‘We won’t be bullied’ | Legal row halts Royal Mail strike - and distracts us from the real issue

Legal row halts Royal Mail strike - and distracts us from the real issue

A strike by postal workers planned for later this month has been called off following a legal challenge by Royal Mail.

Approximately 115,000 employees were set to walk out on February 16 and 17, in an ongoing row over pay and conditions, but the firm claims the Communication Workers Union (CWU) made an “error in their strike notification” which meant the walkout should not go ahead.

In a statement, the CWU’s leadership explained that Royal Mail’s legal team had approached them over the weekend, challenging the strike notice on the basis of “technical issues relating to the Dispute Resolution Process and the lifespan of the existing Change ballot,” the union explained.

In a letter to members, the CWU said the law was "heavily weighted against working people" for scrapping the strikes.

The union said it had consulted its own legal team, and although they concluded that they had a strong case, there was also a risk to the union if the court battle didn’t go their way. Therefore, the decision was taken to call off the strikes.

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The CWU’s General secretary Dave Ward called the legal challenge a “blatant effort to demoralise our members and discredit the union.”

He said: “We cannot allow Royal Mail Group’s blatant efforts to demoralise our members and discredit the union to distract from the reality that the resolution to this long-running dispute will be determined and settled by the outcome of the current national ballot.”

He added: “The best way to show to the company that we are not prepared to be bullied into submission is to return the biggest possible YES vote on the highest possible turnout.”

A Royal Mail spokesperson said: "The CWU has cancelled their planned strike action after making an error in their strike notification. Royal Mail welcomes the fact that the strike action has been called off by the CWU. We intend to use this time and space for further discussions to try to agree a deal and we have suggested meetings this week.”

‘Important factors’ behind strikes across the country

The CWU said Royal Mail’s legal challenge was an attempt to demoralise union members and to distract from the heart of the issue – that being that workers deserve higher pay.

Royal Mail will, of course, refute such claims, but the comments nevertheless provide an opportunity to highlight the underlying motivating factors that have driven the waves of strikes we’ve seen up and down the country.

In addition to the posties, we've seen rail workers, teachers, barristers, ambulance workers and NHS staff stage industrial action in response to poor pay and working conditions. And that's just the public sector. A wave of walkouts have also occurred at private firms, including Amazon and BT.

Sir Cary Cooper, a professor of organisational psychology at the University of Manchester, spoke to the Manchester Evening News last year about the circumstances surrounding these widespread strikes, and the comparisons to mass industrial action seen decades ago.

“I think the time is slightly different to the 1970s because there are so many adverse factors at play here," said Prof. Cooper.

"When we had the strikes before it was partly about inflation and bad industrial relations between unions and management.

"This time it's much more complicated. Complicated by Brexit, the war in Ukraine and the impact on energy prices. It's the cost of living, and I also think general instability in leadership at the moment is a very important psychological factor.

"People are thinking they have to take care themselves and their families and they feel they will have to take action. If we look at the percentage of people voting to take strike action in some cases it is extremely high. It was never this high in the 1970s. We get the manifestation of the 1970s but I think it's a lot worse now and people are probably more prepared to strike."

‘Draconian’ attempts at ending strikes

The unfolding events at Royal Mail provide an opportunity to highlight other solutions put forward to end strikes in recent months – aside from recognising the need to increase staff pay above the rate of inflation.

Last month, Amazon was accused of trying to intimidate workers who took part in the company’s first ever UK strike, by marking them as ‘no shows’ on strike days. Around 350 workers at the company's Coventry warehouse walked out in anger over the company’s offer of a 50p per hour pay rise to £10.50 (staff are campaigning for a rise to £15 an hour).

Now, following the walkout, reports have emerged that employees involved in the action were marked as ‘no shows’ by bosses, with many now worried they will be fined, or even face a gross misconduct charge.

As stated by the GBM union, which represents the Amazon strikers, properly mandated industrial action gives workers the legal right to withdraw their labour - and should not be classed as unauthorised absence. The union said it ‘hoped and believed’ that the matter was an error, rather than a deliberate attempt at intimidation.

A spokesperson for Amazon told the BBC that the company respected workers' right to lawfully strike, which had been "clearly communicated" and that non-attendance was "not being considered as part of any absence review".

The Government even recently proposed new laws that will allow bosses of key public services to sue unions and sack employees who refuse to work.

Downing Street announced new legislation which, if passed in Parliament, would enforce “minimum service levels” in key public sectors, such as the emergency services and education, effectively limiting the number of workers who can be on strike.

This follows a change in the law in July 2022 which enabled businesses to provide skilled agency workers to fill staffing gaps caused by industrial action.

The plan comes in response to widespread industrial action across a range of sectors in recent months, including rail workers, teachers, barristers, ambulance workers and nurses, in response to poor pay and working conditions.

The law would ultimately give bosses the ability to sue unions and sack employees if these minimum levels are not met.

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On the Gov.uk website, a statement read: “As has been demonstrated over the last year, wide scale and repetitive industrial action can act as a major blockage to economic growth by preventing people from getting to work. Introducing the safety net of minimum service levels to ensure that the public are not put at risk during strike action is the best way of balancing the ability to strike, while protecting the wider public.”

It went on: “The government will always protect the ability to strike, but it must be balanced with the public’s right to life and livelihoods. That’s why the government will introduce new laws to ensure a basic level of service in some of our most crucial sectors when industrial action takes place.

“Minimum safety levels will be set for fire, ambulance and rail services and the government will consult on the adequate level of coverage for these sectors, recognising that disruption to blue light services puts lives at immediate risk."

The move has been met with uproar from union figureheads and workers alike, with Sharon Graham, the General Secretary of the Unite union, saying: “Yet again, Rishi Sunak abdicates his responsibility as a leader. Whatever the latest scheme the government comes up with to attack us, unions will continue to defend workers.”

Anti-strike laws will 'erode workers’ rights'

The government’s decision to bring forward legislation to stop strikes has been criticised by employment expert Julia Kermode of Iwork, who described the move as “draconian”, predicting it to “exacerbate an already ugly situation.”

Kermode commented: “The government seems hellbent on eroding workers’ rights. This draconian law is a worrying step in the wrong direction and will only exacerbate an already ugly situation. People don’t take the decision to strike lightly.

“They are facing severe financial problems and industrial action is a last-ditch attempt to get their voices heard and be paid what they deserve. The government needs to focus on solutions rather than pandering to those of us who may be inconvenienced by disruption.

“Temporary workers should also tread carefully in all of this. The recent law change allowing agency workers to plug skills gaps created by strikes could result in temps unwittingly walking into hostile environments. Real care needs to be taken in informing temps of the situation before they start these roles. Fail to do this and temps will walk out too, and these vital public services grind to a halt.”

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