The Communication Workers Union (CWU)’s executive is balloting all members for strike action. If it goes ahead this would be the first national postal strike in a decade.
Interesting questions are raised by the build up to this dispute relating to New Labour's economic neo-liberalism, the failure of the unions to oppose this ideologically, and a new direction in the SWP's industrial policy.
Deputy General Secretary Dave Ward has said “Royal Mail has abandoned our agreed approach in favour of a short sighted Business Plan that amounts to a cost cutting frenzy, reductions in pay and a defeatist attitude towards competition. This Business Plan is designed to fail and demonstrates a real lack of vision by the people running the company”.
The agreed approach that Dave Ward is referring to is “Shaping the Future” by which the CWU agreed a shared framework with Royal Mail for dealing with the impact of competition and automation.
According to the CWU’s account: “a centre piece of the agreement was Royal Mail’s commitment to negotiate change, whilst focusing on higher basic pay and permanently raising the value and status of jobs by April 2007.”
Yet now, according to the CWU: “Royal Mail’s business plan will result in 40,000 job losses, attacks on pension arrangements, closures of mail centres and delivery offices and a reduction in pay for postal workers to ‘the market rate’. It will also result in a reduction and decrease in quality of service for the public. Royal Mail claim that postal workers are overpaid by 30%.”
The union is absolutely right to stand up to management, and should be actively campaigning for a YES vote for a strike.
But there is a need for serious questioning of the CWU’s approach, and how they have ended up where they are.
So-called “liberalisation”, opening up the publicly owned Royal Mail to competition, was introduced in January 2006, as a result of EU legislation, but the free market zealots of New Labour decided to deregulate three years earlier than competitor countries. The response to this from the CWU was revealing. Billy Hayes complained “We all know that postal liberalisation is coming, but the CWU cannot understand why a British regulator [has placed] the nation’s postal service at a competitive disadvantage” (emphasis added)
All along the CWU has accepted that liberalisation and competition could not be opposed, and therefore even if Royal Mail does stay in the public sector, it will be subject to market pressure. So it will be run as a business not as a public service.
Despite “Shaping the Future” being hailed as a landmark agreement by the CWU, literally before the deal had even been approved by the membership, the Royal Mail management were imposing changes in work practices outwith the agreement, in pursuit of profitability. So why did the CWU recommend acceptance?
The Executive Committee of the union had instructed the union’s leadership to ballot the members for a national strike, and John Farnham, a Postal Exec member claims that the unions leadership failed to carry out the instructions of the EC. This was a very serious situation, but in fact there was no seriousness about a fight at the top and all but one member of the EC voted to accept “Shaping the Future”, including two members who are involved in the SWP’s Post Worker publication. The SWP’s Jane Loftus failed to attend the EC on the crucial day.
According to one of Post Worker’s supporters on the exec, Norman Candy, the EC were aware that the mood of postal workers was up for a fight, but they conceded the strategic arguments over competition and profitability, in exchange for some debatable tactical gains over pay. As a Socialist Worker leaflet correctly explained, management had retreated slightly on pay, but the other "gains" were simply to allow the CWU to continue to organise as before, and an efficiency agreement that might bring more take home pay, but at the expense of jobs.
It seems remarkable then that the CWU exec approved it, and there is some talk that Billy Hayes had shaken hands on a deal with a government minister even before the EC met, which was why the ballot never happened.
But the real issue here is that the CWU needed to take a political stance against liberalisation, and demand that Royal mail continues to run as a public service. This is a long haul argument, but is one that the RMT has effectively mounted over renationalisation of the railways. The advantage is the not only can we start to turn the tide over the political idea there is no alternative to the market, but it would make the workforce more confident and inspired to defend themselves. It is never a good way to fight, to first concede that your opponent is correct in principle!
The role of the left in the union also needs to be examined. The SWP led publication Post Worker (PDF) took no position on the vital vote over “Shaping the Future”. Instead of a clear recommendation for a NO vote, Post Worker published a “debate”, giving most space to NEC members Norman Candy and John Farnan arguing in favour of acceptance.
In the face of the EC recommending acceptance, and no clear opposition coming from anywhere, not a single Royal Mail office voted against the deal.
The rationale behind the SWP’s “Rank and File” papers is that they bring together militants who are prepared to organise independently from the official union machine if needs be. Of course there is always a tension in that any genuinely independent grassroots group may disagree with the position of the SWP – as it did here. The SWP did oppose “Shaping the Future”. But there were several grassroots activists who wanted Post Worker to come out with a clear NO recommendation, and it seems the SWP stepped back from this because it would have meant breaking from theie supporters on the EC.
Over questions of tactics there is room for compromise and manoeuvre. But Post Worker should not have compromised on a question of strategy and principle and no ground should have been given to the idea of profitability and opening up Royal Mail to competition. If they had to break with some of their non-SWP supporters, then so be it. In actual fact, this seems a decisive break with the historical industrial policy of the SWP – but according to the reports of the SWP’s last conference, the industrial section heard no debate about this, although Socialist Worker did report how a postal worker has set up an anti-war groups at his sorting office!!
So the current dispute is a consequence of management pursuing profitability, which the CWU has already conceded in principle. Last year the issue was a bit abstract, and many posties may not have realised how “Shaping the Future” was going to affect them. This time around the issue is not abstract, it is a concrete and immediate threat to jobs, pay and conditions.
The CWU needs to work for the biggest possible vote for a strike, and the left in the CWU needs to consider how to raise the issue of opposing in principle the operation of the market.
This is a chance for the CWU, and the left in the CWU, to recover ground they lost last year.