CWU prepares for national strike

Rank and file organisation is the need of the hour in the CWU, writes Jim Moody

Postal workers are gearing up for a national strike this autumn against job cuts. After nearly three months of local official strikes, the Communications Workers Union leadership has ordered a ballot for later this month. It now falls to activists to see how best they can promote the spirit of the strike wave among the members in order to keep control of future industrial action.

London has now seen nine separate one-day postal strikes against job cuts in recent months. It is a fact, however, that two thirds of the one- and two-day strikes in the current round of CWU action have been outside London. Further local action took place this week, from Dalkeith to Bournemouth and from Ipswich to Bridgend, as well as in most London collection hubs or delivery offices. As a consequence of the growth in support for more effective action, the CWU leadership felt pressured to call a national strike ballot. This will be carried out between September 9 and September 23.

Many union members consider this very late in the day, what with the very long build-up of local actions. CWU leaders have for months taken the position that once the level of local strikes involves a “significant portion” of the membership (how long is a piece of string?) a national ballot would be held. In fact, by the time balloting starts this month, local strikes will have been going on for a quarter of the year. In addition, it is strongly rumoured that once the ballot starts, CWU leaders will not sanction any more local strike action.

The escalation of the dispute followed the (temporary) withdrawal of Lord Peter Mandelson’s part-privatisation proposals. Mandelson’s chagrin appeared to encourage Royal Mail in its intransigent stance, leading to local outbursts of militant action, as postal workers reacted against management’s determination to push through job cuts, closures and speed-ups. This has certainly demonstrated that state ownership without workers’ control is no panacea. However, bringing in private contractors to fulfil what were previously postal worker functions would certainly be worse. If Royal Mail management gets the whip hand in this dispute, part-privatisation will be very much on the cards again.

Royal Mail’s demand for ‘flexibility’ and for management’s ‘right’ to manage had already been conceded to a large extent by the CWU negotiators under the 2007 agreement. Now there is a fight about ‘modernisation’, a phrase used by management to cloak its cutback and speed-up proposals.

CWU deputy general secretary Dave Ward has expressed support for ‘modernisation’ in principle. On the CWU website he says: “Royal Mail needs to accept that there has been a big breakdown in trust between staff and management. The way to resolve this and get the modernisation programme back on track is to have serious negotiations with the CWU to reach a fair and workable agreement” (www.cwu.org/another-week-of-post-strikes-ahead.html). CWU leaders’ ideas of ‘modernisation’ are still somewhat hazy; though they ought to be about using new technology to improve the postal service and reduce the hours of work with no loss of pay. Some militants fear, however, that the CWU leadership has no problem with changes to working practices which involve cost-cutting (read job-cutting) - as long as they are negotiated and approved of by the union.

Until now, CWU branches have been able to submit their local strike decisions for executive ratification without opposition: decisions have been pretty well rubber-stamped. This placed democratic control of the dispute at the local level, in the hands of the postal workers, who decided when to act. One union activist told me that the leadership’s ban on local strikes during the period of the ballot is “pissing people off” - it has removed the initiative from the localities. While a national strike is clearly essential, the drawback is that rank and file control is made more difficult. It will be up to rank and file members to seize back the initiative if they want to make the dispute theirs. No doubt this will involve organising strike committees, picketing and whatever else is deemed necessary in the localities.

It is true that the way the strikes developed was messy - there is no doubt that the assault by local management on working conditions had been nationally coordinated and this necessitated a nationally coordinated CWU response. However, leadership attempts to turn off official local action during the ballot may lead to unofficial action if management continues its provocations. While, according to the leadership, this would risk disrupting the ballot by delaying delivery of the voting forms, there have been voices raised suggesting that the ban could undermine the militancy of postal workers during the ballot process. After all, lightning unofficial action in response to the unilateral imposition of changes by local management has resulted in most of the attacks being withdrawn within hours.

CWU leaders obviously needed to respond to membership anger, concerns, and pressure if they want to get re-elected, and clearly they had no alternative but to recommend national strike action. But they announced there would be a ballot in mid-August, so why the delay in organising it? It is pretty obvious that the timing was influenced by the proximity of the Labour Party conference, which takes place in Brighton from September 27 to October 1. The chance of a strike taking place or being called just before or during the conference has virtually been ruled out. Under current anti-trade union legislation a union has to give employers seven days’ notice of strike action, so by the time votes are counted and the result is discussed by the executive the conference will be over.

Although previous CWU ballots have specifically ruled out an all-out, indefinite strike, activists feel that this time the ballot question will be along the lines of a simple ‘Are you prepared to take industrial action?’ Anything more qualified would hobble those calling and organising the strike. So unless the CWU leadership wants its hands tied, which by all accounts is not the case this time, the straightforward version is more likely.

But the leadership faces no serious challenge from forces to its left. Although both the Socialist Workers Party and the Socialist Party in England and Wales have members concentrated in a few locations, neither is a significant force. While the SWP is relatively well organised in London, Manchester and Sheffield, SPEW’s strong points are mainly in the Midlands, around Stoke and Coventry.

Rank and file organisation is the need of the hour in the CWU, reducing the overbearing power of its leaders, who have pretty much free rein to do as they want at the moment. Many in the leadership were elected on the basis of their militant record, but the downside in office is a strong tendency to bureaucratisation. If there is to be a flowering of democracy in the CWU, members need to exercise their own control through office and depot committees even if these are outside the official union structure.