CWU next in Blair's sights

The 160,000-strong postal workers' union is in New Labour's sights, writes John Keys

The Communication Workers Union is in the process of balloting its 160,000 postal workers employed by Royal Mail. The CWU is calling for industrial action over pay and conditions.

Members are fed up of having to work excessive overtime to earn a living wage; their gross earnings are 20% below the UK average. Pay rates before overtime are 40% below, according to the office of national statistics.

The bitterness of the dispute has been provoked by the duplicitous and deceitful way in which senior management have handled pay bargaining. Royal Mail has implied that the CWU has turned down a 14.5% pay rise - a figure that was never actually on offer. The only money actually on the table is 4.5%. This consisted of a 3% rise effective from October 6 2003, followed by a further 1.5% on April 5 2004. In essence that works out at 3% over an 18-month period, compared to the going rate for public sector pay, which is 3.5% over a 12-month period. With the headline rate of inflation standing at 3.1%, this offer actually amounts to a pay reduction rather than a rise.

The remaining 10% is not guaranteed money - it is, in the union’s words, “pie in the sky”. The 10% is linked to major restructuring, including a shift to a single daily postal delivery and a further 8,000-plus redundancies (16,000 have already taken place). This will have major repercussions on sorting and transport operations - the workload will greatly increase for remaining staff. The 10% is a chimera - or a carrot suspended from the end of a stick, which the donkey can never reach.

Well, we are not donkeys! We are postal workers and we elect our union leaders, not management, to represent our interests. Allan Leighton (non-executive chairman) and Adam Crozier (executive director, formerly head of the Football Association), represent their employer (the government).

They claim that they value their workforce, but - in true capitalist mode - if they value us at all it is only as commodities to be exploited at the minimum expense, in an industry which is now envisaged as part of the market economy rather than as a service catering for the needs of the community.

Recently Alan Leighton sent out a letter addressed to each individual postal worker, telling them that in effect Royal Mail could not afford to pay any more money, given their group losses of £611 million last year. However, Royal Mail can afford to pay:

The losses referred to by Leighton relate in the main to what are exceptional items - this year they include provision for substantial redundancy payments (£449 million has been put aside for this purpose). The 2000 figures include £571 million invested in a counter automation project.

In his latest letter, Leighton hypocritically accuses the union of commercial suicide by balloting for industrial action. He conveniently forgets that Royal Mail has wasted an enormous amount of money over the last 10 years buying lame duck postal companies from around the world. In any case, our agenda ought not to be determined by such a balance sheet approach. We are not responsible for the actions of management, who are faithfully following New Labour’s cost-cutting, privatising agenda. We need a living wage, irrespective of what Royal Mail says it can afford.

In the same letter Leighton says: “The financial results of a strike, which would cost up to £20 million per day, will ensure that this company will not recover, putting everyone’s future at risk. Once again the activists don’t seem to care.” He goes on: “We are prepared for months of strikes (potentially to Christmas and beyond). Our ability to protect and secure our and your future in each and every part of the company will have to be re-examined.”

Of course he is using scare tactics here, but in doing so he is contradicting himself. If, as he says, the company cannot afford to pay more than a 4.5% basic, how can they be prepared for months of strikes costing £20 million a day?

He also reveals his hand when he says that the future of the company will have to be re-examined. Is this not the true Blairite agenda: to “modernise” the company (axing jobs, increasing the workload and minimising labour costs) in order to sell it off to the private sector as a leaner and meaner animal?

It would suit New Labour politically if industrial action were seen to have broken the back of the company, leaving the government with no alternative but to get rid of Royal Mail and putting the blame on the union with the help of the tabloids. A case of killing two birds with one stone.

So what is to be done? Remember Leighton’s remark: “the activists don’t seem to care”. We care a lot and empathise with our fellow workers - which is a damn sight more than can be said for someone on £180,000 a year. However, we must be clear about how we can combat the sort of propaganda which will undoubtedly be unleashed against us by the reactionary press and the government in the event of strike action.

It is imperative that the entire left unites behind a minimum programme of action. We need to campaign vigorously for a publicly funded, non-profit-making postal service that caters for the needs of the public and provides decent wages and conditions for those who work in it.

After the defeat of the firefighters the CWU is now firmly in New Labour’s sights. Like the Fire Brigades Union, our union is led by Labour lefts such as general secretary Billy Hayes and his recently elected deputy, Dave Ward, who unseated Blairite John Keggie. We must ensure that the CWU does not go down in the same way as the FBU. In the process we can call a halt on Blair’s dehumanising assault of privatisation and cuts.