The Post Office: An Anatomy of a Dispute
1 July 2007
An account by former postal worker, Gerry Fitzpatrick
Post Office workers have just recently announced that they will be conducting industrial action over pay and the run down of the postal network. The idea that the current dispute is about the postal workers not accepting mechanisation or modernisation is utter nonsense as new technology has been part of the postal system since the 1960s. As one spokesman pointed out, the Post Office has placed no new mechanisation proposals on the table for negotiation.
Throughout wider industry over the last twenty five years, in the wake of a series of very bad defeats, there has been little or no strikes, Post Office workers have increased their industrial action; not just over pay, but over other important issues such as discipline and bullying. Postal Workers have also improved their solidarity with other workers, such as the fire fighters and hospital workers. So what is it about the post office and its workers that are so hard to crack? The short answer is the Post Office is its workers and they and the industry can’t be easily broken up like other privatisation ‘successes’.
Why? The simple fact is that the Post Office management are attempting to do the impossible. Where on the one hand it tries to do more work with fewer workers, it is also tries to butcher and break up the postal network to allow other firms to compete directly with it. What’s more, the post office can only function as a labour intensive industry – all mail must be delivered by a person.
Mail volume if measured per item has gone down but mail per tonne has increased and is not set to fall. How so? First, is the obvious fact that promotional material cannot be contracted out to the highest or lowest private bidder, it must have subsidised distribution to be national. So the more the government allows business items to be subsidised, as it has done in the last twenty years, the more staff will be needed to sort and deliver it. Secondly, on?line purchases of second hand goods and other on-line services, such as insurance and travel have rocketed all over the world. Part of an on-line purchase is a cheap means of delivery, which cannot be provided by other expensive couriers like Federal Express or TNT.
And as one arm of postal management has tried to win over more mail volume from competitors the other has tried in vain to hold down the number of hours needed to shift it. The sorting machines that have recently been installed are simply an attempt to keep up with the sheer volume of work - work that the post office executives have themselves created. This means more speed ups for workers and harsher discipline structures in an attempt to stymie resistance. This has had the exact opposite effect, as resistance and worker confidence has spread throughout the Post Office.
The Productivity Schemes
This process of solidarity and growth of militancy began in the face of managements’ new policies to increase productivity in the 1980s with a series ‘productivity’ schemes. Under these arrangements, recruitment would be frozen and those unfilled jobs would have their hours ‘redistributed’ among the workers for which they would be paid a weekly amount. The price was to cut overtime heavily in the larger offices. The weekly payments were a softening up exercise which was followed by individual campaigns against the ‘high spending offices’. These offices normally worked round the clock and those who worked there worked 43hrs a week and did on average 27 hours overtime. This regime was to be replaced with teams of un-unionised temporary workers working at a much reduced rate of pay in the future.
1971 Strike Aftermath
Historically, the over reliance on overtime rather than more workers at a better collective rate of pay, relates to the first major Post Office dispute of 1971. Then after seven weeks strike that ended in a bitter defeat for the Union, the management simply had to put out overtime to move the huge volume of mail that had built up. It also was a response to very high turnover in workers who found the continuing bad pay and conditions unbearable. In the long run this produced a hardcore of older tough (mostly immigrant) workers who worked overtime on a regular basis hoping to provide a better life for their families than the one they had known on first arriving in Britain. These workers became the radical core of the Union who resisted the productivity schemes.
Boom and Bust
However, the Post Office schemes to get rid of ‘the overtime kings’ as they called them were a complete failure. For the simple reason that the whole Tory shift to a business growth model meant that there was in this pre-email era a large increase in the volume of business mail. Even though this mail was being subsidised, the Post Office began to go into profit, which was quickly taken by the Treasury. With the amount of overtime and recruitment back on the increase the Post Office sought to ‘buy out’ the productivity schemes, which had badly back fired. Various new schemes were tried but the result was the same - they could not reverse the success of their own industry and the hours (including overtime) needed to move the mail.
What was there left for management to do, but to resort to their own form of industrial sabotage. This absurd practice had begun with the diverting mail to other offices to starve a target office of work and overtime money so as to put pressure on the Union to agree to a change in working conditions. But no matter how many changes the Post Office won from the Union the work still increased. By the end of the 1980s a number of the offices that had been deemed ‘high spending’ were simply closed and the land sold off. Workers were sent to other offices and penned into cramped conditions. The most notorious of these closures and relocations took place in central London at the King Edward Building that serviced the city and housed the London foreign mail section. Over two thousand workers were relocated to what become known as Mount Unpleasant. Again, this was a total miscalculation by the Post Office. Were once the large Mount Pleasant office had been a bastion of reaction (the National Front regularly boasted of the money collected there). It now became a bastion of militancy. Workers then decided to fight for better conditions in one of the most run down Victorian offices in the country, which had not been up graded since the 1960s.
Throughout the 1990s the Post Office began a full programme of closing rural post offices and amalgamating city offices and building new ‘super’ offices on brown field sites. They also began hiring a large amount of temporary staff. (In much the same way a large amount of local hospitals were closed to be replaced by only one new large hospital that hired agency staff). Again, these attempts all failed to stem the rising tide of militancy and resistance to the way the postal service was being sabotaged by management. Not surprisingly, these closures and amalgamations put the network under pressure (again like the new NHS regime) as it failed to deal with the rising volume of work. Management culture by the late 1990s became one of worker bashing panic.
The hiring of temporary low paid un-unionised staff had lead to a decline in deliveries and sorting quality and increase in petty crime and mail dumping. The Post Office had been warned that this would happen on many occasions by the Union. But it was the political effect of this on the workforce that was much more disastrous for Post Office management. Union members simply saw these temporary worker offenders as worse than scabs, who had given all postal workers a bad name. It increased Union solidarity and their determination to stop the break-up of the service; for it was no surprise to them that the new efficiency measures had actually succeeded in making the service more inefficient.
Two Privatisation Disasters in 2001
Undeterred, Tony Blair’s government and Post Office management now went for the big one – preparation for full privatisation. After a huge expense of around £400m the Post Office would be known as Consignia and would stand with and not against the other distributors. This is when the real lunacy began. Why? Because the Post Office had already set up Parcel Force as an independent operator – in competition with itself – and this was clearly failing. For the simple reason that the model they based the company on was Murdoch’s TNT network – which was in fact a union free transport network for News International that also took large parcels as a sideline. Separated from the main postal network Parcel Force ceased to function and began to collapse and run up large debts. The government accepted that if they could not make Parcel Force work independently, then doing the same to what remained of the post office network didn’t look like working either and they went back to calling it the Post Office. The cost of both failed privatisations was enormous, which put the Post Office in debt. It was totally due to efforts of the staff that this damage was reversed - a great achievement in anybody’s book.
Conclusion: a collective public scheme works much better than a collection of profiteering individual providers.
The Fight For The Post Office
Postal workers have shown great courage
in the face of 25 years of Post Office attempts to destroy the service
and undermine Union organisation. It is due to postal workers efforts that
we still have an affordable functioning postal system at all. But they
also know that their fight is not just the fight for a decent wage or to
provide a decent public service, they are showing us the way to the revival
of the labour movement itself. Many in the wider labour movement see their
fight in the same way. When they decide to go for an all out strike their
call for support will not go unheeded. Setting up your own union and community
postal worker support group would be a good place to start.