Victory to the postal workers!

An overwhelming vote for action is expected. Jim Moody gives the background

Postal workers are preparing to step up their fight against Royal Mail’s proposed redundancies and speed-up following the expected overwhelming vote for industrial action due to be announced on October 8.

Such has been the anger against the threat to jobs and conditions that the leadership of the Communication Workers Union, Billy Hayes, Jane Loftus and the so-called Broad Left, had no choice but to give official sanction to local strikes during the three weeks of polling. In just the last 10 days before voting closed, one-day official strikes shut numerous delivery offices around the country - from Coventry to Looe and from Middlesbrough to Ely - as well as across London.

Royal Mail has seen backlogs of undelivered mail build up to such an extent that it has had to rent warehouse space near major depots. Nonetheless, management has made it clear that there will be no overtime available (paid at a measly 33% above normal rates) to clear the backlog, because it does not want postal workers to “benefit” from their industrial action. Sod any purported public duty that Royal Mail might have to actually deliver the mail, of course; Royal Mail is deliberately drawing out the delays in an attempt to erode public sympathy for the postal workers.

The local action since April was part of the build-up towards a national ballot for a strike. As summer came into view, CWU leaders made it clear that once local actions started to involve a majority of the membership then they would issue the ballot call. Now that its 121,000 members have had the chance to express their opinion in favour of industrial action it will be up to the union’s leadership to decide what to do next.

Militants are not expecting an immediate strike. It is thought that leadership noises initially will be about Royal Mail coming to the negotiating table. However, if this does not produce a positive response it is likely that a series of national one, two or three-day strikes will be called. Despite their obvious militancy, postal workers are not at present busting a gut for a costly all-out, indefinite strike. That can, of course, change, depending on how CWU leaders act and how Royal Mail responds following the ballot. An initial, nationally coordinated one or two-day strike may be all very well as a warning shot. It may also serve to boost morale. But above all members must be presented with a winning strategy, part of which must include a willingness to launch indefinite action.

It has been a common criticism within the union that the leadership unnecessarily delayed the strike ballot - there was, after all, local action aplenty almost from the beginning. But the fact that the CWU felt obliged to rubber-stamp continued requests to make local action official is indicative of the rank and file members’ intransigence. As a result, local strikes have played an important role in strengthening resolve. They have shown that postal workers are prepared to take on Royal Mail over redundancies and conditions.

Anger reaches beyond Royal Mail and its plans. There is a real mood for punish the New Labour government by breaking the link with the Labour Party. Unelected business minister and de facto deputy prime minister Peter Mandelson, was vocal in March, pressing for a 30% Royal Mail sell-off in return for the government taking on its £8 billion pension deficit, as well as guaranteeing a continuing universal postal service. Faced with widespread opposition in the labour movement, including amongst Labour backbenchers, the government backtracked, but it clearly remains an aim of the New Labour leadership cabal.

Understandably hostility to Labour, the party of government, has grown and grown. Last month there was a consultative ballot of the CWU’s London membership. A crushing 96% voted in favour of ending affiliation, though some pro-Labour union militants have questioned the conduct of the poll, especially the way ballot papers were processed by branches. Nonetheless, the mood is unmistakable.

At the Trades Union Congress in Liverpool, the CWU proposed a motion calling on the TUC general council to “convene a conference of all affiliated unions to consider how to achieve effective political representation for our members”. It was defeated by around three to two. The motivation was clearly a questioning of the link with Labour. This was something that most union bureaucrats were unhappy about discussing, even if the CWU had been forced, however reluctantly, to put it on the TUC’s agenda by rank and file pressure.

The CWU’s motion to the TUC and the London consultative ballot has been triumphantly reported by the Socialist Party in England and Wales. According to The Socialist, it shows the need for “a new workers’ party” (The Socialist September 30). For some this means the Campaign for a New Workers’ Party, for others Respect, Scottish Socialist Party, Convention of the Left, Solidarity or some other dreadful halfway house. However, many CWU militants did not see it like that. Amongst those behind the motion were members of the Labour Representation Committee. Their intention, doubtless prompted by the anger amongst CWU members, was that the trade union movement as a whole should be given the opportunity to discuss all the issues surrounding the political representation of the trade unions. They certainly wanted to answer those calling for disaffiliation.

However, while there is this groundswell of antagonism against Labour, there is nothing viable on offer as an alternative. Under those conditions calls to ditch the Labour link are in effect calls to depoliticise the CWU and restrict its activity to the purely trade union sphere. This is not something that Marxists should support.

At this stage we should be demanding that union leaders withdraw their blank-cheque backing for Gordon Brown: finance to Labour should be made dependent on the party agreeing to a set of minimum conditions, including a pledge to ditch privatisation once and for all, an end to the current government-backed Royal Mail offensive on jobs and conditions, and protection of hard-earned pensions for all workers. In the meantime support should only be offered to those Labour candidates prepared to accept key union demands.

As might be expected, neither of the two fringe meetings the CWU held at Labour Party conference in Brighton dealt with affiliation. But strangely neither did they deal with the most important issue: the current dispute with Royal Mail. It was something that CWU militants in Brighton challenged. And, as it happened, around 200 striking postal workers from London delivery offices attended the September 27 demonstration outside the Labour conference.

In actual fact, the CWU leadership’s silence about the dispute is symptomatic of its lack of a strategy. It desperately wants negotiations with Royal Mail to get a deal and hopes that the large majority for strike action will be a big enough stick. Unfortunately, CWU leaders are not sharing with the members their thinking on what happens afterwards. If they get to negotiate, the biggest danger for postal workers is that they will sell at least some jobs in order to settle the dispute.

This much has been clear from the start, when union leaders complained that Royal Mail was intent on sackings without consulting them. Their objection seemed not to be job losses as such: just that they needed to be carried out voluntarily after due process. For our part, we do not oppose new technology and ‘modernisation’ per se: we demand that working hours should be cut and pay and conditions improved as a result of more efficient working methods. However, the union leadership hopes to use the ballot result to pressure Royal Mail into negotiating a ‘compromise settlement’ where jobs and working conditions will be exchanged for peanuts.

This is at variance with what has motivated postal workers to go on strike again and again and to vote ‘yes’ to national action. As far as most of them are concerned, their efforts have been directed quite definitely at saving jobs. Not at doing a deal with Royal Mail that involves not sacking quite so many as it would have liked.

Most disturbingly, elements of the left that are to be found within the CWU, largely SPEW and Socialist Workers Party members, have not produced any workable strategy either. They have left such things to the union bureaucrats, with the predictable consequences that we see them making things up on the hoof. There is no challenge from these sources to the current line of the union.

It is crucial that the autonomy achieved by local CWU branch activists in mobilising for local action in the current dispute be built upon. The industry is crying out for rank and file organisation. But most of all we need to encourage postal workers to move beyond the limits of trade union demands into the sphere of politics.

CWU members must be won to fight for a political programme based on working class independence, extreme democracy and genuine internationalism - ie, to the programme of Marxism. Unless workers’ militancy is accompanied by a fight for a party that champions such a programme, even in the most favourable of conditions it cannot hope to achieve more than partial, temporary gains.

In other words, a break with Labourism must be the aim, not with Labour.