Major battles loom

A major clash is imminent between Tony Blair's Labour government and the 300,000-strong Communication Workers Union over the future of the UK Post Office - or Consignia, as Blair has renamed it. This will undoubtedly have the potential to precipitate a decisive break between the trade unions and the Labour Party. If it is responded to correctly by the Socialist Alliance, this crisis can also be crucial in positioning the SA as a potential candidate to replace Labour as the 'natural party' of the working class in Britain. The forthcoming war is taking shape over an extremely broad front and it is clear that meticulous plans for the assault have been laid by Blair. The government-appointed postal services regulatory body, Postcomm, has published a recommendation which, if accepted, would see state-owned Consignia's monopoly on letter delivery ended within four years. The extremely lucrative bulk business mailing would be put out to the highest bidder and could be in private hands within just seven weeks of government acceptance of the proposals. Blair is determined to carry through this 'privatisation too far', which John Major's Tory government was forced to abandon in the face of a revolt from its own rural and suburban heartlands. And there is no doubt that the bourgeoisie has every confidence in their new square-chinned, spring-heeled, crusading general. In advance of full demonopolisation, core functions such as sorting offices are to be 'outsourced' to private management. The German firm which supplies the sorting machinery, Siemens, is the favourite to win this piece of the action. In the loss-making parcels service, where the post office monopoly was ended some years ago, a 'milk round' solution is being proposed. Drivers will be offered the chance to become 'self-employed'. Meanwhile, 'inefficient' and 'unviable' areas of the service are to be discarded on a massive scale. The government's action in forcing all claimants of state benefits to open bank accounts, into which direct payment will be made, removes at a stroke a mainstay business of local post office branches. A massive number of closures is to be expected. At the same time, the domestic delivery service is to be reduced from the current two daily rounds to one mid-afternoon delivery, although customers will be able to preserve their early delivery if they are prepared to pay for the privilege. Destruction of the postal and telecoms workers' union is, of course, essential to the plans of capital, and this project has priority status. There has been a spate of industrial action in the post office over recent years, most of which has been organised, 'unofficially', and often very effectively, at rank-and-file level. As a result, the CWU has joined the Rail and Maritime Transport union as current bêtes noires of the capitalist class. They are certainly to be counted amongst Blair's "wreckers". Consignia has provoked the CWU into balloting its members for strike action by making a miserable 2% pay rise offer in response to the union's modest claim for 5%. Although a majority in favour of industrial action, up to and including strikes, has been secured in the ballot, union leaders and rank-and-file militants will not be happy with the figures. Sixty-five percent of the 145,000 members returned their papers, of which 67% voted 'yes'. With such crucial battles looming and the certainty that the government will encourage widespread scabbing operations in the event of strikes, 43% of the membership showing for action is not inspiring and it is not surprising that the union is not hurrying to finalise its action plans. Socialist Worker gave its prescription for the assault on postal workers thus: "The government will have to respond to the Postcomm proposals in the next few weeks. Only one thing will stop ministers backing the scheme - fear of the response from postal workers "¦. It is time to strike now, before the private firms are really up and running" (my emphasis, February 9). And the CWU rank and file newspaper also takes up this theme: "Post Worker is committed to encouraging workers in their fight to save jobs and stop privatisation. We want to link workers across the industry and encourage the kind of strike action that can win" (my emphasis, January). However, in addition to taking action themselves, postal worker militants need to face the fact that what is required is something that may seem a little old fashioned in today's world of trade unionism - an appeal for support to the working class as a whole. In other words, industrial action by CWU members needs to be bolstered and raised to a qualitatively higher level, by generalised political action. Post Worker - despite having an editorial board which is "elected every year at a meeting held at the CWU annual conference" - is very much the creature of the Socialist Workers Party, the Socialist Alliance's largest component organisation. Although it carries an advert for the SA's March 16 union conference (along with another for the Anti-Nazi League), and features a short report from Charlie Balch, a CWU member who contested a recent council by-election for the Welsh Socialist Alliance, there is no indication from its pages that workers, including postal workers, need to unite politically. It would be useful if the editorial board could be opened up further and given a more conscious, pro-SA orientation. The Socialist Alliance currently, of course, has no newspaper at all, let alone one aimed at postal workers. Responsibility for this situation too, lies with its SWP majority. Neither does the SA website currently contain any reference to the post office crisis. The alliance should take the lead in coordinating urgent plans for building a class response to capital's offensive - a response that goes much further than sectional resistance. Derek Hunter