Anger explodes

What happens in the next couple of weeks will be crucial for Royal Mail postal workers, writes John Keys

While both management and New Labour were still crowing over the defeat of the Communication Workers Union national strike ballot, the militant section of the CWU membership has hit back over London weighting. They recorded a massive ‘yes’ vote in favour of strike action (for:11,417; against: 4,316).

Meanwhile, hundreds walked out at the Oxford mail centre in Cowley and Headington. Workers decided to take unofficial action over worries about the national pay deal and job cuts. They were eventually persuaded to return to work by CWU officials at an emergency meeting on the morning of Sunday September 21. However, a second walkout followed the next day after a van driver was suspended.

Despite the loss of the national ballot, feelings are running very high in militant areas and the London weighting result could easily shift the balance of forces. Unison’s welcome call for joint action must help: its council members in the capital voted by an 80% majority in a ‘consultative ballot’ to continue their long-running dispute, also over London weighting.

Of course, postal workers face an intransigent management, working hand in glove with a government that is intent on defeating the ‘awkward squad’, so that it can carry through its programme of ‘modernisation’ unimpeded.

Last week’s national vote was obviously a blow not only to the CWU leadership, but to those hoping to see a revival of working class combativity. Those voting in favour of the recommendation for a ‘yes’ to strike action were defeated by 46,391 to 48,038 - a majority of 1,647.

This dispute relates to the CWU’s 8% basic pensionable pay claim. Management offered instead a derisory 4.5% over 18 months with a carrot of 10% - provided a batch of cost-cutting targets are met, including 30,000 redundancies.

It is deeply disturbing that around 65,000, or 40%, of our membership did not vote at all, and there have been complaints that thousands never received their ballot papers. This of course leaves a question mark over the handling of the dispute by the union bureaucracy.

Before and during the balloting period we received a constant flow of letters from Royal Mail chairman Alan Leighton, addressed to each of us personally - initially using the 10% inducement carrot, followed by dire warnings of the consequences of strike action. Local managers called us into meetings to lecture us about the foolishness of walking out and damaging ‘our’ competitiveness.

Yet many union branches have noted that there was no sign of national or divisional union officials attempting to counter management’s propaganda. Clearly Royal Mail’s campaign far outclassed that of the CWU. The use of union meetings to disseminate information and boost morale is an essential ingredient for a successful outcome. Whether this lacklustre effort was due to a lack of resources or complacency on the union’s part is not entirely clear. Either way, it was not a good start for Billy Hayes and his deputy Dave Ward, both members of the so-called ‘awkward squad’.

The failure to win the ballot - and win convincingly - will have its cost. A worker at my depot reflected both the mood of despondency and a commonly held view: “From now on management will be able to do what they like with us.”

So why did the vote go so badly against all expectations? There are several reasons:

It appears that the Royal Mail executive now intends to embark on a campaign of de-unionisation. This could mean ending full-time release for union reps in depots and stopping the paying of dues through payroll deduction. First the FBU, now us. It is obvious that Leighton, together with executive director Adam Crozier and his deputy, Elmar Toime, engineered this dispute in order to see off the union. Before Royal Mail can be broken up and sold to the private sector, it will be necessary to atomise the workforce through disabling our collective defence - allowing further attacks on our conditions in the newly privatised units.

The proposed changes in Royal Mail are all part of a wider scenario involving the rest of Europe. The goal of 30,000 job cuts here are an echo of the 45,000 losses which have already taken place in Deutsche Post - part of a coordinated liberalisation programme to make the European Union more competitive compared with its US rival. Royal Mail’s ‘restructuring’ is being stepped up in line with EU plans to end the monopoly held by national postal carriers and open up markets to competition.

The problem that faces the trade union bureaucracy is that the culture of institutionalised compromise established in past times is now largely ineffective. Since the miners’ Great Strike of 1984-85 things are much more confrontational. That is why the FBU lost. Foolishly the CWU leadership went into this dispute expecting to find a quick compromise. What they got was war. The CWU told the membership that a ‘yes’ vote would force management to retreat and it would probably not be necessary to strike. It was a simple matter for Leighton to call the CWU’s bluff - he told us if we walked out we would still be out at Christmas.

To say you do not really expect to fight is to guarantee defeat. When you go to war you must be prepared to fight all the way to victory. That is the message coming from London and those who are now taking unofficial action.