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Postal workers in the UK, striking over pay and working conditions, agree crunch talks with Royal Mail bosses

LONDON – August 26, 2022: CWU general secretary Dave Ward (in grey suit jacket) visits the picket line in Whitechapel on August 26, 2022. Members of the Communication Workers Union (CWU) voted in favour of strike action by 97.6 per cent in the ballot, in the biggest strike of the summer so far.

Guy Smallman/Getty Images

LONDON — Leaders of the trade union representing striking postal workers in the U.K. will meet with Royal Mail bosses on Monday for crunch talks, as the company seeks to avert more disruptive shutdowns over the coming months.

In a letter on Friday to postal branches across the country, seen by CNBC, the CWU (Communication Workers’ Union) said it had agreed to meet with Royal Mail on Monday to “try and find a way forward in our national disputes.”

“Although we welcome this development, given how bitter these disputes have become, it is important that we do not raise any expectations that this meeting will be fruitful,” CWU General Secretary Dave Ward and Acting Deputy Andy Furey told members in Friday’s letter.

“The reality is there remains huge differences over the company’s unilateral change programme and Royal Mail’s unacceptable actions and behaviours have led to unprecedented levels of mistrust.”

Without a resolution, Britain faces 19 more days of strike action from around 115,000 postal workers in the runup to the festive period, including over Black Friday and Cyber Monday. 

The widespread walkouts of around 115,000 workers are organized for Oct. 13, 20, 25 and Nov. 28, or “Cyber Monday.”

Various smaller divisions of Royal Mail workers will strike on an assortment of other dates, and CWU General Secretary said last week that the scale of the strikes demonstrates “the level of anger” felt by the union’s members about their treatment by Royal Mail executives.

Postal workers in August voted overwhelmingly in favor of strike action in protest at pay and conditions, after Royal Mail imposed a 2% pay increase on workers while U.K. inflation is running close to 10%. 

The CWU says public provocations from senior leaders at the 500-year-old former state postal monopoly — including a letter on Sept. 22 from CEO Simon Thompson which threatened withdrawal from several existing national agreements with the union — have exacerbated the problem. 

Royal Mail bosses have reiterated that the company is losing around £1 million ($1.1 million) per day and that the industrial action threatens jobs and its future viability, accusing the union’s vision of jeopardizing its competitive position.

In a message to Royal Mail staff on Friday, CEO Simon Thompson also expressed reluctance to raise expectations, noting that the two parties are still “miles apart on many issues.”

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“However, I know that the prospect of 19 days of industrial action is worrying many people and, from the many messages I have had from staff, I also know there is a strong desire for this dispute to get resolved.”

According to a letter from Ward to Thompson on Wednesday, the CWU is seeking clarity about the structure of Royal Mail Group, including the future roles of Royal Mail — the U.K. business — and more profitable Dutch parcel subsidiary GLS, in a new parcel network.

The group changed its name on the London Stock Exchange to International Distributions Services, in what many suspect is a prelude to breaking up the business. The union is also concerned about potential outsourcing to Parcelforce and “self-employed owner drivers,” akin to other delivery companies such as Amazon or Hermes.

“As things currently stand, based on the company’s actions to date, including the serving of notice on our legal protections, the CWU can only conclude that your objective is to break up the company, introduce a levelling down agenda and operate on the same basis as your competitors in the parcels market,” Ward said in Wednesday’s letter.

The two parties will also address pay and working hours, and the CWU implored Thompson to put forth an improved offer on Monday.

CWU members will be updated in a national briefing on on Tuesday, with the next strike still scheduled to go ahead on Thursday.

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