Tag Archives: postal strike

Royal Mail’s assault and our political tasks

As expected, attempts to broker a deal between Royal Mail and the Communication Workers Union have been unsuccessful. Mike Macnair examines why Royal Mail, encouraged by the government, has been determined to push ahead with confrontation, and looks at the implications of this decision

cwu-demoA Sunday Times front-page headline reads: “Brown faces winter of discontent” (October 25). In other words, this is not the only industrial dispute in the pipeline at the moment. There are a whole range of them expected to come to a head in the next six months.

There is a risk – one that would not be at all surprising, as it is normal to the British political cycle – that the last months of this Labour government will be characterised by large-scale industrial disputes and substantial disruption. This will therefore see an increasing degree of support for the Tories from suburban middle class voters due to the perceived lack of Labour control over the trade unions. Certainly the Tories are already winning a substantial number of votes. Nonetheless, the fear of a “winter of discontent” is plainly an element in the calculations of the government in relation to its attitude toward the current postal dispute.

The media are producing their usual outpouring of anti-strike propaganda. In particular it is said that Royal Mail is habitually losing money – surprise, surprise! Most postal services across Europe are subsidised. Even the early privately owned Thurn und Taxis postal service back in 17th century Germany had to have state-backed monopoly rights, for the very simple reason that a profit could not – and still cannot – be made without them. A universal postal service is, precisely, public infrastructure. Privatising the postal service or requiring it to make profits is like selling off the public highways in pieces or prohibiting public expenditure on ‘unprofitable’ repairs to roads and bridges.

It is true that the universal postal service is, in some senses, of decreasing use because people have turned to email and other forms of electronic communication. The same has been the case in relation to businesses for quite some time: private couriers offering same-day delivery were used for some time before fax and email became routine.

So there is lower demand for postal services than there has been in the past. The government has been looking for ways to undermine wages and conditions, drastically reduce its pensions commitment, casualise the workforce and hopefully even get rid of the universal service obligation. This assault is aimed at creating conditions for privatising the postal service – government subsidies would be withdrawn without too much worry about the major losers: people living in the countryside.

There would actually be some losses for business out of this policy. Who will deliver all the junk mail – probably the bulk of most post bags these days? Equally, online mail order operations like Amazon could suffer, as it is unlikely that private couriers could actually deliver with the same coverage and at the same price.

The government and its servants in Royal Mail management demand ‘modernisation’. What this actually means is not primarily automation. That claim is bullshit. What it means is a major speed-up, attacks on working conditions and a move to, in effect, piece work, resulting in people not getting paid for a full shift. The language of ‘modernisation’ is merely code for a huge attack on the workforce.


In reality there has been industrial guerrilla warfare in Royal Mail locally for at least four or five years. Certainly there were major disputes going on in the more militant sorting offices as far back as the last general election. It was clearly decided in the spring/summer of this year to bring this simmering guerrilla warfare to a head, and have a massive, national confrontation with the CWU.

I say ‘clearly decided’ because it is obvious that in the last six to nine months there has been an escalation of unilateral action by management in the form of provocations, victimisations, etc. Actions that can only be intended to trigger local action and a climate of militancy, leading to a massive vote in support of industrial action. It is equally clear that management (and behind them business secretary Peter Mandelson) intended, as Thatcher and co intended in the 1984-85 miners’ strike, to control the timing of the national dispute. Here the point is if possible to break the union before we get into the Christmas run-up, which is the peak of the mail service business.

Similarly Thatcher aimed to bring out the miners before the overtime ban had reduced the coal stocks to the point where there would be forced power cuts. These tactics have been reflected in the political sphere, with absolute and complete intransigence on the part of Mandelson. And with Mandelson’s unequivocal backing, the Royal Mail management has stood firm to its assertion that it will not go to the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service without a pure and unambiguous guarantee from the CWU that there will be no strikes. But  the CWU could not deliver this even if it wanted to, because most of the industrial action has been local, over which the national union has less direct control.

Of course, this is not all one-sided. The CWU executive is generally seen among the membership as a militant leadership, and it, too, has been using the period of local and guerrilla struggles to prepare for the larger struggle which has now arrived.

What we have seen in the last months in relation to this dispute is therefore the run-up to a major class confrontation just like in 1984-85. There is an intention in government – at least among Peter Mandelson and his co-thinkers – and among Royal Mail management, to have a big confrontation and inflict a massive defeat on the CWU workers similar to that of the miners’ strike. This is expected to knock on the head any serious industrial militancy in the next six to nine months, as it will be an object lesson to other unions and other workers.

It will also be an object lesson in a second sense. The Labour government will demonstrate to capital, and to the capitalist media, that they are a safe hand on the tiller, that it is possible for a Labour government to smash an industrial offensive of the working class before it gets off the ground, and therefore capital should leave Labour in place rather than back Tory leader David Cameron.

The bourgeoisie has its concerns over Cameron. Yes, there is at the moment massive support for the Tories. Yes, the media have been backing him. But there are worries about how safe Cameron and shadow chancellor George Osborne will be as managers of the economy, at a time when quite a lot of media commentators are worrying about when the second shoe is going to drop in relation to the economic crisis.

There are also worries that a Cameron government might tip relations with Europe so far into Eurosceptic territory that Britain can no longer build alliances to block further EU integration. This is a central part of the role Britain plays for the United States in Europe: controlling a possible global rival by building alliances against Franco-German integration proposals.

So there are reasons for the capitalist class to have concerns about a Cameron administration. And if the Labour government can show, in these circumstances, that it can break a substantial public sector trade union, derecognise it and casualise its workforce, then Labour might, from that point of view, be in with a chance of regaining some of its lost bourgeois and middle class support prior to the next general election. There are, then, clear political calculations why this government might be thinking about doing a ‘Thatcher on the miners’ job in relation to the CWU.

Labour Party

In discussing the government’s policy I have referred particularly to Peter Mandelson. The reason is not merely that he is the relevant minister, but that there are indications that Gordon Brown is rather less up for a full-on confrontation (see Financial Times October 24); the failed TUC-sponsored talks (without the precondition demanded by Mandelson and management that the strikes be called off) represented a slight retreat by the government.

Behind this is a fundamental political fact. For Thatcher to set up a major class confrontation with the aim of breaking the National Union of Mineworkers was ‘extreme’ from the point of view of the 1940s-70s, but perfectly consistent with the longer historical role of the Tory Party. For a Labour government to actually smash one of its own major affiliated unions in a major national class confrontation would be something different altogether. Rather than allowing Labour to retain power, it would be more likely to break up the Labour Party. The result could be a split by the unions and the left, or – as in the 1931 fall of the Labour administration and the formation of the National government – a party revolt, leading to a split of the right to join up with the Tories to force the confrontation through.

True, the current Labour government since 1997 has faced down trade union action more than once (for example in the case of the firefighters). But in general the workers’ movement had not responded in a militant way. What appears to be different this time is the willingness of the movement to fight. A major conflict between the government and the CWU would pose severe problems for the Labour Party, that is for sure.

If Brown does back down from an all-out confrontation, it will be presented by the media as yet another Brown U-turn. Brown’s reputation for dithering not only reflects a hostile media, but is a real phenomenon. Unlike cynical careerists such as Blair, Mandelson and co, Brown was a genuine convert to neoliberalism from the left; hence, the 2007-08 crash shook his convictions and left him rudderless in policy terms. If Labour does go ahead with a major attack on the CWU, and the result is not a major split in the party, we in the CPGB will certainly need to reassess our current judgment that Labour remains a bourgeois workers’ party: the event would look like the party finally ditching the ‘workers’ side of the contradiction.

But, whatever exact diagnosis we make, if the government goes ahead with plans to break and derecognise one of the Labour Party’s major affiliated trade unions, this will be a fundamental shift in politics and in particular of Labour Party politics.

Our tasks

post workers picketI have no idea why CWU general secretary Billy Hayes let himself be reported as saying he is in a stronger position than Arthur Scargill was (The Times October 17).

True, strike action has received very clear majority support in a ballot. But the actual underlying sectional economic positions are if anything weaker than those of the NUM in the 1980s, and the ability of the postal workers to sustain their internal solidarity in relation to a furious media offensive is likely to be less than the miners. The miners lived in concentrated communities, had networks of solidarity outside the pits in place, and indeed, as a workforce, were highly concentrated. Postal workers are concentrated only in sorting offices, but atomised when out on the streets. So the actual position of the CWU is relatively weak in the purely trade unionist, sectionalist-syndicalist sense of its ability to disrupt the economy.

However, this situation is to a considerable extent general in the service sector (and, indeed in some industrial sectors dominated by highly automated plant with small workforces). In this sense in future disputes the CWU will indeed look like a union with strong sectional power. But this is entirely consistent with my fundamental point: namely simple reliance on ‘industrial muscle’ – ie, sectional ability to disrupt production – is decreasingly adequate as a strategy to defend working people’s immediate interests.

Even if the sectional strength is less than Billy Hayes’ Times interview suggested, the possibilities of the strike winning broad public support are real. Precisely because of the increasing atmosphere of class confrontation in the dispute, because of the intransigent alignment of the government behind Royal Mail management and because we see the unanimity of the bourgeois media behind ideas most clearly expressed in the Daily Mail headline, “The lemming strike is on” (October 22), there has been some public reaction against the capitalist united front. We are beginning to see some, inchoate, inadequately politically represented, support for the postal workers. A poll reported in The Independent on October 24 showed 50% supporting the postal workers and only 25% supporting management and Mandelson.

So where does that leave us? It looks like we are headed for a major class confrontation with a serious and unambiguous effort to break the CWU, and thereby give an object lesson to the rest of the trade union movement, in the hope of preventing a “winter of discontent”.

What should the political left be doing? There are two sorts of task: simple solidarity ones, and those that are specifically political. The first of these are tasks that the labour movement and left will probably do well in spite of divisions and disorganisation. Raising the issue in other trade unions, getting CWU speakers to meetings, organising solidarity campaigns and support groups, collecting for strikers in hardship and so on. Promoting the idea of solidarity action: thus, for example, in Unite the question of instructing the managers not to scab has been posed.

The Socialist Workers Party is therefore entirely correct to advocate the rapid formation of strike support groups, which can play a critical role in mobilising public support and solidarity. There is also the question of international solidarity. Even if this is only symbolic in character – as, in this dispute, it inevitably is – such international solidarity would strengthen the morale of strikers and assist the struggle for broader solidarity within Britain.

A specific task lies in the student movement, because traditionally students have been recruited as casuals by the Royal Mail. We must agitate against students acting as scabs – this is an issue to be raised, addressed and spread. Indeed the general attitude towards scabs is critical. Casualisation is already extensive in the Royal Mail, partly inevitably because of the seasonal nature of the business. Nevertheless it is vital to get across the message that during this dispute taking casual jobs is scabbing. This is partly a job for the student movement; but it is also a job for strikers themselves: the movement needs to revive the basic ideas of non-cooperation with scabs, and that picket lines mean don’t cross. And it is also a job for PCS members working in job centres and so on: scab ‘casual’ jobs in Royal Mail are not ‘normal’ jobs to which the unemployed should be sent and PCS members should refuse to fill them.

Political tasks

The other aspect, where the far left is traditionally much weaker, concerns specifically political tasks. The far left is bad at these because they are the tasks of a party. Solidarity campaigns are necessarily broad movements of all those of whatever political complexion who wish to support the strikers. Hence they necessarily find it hard to address the politics of the strike.

For example, there is an early day motion opposing Royal Mail management’s intransigence, etc. Has your local Labour MP signed it? If not, why not? If your local Labour MP is supporting ‘modernisation’ and all that crap, perhaps it is time that his/her constituency office or surgery should be besieged by strikers and their supporters.

This sounds like a solidarity campaign-type action. But actually it turns out that broad solidarity organisations find it extraordinarily hard to undertake campaigns to besiege scab Labour MPs or whatever, because the Labour lefts and the trade union officials would be unwilling to pursue them. Stop the War Coalition in the 2005 election is an excellent example of the problem – it was unable to make any recommendation on who to vote for. Even in the 1984-85 miners’ strike this issue was posed, as the union leadership was very reluctant either to enter on the terrain of politics itself or for the support groups to do so.

What was said above about the Labour Party means that an absolutely central issue is the question of sharpening the divisions between left and right which a major confrontation with the CWU will inevitably produce. Parts of the left will undoubtedly call for the CWU to disaffiliate from Labour. But at the moment that would be a counsel of retreat and a road to depoliticising the union: neither ‘son of No2EU’ nor any of the other left groups and ‘unity projects’ presently represents a realistic alternative electoral project. What is immediately needed is for the CWU to adopt a tactic of reducing general financial contributions to Labour, targeting any support on Labour MPs and candidates who have backed the strike, and also being willing to back selected workers’ movement candidates outside Labour; if this leads to the party leadership seeking to remove affiliation, the union should fight back.

In other words, the requirement is not (yet) to run away from the Labour Party, but to promote and sharpen a fight both within and outside it against the most pro-capitalist wing of the party.

Equally important is explaining both the character of what is going on, that it is a class confrontation motivated and driven by politics. That is a task for a Communist Party, for communist papers, and for leaflets addressing the broad masses in the districts where they live. The far-left press and the splintered groups do part of these jobs, but we are too limited by our divisions and the left press and leaflets often restrict themselves to basic trade union solidarity – the Morning Star as a daily is closer to having the resources, but prints only what suits leading union officials.

Strike support groups cannot substitute for these tasks, for the reasons already given. Neither can the splintered organised left and the even more splintered ‘independents’. A coalition of the far left could begin to do some of them. In doing so such a coalition would be beginning to act as a party. But for the moment most of the far-left groups fetishise either their own independence as ‘the revolutionary party’ (all 57-plus of them); or ‘broad unity’, which leads to an inability to take political action because it has to include some element of the ‘official lefts’; or both at the same time. So, as valuable as a far-left coalition for the purposes of political solidarity with the postal workers would be, it probably will not happen.


Realistically, the CPGB cannot play this role either, because of our very limited resources. We can and should argue for Communist Students to campaign for students not to scab on the postal workers: a campaign which could be conducted in unity with other left student groups and could be very successful. Our contacts, through Hands Off the People of Iran, with the Iranian workers’ movement, can and should be used to promote symbolic international solidarity with the strike.

More generally, what we can do is largely limited to the use of the Weekly Worker, with which we can propagandise around the idea that solidarity has to be more than just hardship support and agitation in the trade union movement; that solidarity has to address the politics, the MPs and the political context of the strike.

The paper also needs to make an effort to contact CWU militants in the localities and get their stories. In spite of the fact that this is something the whole of the left is doing, in the context of the bourgeois media overwhelmingly giving the management and government version of the story, low-level exposures of the provocations management has been engaged in is a useful activity. We need to develop more and broader contacts across different localities, and get the information into the paper.

Equally militants and the left need information about the political alignments within the CWU and about what is going on in the dispute at national level. Are the far-lefts, some of whom sit on the CWU national executive, acting as communists or merely as trade union officials? We need to try to get the information and publicise it.

Across all this, the fundamental point is to use all the resources we have to try and develop the sense of the political context of the dispute, its significance and the question of solidarity of the working class as a whole with the strikers.


Form strike committees, build strong picket lines


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.

CWU prepares for national strike

Rank and file organisation is the need of the hour in the CWU, writes Jim Moody

Postal workers are gearing up for a national strike this autumn against job cuts. After nearly three months of local official strikes, the Communications Workers Union leadership has ordered a ballot for later this month. It now falls to activists to see how best they can promote the spirit of the strike wave among the members in order to keep control of future industrial action.

London has now seen nine separate one-day postal strikes against job cuts in recent months. It is a fact, however, that two thirds of the one- and two-day strikes in the current round of CWU action have been outside London. Further local action took place this week, from Dalkeith to Bournemouth and from Ipswich to Bridgend, as well as in most London collection hubs or delivery offices. As a consequence of the growth in support for more effective action, the CWU leadership felt pressured to call a national strike ballot. This will be carried out between September 9 and September 23.

Many union members consider this very late in the day, what with the very long build-up of local actions. CWU leaders have for months taken the position that once the level of local strikes involves a “significant portion” of the membership (how long is a piece of string?) a national ballot would be held. In fact, by the time balloting starts this month, local strikes will have been going on for a quarter of the year. In addition, it is strongly rumoured that once the ballot starts, CWU leaders will not sanction any more local strike action.

The escalation of the dispute followed the (temporary) withdrawal of Lord Peter Mandelson’s part-privatisation proposals. Mandelson’s chagrin appeared to encourage Royal Mail in its intransigent stance, leading to local outbursts of militant action, as postal workers reacted against management’s determination to push through job cuts, closures and speed-ups. This has certainly demonstrated that state ownership without workers’ control is no panacea. However, bringing in private contractors to fulfil what were previously postal worker functions would certainly be worse. If Royal Mail management gets the whip hand in this dispute, part-privatisation will be very much on the cards again.

Royal Mail’s demand for ‘flexibility’ and for management’s ‘right’ to manage had already been conceded to a large extent by the CWU negotiators under the 2007 agreement. Now there is a fight about ‘modernisation’, a phrase used by management to cloak its cutback and speed-up proposals.

CWU deputy general secretary Dave Ward has expressed support for ‘modernisation’ in principle. On the CWU website he says: “Royal Mail needs to accept that there has been a big breakdown in trust between staff and management. The way to resolve this and get the modernisation programme back on track is to have serious negotiations with the CWU to reach a fair and workable agreement” (www.cwu.org/another-week-of-post-strikes-ahead.html). CWU leaders’ ideas of ‘modernisation’ are still somewhat hazy; though they ought to be about using new technology to improve the postal service and reduce the hours of work with no loss of pay. Some militants fear, however, that the CWU leadership has no problem with changes to working practices which involve cost-cutting (read job-cutting) – as long as they are negotiated and approved of by the union.

Until now, CWU branches have been able to submit their local strike decisions for executive ratification without opposition: decisions have been pretty well rubber-stamped. This placed democratic control of the dispute at the local level, in the hands of the postal workers, who decided when to act. One union activist told me that the leadership’s ban on local strikes during the period of the ballot is “pissing people off” – it has removed the initiative from the localities. While a national strike is clearly essential, the drawback is that rank and file control is made more difficult. It will be up to rank and file members to seize back the initiative if they want to make the dispute theirs. No doubt this will involve organising strike committees, picketing and whatever else is deemed necessary in the localities.

It is true that the way the strikes developed was messy – there is no doubt that the assault by local management on working conditions had been nationally coordinated and this necessitated a nationally coordinated CWU response. However, leadership attempts to turn off official local action during the ballot may lead to unofficial action if management continues its provocations. While, according to the leadership, this would risk disrupting the ballot by delaying delivery of the voting forms, there have been voices raised suggesting that the ban could undermine the militancy of postal workers during the ballot process. After all, lightning unofficial action in response to the unilateral imposition of changes by local management has resulted in most of the attacks being withdrawn within hours.

CWU leaders obviously needed to respond to membership anger, concerns, and pressure if they want to get re-elected, and clearly they had no alternative but to recommend national strike action. But they announced there would be a ballot in mid-August, so why the delay in organising it? It is pretty obvious that the timing was influenced by the proximity of the Labour Party conference, which takes place in Brighton from September 27 to October 1. The chance of a strike taking place or being called just before or during the conference has virtually been ruled out. Under current anti-trade union legislation a union has to give employers seven days’ notice of strike action, so by the time votes are counted and the result is discussed by the executive the conference will be over.

Although previous CWU ballots have specifically ruled out an all-out, indefinite strike, activists feel that this time the ballot question will be along the lines of a simple ‘Are you prepared to take industrial action?’ Anything more qualified would hobble those calling and organising the strike. So unless the CWU leadership wants its hands tied, which by all accounts is not the case this time, the straightforward version is more likely.

But the leadership faces no serious challenge from forces to its left. Although both the Socialist Workers Party and the Socialist Party in England and Wales have members concentrated in a few locations, neither is a significant force. While the SWP is relatively well organised in London, Manchester and Sheffield, SPEW’s strong points are mainly in the Midlands, around Stoke and Coventry.

Rank and file organisation is the need of the hour in the CWU, reducing the overbearing power of its leaders, who have pretty much free rein to do as they want at the moment. Many in the leadership were elected on the basis of their militant record, but the downside in office is a strong tendency to bureaucratisation. If there is to be a flowering of democracy in the CWU, members need to exercise their own control through office and depot committees even if these are outside the official union structure.