Prepare for a bitter fight
The Tories are bent on ensuring that effective trade union action is impossible, writes Peter Manson. How to respond?
Talks with management have broken down and the Communication Workers Union has agreed to launch a fresh national strike ballot. But how can the battle be won, given the determination of Royal Mail to crush the union and the eagerness of the newly elected Boris Johnson government to effectively end the right to strike?
The second ballot follows a high court judgement in November 2019 declaring that the union’s first ballot of members was invalid - that despite the fact that no less than 97% of members voted in favour of strike action in a 76% turnout!
Justice Jonathan Swift declared that the CWU’s actions, which he said encouraged members to vote at work, amounted to “improper interference” with the ballot. So what exactly had the union done? Nothing. Individual members “intercepted” their own ballot papers in sorting offices and voted on the spot (some filmed themselves voting for strike action), even though by law they are obliged to do so at home. According to Justice Swift, this was “a form of subversion of the ballot process”!
The union claimed that Royal Mail had relied on the witness statement of one single manager and that no members had actually complained about any interference in the process, but such factors were ignored. The truth is, of course, that the strike action would have been called during the general election campaign and the pre-Christmas period, which is the busiest time of the year for the company. Not a good terrain for Royal Mail to fight on. Hence Justice Swift’s judgement.
The dispute is over Royal Mail’s asset-stripping plans - part of its scheme to set up a separate parcels company and run down the postal service - at the cost of thousands of jobs and an increased workload for those still employed. For example, the company wants to abandon its obligation to deliver letters six days a week (which also means a poorer service for millions across the country, of course). But what do you expect from a capitalist firm? It has to consider the best way to make a profit, doesn’t it? And, after all, the company was privatised to make things ‘more efficient’.
After the high court judgement, the CWU decided to go for another round of talks with Royal Mail rather than defy the ruling or even call another ballot straightaway, and it was only after the negotiations broke down that it went for a second vote. But the problem now is, how will the company and the state react, assuming another huge majority for action? What is to stop them claiming further minor infringements, which have allegedly ‘subverted’ the ballot process?
It is absolutely clear that the Tories will do all they can to prevent, break or defeat any action. Boris Johnson’s government has declared its intention to introduce yet another round of anti-union laws - this time aimed in particular at the rail unions, at least initially. Under the new proposals the Rail, Maritime and Transport union - which has been campaigning against the attempt of the various rail companies to get rid of guards on trains - would only be able to take industrial action if the union signed up to a “minimum service agreement”, whereby some trains would continue to run. Mick Whelan, the general secretary of Aslef, the train drivers’ union, has referred to the latest proposals as an attempt to introduce a form of “slavery and forced labour”.
There is no doubt that we are witnessing an attempt to break militant trade unionism once and for all. Emboldened by their general election victory and success in seeing off the Tory anti-Brexiteers, Johnson and co now aim to outlaw effective industrial action.
So how should we respond? Clearly just carrying on in the old way is insufficient. There is an urgent need for rank-and-file union members to organise effectively. Yes, the leadership could urge members to defy legislation and court injunctions intended to impose “forced labour”. But will they? The chances are, though, that the second ballot will be just as, or even more, overwhelming than the first. But now management will be fighting on its preferred terrain and will have the full backing of a much strengthened government. Probably there will be no more court injunctions - rather a fight to finish the union.
Under those conditions solidarity will be the key. Will the new leader of the Labour Party urge its 530,000 members to join the CWU’s picket lines? Ask the four candidates. Don’t be satisfied with evasive answers. Will the TUC call an emergency conference to rally practical support from the whole trade union movement? It needs to raise money to support the strikers. The TUC ought to call a national day of action in support of the CWU. Will Unite drivers refuse to cross picket lines at sorting offices? Unite should issue clear instructions regarding what should be expected of its members. The law limits pickets to just six people. If they could be transformed into solidarity demonstrations of many thousands, then the chances of effective scabbing would be much reduced, or eliminated altogether. That is what CWU militants should be demanding and organising for.
Clearly in the event of a national strike, Royal Mail will bring in scabs, including those employed by agencies and other delivery companies. Measures must be taken to stop strike-breaking. In the here and now that means reaching out to those suffering in the so-called gig economy, those on zero-hour contracts, including the casuals already working in Royal Mail.