Thursday, 8 October 2009

Skirting the Issue…

Has anyone else noticed that today’s coverage of the impending postal strikes has been heavy with the “oh my god – what about the Christmas cards and utility bills!” type-arguments and basically non-existent with the Communication Workers Union’s actual reasons for wanting a strike?

Certainly the TV news I was watching this morning simply referred to “a dispute over pay and pensions”, whilst simultaneously showing contradictory images of a demonstration by postal workers holding banners that quite clearly said: “THIS DISPUTE IS NOT ABOUT PAY”.

Indeed, the BBC’s own website paints a slightly muddier picture once you delve deep enough to find its Q&A on the Postal Dispute:

the CWU “while it accepts the need for job cuts in principle…has called a national ballot because Royal Mail managers are refusing to meet its demand for a signed agreement determining the scope of cuts, and job and pay security guarantees for those workers who will ultimately remain in their jobs…The CWU instead accuses the Royal Mail of trying to drive through redundancies.”

Already we see a shift in emphasis and sympathy: a dispute over redundancies is a very different thing than a dispute over pay.

When one hears about a group striking and causing massive disruption all around the country because they want more money, the immediate inclination is to think of them as “greedy” and dismiss the strike as a selfish inconvenience.  When you hear it is over possible redundancies, however, and realise that it is not about selfishness, but about people’s livelihood, suddenly the sympathy rises and the strikes swell with popular support.

Even then though, it is not as simple as the BBC makes out.

As the CWU’s own website adds: “Royal Mail is trying to impose change by dictate, constantly driving down [our] terms and conditions and imposing unfair work rates to meet unrealistic local budget demands. [Postal workers] are delivering more mail, handling more work and working harder for longer whilst doubling annual profits. Where's [their] reward for this?”

This is not just a dispute about pay, pensions and jobs – it is a dispute about the “£2.1bn modernisation plan that is introducing more and more automation in sorting offices” (BBC)

For “modernization” read “private takeover and desire to make profit”.  Last year, for the first time in twenty years, Royal Mail made money…now the managers want to make lots, lots more.  This “modernization” plan to do so involves laying off human workers to replace them with high-tech sorting machines, firing individual posties who make their deliveries on foot or by bike and replacing them with “more efficient” postal vehicles, and making impossible demands of those postal workers who still keep their jobs, like the unsustainable delivery speeds of 2.2 miles an hour plus, reported last year.

What the CWU have asked for, is proper consultation between the union and management regarding the extent and necessity of lay-offs.

How many workers will be fired? 

How much will the pay of those who stay be effected through these “streamlining” efforts? 

How will their conditions improve and what guarantees can be made for their job safety in future?

They are not trying to arbitrarily push up their workers’ wages; they are not trying to be unreasonable and demand that no one lose their jobs.  They are simply asking for a fair and up-front consultation and compromise between management and workers about a highly volatile issue.

For this, their cause is ridiculed or misrepresented in the press.

Worse: it is actively undermined by the media’s emphasis on how the strikes will effect consumers (will I get my credit card bills in time; will my mother’s birthday card get lost in the mail forever?) instead of why the union is feeling the need to strike.

By doing this, the public are left with an incomplete, and very negative view of the strikes – greedy postal workers are going to ruin Christmas and lose me my early payment discounts on utility bills because they want more pay and a bigger pension – instead of the more accurate view: the part-privatization of Royal Mail has led to a bunch of greedy managers ruining Christmas and disrupting the mail because they want to fire as many people as possible to make as much blood money as they can.

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