The RMT strikes have taken the UK by storm in the past few months, with supporters quick to brand June to August as the season of ‘Hot Strike Summer’. This was more than a summer fling: more and more unions are balloting – and winning – to go on strike to redress unfair pay and workload.
In light of this, I spoke to members of the Communication Workers Union (CWU), the University and Colleges Union (UCU), the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport workers (RMT) and Labour Students, for comments.
Whilst the RMT strikes have been accused of national disruption, general secretary Mick Lynch released a statement pinning blame upon “Britain’s broken private model.” Adding that “companies that make huge profits from the industry and charge exorbitant fees to passengers are trying to blame staff for shortcomings.”
Understaffing is also an issue in the Royal Mail; when people quit or are laid off, they are often not replaced. Increasing stress for the remaining workers, according to postman Rufus*. The CWU are rallying against changes to their terms and conditions, which crucially could mean their hours being annualised. “Other companies should be fighting to get their conditions the same as Royal Mail’s, not the other way around – no one can make a living out of zero-hour contracts,” he continues.
This round of UCU strikes regards pay above inflation – resulting in the highest ever UCU ballot turnout where 81.1% voted yes for strike action nationally. Historically, they are the first union in the education sector to win a ballot since the 2016 anti-trade union laws were passed. The UCU claim that this is a result of staff feeling angry at a real terms pay cut given that the university sector made a record £41.1bn last year, with vice-chancellors receiving £45mil from this.
However, even though it is likely that the average person has more in common with strikers than those in management making record sums, media reception has largely been negative. CWU member Rob* feels that they are up against a “much more powerful organisation, with much better access to the press.”
There are certainly questions of democracy at hand, too. Unions are legally required to re-ballot every six months in order to call strike action. RMT member Joanne* feels that because so much labour is expended upon administering a vote, members can be disillusioned by the cause, leaving their demands delegitimised.
Re-ballots can be triggered by issues in motion. For example, if the university management shuts down a building, and changes the workplace of teaching staff, the university isn’t obliged to inform unions. Unions staff have to tell their employers all information about the strike, including where staff work, and if the information is wrong, a re-ballot must be triggered, shutting down strike action. In fact, even if there are widespread and related workplace issues raised during the strike unless discussed on the ballot, action can be vetoed.
“Everything in law is made to stop taking action,” Joanne notes. Adding that if the Tories can have online leadership elections, why should the unions have to use postal ballots if not to obstruct democracy? She argues that if ballots were online, turnout would increase due to the ease of voting, and it would require less work to have to call every member for updated details every few months, streamlining action.
The anti-democratic nature of how unions are treated extends also to their relation to corporate. At the Manchester South Post Depot, there was much disgruntlement surrounding their relationship with the CEO. Postman Moses* explained that whilst the real terms pay cut was ‘unjust’ considering how much the shareholders were given in dividends (£400m of the £700m made in total), if Royal Mail were really struggling for money, the workers would accept the cut. However, a cut would only be accepted so long as employment terms and conditions remained unchanged.
Royal Mail strikers were supposed to meet with ACAS that night. When asked if union reps were allowed direct contact with the CEO, a roar of laughter erupted from the otherwise quite timid strikers. “It’s all about the CEO refusing to cooperate! It comes across as ‘what I say goes.’ He won’t show up to meetings, he sends his lackeys to do the talking, and there’s no compromise. It feels like we’re already at a done deal.”
Rufus brings up the previous Royal Mail CEO, who he claims “walked away with £1mil and lives in a Geneva penthouse – his job was to smash the unions.” He continues, explaining that another person on the CEO’s team was responsible for the P&O scandal earlier this year, where 800 ferrymen were dismissed and replaced by cheaper offshore workers in favour of increased profits.
If the Royal Mail service was both renationalised and further democratised, workers feel like the culture would shift back to the way ‘it used to be,’ where it was more of a community, and less of a business. Royal Mail worker Moses compares their situation to the miners: “It’s not as extreme, but these little offices are like communities, smaller versions of the mining villages. One of my friends met his wife here, and his wife’s parents worked here, too. They [Royal Mail] want a new generation of posties they can indoctrinate and exploit.”
An ex-manager once told workers, “we’re not a service, we’re a business now.” Whilst the posties are in the CWU, managers are in Unite. I asked him if he knew anything about management going on strike, but he dismally responded that “those higher up have essentially been bribed management a £2,000 pay-out to repress us.” Rob has worked at Royal Mail for 11 years, and has had 12 managers, and says that “they don’t want managers to be in too long, because then relationships will be built and communities strengthened.”
Royal Mail postman Sam* reveals that corporate monitor workers using mapping technology, confronting them if they notice them stopping for too long. This means that posties feel that they aren’t able to stop and speak to customers even when issues arise for fear of reprimanding, and parcels must be prioritised over letters. Not only has this cultural and priority shift led to damage to the quality of services provided, but it has also led to the deterioration of working conditions.
“Last year, rounds were too big and no one could keep up. This year’s strikes are causing far less problems than that last year, and now there are murmurs that they’ll do it again after changing it back. Computer software can’t show the reality of what’s going on, there is an arrogance of senior management following algorithms and not listening to workers on the ground.”
He continues, saying that “ten years ago, this was a job for life, and now you come in one day, and aren’t sure if you’ll be there the next.” He tells the story of a man in his mid-60s who has worked as a postman for 35 years and is constantly told he’s not going fast enough. “His personality has totally changed; he’s really gone into himself.”
Similarly, high workloads, job insecurity, and pay are issues David Swanson of UoM’s UCU emphasised: “Like other workplaces, universities are run in the interests of a small minority, based on pointless competition and the pursuit of profit. We need universities that are fit to work in, that are run in the interests of the people who work and study in them.” CWU member John* echoed the same sentiment: “We all know what the problem is – fat cats at the top taking the money.”
An activist at MMU emphatically explained that “people don’t take going on strike lightly,” as was A UoM counterpart who acknowledged that while the quality of students’ education is affected, strike action has the potential to improve it long term. It would be more detrimental to the quality of education if staff continued to be “overwhelmed, stressed, worried about if they’ll have work in six months, and face mental health difficulties because of, or alongside this.”
UCU and CWU reps were also keen to emphasise that solidarity with strikes is imperative in the face of management which uses the “negative effect” strikes can have on customers as an emotional weapon to make workers rethink their ballots. Demonstrating the value of outside support, one MMU activist recalls the ‘singing students’ last year, reminiscing on how “alive people became during the last rent strike,” saying that he “account[s] the surge in interest to how it felt like we were all breaking point during covid, making building solidarity much easier.”
Labour Students North East Rep, Joshua Freestone, wants to stress that whilst students are about to “face the brunt of a national cost of living crisis. We must not feel as if our struggle is isolated.” The group advises students to, “look to the militancy of the RMT as an inspiration.” Joshua asks us to remember that “their fight is our fight, and a victory for them is a victory for workers everywhere.”
*Names have been changed for this article to protect anonymity