Massive mobilizations and strikes have been witnessed in the UK over the last couple of months against the Tory government for failing to tackle the ongoing cost of living crisis. Postal workers, railway workers, public service workers, barristers, dockers, garbage collectors, Amazon workers etc. have walked out and gone on strike to demand better pay and better working conditions. TRNN delves into the postal workers’ strike and its roots in over a decade of Tory austerity measures. This video is part of a special Workers of the World series on the cost of living crisis in Europe.
Producer: Alexander Morris
Videographer: Julia Schönheit, Alexander Morris
Video editor: Leo Erhardt
This story, with the support of the Bertha Foundation, is part of The Real News Network’s Workers of the World series, telling the stories of workers around the globe building collective power and redefining the future of work on their own terms.
Amy: Times are very hard at the moment, but we cannot and we will not back down. I’ll finish on this. Some people say being a CEO is hard. Well, try being a postal worker then.
Reporter: This strike of postal workers is one of dozens taking place across the UK, with nurses, ambulance drivers, teachers, railway workers, and more walking out this winter amid a spiraling cost of living crisis.
Britain’s Royal Mail is in a royal mess. After 500 years as the postal system of the British state, it was privatized in 2014, leading to what these posties are calling an ‘Uberization’ of their work: worsening working conditions, less secure contracts, and bringing in agency staff to lower wages.
Eddie: We’re not asking for the world, we’re just asking to be able to pay our rent and put food on the table. You’ve got people going to food banks, it’s not on, it’s one of the richest economies in the world, it’s the UK. Not on at all.
Reporter: Eddie has been a postal worker or ‘postie’ for 15 years at Tottenham Delivery Centre in northeast London. Members of the Communication Workers Union or CWU have already endured 15 strike days in this bitter dispute, and this morning are turning out to their local picket line on one of the coldest days of the year, before heading down to a postal workers rally outside the British parliament. The cost-of-living crisis has been strongly felt by these workers.
Eddie: I’ve felt the pinch. I’ve had to go to my mum with the begging bowl to pay my rent, more than once. Thankfully I’ve got a family that looks after me. I’ve felt the pinch big time. I’ve nearly had to go to the CWU to ask about helping me out with my rent, and that doesn’t make me feel good. Give us what we deserve. We worked through the pandemic, we were treated as key workers, heroes, put our lives at risk. So, anyone that fits the criteria to get rid of and bring in new people on less terms, conditions and pay, that’s what they want. They want all the old boys and girls out.
Bus Chat: Don’t stress.
Last night was just horrible.
Listen, at the end of day, from our office, 5, 6, 7 people have left.
It’s not an error, nothing is an error. They do it deliberately to sign it, to get him to panic and sign it, send it off and they can get rid of him. That’s what they’re doing.
Reporter: Delivering letters has never been a particularly profitable business. Postal workers must deliver throughout the year, from every coastal cottage to mountain huts in the Scottish Highlands. It is a public service, not a commercial enterprise.
But all the Royal Mail infrastructure was sold off in 2013 for a mere £3 billion. Shareholders have already taken £2 billion out of the company, and the chief executive — the unpopular Simon Thompson — took home over £750K as salary last year, despite the privatized Royal Mail only making profit one year out of the last nine.
Meanwhile these workers haven’t had a pay-rise in years, and Royal Mail’s last pay offer was still 4-5% below inflation — effectively a real-terms pay cut.
Jane Loftus, Vice President, CWU: They say we’re losing millions. Well, stop paying agency, stop paying managers, stop hiring scabs. Stop it! So don’t come on telly pretending there’s something wrong with postal workers. There’s nothing wrong with us. It’s just the corporate greed of capitalism in the UK who are trying to smash not only our union, but every union member.
Tony: Right now, in the 30-odd years I’ve been working in Royal Mail, I’ve never seen anything like this that’s been going on. When you privatize a company, more than likely something will go up in price, the service will go down and the shareholder will profit. This is a company that’s made well over £750 million in the last financial year. They’ve given £450 million to the shareholders, and I don’t see no investment in this company at all. It has steadily gotten worse.
Ennis: They’re doubling our workload, I mean, on the walk I do, I’ve got at least 30, 40% added to it. They want to make it into a gig economy, basically. They want to make it the next Amazon where they focus on parcels and just leave the letters aside. We have a public duty to the people here to deliver their letters. You’ve got elderly people who are waiting for hospital letters.
Chanting: Da, da, da, da…
Fuck the Tories!
Da da da da…
Fuck the Tories.
Reporter: The Tories have been ruling Britain for 12 years, and the CWU are having to negotiate with a prime minister, Rishi Sunak, that models himself on Margaret Thatcher – famous for privatizing state institutions and her union-busting policies – and so talks are becoming more drawn out and bitter.
Striking workers are often accused of being luddites, opposed to modernization. Today, Luddite is used as a derogatory term, however the Luddites were a radical faction of textile workers in the early 19th century who destroyed textile machinery that was putting them out of work, not because they were against modernization but because it was done without their consultation or consent.
And it’s the same for these postal workers, who accept that technology can benefit their work, who agree with technological advances, but disagree with managers and CEOs pushing forward with so-called modernization without consulting the experts, the posties themselves.
Dave Ward, General Secretary of CWU: People come to me, and they go, ‘you do know that letters are not delivered as much these days?’. And we say, ‘hang on a second. Do you think we don’t understand that the world of communications is changing?’ But the day that you believe that modernization is that you replace this fantastic group of workers just because you want to have the race to the bottom. Because that’s why they’re asking us to agree. We cannot agree a situation where they kick you out the door and at the same time bring in workers on less pay, terms and conditions and agency workers to casualize this industry.
Compere: The police have given us a slip to tell us how many people they estimate to have visited Parliament Square today, and that is 17,500.
Amy: Royal Mail want us to spend less time with our customers and more time delivering parcels. They want to follow an Amazon business model where they have people working to the brink of death doing as many parcels as possible. They do not want us talking to customers. They don’t care about letters anymore either. For them, that’s dead. They want to purely focus on parcels and make as much profit as possible for their shareholders so their shareholders can get dividends. Too many people at the top are hoarding the wealth. Because the 1% keeping their wealth, a lot of them are in that building there.
So yeah, there is money to go around, this company makes a lot of money and we should be getting a fair share of it, so that we can live comfortably. That’s all we want is to live comfortably. I don’t, millionaire, I don’t want to be rich. We’ve got people that work for Royal Mail that are using food banks. Food banks. So they’re working people in poverty. No working person should be in poverty. You go to work, you shouldn’t be able to afford to feed your family. So yeah, we’ve got people really struggling.
Dave Ward: I’ve been out there, it’s been overwhelming. I just want to say thank you so much for being postal workers. You are great people. We will always stand with you, and we will win this dispute, let’s get marching!
Reporter: Posties will tell you that they take pride in their work, knowing the legacy that has come before them, five centuries of playing a central role in communities across Britain. In theory, technological advances should make their work more efficient, meaning they would have more time to spend with customers, listening to their concerns, and helping more junior members of staff. Royal Mail is no longer a public company and so any spare time is seen as profit lost — but the posties won’t allow this to change without a fight.
Tony: Everybody takes pride in this company. We love this company. Everyone will go…everyone who works for Royal Mail, every member of staff will go full out to help the customer out. I’m seeing a lot of experienced members of staff leaving the job, people who’ve done 30 years, 20 years, 15 years. And we’ve started to see a high turnover of staff.
Anthony: 45 years…I think it’s 45, 46, something like that. Started here in ‘78, 44 years. What are the good points about being a postman? Certainly ain’t losing weight. Yeah, it was always a secure job, you know, the pension. But you’d, just…that link with the community. A lot of the postmen now, they’re on like, a time limit. Everything’s…there’s no ‘stay in to talk to Mrs. Smith next door’ no more. That’s all gone. You can’t stop and chat now. Because you’re timed. We don’t have enough time. If I went back out delivering along the High Road, I’d never get finished. But maybe it’s because I’m old fashioned I’ll talk to anyone who wants to talk to me, I’ll talk to them. I’ll never get it finished.
Eddie: This is part of the job, we are part of the community. 15 years in the job, if I was to lose my job tomorrow, I’d be gutted — I’m fighting for my job. I love my job and I love being a postie. You know what, I am optimistic. I know that the dispute will end and I know that we’ll get a result, it’s just a matter of time. Stay strong is my message, don’t give up the fight as Bob Marley once said.
Help us improve our international labor coverage by taking this quick survey
It should only take two minutes, and all answers are confidential.