I was talking to my union rep about the attendance procedure, the process by which posties are threatened with dismissal for being ill. ‘The union must have negotiated this,’ I said. ‘If the union hadn’t negotiated it, it wouldn’t exist.’
‘But if the union hadn’t negotiated it,’ my union rep said, ‘it would be worse. Anyway, it’s not the procedure that’s wrong, it’s bad management and the way they use it.’
But as I pointed out to him, if the management can misuse the procedure to the detriment of postal workers, that means there are loopholes in it, which means it’s a bad agreement.
This is the problem. Everything has been negotiated by the union. The single delivery, which brought an end to early morning deliveries – and increased postal workers’ workload. Downstream access, which allows private companies to use the Royal Mail to undermine the Royal Mail. Later start times, new technology, the Pegasus computerised walk-timing system, the collapsing of frames, the reduction of staff levels, the increasing weight of mail that every postal worker has to carry: all of this has been negotiated by the union.
It might have been worse if the union hadn’t negotiated it, but how much worse and in what ways isn’t entirely clear. What is clear is that none of it has been in the best interests of postal workers.
During the 2007 strike almost everyone was behind the union. And then, when we got back to work, nothing much had changed. We got rid of job and knock. No one went home early any more. The atmosphere in the offices got worse. The workload seemed to increase. There was more pressure, more bullying, less time, and not much in the way of a pay increase. We’d had a huge disruption to our lives, brought massive inconvenience to our customers, created bitterness between those of us who went into work and those who stayed out – and for what? For gradually worsening conditions.
We have yet to see what the results of the 2009 strike will be. What is certain is that neither side is asking postal workers what we want. Some of my younger colleagues even suggest that management and union are all part of the same system. I don’t agree. Better to have a union than no union, but I’m not holding my breath for the outcome.
Sometimes, in my cynical moments, I’m inclined to think that the only real thing that anyone has got out of these strikes is that the union has cemented its place in the workplace. The pain will continue, but at least the union will negotiate what kind of pain it will be. Or, to put it another way: imagine the two sides had been negotiating the death penalty. Our side comes out declaring victory. ‘It’s all right lads, they won’t hang you any more. It’s lethal injection from now on!’