CWU rally outside Buckingham Palace. Photo: Isai
CWU rally outside Buckingham Palace. Photo: Isai

Gary Clark, Recently retired secretary of CWU Scotland No.2 branch

Communication Workers Union (CWU)  postal members, just through the most bitter dispute in the 508 years of Royal Mail, are now faced with proposals to change the Universal Service Obligation (USO). At present, Royal Mail has a legal obligation to deliver to all 32 million households, six days a week at a uniform price.

Even before privatisation in 2015, Royal Mail CEOs have tried to get out of the USO. During the pandemic it was amended to Monday to Friday for letter traffic. But since, Royal Mail has not even tried to meet the USO, even asking the CWU to go jointly to the government to change it!

Postal workers have seen massive changes to the type of mail that’s being delivered, going from 12 billion letters in 2017 to around 8 billion in 2022. This decrease in the number of letters, with the rise of email and social media, has come at the same time as a massive increase in parcels delivered.

Despite casualisation and an increase in agency workers, postal workers care about the service. Once posties worked so there was never a letter left in the office. Now, it’s reported constantly that people aren’t receiving letters.

Ofcom, the government regulator which covers the postal service, has launched a consultation on the USO, with plans proposed for a five-day or even three-day postal service. Not one postal worker has been spoken to about this, and thousands of CWU members will be feeling uncertain about their futures.

Ofcom has correctly said that the USO is unsustainable at present, but what they fail to say is that its only unsustainable due to privatisation and underfunding. CEO after CEO has run down services, including the destruction of customer service points where people collect parcels from. The RMT rail union campaign to save ticket offices shows that unions can fight, mobilise workers and service users to defend services.

After the end of the last dispute, both Royal Mail and the government will know postal workers’ heads are down. But the CWU must now launch a campaign to save the USO, drawing support from postal workers and the public. In other parts of Europe, countries subsidise their postal services because it is important. No other service can deliver to 32 million households six-days-a-week. During the pandemic, the importance of this was clearly shown, where we delivered and collected vital mail and test kits. For many people, a postal worker is the only person they see, postal workers could be delivering medical prescriptions and other services by looking in on vulnerable people.

This can’t be done while the company is being run for profit, sucked out by the shareholders. Keir Starmer in October pledged that a Labour government would invest £3 billion to save the UK steel industry. Why couldn’t he pledge, in accordance with policy passed at the 2022 Labour conference, to renationalise Royal Mail and uphold the USO?

Royal Mail must be taken into public ownership but, as the Post Office Horizon scandal has shown, if a publicly owned service is still run like a private company, then the public and workers won’t see much of a difference. That’s why Royal Mail should be nationalised, properly funded and run under the democratic control and management of postal workers and the communities they serve.