Today it is the jobs and conditions of postal workers that is on the line, writes Jim Moody. But if New Labour, the Tories and the Lib Dems have their way, it will be all of us on the chopping block tomorrow
Backed to the hilt by the state, Royal Mail’s aim is to crush the postal workers’ strike and destroy their union. This has become ever clearer during the last fortnight. So, as the first two days of national strike action begin, rank and file workers are faced with the challenge of how to fight for their jobs and save their union from annihilation.
With 120,000 Communication Workers Union members having had the opportunity to vote for strike action, the massive 76% in favour is decisive. A resounding success for those in the union who have hammered away in the localities, building the strike movement piecemeal. Certainly that was the only way that the union’s leadership would counternance holding a ballot for national action. Far from becoming dissipated or dispirited by the time it has taken for the leadership to get its act together, militancy has grown by leaps and bounds at the ground level.
By now we all know how vile the management of Royal Mail is. Exposed by Newsnight a week ago, Royal Mail’s secret document Dispute: strategic overview clearly lays down management’s intention of continuing to implement a policy of undermining the CWU’s role in labour relations. Even going so far as to consider the possibility of removing it as the recognised trade union. If union bureaucrats do not play ball – and at present the membership won’t let them – then Royal Mail plans to institute a “programme of reducing relationship with union.”
As a first stage to derecognition, the document advocates taking away union representatives’ current rights to carry out their duties during work time (‘facility time’). In addition the provision of meeting spaces for the CWU in local offices will be withdrawn. Royal Mail has also made it clear that it will carry through plans that will decimate the workforce and increase the work burden of those who remain employed, all “with or without union engagement”.
Royal Mail has provocatively cancelled a planned campaign sponsored jointly with the CWU, Ban Bullying Week. As the CWU says, it has done this just when management bullying and harassment are causing more and more problems in the workplace. One of many examples followed the introduction of computerised Geo-Route plotting of postal walks and drives: when it failed to live up to the hype, it was the man or woman on the ground who got blamed – despite the many warnings from the union that the system was unworkable.
There is no doubt whatsoever that Royal Mail is more than happy to see its customers suffer through strikes. It estimates that this will undermine its employees’ stand against cuts, by eroding public support. So they will be beaten back to work in defeat – or so senior managers imagine. As Royal Mail’s hitherto secret document makes clear, “demonstration of commercial impact of dispute – strikes make things worse – the more we can demonstrate this to our people, the better.” In effect Royal Mail is saying that the more business it loses, the better.
Readers will know that Royal Mail wants to recruit 30,000 scabs. Ostensibly they are being brought in to deal with the backlog that the series of local one-day strikes has resulted in, though it is arguable whether this is legal under industrial relations legislation. The scabs are to be used after Royal Mail refused to allow postal workers to do overtime work: CWU members could not possibly be allowed to ‘benefit’ from their strike action by receiving a meagre time and a third in overtime to clear the backlog.
Equally bellicose has been unelected business minister Lord Mandelson. He has clearly expressed the Labour government’s position: Royal Mail has to be ‘modernised’ at the expense of jobs and conditions. So there is no point looking upon the government as some kind of ally, despite the CWU contributing handsomely to the Labour Party’s coffers over many years. True, there is a wide body of support for the CWU coming from backbenchers, including in the form of early day motion 2035. Nevertheless it is hardly surprising that many CWU members are incandescent with rage over a Labour government which is in effect egging on a management attempt to break their union.
Royal Mail might have offered to take part in arbitration to avoid the strikes this week. But that was simply a publicity stunt: its conditions were that the CWU roll over, call off the strikes and begin negotiating away jobs and working conditions. Rightly the CWU has rejected this out of hand. Royal Mail has simply refused to go for arbitration in all but name. It wants confrontation. However, why should workers be forced to accept what Acas decrees is reasonable? It is not exactly a surprise that such establishment bodies tend to favour … the establishment – in the guise of a compromise settlement.
Despite Royal Mail manoeuvring and clear intentions to break the union, Billy Hayes, CWU general secretary, seems to be banking on Acas. He insists that the CWU “remains available for talks”. However, he says, any third party involvement, needs to be on “an entirely transparent basis” with a “joint intention of reaching an agreement” (www.cwu.org).
The problem with all this is that it leaves rank and file postal workers around the country as passive onlookers. There is also the danger of a rotten sell-out. So strike committees need to be set up, giving the rank and file its own input into the aims, running and termination of the dispute. Local strikers will push forward new, energetic and popular leaders and they obviously need to lead local CWU organisations for the duration of what looks set to be a long and bitter struggle. Local strike committees are especially needed when faced by a strikebreaking force of 30,000 scabs. They are equivalent to a quarter of the CWU membership. There should be no cooperation with such casuals in between strikes, and strong picket lines should be imposed on strike days.
The CWU and CWU strike committees would also be well advised to learn the lessons of the 1980s miners’ and printers’ strikes and organise hit squads to persuade strike breakers not to scab. Obviously such bodies do not organise themselves and certainly the idea of them needs first of all to be popularised.
CWU militants are aware that the union leadership is, even at this stage, looking for a cosy compromise rather than winning the fight against the imposition of speed-ups and job losses. For Hayes and co what matters above all is that management is imposing, not consulting. Of course, rank and file members are right to insist that management must negotiate with their elected representatives. But they must remain vigilant against what is an inevitable tendency of union bureaucrats to settle for a less bad deal when their members are under attack.
Of course, most postal workers have taken part in local strikes precisely because they damned well do not want any more job losses. Somewhere around 50,000 have gone already in the last two years. Enough, they say, is enough. It is true that for the ordinary CWU member every day out on strike means a day without pay. Not that postal workers are well paid in the first place. But if Royal Mail, New Labour and the Tories have their way, they will be even more poorly off in the future. These workers have known for months that they have to make a firm stand. There can be no more acceptance of vicious attacks lying down.
Collections for the postal workers at workplaces and elsewhere are important. But more is needed. Supporters must be encouraged to join picket lines outside sorting offices and distribution depots. PCS members at job centres must not help recruit scabs for Royal Mail, and student groups and student unions should launch a campaign to stop their members from taking temporary postal work while the dispute lasts. Public sector workers and their unions should also be brought into active engagement with the postal workers. That means delegations, resolutions and above all a refusal to cross picket lines or in any way strike break. Joint days of action would be a real boost too. The attack on the postal workers is a precursor for what all three main political parties intend to do. Cuts, cuts, cuts. Pension holes, alleged overmanning, etc, will all be used to break other unions, push down wages and force through speed-ups.
The state machine is already preparing for combat. According to one report, “The Association of Chief Police Officers … said that it was closely monitoring the situation and had issued guidance to forces on dealing with large-scale strike action. Each police force is assessing and reviewing the implications for public disorder that might arise from industrial action” (The Guardian October 17).
It is up to the rest of the working class to give solidarity to the postal workers. But in order to make this really effective we must generalise this dispute and give it a political form and content. We must challenge Royal Mail and its right to manage; we must challenge New Labour and the Tories and their cuts programme; we must organise our own combat party with a programme that can link our day-to-day struggles with the perspective of a new society that replaces the capitalist imperative of profit with the communist principle of production for the common good and distribution according to need.