Fourth emergency service
Eddie Ford says postal workers must not allow management to use the pandemic crisis as an excuse to launch further attacks on the union.
As you know, the CWU on March 17 gave the answer we expected - and wanted - to the government and the courts, not to mention Royal Mail, with its 94.5% vote for strike action on a 63.4% turnout. This was a slight drop from last year's ballot, when 97% voted for strike action on a 76% turnout, mainly because this year's union campaign was shorter than before and many workers were on annual leave - also members who did not receive a ballot paper had less time to request a replacement. Still, the result smashed through the outrageous 50% legal threshold imposed by the 2016 Trade Union Act and was an inspiring display of militant defiance - comprehensively rejecting the 6% pay rise offer from the company as part of a three-year deal.
Furthermore, something hardly mentioned by the mainstream press, Parcelforce members voted again at the same time in two separate ballots. The first was about being 'TUPEd' over to a separate trading company, a reference to the Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) Regulations 2006 - perhaps ironically being the British implementation a European Union directive - which is supposed to protect employees, when a business and all its assets are transferred to another owner.1 This resulted in another massive 'yes' vote of 95.4% on a 51.2% turnout. In the second vote, over honouring the 'four pillars' agreement reached in January 2018, another massive 'yes' vote of 96.2% was achieved, but only with a 49.4% turnout - falling short by 0.6% of the threshold. We wait to see if the courts intervene again using some transparently cooked-up pretext.
Also conforming to expectations, Royal Mail went into full-spin mode, expressing its "disappointment" at the CWU's democratic decision. Given that 12,281 "frontline" employees are not union members, the company argues that the actual proportion backing strike action was 'only' 53.9%. The same goes for the TUPE ballot, as 1,489 Parcelforce staff do not belong to the union; therefore - according to Royal Mail - only 37.1% had backed industrial action. Using that logic, Brexit would have been cancelled the day after the referendum - and just forget general elections. The stench of hypocrisy is overwhelming.
Immediately after the vote, the CWU issued a statement, which declared that the pandemic crisis is "changing the language of priorities for our members and the country" - the ballot having begun weeks ago in what almost seems like a different world. The union goes on to say that the postal service "is the only service that connects every address in this country via its universal service" - something the CWU is fighting to defend against Royal Mail and its government sponsors. Does anyone really believe that Rico Back - Royal Mail's chief executive - gives a damn about the company's obligation to deliver letters six days a week, as opposed to making a profit?
The statement reminds us that postal workers are "embedded in every community" in the country - they are "trusted figures" and "part of the social fabric of society". Therefore, the union says, it has made a proposal to Royal Mail based on "putting the interests of the nation first". If management can agree on "the introduction of the very best health and safety provisions and equipment that can guarantee our members' safety", then the postal service "will become an additional emergency service" - that is, the CWU will suspend strike action for at least the duration of the crisis.
For communists, this is the right decision - leaving aside the patriotic language about putting the "nation first." It is tactically correct to make the offer to suspend strike action. A strike over protective gear or safe distancing would, of course, be another matter. Yes, the postal service must become the fourth emergency service and do whatever it can to combat the impending catastrophe - which could see very many thousands dying in the UK alone and millions thrown on to the dole queue by the end of the week.2 So now it is up to Royal Mail to make the next move.
Obviously, postal workers have the right to personal protection and other equipment and to avoid unsafe conditions - like not having to sort mail at close quarters with other workers; nor should they have to deliver junk mail and other unnecessary items at a time of world crisis. These demands are surely the absolute basic minimum. If the working environment is not safe, postal workers would be fully justified in walking out rather than put their health at risk - if not their lives. Just as importantly, postal workers should self-organise to the maximum degree objectively possible - meaning delivering medical and food parcels, checking on older and vulnerable people (perhaps leaving notes or phoning), helping out with local services where appropriate, supporting people working from home, reporting any anti-social acts like vandalism or robbery, and so on.
There are two sides to every bargain, of course. Royal Mail must reciprocate by at the very least suspending all of its proposed changes, reforms and attacks on the union - especially its obvious desire to junk the 'four pillars', which defend basic rights and conditions. the plans to create a separate parcel company at the expense of 40,000 jobs, the introduction of yet more casualisation, and the grotesque schemes to 'Amazonise' the workforce by fitting various devices that monitor the workers' every activity in real time. If management acts in bad faith and continues with - or even escalates the attacks - then the CWU will clearly need to reassess the situation. More broadly still, the entire union movement must resist any attempt by the Johnson government to use the pandemic crisis as an excuse to ban strikes - like it is trying to do with the railways. It is more than easy to imagine the emergency legislation currently being rushed through parliament containing such a provision in the small print.
Naturally, some on the left are not happy that the CWU is prepared to suspend strike action. For instance, the World Socialist Web Site - published by the dwindling International Committee of the Fourth International (ICFI) - describes as a "sellout" the union's "decision to ignore an overwhelming strike vote" and "instead offer workers up" as the fourth emergency service.3
According to the ICFI, this move by the union has been "met with widespread opposition" - which turns out to mean a lot of anonymous moaning on unnamed "online forums", although it admits that "there is no way to determine the majority position among CWU members". Regardless of that, we read that management must be "rubbing their hands at the prospect of them having more time unopposed to drive their change through", "I can't believe how naive the union are being" and coronavirus has "nothing to do with our ballot", etc, etc. And an earlier article on the WSWS asserts that the union had used the coronavirus crisis "as an opportunity to prove its unswerving allegiance to Royal Mail and the British state" and - with a hint of conspiracy theory - "there is no doubt that this course of action was already worked out with the employers and government representatives long before it was sprung on CWU members".
Sadly, it never occurs to the dogmatists of the ICFI that the CWU's offer to become the fourth emergency service has the potential to strengthen its position against the encroachments of Royal Mail management - postal workers are now classified by the government as "key workers". Under extraordinary circumstances like this, the CWU could win major concessions - strike action is after all a tactic. And when to use a particular tactic is always a matter of timing. Would, in the midst of this crisis, the majority of CWU members answer the strike call? Would the wider working class movement be able to deliver solidarity? Strike action to ensure safety would certainly elicit sympathy. So, passing the buck to Royal Mail management was hardly an act of betrayal. Nor does it ignore the strike vote. That option remains open and can be acted upon when the time is right.
As for the Socialist Workers Party, it is far less stupid. Indeed, the latest issue of Socialist Worker points out that by becoming an additional emergency service, postal workers can play an invaluable role during the emergency, whether delivering food parcels or protecting vulnerable people. It also mentions that, late in the evening of March 23, Royal Mail management announced measures to enforce social distancing at work, though we are "yet to see how these would be put into practice" (March 24).
The paper does say that "it is no time for a truce with bullying post bosses" - which is quite right. Suspending strike action is not to let up on the fight. If Royal Mail uses appeals for the national interest to trample over the rights and conditions then it will stand exposed. If Royal Mail refuses to provide protective gear, it will stand exposed as putting the health, even the lives, of postal workers in jeopardy.