Solidarity vital from other sections of working class
Not surprisingly there is a clear sentiment for disaffiliation from the Labour Party. However, argues Jim Moody, postal workers need a positive political strategy if they are going to win their dispute with Royal Mail
Making a profit from postal services is proving to be more than a little difficult. This is mainly because it is impossible if a universal service is to be continued. But not least it is because postal workers are refusing to bear the brunt of a combined government and Royal Mail assault on their jobs and conditions of employment in the name of modernisation.
Whereas previous walkouts saw different sections of postal workers striking on separate, consecutive days, in the coming round the whole 121,000 Communications Workers Union membership in Royal Mail will be out for two complete days. Not before time CWU leaders have begun to escalate the action, with Royal Mail clearly stringing them along.
The two 24-hour strikes beginning at 3am on Friday November 6 and Monday November 9 mean that postal workers will lose one day’s pay in each pay week, rather than two in one week - slightly preferable from the workers’ point of view. But these are two adjacent weekdays nevertheless - and Saturdays usually see significantly less post handled in any case.
Closed negotiations between the CWU and Royal Mail were continuing once again as we go to press, but the strikes look likely to go ahead after the debacle of the previous week. The CWU’s longstanding concerns over staffing levels and speed-ups have been spotlighted by recent disclosures of secret Royal Mail plans to break the union and force through so-called modernisation. This has stiffened the resolve of CWU members to fight.
In some ways Royal Mail has already derecognised the CWU in practical terms. Management is refusing to seriously negotiate about anything and is provocatively disregarding a whole raft of well established procedures. Militants see this as ‘derecognition by the back door’.
What worries many postal workers is that Royal Mail’s strategy seems to be one of keeping the dispute bubbling on a relatively low level, putting up with one or two days of strikes and using casual labour to clear some of the backlog. Ensuring that nothing is settled before Christmas. While there might have been thoughts of provoking an all-out indefinite strike a month or so back, it is probably now too near the pre-Christmas rush for this to be favoured. This scenario would see management delaying any further blatant provocations until January, when an all-out strike would be less effective.
Militants are therefore demanding a rapid escalation of the dispute. They want more strikes and more strikers. They also demand strong picket lines and non-cooperation with scabs.
Rank and file members worry that CWU negotiators might settle for too little, though it appears more likely that Royal Mail might not allow them even that. If there is no movement after these two new strike days, the national leadership will be forced to step up the pressure. That or accept a humiliating climbdown - it knows it cannot keep calling one strike a week indefinitely, since that would be a sure way of lowering morale and would quickly see support dwindle. So the leadership has to decide how to escalate. But the problem is, as one union militant told me, “They haven’t got an industrial strategy or a political one.”
The CWU leadership is dominated by the Broad Left of mainly former rank and file militants, including those like general secretary Billy Hayes who are now fully committed to Labour, even New Labour, as the lesser evil. When it comes to the revolutionary left, it hardly exists in the higher echelons of the CWU. That said, the union’s vice-president is Jane Loftus, a member of the Socialist Workers Party, who chairs the CWU’s postal executive. On the telecoms side the far left is slightly stronger. The Socialist Party in England and Wales has won a few positions and NEC member Maria Exall is a former supporter of the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty.
Conveniently for the bureaucracy, the CWU is organisationally divided between these two major components. Members of the national executive who come from the telecoms side are not privy to postal matters and are not expected to involve themselves in its disputes. Moreover, none of the 28 voting members of the NEC is allowed to participate in the current negotiations. Ditto voting members of the CWU’s postal executive. Full-time officials keep that prerogative firmly to themselves.
There have been persistent if sporadic demands for the union to adopt a more political approach, in view of the fact that the government has been backing Royal Mail to the hilt throughout the dispute. While Gordon Brown has recently dithered over the issue of negotiations, Peter Mandelson, the business secretary, is determined to show the City and big capital in general that New Labour is more trustworthy than David Cameron’s untried Tories. That it is quite prepared to break the industrial power even of one of its important affiliates. A high-risk strategy.
The attempt to beat the CWU will cause more and more strains within the Labour Party. Indeed it is possible that the CWU dispute has the seeds of a huge crisis for Labour of 1931 proportions - demanding huge cuts in public spending, prime minister Ramsay MacDonald and his rightwing cabinet colleagues formed a national government in August 1931 along with the Tories and a section of the Liberal Party. The subsequent general election in October saw the Labour Party trounced and reduced to a small rump.
If Brown and Mandelson continue to egg on Royal Mail’s union-busting campaign, other trade union affiliates are bound to express unease and even come into direct conflict. They know that their unions may well be treated in the same arrogant fashion and soon. Public spending in Britain is expected to be under constant negative pressure for at least the next decade, according to the IMF and that means not only wage cuts and tax rises, but more and more industrial disputes. So civil war could easily erupt within the Labour Party, with either unions walking out because of rank and file anger, or perhaps the right wing doing a Ramsay MacDonald and aligning themselves with the Tories in the ‘national interest’. Either way, it would mean the end of the Labour Party in anything like its present form.
The clear sentiment amongst the CWU’s membership is for an end to the Labour link. A big majority of postal workers are quite understandably furious with a party whose government is backing, not its affiliate, but rather the union-bashing employers. Few therefore support continuing to pay the political levy to Labour or the union’s annual affiliation fee. Unfortunately this is not complemented by any kind of coherent political alternative - not even a Labour Party mark two. So there exists frustration, incomprehension, nihilism, but no positive proposal that has gained any significant purchase with postal workers. CWU disaffiliation from the Labour Party looks increasingly likely, whatever the result of the current strike action.
In these circumstances the danger is that disaffiliation will lead to depoliticisation. So what is urgently needed is a concerted fight within all affiliated unions to force a wider rebellion among Labour MPs. It is to be welcomed that, at the last count, 133 Labour MPs have supported early day motion 2035. However meek and mild, it implies support for the CWU and criticism of the government: “That this house welcomes the proposals put forward by the Communication Workers Union seeking to find a resolution to the current postal dispute, in particular their offer to explore the possibility of third party mediation; and calls on the government to do all in its power to ensure that Royal Mail responds positively to the union’s proposal.”
But there are 349 Labour MPs, which means that a clear majority - 216 of them - are implicitly backing Royal Mail’s assault. They need to be pursued vigorously. Postal workers, along with the support groups that are beginning to be formed, ought to lobby them at the House of Commons and en masse at their constituency surgeries. The demand is simple: sign EDM 2035.
Some on the moderate left of the Labour Party might not like this approach, given their essentially dependent relationship with the Labour right. Similarly, it may not go down too well with the likes of SPEW or the SWP, whose leaders have already written off the chances of any kind of left fightback in the Labour Party and have based their perspectives on hopes of a Labour Party mark two.
However, driving a wedge between the left and the right in the Labour Party would not only bring more forces to the side of the postal workers: it would also produce an environment in which the kind of party working people need is more widely discussed. For our part we advocate a Communist Party, not a Labour Party mark two.
Postal workers have every reason to reach out to other sections of the working class. Unions which organise lower-grade management must be won to pledge that none of their members will cross picket lines or organise strike-breaking. With or without the help of the TUC there must be the closest cooperation with other unions. Especially those in the public sector. Joint days of action with PSC, GMB, NUT and Unison, for example. This can be pushed forward from above and from below. International solidarity from unions in Europe can and must be won.
The formation of a nationwide network of support groups is an urgent matter. There is a widespread pool of public sympathy for the postal workers that can be transformed into active solidarity. There is also the possibility of standing candidates or backing socialist and left wing candidates in the forthcoming general election. And not only those in the Labour Party. All this points to class politics.
Labour signatories of Early Day Motion 2035
Diane Abbott, Nick Ainger, Graham Allen, David Anderson, Janet Anderson, Gordon Banks, Anne Begg, Joe Benton, Roger Berry, David Borrow, Richard Burden, Colin Burgon, Ronnie Campbell, Martin Caton, Colin Challen, David Chaytor, Michael Clapham, Katy Clark, Tom Clarke, David Clelland, Ann Clwyd, Harry Cohen, Michael Connarty, Frank Cook, Jeremy Corbyn, Jim Cousins, David Crausby, Jon Cruddas, Ann Cryer, John Cummings, Jim Cunningham, Ian Davidson, Janet Dean, Jim Devine, Parmjit Dhanda, Andrew Dismore, Jim Dobbin, Frank Dobson, Frank Doran, David Drew, Louise Ellman, Bill Etherington, Frank Field, Mark Fisher, Paul Flynn, Hywel Francis, Mike Gapes, Neil Gerrard, Roger Godsiff, John Grogan, David Hamilton, Dai Havard, Stephen Hepburn, Stephen Hesford, David Heyes, Kate Hoey, Kelvin Hopkins, George Howarth, Lindsay Hoyle, Joan Humble, Brian Iddon, Eric Illsley, Glenda Jackson, Sian James, Brian Jenkins, Lynne Jones, Martyn Jones, Gerald Kaufman, Fraser Kemp, Peter Kilfoyle, Ashok Kumar, Bob Laxton, Mark Lazarowicz, David Lepper, Tom Levitt, Tony Lloyd, Andrew Mackinlay, John Mann, Gordon Marsden, Robert Marshall-Andrews, Eric Martlew, Chris McCafferty, John McDonnell, Jim McGovern, Shona McIsaac, Michael Meacher, Alan Meale, Andrew Miller, Austin Mitchell, Anne Moffat, Laura Moffatt, Julie Morgan, Chris Mullin, Denis Murphy, Doug Naysmith, Edward O’Hara, Bill Olner, Sandra Osborne, Albert Owen, Stephen Pound, Gordon Prentice, Gwyn Prosser, Ken Purchase, Andy Reed, Linda Riordan, John Robertson, Terry Rooney, Lindsay Roy, Mohammad Sarwar, Jim Sheridan, Alan Simpson, Marsha Singh, Dennis Skinner, Andy Slaughter, Geraldine Smith, Peter Soulsby, Ian Stewart, Howard Stoate, Gavin Strang, Graham Stringer, Dari Taylor, David Taylor, Emily Thornberry, Paul Truswell, Desmond Turner, Rudi Vis, Joan Walley, Robert Wareing, Malcolm Wicks, Betty Williams, David Winnick, Mike Wood, Anthony Wright.