A rank and file organisation is needed, writes Jim Moody
On Friday July 17 around 12,000 postal workers went on strike in Scotland, London and other areas of England, including Bristol, Darlington, Stoke, Plymouth, Leamington Spa, Norfolk and Essex. These workers are determined to resist Royal Mail attempts to destroy jobs.
As we head toward the end of the month, London Communication Workers Union members continue in militant mood, striking again on three successive working days: Saturday July 25, Monday July 27 and Tuesday July 28. Potentially, strike action could snowball across the country, with 30,000 postal workers out on strike in coming weeks. Apart from London, offices in Scotland, Essex, Bristol, Leamington Spa and Wadebridge will be out. Meanwhile, the union has instructed branches not to cooperate with the unilateral introduction of new equipment and changes in working practices.
As usual, union leaders have different priorities from those of the rank and file. While, of course, they must at least attempt to defend their members’ jobs, wages and conditions if they want to retain their membership dues, they are often more concerned with guarding their own role and influence. For these leaders, the strike is mainly about unnegotiated job cuts, something that would render the union bureaucracy redundant. They will usually be prepared to accept the loss of some posts – in this case as part of Royal Mail’s intransigent and government-backed ‘modernisation’ agenda – if they are mutually agreed and can be sold as part of a package of better conditions for those who remain employed.
For the rank and file too, unagreed changes to working practices must be resisted and the role of the union defended, but clearly the bottom line for them is those jobs, wages and conditions themselves. That is why more than 70% of those balloted have voted for strike action to stop any and all job losses.
CWU deputy general secretary Dave Ward has offered Royal Mail a three-month no-strike deal in return for “meaningful talks over modernisation”. Ward was quoted in the Morning Star as saying, “There’s nothing modern in cutting jobs and hours and imposing a pay freeze” (July 20). Quite right. He added: “We need genuine talks on how to modernise the Royal Mail.”
Of course, if ‘modernisation’ is nothing but code for imposing speed-ups and greater workloads on each worker, it should be resisted. And upping the rate of exploitation is clearly management’s intention. Greater efficiency is not about reduced hours at no loss of pay but “cutting jobs and hours and imposing a pay freeze”.
CWU tops are failing to make clear what the employers are really up to. For example, instead of exposing the fact that Royal Mail’s softly-softly approach in Scotland (apart from Edinburgh, that is) is intended to divide and rule, the strike nationally is being allowed to grow only slowly, sorting office by sorting office. While CWU members are showing themselves throughout the country in favour of a strike, Billy Hayes and the leadership are clearly being over-cautious – giving the appearance of building a national strike in this piecemeal manner, but not actually doing so.
This approach opens up the distinct danger that Royal Mail management could at some point counter by making offers sorting office by sorting office: the exact opposite of what members’ feeling nationwide could produce. Nevertheless, for the employers, a wonderful gift of divide and rule. In the absence of moves toward a real national strike, weaker delivery offices and mail centres are left to their own devices – an anathema to what militant trade unionism is all about.
The CWU needs a coherent plan for this dispute. While it is true that soon over half of all postal branches will have had strike ballots, this will likely merely trigger a national instruction for the remaining branches to follow suit. Not a national ballot of the whole membership. This is the key question. With a timid CWU leadership on the one side and a militant rank and file getting stuck into industrial action on the other, something has to give. Although the CWU leadership has not said so, perhaps it believes a de jure (rather than de facto) national strike would fail to win a majority. Most militants would not go along with such an assessment.
Citing a declining economy and the consequent lack of enthusiasm for capital investment, Lord Mandelson, the business secretary, has shelved proposals to privatise Royal Mail. Of course, the fact that opposition from Labour MPs might have translated into a government defeat on this question was hardly insignificant, however.
Nevertheless, one matter that would have got in the way of issuing any kind of prospectus attractive to institutional investors is the problem of the Royal Mail pension fund deficit. It just keeps getting bigger and bigger. No wonder Mandelson shied away. He can only be hoping that a turnaround in the economy will solve the question, raising the fund’s investments and eating into the deficit.
If not, then more drastic action from the government is quite likely. Closure of the pension scheme to existing members has already been threatened, most notably by Royal Mail chairman Donald Brydon, as well as by the chair of the pension trustees.
Union activists realise that the pension shortfall is one reason why Royal Mail will keep going back to the government demanding either increased subsidies or further cuts. In fact, what makes a bad situation worse for the workers is that the pensions issue provides a useful tool to crowbar in privatisation, despite Mandelson’s retreat. Meanwhile, in the absence of a strong rank and file movement, national officers of the CWU will surely be inclined to go the way of other public service unions and accept a two-tier pension scheme.
If nothing else, the current rolling strikes, the threat of privatisation and the pensions crisis – in short a whole series of disputes between Royal Mail and the CWU – illustrate the overwhelming need for rank and file trade unionists to organise themselves. If necessary, in opposition to the trade union bureaucracy. This in the past has proved an essential corrective to the tendency of trade union officialdom to seek a cosy collaboration with management. And, of course, postal workers face not only management but the Labour government of the day.
Unfortunately, however, at present there is very little in the way of grassroots organisation within the union. For example, the Socialist Workers Party’s journal Post Worker does not even pretend to be a means of promoting rank and file organisation. According to SWP postal workers themselves, it is simply a means of getting SWP propaganda to ordinary CWU members.
The SWP’s current policy is one of cooperating with broad lefts. This despite the fact that the CWU Broad Left really only operates on the telecom side of the union. Not among postal workers. A bigger problem is that broad lefts are typically organisations designed to promote left talking trade union officials; and in the last analysis that means subordination to the trade union bureaucracy as a whole.
Last time there was a similar outbreak of rank and file anger, Post Worker carried articles for and against militancy. A liberal act of even-handedness the BBC itself would have been proud of. So even as a militants’ bulletin, Post Worker has shown itself wanting.