SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Socialism Today 78 - October 2003

CWU ballot setback won’t curb workers’ anger

The defeat of the postal workers’ strike ballot is a setback, argues BILL MULLINS. But it does not change the conditions that have created the huge anger and bitterness at the Labour government felt by many workers – a mood that surfaced even at the TUC conference, reports PCS delegate, ROB WILLIAMS (writing in a personal capacity)

THE DECISION OF the postal workers not to strike by the narrowest of margins – less than 2% or 1,700 votes out of the 95,000 votes cast in the Communications Workers Union (CWU) ballot – is undoubtedly a blow to postal workers’ attempts to end the poverty pay they have endured for decades.

Like the fire-fighters earlier this year, many of them saw the campaign as a chance to win a decent basic wage. This was the case particularly in south east England, where the cost of living is higher than in the rest of the country. That is why, in a separate ballot, the London workers in Royal Mail and other parts of the post office have voted to take strike action over London weighting, by almost three to one.

The capitalist press, of course, is ‘sexing up’ the result of the national strike ballot, however, as the end of the road for militant trade unionism. The Financial Times, as the mouthpiece of the finance capitalists, is the most vociferous. Calling the result a victory for "responsible trade unionism" and a blow to the ‘awkward squad’ of newly-elected trade union leaders, including Billy Hayes and Dave Ward, the general secretary and deputy general secretary of the CWU, it seeks to fit this result into a pattern that "follows the defeat of the fire-fighters’ strike over the winter and the election defeat of Mick Rix, leader of the train drivers union [ASLEF] and founder member of the ‘awkward squad’." (18 September) It even offers the opinion that the ballot result shows that civil servants are highly unlikely "to put their industrial muscle behind the threats of action over public-sector pensions by Mark Serwotka of the [left-led] Public and Commercial Services union [PCS]".

Management offensive

SO DOES THE ballot result indicate the ending of the left shift in the unions and the working class?

There are many reasons why a small majority of postal workers decided not to vote ‘yes’ for industrial action, but what seems to have swung many is the bosses’ propaganda, which the union leaders failed to answer satisfactorily. The impression given by the union leadership was that any ballot for strike action would be used for bargaining purposes only. They did not clearly put forward an overall industrial strategy to win the claim. Rumours abounded that the union would organise discontinuous action or even localised strikes of key workers. Under these circumstances, many postal workers would have weighed up how much they would lose if there were strikes, compared to what the union leaders would accept in the bargaining at the end of the strike.

The lack of a spelled-out strategy by the union leadership contrasted with the seeming determination of the bosses to defeat the union. Alan Leighton, the chairman of Royal Mail, had indicated that his restructuring proposals – with the loss of 30,000 jobs – would not have meant compulsory redundancies but if the workers went on strike then all bets were off. By going over the heads of the union directly to the members – sending out five letters to the workforce in their homes – he put doubts into some postal workers’ minds over the future of their jobs if there was a strike.

His blood-curdling threats that a strike would see the ‘end of the post office’ seemed to make some inroads into the confidence of the workforce. The union campaign, whilst putting out good agitational material about the bosses’ greed – some post office directors have increased their own salaries by 270% in the last two years – was not enough to win over the majority of the workforce.

Leighton openly invited private companies to prepare to take as much Royal Mail work as possible in the event of a strike. It would be theirs to keep, was the message. This was done with the complete backing of the postal regulator and the government, which said early on that they would lift the Royal Mail’s monopoly on letter delivery in the event of a strike. It was in effect a declaration of the privatisation of the post office.

Coupled with Leighton’s statement to the workforce that "if you vote with the union activists against the deal, or don’t vote at all, we begin the process of commercial suicide", the stakes were set extremely high for the union and their members.

A clear strategy needed

ONE OF THE main lessons of the fire-fighters’ strikes was that each time the government raised the stakes, the union leaders seemed to back down and looked completely taken by surprise.

Billy Hayes and Dave Ward correctly opposed the methods of the previous CWU deputy general secretary, John Keggie, when he was in charge of the union’s pay negotiations with the post office. Alan Leighton and co believed that they could do a deal with Keggie and bring in ‘modernisation’ changes without union opposition. But when Keggie, a member of the Labour Party’s national executive committee, lost this summer’s election for the deputy general secretary position to Dave Ward, the bosses were completely thrown by the more militant stance of the new leadership of the CWU.

Nevertheless Alan Leighton’s threat to destroy the post office and hand it over to private companies should have been answered with an immediate appeal to the whole of the trade union movement to come to the aid of the postal workers and the union.

It was not enough for the post workers’ leadership to cry foul when Alan Leighton went over their heads directly to the members. They should have responded by calling on wider layers of the trade union movement to defend the post office against the privateers and the vultures waiting to pick over its bones. They should have called for Alan Leighton’s sacking because of his blatant attempt to hand over the whole system to the private sector.

Leighton’s methods were like those of Michael Edwardes in the car industry in the 1970s. Edwardes went over the heads of the shop stewards and, with the connivance of the right-wing trade union leaders, sacked the leading shop steward in the Longbridge plant, Derek Robinson. Like Leighton, who was appointed by the Blair Labour government, Edwards was also appointed by a Labour government, then under Jim Callaghan.

The result of this setback in the post office is that the company will now seek to drive forward its ‘modernisation strategy’ – that is, the ending of the second daily mail delivery, the establishment of new shift patterns, and cutting tens of thousands of jobs.

The union’s campaign exposed management’s juggling of the figures. They claimed that Royal Mail was in the red and had enormous losses of hundreds of millions of pounds every year. Now they reveal that they will have, miracle of miracles, an operating profit of Ł100 million this year and Ł320 million next year.

Postal balloting is – as it is intended to be – a lottery. The postal workers were receiving letters from the management at the same time as they received their ballot paper from the union. The press and television was full of stories about the ‘damage’ a strike would do to the Royal Mail. Sitting in isolation at home, this was bound to have an affect on those workers less involved in the day-to-day skirmishes between the bosses and the union. In the better-organised workplaces, the support for the union was undoubtedly there. But the further you got away from the big sorting offices and into the smaller workplaces, the more management propaganda would have had an affect.

Since the ballot result was announced the union leadership has had ‘talks’ with the post office management. The bosses made it clear that they think that they can now ‘go to town’ on the union. Declaring that ‘the world had changed’ as a result of the ballot – with the union having no choice but to accept the dictates of the company on pay and the changes they want to impose on working practices – they also announced that they intend to present a new industrial relations structure in the post office, with the union to be presented with a document on this ‘within two weeks’.

The CWU has correctly seen this as a declaration of war on the union, with the prospect even of ‘effective derecognition’ (although there are legal obstacles to the post office being able to do this). What does seem likely is that the management will seek to smash the level of workers control over the job that exists in parts of the post office at present, especially in the big sorting offices, and probably cut back the faculty time that union representatives have to do union business.

The arrogance of the bosses almost matches the size of their wage packets. They believe their own propaganda that the union does not represent the workers. Alan Leighton, flushed with the praise of the capitalist media, may think he can roll back the union but he could be in danger of over-reaching himself.

The CWU in the post office remains one of the better organised unions. That will determine the outcome in the long-run, not a ballot result. This was, after all, no more than a snap-shot of the postal workers’ mood, which can soon change into its opposite under the impact of fresh attacks by the bosses.

The rise of the so-called ‘awkward squad’ and the shift to the left in the unions has not been the result of a conspiracy by a handful of activists, but is a direct result of the anger and bitterness in the Labour government felt by many workers. It is also a result of the fat cats’ greed and all the abuse and indignities which workers are made to suffer at work, under the unbridled market forces released and encouraged by New Labour.


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