On Thursday 12 October, the High Court granted an injunction to Royal Mail, stopping a strike organised by the Communication Workers Union (CWU) due to start on Thursday 19 October.
In granting the injunction, Mr Justice Supperstone said “I consider the strike call to be unlawful and the defendant is obliged to withdraw its strike call until the external mediation process has been exhausted.”
In October 2013, at the time of Royal Mail privatisation, the CWU signed the “Agenda for Growth” agreement with the company. Royal Mail intended this agreement to significantly decrease the number of strikes in Royal Mail, particularly the unofficial ones which postal workers have a long history of organising. The agreement commits the union to an external mediation process in the event of a national disagreement, or in the event that a local, unofficial, strike is not resolved (the emphasis being on the CWU controlling its members).
The ″Agenda for Change″ deal gave workers a 9.1% pay increase over three years, and committed Royal Mail to protect workers’ terms and conditions for at least five years. However this was seriously undermined by the attempt to curtail strikes, and by a loophole which allowed Royal Mail to renege on those commitments if bosses deem any of them “reasonably likely to have a materially adverse effect on the employer′s business or prospects″.
Part of the current dispute is over the imminent likelihood of Royal Mail using that loophole to change workers’ terms and conditions. The deal also states “The employer shall be entitled to notify the CWU at any time that any of the Protections will no longer continue, if […] there is national-scale industrial action (in the form of a strike or action short of a strike) which has been authorised at national level by the CWU [which] will have, or is reasonably likely to have, a [...] disruptive effect.”
The High Court ruled that the CWU had to abide by the agreement it signed. This raises questions for the labour movement over how deals signed by unions could be enforced by a court. The external mediation process in the ″Agenda for Growth″ agreement is set at a five to seven week timeframe. It involves the appointment of a mutually-agreed external mediator, submissions from both parties, the mediator producing non-binding recommendations, talks between both parties, and either the drawing up of an agreement or the notification of intentions (i.e. declaring a dispute) if the parties disagree. As Royal Mail says it is now invoking this process, we can expect a minimum of seven weeks before any strikes.
Strikes may happen from the start of December, in time for the Christmas period. It is unlikely that either the CWU will call strikes despite the ruling, or that there will be unofficial strikes. Despite a tradition of unofficial strikes on local issues, such as a worker being suspended or sacked, this has never been extended to national disputes. Royal Mail clearly intends to disrupt the momentum of the dispute after the large ballot result for strikes. However there is no reason why the CWU cannot maintain momentum through the mediation process.
The CWU should publish full reports of the negotiations, including what the employer says, in the interests of democracy and keeping members involved. Workplace meetings which delivered the large ballot result should continue for members to discuss the outcomes of the mediation, and make plans for the strikes.