Strikes at Royal Mail called off as negotiations continue

In October 2009, postal workers at Royal Mail voted to take nationwide industrial action, escalating an ongoing dispute over working conditions and modernisation. Four 24-hour stoppages took place before talks between Royal Mail and the Communication Workers’ Union produced an interim agreement. Under the agreement, no further strikes are to take place during negotiations on a longer-term deal to enable the agreed implementation of further modernisation from early 2010.

On 8 October 2009, the Communication Workers’ Union (CWU) announced the results of a national strike ballot of postal workers employed by Royal Mail. The ballot showed strong support for industrial action, with 76% of the 81,000 members who took part voting in favour of striking.

The move followed a series of local strikes over changes to working practices and terms and conditions of employment. CWU sought guarantees that further changes should not be introduced without agreement, fearing the implications for job security. However, Royal Mail insisted that its approach was in line with the 2007 pay and modernisation agreement (UK0707069I).

Following the strike ballot, four 24-hour nationwide stoppages by different groups of postal workers took place in late October. CWU was also planning two further ‘all out’ strikes for 6 and 9 November.

Interim agreement reached

Talks between the two sides reportedly came close to producing agreement on 20 October but broke down in acrimony. The parties then sought the assistance of the Trades Union Congress (TUC) in establishing the basis for further talks. The TUC had previously assisted them to reach the 2007 pay and modernisation agreement, which provided a framework for the implementation of longer-term changes which had led to the present dispute. Talks began at the TUC on 26 October but it was not until 5 November that these produced a positive outcome in the shape of an interim agreement (557Kb PDF).

This agreement has averted the threat of further industrial action, to enable negotiations to be held through to the end of the year to secure agreement on all aspects of modernisation at Royal Mail. The agreement provides for the appointment of an appropriate independent person, acceptable to both parties, to work with the support of the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (Acas) to oversee and facilitate the subsequent negotiations. It also establishes a procedure for resolving outstanding local disputes.

The immediate impact of the deal was that the further strikes planned for early November did not go ahead and, under the terms of the agreement, Royal Mail services will not be disrupted during the busy pre-Christmas period.

The CWU also confirmed that it would not proceed with a legal challenge to Royal Mail’s policy of employing temporary workers to deal with the backlog of letters caused by the strikes. The trade union had accused Royal Mail of unlawfully using temporary staff to undermine the industrial action – something which the company strongly denied.

Reaction from key players

Commenting on this outcome, the General Secretary of TUC, Brendan Barber, remarked: ‘The agreement reached today is a very important step forward but it is a long way from the end of the road. An immense amount of hard work is going to be needed to hammer out the final agreement on the way forward in a company that is facing a period of dramatic change’.

Royal Mail said that the agreement was ‘on all key issues the same as that discussed last month with the union’. The Managing Director of Royal Mail Letters, Mark Higson, highlighted: ‘I’m delighted that we’ve got back to a sensible agreement with CWU that will allow us to deliver a great Christmas while getting on with vital talks about the long term future of Royal Mail – and allows us to drive forward with the essential modernisation of Royal Mail in the new year.’

The agreement was accepted unanimously by the CWU’s executive committee covering postal services. The union’s Deputy General Secretary, Dave Ward, explained that ‘significant concessions’ by Royal Mail ‘have allowed us to suspend strike action and work towards a full and final agreement. The agreement ensures the imposed change that has led to the bitter local disputes will now be subject to negotiation and agreement’.

For the government, the Business Secretary Lord Mandelson outlined that it was ‘important that both sides now keep talking about the next phase of modernisation which is vital for the company’s future. Strikes do nothing to help Royal Mail, its business, its future prospects and of course the jobs and livelihoods of those who work in Royal Mail’.

Mark Hall, IRRU, University of Warwick

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