Royal Mail has been accused by a union leader of “waging war” on staff and using intimidation tactics, including suspending more than 200 workers, in a protracted dispute over pay and conditions that appears no nearer to being resolved.
The head of the Communications Workers Union (CWU), which is preparing to ballot its more than 100,000 members over further national strikes, said fresh talks were not heading toward an acceptable agreement.
Dave Ward, the CWU general secretary, told MPs on the business select committee on Tuesday that his union was “still not confident we are in a place that we can reach an agreement”, following 18 days of national strikes in 2022.
“The union will be reballoting members [about strike action]. This is the most brutal attack on any group of workers the UK has seen in decades. It is a fight for every postal worker’s job.”
The CWU, which has rejected Royal Mail management’s “best and final” offer of a pay rise of up to 9% over 18 months in exchange for changes to working hours and voluntary Sunday working, will send ballot papers to members next week, with the result due on 16 February.
The crippling strikes, including six days in December, have cost Royal Mail more than £100m and caused delays to the delivery of Christmas cards and parcels.
The company has said it is losing £1m a day and warned in October that up to 10,000 jobs needed to be cut by August 2023 as part of arestructuring programme to refocus the business on the booming parcel delivery sector, as UK letter volumes continue to decline.
“We believe there are thousands and thousands more jobs at risk than the 10,000 the company has put forward,” said Ward. “They are waging war on the current workforce. Psychological warfare to make the job not worth it. To force people out and replace the workforce.”
Ward alleged management had used tactics including staff being “bombarded” with communications aimed at demoralising them, being denied normal levels of overtime when coming back off the picket line, and “threatened” by bosses.
“Over 200 representatives and members have been suspended,” said Ward, claiming that the tactics were being used as a “punishment charter”.
“In our view many of those charges were fitted up to target and intimidate people. I’ve never seen this level of demoralisation, which is why we say it is deliberately being done to force people out.”
Royal Mail said it had received 292 reported allegations including violence, assault, harassment and intimidating behaviour by picketers against staff who had chosen to go to work on strike days.
Police in nine regions of the UK are undertaking investigations into some of the allegations.
The Royal Mail boss, Simon Thompson, in sometimes testy exchanges with MPs at the same business select committee hearing, said the company faced an “urgent situation” and expected the UK business to make an operating loss of £350m to £450m in the year to the end of March.
Thompson, who was criticised by his predecessor, Rico Back, for taking a confrontational approach to the dispute with the CWU earlier this month, defended his approach, saying the company had made a dozen concessions following CWU demands and “would love to get back in talks, to get an agreement”.
Thompson rejected the accusation that he was set on “union-busting” tactics, pointing out that Royal Mail had agreed a wide-ranging restructure and pay deal for members of the Unite union in talks that took only three weeks.
“It was the first time we have changed the frontline management structure in 35 years, some agreements were 40 years old,” he said. “[The agreement] makes us fit for the future. We can work with unions very well.”
Royal Mail, which in November formally asked the government to change its obligations to allow it to stop delivering letters on a Saturday, is keen to focus on parcels.
“It is about getting the changes that we need to win,” said Thompson. “We have spent £900m investing to compete in the parcels market. What we really need now is a change in working practices to compete in that hyper competitive market.”
Thompson added that Royal Mail expected to provide an update very soon on the ransomware attack last week that stopped it being able to deliver letters and parcels internationally.
He said that based on investigations to date no customer data had been compromised in the cyber-attack, although Royal Mail has alerted the Information Commissioner’s Office “as a precaution”.