Thursday, 19 September 2013

Privatise the Royal Mail? Not even Thatcher tried that!

The Royal Mail is up for sale. At least that's what the government's Secretary of State for Business,
Innovation and Skills Vince Cable is saying. It was announced last week that the Royal Mail will be floated on the stock exchange in the upcoming weeks[1]. Under the plans, workers at the Royal Mail will be offered 10% of the shares of the company, with outside shareholders given the chance to buy the remaining 90% of shares. The Communication Workers Union (CWU) which represents around 100,000 Royal Mail staff has announced a ballot of it's members on the question of a strike in protest of these plans. Results are expected on 3rd of October[1].

Last November I started a casual Christmas job with the Royal Mail at the Preston Mail Centre, and I filled in a CWU membership application form on the day I started work. I found the regional office for the CWU by accident on the way home from the interview for the job, seeing a big sign with the words "Royal Mail is not for sale" outside a building. I knew that was something I had to be involved in during my time at Royal Mail so I went into the office and asked for literature straight away. During my time at the Royal Mail I learnt a lot about changes going on there over the last decade or two. One worker told me that highly paid members of staff whose work was largely bureaucratic office work and not necessary work were made redundant, saving the company money. A fellow Christmas casual who had been doing Christmas work there for over a decade told me that when he first stated working there, the number of casual workers were outnumbered by regular members of staff and each year since the numbers of regular staff had decreased while the number of temporary casual workers had increased and now outnumbered regular staff. Other regional mail centres such as Bolton MC and Warrington MC had closed down in recent years, putting more weight and pressure on remaining sites and leaving Preston the only mail centre between Manchester and Carlise. In recent years the Royal Mail has delivered post and packages for other companies who collected the mail (and payment) and paid the Royal Mail to deliver it on their behalf. Now more than half of Royal Mail deliveries are for other companies.

I soon found out how effective and radical the CWU is. It was the first workplace I had entered where there were whole noticeboards for a trade union. The union also had a library installed in the workplace. I actually got to work with my trade union rep. In October 2012 one worker was suspended from Preston Central Delivery Officer for having "an argument" with a manager. Workers at the office went on strike in protest and called for the manager to be suspended while an investigation took place[2]. This was the sort of union I wanted to be involved in. It was refreshing as I had heard that most unions are happier to compromise in negotiations with employers than ballot it's own membership for a strike, with USDAW having a "no strike agreement" with Tesco.

Our government is arguing that the Royal Mail needs to be privatised so it can raise more money so it can properly invest and compete with modern companies. I agree that it could definitely benefit from more investment, but I don't see why this has to come from the private sector? I don't even believe that the private sector would invest in the Royal Mail, I haven't seen evidence that this will happen. What I fear is more likely to happen under privatisation is the freedom to cut more costs. This will mean lower wages, less jobs and less benefits at the work place for workers. The same Tory message was spread in the 80s under Thatcher - privatised companies based purely on making as much profit as possible no matter what will deliver a more cost effective and cheaper service. However, most privatised industries (take for example trains) have made services more expensive. Private companies serve only to make as much money for their owners, directors and shareholders. Public industries serve to provide services that are needed or of use to people. If public services are not run well, that isn't an argument for privatisation, it is an argument for better public infrastructure, management and investment. If the Royal Mail needs more investment, then that is an argument to raise taxes so the public can pay for it. There is a hidden agenda with Tory-led governments and that is to privatise public industries so that taxes can be lowered, and rich business owners have more freedom to keep earning big amounts of money while paying employees as little as they can get away with. Low tax, small government.

However, not even Thatcher dared to sell off the world's oldest postal service (founded in 1516) to the highest bidder and she was known for viciously privatising our public sector. This government is pushing the boundaries of what's acceptable to be privatised and what isn't. There have been some services which have in modern history been in public hands, and it has generally been accepted that they belong in public hands - schools, the NHS & hospitals, the police, fire fighters, roads, tax collection, prisons and your local postman (or postwomen) and post office. This government has started privatising some of these. G4S now do the security in prisons. NHS health contracts have been given to private companies. The head of your local police authority is now elected by voters and will have greater influence on how the police force is to be run in your area. Now the Royal Mail will be added to this list. We can't afford to let this happen and give a gateway to further public services being handed over to the private sector.

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