Theresa May is officially facing a ‘winter of discontent’ as one of the UK’s largest unions votes to strike

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Theresa May’s government looks set to face its own ‘winter of discontent’, as one of the UK’s largest trade unions has just voted for industrial action. But it’s going to hit the Tories particularly hard, as the strike action is likely to take place over the Christmas period. And the walk-outs are in one of the country’s most essential industries.

Everybody out?

On Tuesday 3 October, the Communication Workers Union (CWU) announced that its members had voted in favour of industrial action. The ballot of its 111,082 members who work for the Royal Mail Group returned a result of 89.1% of members voting in favour of industrial action, on a turnout of 73.7% – well above the 50% threshold now required by law. In making the ballot announcement, CWU General Secretary Dave Ward said [2:10] of Royal Mail:

The company’s leadership… are completely out of touch with the workforce. And we say this to Royal Mail… Unless you shift your position, significantly, very very quickly, then industrial action is inevitable.

Pillars of democracy?

The vote came after a sustained campaign by the CWU called ‘The Four Pillars’. It has been highlighting numerous areas in which it claims Royal Mail is letting its workers down. The CWU says it represents:

Four key aims of the CWU – a decent wage in retirement, a shorter working week, a redesign of the company’s pipeline and the extension of current agreements.

As the CWU has outlined, it is overarching, highlighting [pdf] Royal Mail plans to:

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  • Worsen the terms and conditions of existing employees.
  • Introduce a two-tier workforce across all grades with lower pay rates for new staff.
  • Change the ‘Managing the Surplus Framework’ (MTSF) agreement [pdf] with the CWU, which outlines payment protection for shifts, redundancy agreements etc.
  • Alter the ‘Industrial Relations framework’ (IR framework, pdf) between it and the CWU, including getting rid of area union representatives.


But the pensions row is at the heart of the dispute. Royal Mail wants to end the defined benefit pension scheme; which currently gives staff a fixed yearly payment when they retire, based on their average wage. It also wants to shift workers onto a defined contribution scheme, which guarantees that workers get what they paid in when they retire; but which links any extra money to investment performance.

Royal Mail says it is doing this because of costs. But the CWU says the new scheme would mean workers losing a third of their final pension pot. And the two sides have been locked in a dispute over this for most of 2017.

Rise like lions

A Royal Mail spokesperson said:

We believe there are no grounds for industrial action. Any potential ballot in the future does not mean there will be industrial action. Industrial action – or the threat of it – undermines the trust of our customers.

But as is often the case, it is the workers who bear the brunt of what amounts to a private company raking in profits. Because the pension changes do not affect senior management, for example. They are on a different scheme; one which has been paying in £200,000 a year for some. And while the dispute has been going on, Royal Mail has paid out £770m in dividends to shareholders.

Now is the winter of the Tories’ discontent

As Ward warned on Peston on Sunday, the country, and the government, could see “workers coming together to fight for a new deal”. Already, the Royal College of Nurses is saying that it may ballot its members for strike action if the public sector pay cap issue is not resolved; rail unions are still in protracted disputes with private train operators; bin workers in Birmingham have walked out and union bosses are warning of ‘illegal’ strikes. So May could be facing her very own ‘winter of discontent’. Albeit because of angry workers in 21st-century Britain.

Get Involved!

– Support the CWU campaign using the hashtags #FourPillars and #RiseUp.

Featured image via YouTube

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