Archive for February, 2010

Exclusive: Royal Mail deal on the cards

Thursday 25 February 2010

Further to my last post on the subject, I’ve learned that – although both sides won’t confirm it – Royal Mail and the Communication Workers Union’s negotiating team are applying the finishing touches to a modernisation agreement they’ve been tharshing out since the national strike ended last year. You can read about it in this week’s Tribune. As I report :

A source said of the deal: “If it were a purely financial deal, you’d be rolling around laughing at it, but it’s a lot more than that.”

Another source said: “It will deal with the individual industrial issues such as the mail centre network, union issues. They’re at the end of the road. I suspect there’ll be a recommendation to accept. I don’t think people are going to be flag flying in the hilltops. I expect it’s going to be a difficult, complicated proposal.”

The CWU’s postal executive committee have been summoned to a two-day meeting next week where officers will take them over the agreement, and (as I understand) recommend them to agree it. The executive will then decide whether to accept it or not, and if it does, it’ll have to put it to the members for a vote.

So there are still hurdles – but we’re a lot closer than we were a month ago, when the talks were meant to be concluded.

Why has it taken so long? A highly disciplined omertà has been in operation since talks began, so it’s hard to say. However the mood music points towards a compromise that some CWU members may find unpalatable (see above). Although they may (should?) get more money. We shall see.

This agreement is a big, complicated, multi-limbed beast which will almost certainly lead to more automation and Royal Mail shedding jobs, since the CWU is on the record as acccepting the need for job losses. There are all kinds of complex issues around working conditions to resolve. The agreement is not just there to modernise the company, it’s there to prevent another national strike – and that is by no means ruled out yet.

Update: HellMail has some learned reflections on what a Royal Mail deal could mean for both sides.

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BA: Unite wins battle, but who will win the war?

Wednesday 24 February 2010

Yesterday I as at the press conference where Unite, in the form of assistant general secretary Len McCluskey (q.v.) announced the successful result of their British Airways strike ballot. The mood was cool and determined, the message simple: cabin crew have a massive grievance, and BA needs to deal with it.

It was all very different from last year, when Unite hired Sandown Park racecourse for a rally to celebrate their massive strike vote – a move some in the union now see as a bit too triumphalist. The union believes that the person who filmed a video of the event, leaked onto the web, was a BA plant.

After suffering the setback of last year’s even-bigger-than this-one strike vote being overturned by the High Court, the union says it has rooted out all the unwanted names, and is confident of success if it decides in the next few days to hold a strike. The ball is firmly back in BA’s court; if they have been trying to persuade staff not to choose strike action through threatening to withdraw perks and training pilots to stand in for them, those tactics have clearly failed.

There’s more. I hear that BA’s proposed salaries are so low as to undercut cabin crew on certain lower-fare airlines. If true, it sounds like they won’t be able to hang onto staff.

So Unite has won this battle. But there’s a lot more to the union’s discontent with BA than just pay and staffing levels – although those are the grounds for the strike – not that the union’s officers were letting on about it last night. Unite is wary of BA’s plans to create a “new fleet” of planes staffed by cabin crew on lower pay and conditions. But it can’t complain about that too much at the moment – for fear of being accused of striking on invalid grounds, another legal challenge.

It could be as much about breaking Unite’s grip on the cabin crew as much as anything else. Ninety-eight per cent of BA cabin crew are unionised – a density to die for in other sectors and indeed other unions, and a rare bastion of such union strength and discipline nowadays. The union’s sector officials feel the need to tand up to BA to prove their relevance and value to their members – the best apparent way to thwart any attempt to introduce a two-tier system (of which more here). So Unite has won for now – but who will win the war?

Royal Mail pensions: the elephant in the post room

Friday 12 February 2010

Talks between Royal Mail and the Communication Workers Union are not going at all to plan.

They were meant to wrap up on 22 January, three weeks ago today, according to independent chair Roger Poole, and they are still continuing without so much as a hint of resolution. Poole is a former chair of Northern Ireland’s Parades Commission and has been praised by negotiators in the Royal Mail talks. So it’s likely to be something substantial that’s blocking progress – like redundancies, replacement of full-time with part-time jobs and the calculation of walks – postmen and women have complained that the walks are too long.

Meanwhile, the issue of Royal Mail’s pension deficit, which the CWU regard as “the elephant in the room”, remains untouched. Outgoing CEO Adam Crozier has suggested the deficit may have reached a record-breaking £10 billion, and it may cost even more to bail out. It could sink the company if the government doesn’t take on the liability. Servicing the deficit is costing Royal Mail £280 million a year – the company is still turning a profit, but the deficit can jeopardise that.

Lord Mandelson promised to do just that, but only as part of a deal including part-privatisation which he argued was necessary to make the company viable in the Internet age. The CWU retorts that the reason for the deficit is past governments taking a massive pension contributions holiday for over a decade.

Anyway, the Postal Services Bill was supposed to resolve the issue, but after it was shelved (news which I broke on this blog last year) both part-privatisation and the bailing out of the pension fund were kicked into the long grass. A motion passed at last year’s Labour party conference, calling on the government to do something about it, hasn’t achieved much. More recently the CWU put out a report on the subject, just here.

Paul Holmes to stand for Unison general secretary

Monday 1 February 2010

You read it here first (here to be precise). The man I tipped just over a week ago to be the left candidate for general secretary of Britain’s biggest public sector union – running against incumbent Dave Prentis – looks set to get endorsed as a candidate this week by the Unison United Left faction, having already told friends he wants to stand.

Paul Holmes is secretary of the Kirklees (West Yorkshire) Unison branch and a member of the Labour party and the Labour Representation Committee. This puts him firmly in the same camp as the other disaffected left-wingers in Unison, in both the Labour and Socialist parties, that are constantly clashing with the union leadership. Jon Rogers of the union’s national executive is clearly a fan, as he posts here in what looks like a thinly veiled advert for Holmes’ candidacy… Holmes needs about 20 nominations from branches to run; I suspect he’ll get them.

Oh and he blogs here.

Update: Bugger me if I didn’t forget the most important thing about Holmes’ candidacy – to outside observers anyway: he’s promised to give members an annual ballot on affiliation to Labour, which they don’t have currently.

Dave Prentis has a campaign website, and Unison Active has more on a third candidate, the Socialist Party’s Roger Bannister, as TonyC points out below.