Working at Royal Mail during the strikes has been quite an experience. It was the first time the union (CWU) had called an all out strike during the several years I’ve worked at the company. Where do I begin? I have so many thoughts and observations, so how should I lay this out for you, the audience, members of the public?

Our current strike

Firstly, what’s it like to go on strike? Pretty simple, you stand outside your workplace (often in the freezing cold) and that’s pretty much it. We picketed from the early morning (6.30-7am) when we would have usually started work, till later in the morning (around 10am), which is when we usually set off to start our rounds. It’s quite nice in some regards; being a postal worker isn’t the most social job, you spend half the time on your own and the other half you’re more focused on sorting mail and getting out of the office as fast as you can, so there’s not much room to really connect with your colleagues. In the past, some of the old sorting offices had bars and social spaces in the basements where workers could socialise after shifts, but most if not all were closed down after privatisation. Therefore, being on the picket line, you end up making small talk with those guys who you never really speak to, learn a bit about them, and your sense of respect for one another increases. It’s nice I guess, since working in a depot with hundreds of people, delivering to different parts of the city, it can feel quite alienating having to share space with the same people day in and day out but not know or interact with them. There were a few guys who crossed the picket line about two months into the strike, but they weren’t a huge number. When I spoke to these people afterwards they explained that they felt that the union wasn’t going to win, and they couldn’t afford to lose money for a strike that couldn’t be won. Now obviously I didn’t agree with this assertion. However, I didn’t put this judgement on their part down to some objective truth. I felt it was more about the union, which for the most part feels like a separate entity from the workforce and hasn’t managed to demand the respect and faith it deserves from many younger members. It doesn’t help that the composition of union reps doesn’t reflect the more multicultural nature of our workforce.

Secondly, what’s it like to work in the days immediately after a strike? Well, you can imagine there’s a backlog to shift, mail and parcels. You’ll have double the load you should have and you have one of two options, you either work harder and longer (going over your time) or you work to your time and if there’s anything left when it comes to your finishing time, just bring it back. The issue is, that work, which you brought back, will continue to be a backlog as you will have another load to deliver the next day. If you’re simply covering, i.e. filling in for a postie who’s off that day, that’s no problem: it’s not your assigned duty and most likely you won’t be on the same round the next day. However if it is your assigned duty (half, if not most, posties have an assigned duty in my office) then it’s not really in your interest to have a backlog. The managers will make you take EVERYTHING out for delivery even if you can’t deliver it all. We use ‘frames’ to organise our mail before taking it out for delivery. These frames feature lots of slots, one for each address on a route, that you then fill with that address’s mail. Therefore, trying to correctly deliver your mail with even more letters per route will eventually become bothersome, as the slots in these frames are tiny and can only fit so many letters.

In our office, towards the run up to Christmas, the increased workload plus the vast amounts of backlog that had accrued meant it was impossible for many walks to be covered in one day. Many posties would leave up to 75% of their mail behind (75% of the addresses on their round!) as managers told us to prioritise TRACKED and 1PM Special Deliveries (SD). Even the special delivery service became compromised. They’re supposed to be delivered by 1pm everyday, and failure to do so could result in a £500 penalty that the company has to pay to the sender and disciplinary action against the postman assigned to that item. By November however I recall that managers were telling us not to worry about delivering the SDs by 1pm. Apparently the company had okayed the decision, but told managers to make sure not to tell us, the workers.

What is morale like at the moment? I won’t lie and say that it’s great. For several weeks in the run up to Christmas we were on strike twice a week. Each week we would lose over £200 of pay. For three weeks that’s about 600 quid lost. With the cost of living crisis going on, you can imagine people aren’t particularly happy about that. That being said, my older colleagues know they have no other option. The alternative is to do nothing and stay in a job with worse pay, terms and conditions, similar to that of other delivery companies. In the worst case scenario, we could be made redundant against our own will as the company tries to save costs to make up for their own failure. The younger colleagues, I’m less sure of. Many come into Royal Mail from working even more precarious jobs. Unlike the older members, many don’t have families or mortgages to pay, nor do they envisage staying in the job forever.

Recently there’s been several cases of rep victimisation at other sites, although luckily our site has steered clear of this so far. However, speaking personally as someone who in a previous job was a victim of trade union victimisation, I know why Royal Mail is willing to victimise reps and members right now. The rep is the first point of call in the workplace between the union leadership/bureaucracy and the workers, they’re usually the most senior and respected people within their offices. During times like these, when we have a big live dispute, reps will be offering leadership and guidance to other workers with regards to their rights. Therefore, if Royal Mail can force out a rep, it can diminish the workforce’s morale and destabilise the dynamic of a workplace, which is probably what their intention is with these current cases of victimisation.

Recomposition at the Royal Mail

One thing I’ve noticed recently is conversations about the nature of our work springing up between my colleagues, and in particular, the work we provide in comparison to other delivery services. For example, the other day I walked in to start my shift and noticed several colleagues talking about Royal Mail’s plans to close or reduce the opening hours for the enquiry offices, the customer service desks where customers can pick up parcels they missed. If this were to happen it would inconvenience customers by limiting the time frames they can pick up parcels, providing them less flexibility. There was another conversation I overheard between the guys who deliver only the large parcels (we refer to these guys as the ‘drivers’). They were reflecting upon Royal Mail’s shift towards a parcel-focused business, how their load and pressure from management to get them to load and deliver more items to make them competitive with other delivery companies, such as Amazon, Evri, and Yodel, was increasing each year. They also spoke about how this was being done without Royal Mail acknowledging that these other companies frequently compromised item safety by allowing drivers to ‘doorstep’ (i.e. delivering items to people’s doorsteps if the customer isn’t in), and in doing so leaving items vulnerable to thieves who can easily walk up and grab them (which happens quite often). What I’ve gathered in these conversations is that a degree of consciousness is being formed within my fellow workers, a consciousness of the limitations of a purely profit driven enterprise, that I hadn’t witnessed before. This gives me hope.

We’re reballoting soon, and it’s pretty likely we’ll vote yes. I’m sure members will go on strike, despite the hardship that will entail. However, it is in my belief that there are tactics we as a workforce can use to deliver maximum impact without harming our income. One of these is working to time. Delivery offices depend on people going over their time to complete their walk or taking up extra work from another round (usually because a postman is sick or on leave), especially on the busier days of Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday. I believe that if we, or at least the majority of us, were to refuse extra work and work to our allocated hours, there would eventually be a huge backlog of work just like after strike days (albeit over a longer period of time). This backlog would cause inefficiencies in the system and even more backlog. If the goal of this dispute is to win, and our leverage over the company can only be expressed through disruption, this is a good way of causing that without our members having to lose more money than they need to. To do this however will require hard work. The union will have to rely even more on union reps and active members to spread the word in our workplaces, and there will need to be more workplace meetings and huddles to spread the message. I have spoken to union reps about this, and many agree in theory it could work, but the main argument is that ‘no one will listen…everyone just does what they want to do’. This is true, people will do what they want if there is no form of accountability for their actions, but how do we hold people accountable? We have to form communities and networks within our workplace, and the sad truth is that these things are nearly non-existent in many offices.

But it wasn’t always like that. As I mentioned before, many delivery offices had social spaces and bars where workers could hang out after a shift, and there were football leagues where delivery offices would play not just against other offices, but teams from other companies too such as British Airways and BT. Stuff like this allowed communities to be formed within workplaces. Alas, those days are gone, and it will take time to reconstruct such communities, too late for them to have any effect on this current dispute, that doesn’t mean we can’t or shouldn’t fight for them in the long term. Therefore, rebuilding a ‘rank-and-file’ and strong worker self-organisation is key to winning a dispute like this in the future. When we surrender so much decision making power to union bureaucracies, we surrender the faith we have in ourselves and in turn the confidence to stand up to our employers. So many people know the workload is insane but refuse to work to contract out of fear of reprisal from management. I think stronger workplace bonds are instrumental to the success of that sort of action: being on the same page, knowing your colleague has your back, and that if you work to contract, so will your colleagues. Things like that make you more confident about standing up to bosses before they get too brave.

Why this dispute now?

I don’t think anyone in the workforce, the union, or the lower and mid level management, had anticipated that the dispute would stretch from summer to the end of the year. Usually disputes of this size, with this many people on strike, would be resolved within a few months at most. How this company has managed to hold out for so long is amazing, if not worrying for us. According to Royal Mail, they had stockpiled a war chest to the tune of £1.7 billion and boasted about it to the press in the run up to our Christmas strikes. £1.7 billion is a lot of money and could easily have been used to give every postal worker the pay increase they need and deserve, with the majority of that money still remaining for the company. Royal Mail may very well have lost a shed load of money this winter to the tune of hundreds of millions because of the strikes. This is due to the amount of business lost to competitors and delayed and lost parcels, all in the run up to the busiest events of the year for them, Black Friday and Christmas. The fact that they are willing to inflict this damage upon their own operations and reputation just so they can crush any semblance of organised labour within their workforce is terrifying.

This begs the question then, why is Royal Mail launching such a hard offensive on working conditions and organised labour now? I’ve heard rumours that some Czech billionaire shareholder is preparing for a full-scale takeover of the company. Allegedly Simon Thompson, our CEO, is his guy and this mismanagement is deliberate, so that he can buy the company real cheap. In general though, it is my belief, and the belief of many in the union, that these actions are being done for the purpose of turning Royal Mail into a more casualised, gig economy type employer. The effect this would have on the service we provide will be devastating. Not only will the terms and conditions of the people working the frontline be devastated, you will most likely see a lower standard of work being done which will affect your ability to receive items safely and securely. Royal Mail want to be super competitive in the parcel business, where they claim the real money is, and the biggest things stopping them are:

  1. The union. Royal Mail wants us to act like other delivery drivers, but we know what their lives are like, and it’s miserable. They deliver twice as much as we do for less pay, and the only thing that has stopped Royal Mail from becoming like this is the union.
  2. The universal service obligation. This is the government agreement that they have to deliver to every address in the UK for the same cost regardless of where the address is. They’ve already approached the government about reducing this obligation from 6 to 5 days a week, and got us prioritising tracked parcels over letters.

Although the relationship between the employer and the state in this dispute is less clear than it has been with the train strikes, and the universal service obligation potentially muddies it further, I wouldn’t be surprised if the government wants us, the posties, to fail in our battle against Royal Mail.

Where Next?

Our current dispute and the recomposition of work being forced upon us by Royal Mail shows more than ever the importance of building shop floor organisation. Like I said before, when we surrender so much decision making powers to union bureaucracies, we surrender the faith we have in ourselves, and in turn our collective confidence to stand up to the bosses. Rebuilding bonds between ourselves as rank-and-file workers - whether through social or political activities - will be key to winning future struggles, and ultimately turning the tide on the Royal Mail bosses and the government.

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Wilson Fisk

is the pseudonym of an anonymous postal worker