Abandoning postal strikes in the run-up to Christmas is at best mistaken, writes Jim Moody
Did they jump or were they pushed? No doubt various factors exercised the leaders of the Communication Workers Union in deciding to abandon last week’s scheduled strike action.
As the CWU’s postal executive committee discussions and negotiations with Royal Mail were in closed sessions, we may never know the full facts. Nor is the CWU’s national executive committee forthcoming. But despite the pious promises made in return for the CWU calling off the strike action, postal workers have been placed in an impossible position, and their struggle to secure their long-term future has basically been abandoned by their so-called leaders.
Concessions by Royal Mail are minimal. Its promise to negotiate on job security is by no means a guarantee that there will be no redundancies or even no compulsory redundancies. It was certainly far from sufficient reason to call off a strike when the employer was at its most vulnerable, as Royal Mail was when faced with being unable to deliver a sizeable chunk of the Christmas post.
Worse, many unagreed changes locally imposed by management ‘executive action’ – enforced switches in shifts and delivery rounds, for example, not to mention the ‘temporary’ transfer of mail centre work to ‘out houses’ staffed by casual labour – remain in place. In response branch officers are talking about requesting authorisation for fresh local strikes.
When it comes down to it, general secretary Billy Hayes and deputy general secretary Dave Ward have achieved what they have been suggesting to management in speeches for months: we can call off the strikes if you give us something we can sell. One member of the NEC told me that there was a distinct lack of clarity within the union at all levels on the aims of the strike anyway.
Management has therefore not had to give very much away: Hayes and Ward declared themselves amenable to compromise if management would only show itself in similar colours. That is why some of the reasons put forward for the sell-out are more likely erroneous than not. For example, some have suggested that management might have threatened to press on immediately with derecognition of the union, something that a secret Royal Mail plan did envisage.
Or perhaps the Broad Left minority (eight out of 28 voting members on the NEC), the more rightwing Effective Left (dubbed ‘Defective Left’ by opponents), plus unorganised members – erstwhile militants almost to a man and woman – on leading CWU committees wanted to abase themselves before New Labour to bolster its fading electoral fortunes rather than do the job they were put in place to do: represent the interests of CWU members. As it happens, most of the Broad Left members of the NEC are on the telecoms side.
But neither of these two scenarios appears likely to union militants. They consider it much more probable that union leaders felt they risked losing control of the strikes if they continued with them. To get more than paper concessions from Royal Mail it would have been necessary to escalate the action, without doubt. This would have involved ceding control over the day-to-day running of the strikes to the mass of the members, who would have needed to organise picket rotas, solidarity appeals, etc. without the involvement of national bureaucrats.
Nonetheless, abandoning strikes in the run-up to Christmas, Royal Mail’s busiest time of the year, is at best mistaken and at worst a treacherous turn by CWU leaders. Both sides are well aware that comparatively few items of post are delivered in January, which is the earliest that the union’s leadership expects to contemplate further action, should it deem necessary. And why would it not be necessary, since management promises to negotiate can simply come down to reiterating previous positions on job losses and speed-ups? Having lost its purchase by abandoning strikes now, the union faces an uphill battle against a bellicose foe in the new year. Is it more likely that postal workers would rather fight now or after the Christmas break? No-one can in all seriousness suggest the second, if they want the workers to win.
One militant postal worker to whom I spoke told me that the mood in the workplace is roughly, “What the fuck are we going back to work for?” As days go by, this is settling into a ‘making the best of a bad job’ attitude. He said: “It’s a sell-out masquerading as something else” – an assessment that is still to be disproved. Nonetheless, postal workers do intend pushing the promises about local arrangements in the interim agreement as far as they can – and even further.
Of course, the biggest worry about the November 5 interim agreement among the membership is whether it represents a truce or a surrender. Many militants thought that involving the TUC would mean an immediate cave-in by the union; in the event, it took the CWU leaders a week to come up with the interim agreement with management.
Local industrial action by postal workers was the engine that propelled the union bureaucracy into calling national strikes: first one-day affairs, then a planned, but now aborted, couple of days as we started into November. The evident militancy fuelled by the mass of members’ anger over Royal Mail’s destruction of jobs and speed-ups (euphemistically labelled ‘pace’ in the recent agreement) now has nowhere to go, given the demoralising effect that the leadership’s action will inevitably have had.
Despite calls from some far-left groups for the union membership in the localities to restart the strike under its own control, the absence of rank and file organisation within the CWU means that such calls cannot be fleshed out in any meaningful way. There is no network and no organised debates at any level about the rights and wrongs of the action being taken. No-one, apart from those making the calls, sees this happening. This is a national issue.
The same goes for officially sanctioned local actions (which in any case will clearly not be approved by the NEC). At present, most lower-level union officials at the regional level fully support the interim agreement, so they form a barrier that extends down from national level to any attempt by local union organisations to take back the strike as their own on a large geographical base. Even cooperation across London, which led the way in militancy during the local strike wave earlier this year, is hampered by this regional lethargy.
While the sole Socialist Workers Party member of the national executive, vice-president Jane Loftus, has pitched up at meetings and in articles to promote the strike, there has been hardly a squeak out of the two national executive members who are members of the Socialist Party in England and Wales, Gary Jones and Bernard Roome. But maybe their silence is because of the extreme compartmentalisation within the union that favours bureaucratic manoeuvring by full-time officials. Telecoms members of the NEC are, after all, not expected to interest themselves (or ‘interfere’) in disputes involving the postal side. On the face of it, this obstacle to internal solidarity is in massive contradiction to the solidarity in the rest of the working class movement that postal workers ought to expect as their right in their current struggle.
What the interim agreement does do is pass things back to the localities on a bad basis. They will be left to their own devices, rather than being part of a nationally organised dispute. Local negotiations may have been reinstated, which is all well and good, but how long will they continue and what can they achieve in terms of binding agreements? The interim agreement calls for fortnightly reviews of progress over the next five weeks. Of course, five weeks takes us close to the end of December, which is pretty convenient for management. If anything goes awry by the end of this period of the cessation of hostilities, then we shall be into a stage when Royal Mail is already breathing easier, having finagled a solution to its Christmas delivery problem.
As for the most important questions concerning job losses and speed-ups, the interim agreement has only platitudes to offer. One paragraph reads: “This agreement between Royal Mail and the CWU, reached under the auspices of the TUC, provides the basis for a ‘period of calm’ free of industrial action, during which the parties are firmly committed to work together intensively, to reach agreements that will enable further change and modernisation to be implemented from the beginning of 2010 onward.”
So “modernisation”, though given a different content by management and the CWU, is accepted by both sides. The words “change and modernisation” have a deadly ring about them for the mass of postal workers, however, for they have seen where they have already led: the loss of many thousands of jobs.
It is pretty clear that Royal Mail has sewn up what for it is a great deal in order to buy time – a most valued asset. Management must be cock-a-hoop. At the end of the local review discussions that the agreement document lays down management can quite easily revert to its former positions and again bully, victimise and call for ‘pace’.
By settling for a period of no strikes on the basis of mere promises the union leadership has forfeited any real leverage. None of the CWU leaders who have spoken to meetings of union reps since the interim agreement was announced have dared to suggest that it has been accepted because of the union membership’s weakness or lack of resolve: this has clearly not been the case. There has been no trace of any drift back to work in the course of the strike.
It may not be exactly a perfidious leadership that has brought this dispute to the pretty pass it has, but the inability of rank and file members to bring leaders to heel by organising themselves independently has taken its toll in allowing the bureaucrats free rein. Unless postal workers organise themselves independently of their officials, they will be unable to change this state of affairs – or inspire other workers who, make no mistake, will also be in the firing line.