Honest face-to-face debate at York & Birmingham Royal Mail rep briefings

Postal, Royal Mail Group (EMP)

Discussion shifted from social platforms to concrete reality this week, as CWU unit reps from across Northern England, Wales, the Midlands, South West & South Central got to grips with the details of Business Recovery, Transformation & Growth…

York’s Barbican and Birmingham’s NEC hosted the first two of what will be a series of five meetings, where workplace representatives from every part of the UK will get the opportunity to directly ask questions, voice theirs and their members’ concerns and express all points of view in the lead-up to the nationwide consultative ballot on the new national agreement, which will run from 25th May until 14th June.

Leading from the front – presenting the deal

At both events, our general secretary Dave Ward opened by praising reps and members for the support and sacrifices they made during the national dispute, characterising it as the UK’s most bitter and hard-fought industrial conflict since those of the 1980s. It was because of the determined series of actions during 2022 that the union’s negotiators had managed to move the company from its original positions, he told the assembled activists.

Acting deputy general secretary postal Andy Furey spoke after Dave at both venues, also opening by crediting CWU members in Royal Mail for their unity and fighting spirit over the past year. He also updated the audience on the meetings with the business that have been taking place over the past couple of weeks on some of the issues – particularly the review process for members who have been subjected to disciplinary actions. The point was made several times that this agreement provides a means for achieving justice for those who were unfairly and wrongly treated – and that, without an agreement, this process would not be in place. 

Both our general secretary and acting DGSP acknowledged that there are aspects of the agreement which members have expressed opposition to – and made the point that the CWU negotiating team felt similarly on several of these issues – but also highlighted the need for honesty and realism about the current situation. The perilous financial situation of the company is entirely due to reckless decisions made by those running the company, but it remains the current financial reality and, going forward, there is no way Royal Mail can survive and prosper unless growth is achieved.

It is necessary, therefore, for all to recognise that without changes that enable the company to compete, the company is not going to survive, Dave pointed out, and Business Recovery, Transformation & Growth places the union – and its reps at all levels – right at the centre of this change process. He said: “We want to shape and influence that change and this deal provides the opportunity for that.”

The general secretary also spoke about the section of the agreement that expresses the joint aspiration for expanding the future role of the Royal Mail delivery worker. This project will look at working with local authorities, Metro Mayors and national Government in identifying new areas of work – providing new products and services to local communities and businesses.

Looking ahead to the discussion, Dave said that he wanted to encourage as many reps as possible to speak, saying: “This here is the real debate, not social media. This is your meeting and we want to hear your comments and questions.”

Undefeated, proud and strong – workplace heroes speak out…

With 19 contributions from the floor at York and another 20 from the Birmingham audience, reps* certainly had their say – expressing a real mixed bag of opinions. Views ranged from those saying they were definitely going to vote No and that members at their unit felt the same way – to reps arguing for a Yes vote, explaining that their reservations and concerns about having no deal outweighed their reservations and concerns at some of the detail of this deal. Some said that they were currently undecided, while many others focused on a particular issue or question which they wanted clarifying.

There were also many reports and anecdotes from local Royal Mail units, some of them revealing instances of local managers ordering staff to prioritise tracked parcels over USO mail items – even of disciplining reps and members for resisting or arguing against these illegal instructions. One speaker quoted their manager as saying that ‘the USO is at the discretion of the manager’. There was a lot of talk of high stress levels on a daily basis, unachievable revisions and workloads, with words such as ‘hostile’ and ‘toxic’ being commonly used to describe working environments. One rep said: ‘I get this horrible feeling in my stomach just going into the office – every day, I feel something bad’s going to happen’.

Both of the briefings witnessed outpourings of raw emotion at times, at York a rep told our general secretary that ‘our office is a No vote’, then went on to explain the reasons why. The rep said that even on scheduled days off ‘I’ve got people texting me, saying: “They’re doing this, they’re doing that”. Managers are waiting until my day off to do things to people, arranging one-to-ones for when I’m off’. The rep continued: ‘I’ve had someone given a warning just after their mother died’ and ‘I’ve been told off for not prioritising parcels over USO mails’.

Both Dave Ward and Andy Furey responded to this rep with strong support and sincere thanks and appreciation for the rep’s dedication to supporting members. They promised to take up the issues raised and they also stressed the point that the new agreement provided the best opportunity and means with which to tackle these behaviours. 

At Birmingham, a rep talked of having been ‘sacked on a trumped-up charge’ simply for talking to someone who was crossing a picket line – something which pickets are legally entitled to do. The speaker then became understandably emotional when talking of how the other unit rep at that office had passed away during the dispute. The meeting cheered and applauded in a moving display of solidarity, calling out the rep’s name and encouraging the rep to continue speaking. Seeming to have been lifted and strengthened by this, the person then resumed and asked about the forthcoming independent review process of disciplinary cases, emphasising the importance of the ongoing fight for justice.

In his reply to the debate, our general secretary made a specific reference to this speaker, thanking the rep for the contribution and service. Dave went on to update the meeting on the progress of the review. This is being overseen by former Attorney General Lord Falconer and the union is asking members to formally register their individual cases with the union for inclusion in the process.

(*Names of individuals and their units have been omitted from this section of the article)

Network change, delivery windows & seasonal variations…

As well as the speeches and replies to debate from Dave Ward and Andy Furey, both briefings also heard in detail from national industrial officer Davie Robertson on the section of the agreement dealing with the move towards a single parcel network and on network changes – particularly with regard to the shift away from air mail within the UK. The single parcel network aspects of the agreement provided positive opportunities, explained Davie, as it presented the possibility of reducing – even perhaps eventually removing entirely – the owner-driver model from the business.

Postal Executive members Tony Bouch and Martin Walsh – who work to the union’s Outdoor Department – gave speeches to the briefings on the impacts on delivery of the network changes and on the new Seasonal Variations system respectively.

Tony gave a detailed talk on the work he has been doing, which has involved analysis of how distribution will align with delivery when the changes that Davie had referred to start to be implemented. A great deal of effort has been made to try to minimise changes to start and finish times here and this will be an ongoing process overseen by a Joint Working Group (JWG). And Martin fleshed out the Seasonal Variations section of the agreement, explaining to the meeting that this had been adopted as CWU policy before the dispute, at the union’s March 2022 National Policy Forum and, therefore, represented a significant achievement in comparison to the Annualised Hours and Flexi-Bank systems that the company had initially wanted to introduce.

In summary…

In their closing comments at both venues, Dave and Andy each made a strong call for a Yes vote in the forthcoming consultative ballot on the agreement. Ballot papers will start to be dispatched by post to members’ home addresses from Thursday 25th May and the result will be announced on Wednesday 14th June.

Sincere thanks and appreciation were expressed to everyone present, and to all CWU strikers, for their heroic stance during 2022. All of the concerns and issues raised were extremely valid points and needed to be, and would be, addressed and dealt with – the point was then made once again that the Business Recovery, Transformation & Growth agreement provides the opportunity and context within which this can be done.

Reflecting on the two days, two speeches from the floor in particular – from North Wales/North West Divisional Rep Ian Taylor and Plymouth Branch secretary Ralph Ferrett – perhaps summed up the feelings in the two halls. The anger felt at what has been done to our members, and to the company, by a reckless and irresponsible senior company leadership, and the collective determination to ‘put things right’.

Speaking towards the end of the Birmingham briefing, Ralph said that this period was extremely hard for reps, that the deal was tough in many respects and that there was an enormous contrast between this agreement and previous ones – which had been easy to support and win support for. But he said that, in the current environment, the deal on the table was the only way forward and the only way to win justice for reps and members who had been unfairly treated by management.

He praised the level of debate at the briefing, saying that disagreement had been expressed honestly and with respect, in sharp contrast to the reactions to the deal on social platforms. Ralph cited some of the hostile comments he himself had received in response to two short videos he had posted – one particularly nasty anonymous poster had had told him ‘I hope you lose your job’, to which he said that his response was that voting No to this deal could mean administration and the loss of many, many jobs right across the company and that this was what he wanted to avoid.

Ian Taylor, in his contribution to the debate at York, said: “This hasn’t been an ordinary dispute – it’s been nasty and vicious and huge thanks to all local reps out there, who’ve taken a battering over the past few months. We needed a deal, we needed a period of calm, and this deal has given us an opportunity to right some of these wrongs and get our comrades back to work where they belong.”

“I don’t do social media – I talk to real people,” Ian continued, saying that the day’s face-to-face debate had been of high quality on all sides, but that “I haven’t heard anything to convince me to vote No.

“You’re entitled to vote No – it’s a democratic process. But do you get to a better place?” he asked. “What’s your plan going to be?”

Next week’s briefings…

On Monday, TUC Congress House will host the briefing for reps from the CWU’s London, Anglia and South East Divisions

Tuesday sees the national tour reach Glasgow, where Scottish unit reps will meet.

And Belfast hosts the final event on Wednesday, for our Northern Ireland unit reps