CWU conference 2007
Workers in the CWU across the different sectors of the postal industry have given a massive vote in favour of strike action in a national ballot. The results, announced at the CWU conference in Bournemouth on Thursday 7 June, were a victory for activists, militants and the leadership. If Royal Mail does not change course then picket lines could go up within as little as ten days, on the first national postal strike in eleven years.
Postal workers led the way in the vote with a 75.5% vote in favour of industrial action on a 67% turn out. Post Office workers were not far behind with a 73% yes vote. The result of the ballot was announced by CWU president, Pat O’Hara, and greeted by jubilant cheering and chanting on conference floor. From top to bottom, union officials and members were relieved and jubilant at the size of the vote. There were worries hanging over from the 2003 pay ballot which saw a narrow 51% majority against action boomerang on the union. At the time only large-scale wildcat strikes turned Royal Mail back from a swingeing attack on the union.
International day of action
The ballot result came after a loud, angry demonstration of over 1,000 CWU members and supporters marched through Bournemouth on 6 June. Protestors chanted “Royal Mail Not For Sale” and called for Royal Mail execs Allan Leighton and Adam Crozier to resign. Loud “boo’s echoed through the streets as workers passed a WH Smiths store, a symbol of postal privatization as Royal Mail recently announced the transfer of 89 crown post offices to the huge chain.
The demonstration marked the end of the ballot and was part of a European-wide day of action against postal market liberalisation which saw protests take place all over Europe. As many as 1.8 million people demonstrated and some countries saw strikes, such as Belgium, Hungary, Ireland and France against the introduction of competition into the industry.
The EU postal agreements have made 2009 a deadline for the opening of the markets and introduction of competition. The aim is ultimately privatization and building up a few giant European-wide Postal and Logistics multinationals such as TNT that can compete with US companies on the world stage. Providing services to ordinary working class customers is the last thing on their minds. Making profits out of the European postal market (worth €90bn or £60bn) for the big shareholders means everything.
The protests have already scored a victory. EU ministers reacted by dropping plans for the full liberalisation of the Europe’s postal market by 2009. They say this is due to questions over continuing to fund the social provision of post under the market, in particular daily deliveries to remote areas. This leaves Blair and Brown’s government exposed as neoliberals driving forward the market in public services no matter what. It strengthens the hand of the CWU here.
Bosses turn up the heat
Earlier in the week Allan Leighton, chairman of Royal Mail, speaking about the strike, claimed "This will be bloody. We have had the miners, we have had Longbridge and now we have this." He is trying to intimidate workers and the union. Royal Mail knows that it is make or break time for the company, under the stress of competition and a £6 billion pension fund deficit, and Leighton’s words are a warning that the company might fight it out.
Already different sections of the capitalist class and press are already gearing up and trying to isolate the union and turn our leaders away from a strike. The British Chambers of Commerce and consumer watchdog Postwatch have come out in the financial press against a strike. The British Chambers of Commerce is saying that Royal Mail will lose even more business customers and end up in worse shape, while the Financial Times notes that the company could be forced to pay compensation due to failing to meet delivery standards under Postcomm rules.
Postwatch’s complaints of a strike hurting consumers is the most hypocritical, since most non-business users of Royal Mail are being shafted by the companies’ sweeping closures and privatization of post offices and their service is threatened by the company’s plans, which are all geared towards developing the industry to suit businesses’ needs not consumers.
The Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) has turned up the heat further, stating that a strike could have “a devastating effect” on small businesses since 94% of use the Royal Mail exclusively, and 88% use its services every day. They are even calling on the government to step in if the CWU does not submit to Royal Mail – could the government illegalise the strike, like it threatened to do with the Firefighters back in 202?
Finally, the BBC, reporting the strike ballot, went straight to an antiquated Royal Mail sorting office with machinery 15 to 20 years old and then to a private mail firm with shiny state-of-the-art sorting machinery, pointing out the far lower manning levels and lower wages in the latter case. The message; private firms are the future and a strike is doomed from day one.
For an all-out strike
We must insist that the strike goes ahead. Dave Ward stated to conference that the Postal Executive would now give Royal Mail a chance to think it over and respond to the union’s concerns. The idea that peace and tranquility provide the best conditions for negotiations is nonsense. The potential loss of profits and customers concentrates the mind of any boss wonderfully. Ward’s plan actually encourages management to spin out negotiations. The members have voted for action. They should not be kept waiting and waiting whilst talks drag on and on. That is a sure fire recipe to lose the momentum and lower morale. The union is legally obliged to give Royal Mail seven days notice of any industrial action. The union should give notice immediately: that will put the most pressure on them to submit to our demands.
The Postal Executive has not yet set the form the strike will take. The comments of the FSB and other business groups shows that postal workers have the chance to have a “devastating effect” on business, the economy, and as a result the government. Let’s face them with the certainty of this if they do not give way.
An all-out strike could cripple the economy and force Royal Mail’s hand, along with those of its big business allies and the government. The Postal Executive should consult members on the form the strike takes, since one-day strikes here and there will not be enough to make Royal Mail back down. Any management can work around one-day strikes every month or fortnight, stringing the dispute out and refusing to negotiate. Meanwhile the members lose money but without winning a decisive victory. The experience of one-day strikes in recent years in the civil service and the fire service, for instance, is a bad one.
Strike committees, made up of recallable and accountable delegates elected by mass meetings in every workplace and branch, should control the action and any negotiations. Such strike committees would be able to harness the energy and enthusiasm of the rank and file members, ensuring the most powerful strike possible and achieving the maximum outcome, while blocking treacherous deals cut by union bureaucrats behind closed doors.
From pay to privatisation
The union tops keep telling members a fairytale that lobbying the government will be enough to get it to rein in competition in the post and give Royal Mail – and therefore the union and workforce – a breather from market pressures. Billy Hayes, the CWU general secretary states in his blog that a yes vote will aid “our campaign on competition every bit as much as our campaign on wages.” He thinks that the strong vote will show Brown how unpopular Postcomm and competition are and change his policy.
As Robert Peston, BBC Business Editor puts it: “That’s not what ministers and senior officials tell me. The soon-to-be prime minister, Gordon Brown, would rather put on a frock and become a surprise cross-dressing guest in the Big Brother house than concede that competition is a bad thing.” That is spot on. Militants in the CWU must expose this myth that the union leadership keep pushing to justify their strategy of keeping the pay and privatization issues separate in reality – strike for the one, lobbying for the other – and lowers the horizons of members.
Linking the strike vote to competition will not just happen automatically, the union needs a strategy to do so but has none. The strike needs to go from a strike against Royal Mail’s plans to become the strike to close the market, renationalise the competitors operations and merge them into a full-publicly owned Royal Mail.
We must put forward the argument that we want all the investment, all the technological innovations, the whole of the existing fulltime workforce and new recruits too, to go to improving the service we give to our customers and to give a decent living standard to postal workers. We reject the idea that our labour and working class taxpayers’ money should go to paying huge salaries to fat cat managers and dividends to parasitic shareholders. We reject the idea that a part-time over worked and insecure workforce is the only way forward. If that is all capitalism can offer then it is capitalism that has to go.
Billy Hayes, Dave Ward and Co. are afraid of such arguments, terrified of a break with Brown and the now unashamedly capitalist Labour Party. If genuine socialists and rank and file militants raise these arguments in the struggle it will increase the militancy because it will show members and our supporters in the public who use the post offices, that there is an alternative to the market and privatisation lies pumped out by the media.
And we have an exceptionally good situation at the moment to do this. Milliions of other public sector workers are also facing pay limits, liberalisation, and privatization. We should unite our strikes with theirs in order to bust the government’s public sector pay limit, imposed by Brown this year, and turn a coordinated strike into an all-out battle against New Labour’s privatization agenda in the NHS, education, civil service, fire brigade and the post. We should seek similar coordinations with postal workers across Europe.
The leadership will not do that and the left in the CWU – the Socialist Workers Party, the Socialist Party – will do nothing that seriously challenges them on their failed strategy. Militants, activists and the existing left need to urgently hold a conference in order to hammer out a strategy and found a rank and file movement in the CWU and all the public sector unions. Such a movement can seize the time and turn our strategy around, embarking on a course that can win through to a complete victory.