‘free market’ liberalisation of our utilities. All jobs, private or (pseudo) public sector, are subject to cuts demanded by shareholders waiting to offshore the fruits of our labour.

Above all, we must remember the following: striking workers do not instigate strikes. Profitable companies which offer them derisory pay deals, while paying excessive dividends and salaries to bosses, do.

Profitable companies who use ‘modernisation’ as a euphemism for destroying terms and conditions provoke defensive action from unions.

Socialists agitators are not instigating these strikes – neoliberal capitalists are.

Virtually all strikes are a bid by workers to keep sufficient resource in their organisation to allow them to serve the customer well, while protecting their own livelihoods. The inconvenience users experience on a strike day is likely comparable to the level of service they’d get, in perpetuity, were the workers not opposing cuts.

Sheffielders tend to know all this, of course, because they are awesome. We must all let government and opposition parties (such as they are) know that votes are contingent on their intervention.

We do not have a strike fund, as it would be impossible to administer. We will, however, have struggling members, as will other striking unions this winter. In the worst cases this will mean food bank visits. I have advised anyone keen to help to make donations to these organisations where possible. Check if any specific items are required first. I take my mine to Heeley MP Louise Hague’s constituency office on Chesterfield Road.

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