Why the workers oppose ‘privatisation’

By Alex Stevenson

Miserable February drizzle was hardly enough to stop Royal Mail workers turning out in London to rally against the government’s plans. They are posties, after all.

Stepping outside Central Hall in Westminster, where raucous applause punctuated bitter attacks on a government those inside felt had betrayed their support, I found a group of workers stood stolidly. I asked one of them what he had to fear from the government selling off a 30 per cent stake in Royal Mail.

“They’re saying 25 to 30 per cent now. Soon it’ll be 49 per cent. And then.” was the reply. Ron Eastham, who turned out to be chairman of the Communication Workers Union’s London south-west branch, had less-than-cheery views. “The lesser shareholder has the major voice.”

He pointed out the contrast between Royal Mail’s £255 million profit for the last nine months of 2008 and recent losses at TNT, the Dutch postal services provider which has indicated an interest.

“What’s viable about letting them have part of the business?” he wondered, before attacking the government for making the company’s staff pay the price. “It’s not workers’ fault we’re in this terrible [situation].”

An engineer at the Mail’s Watford sorting office, Liam Farrell, said the situation was far more concerning. He seemed deeply troubled by the rumours going round about TNT’s practices in Germany. Three-quarters of the workforce have been made part-time; they have replaced existing unions with a TNT union chaired by the company’s chief executive; and there is even talk of 13- to 18-year-olds being offered jobs. “It might happen over here,” he warned.

These fears about the ruthless private sector appeared to be driving concerns at the rally. But why worry about these issues when TNT is only being offered a 30 per cent stake? Lee Barron, Midlands regional secretary for the CWU, was clearly frustrated when this point was put to him.

“It’s the road,” he said. “Whenever privatisations took place it has always been like this. This is the start of something. What’s the point of 30 per cent?

“There’s no reason for this other than the belief the private sector will run the Royal Mail better. We doubt that – because any profit that is made will go into the pockets of the private sector.”

Fortunately for those in the Central Hall that message is receiving the support of a sizeable chunk of the parliamentary Labour party. Katy Clarke, a former union lawyer and now the MP for North Ayrshire and Arran, made her views very clear. “It really is an outrage that the suggested solution to Royal Mail’s problem is privatisation,” she said.

“It’s about who’s running going to run the Royal Mail, and in whose interest the Royal Mail is going to be run. I know if we’re united we can stop these stupid proposals.”

Frank Dobson, another of the 126 Labour MPs opposing the government on Royal Mail, couldn’t have agreed more. “It’s the classic privatisation,” he said. “Write-off, sell-off, rip-off.”

Which is why it’s understandable that Mr Farrell feels so strongly about the issue. He began working for the Royal Mail 19 years ago but did not become involved in the unions until two years ago.

“They’ve stolen our pensions. even our seven-year-old daughter says you should call the police and say ‘they’ve stolen my pension!'” he added.

“There has been a lot of industrial unrest. I feel in the last few years they’ve really done down the service.”

In spite of all this the government remains resolute in its position. “What we want [is to] secure the future of the Royal Mail. That’s what the report was all about,” the prime minister’s spokesman said earlier.

“You cannot cherry-pick the various items from [the] Hooper [review] – you have to take this package as a whole.”

No one in the Central Hall wants to do that. Which is why the government’s outlook is about as bright as the gloomy weather currently shrouding Westminster.