Postal workers can’t win alone
130,000 postal workers throughout the country have struck against Royal Mail's devastating attacks on their pay and working conditions. At 12.00 on 4 October postal workers began two 48 hour strikes stretching over two weeks.
It's very clear to all postal workers that the attacks are very real and severe. Under the Royal Mail ‘Plan' management have put forward proposals for an increase in the pay offer of 6.7% over two years (in itself a pay cut with the rate of inflation running at 4%) but at a price! There can be no doubt that RM is attempting to push through their ‘modernisation plan' and this means thousands of redundancies in the industry, estimated at nearly 40,000. Right from the very beginning RM have taken an intransigent stance and not shifted from their initial proposals for ‘flexibility' (here read job-losses and part-time working). These are both the short and long term objectives of RM and, under the guidance of Leighton and Crozier, it has used the tactic of ‘executive action', that is imposing management's plans whether the workers like it or not. They used this tactic of ‘executive action' in last year's pay round, paying RM's initial offer into the posties' bank accounts. RM has employed the same tactic for new starting times and other proposals, such as a plan to change the pension scheme, which would close it to new entrants, and put back the retirement age to 65.
At the end of September after weeks and weeks of prevarication, the ‘talks' between Royal Mail management and the postal union the CWU broke down.
According to the CWU, the new round of strikes will take the battle to RM. Dave Wiltshire, Bristol CWU branch chairman, said in an interview with Socialist Worker: "Management like to portray themselves as tough guys - now they are going to find how tough we can be".
Another union rep - Bradford's Simon Midgley - was nearer the truth when in the same Socialist Worker article he pointed out that "there are some who became a bit cynical when the action was called off for negotiations - but with the right campaign they can be won over. We need some really good union propaganda that spells out the case."
It's true that there is a good deal of cynicism amongst postal workers regarding this struggle and the CWU's delaying tactics.
Throughout the national workforce there is widespread concern that a rotten deal would be forced on them. In particular, postal workers looking to their jobs and conditions are worried that the ‘22 conditions' of change to working practises put forward as part of the RM deal would be accepted whole or in part by the CWU. This unease was accentuated by a total lack of information on how the negotiations were developing.
The unofficial strikes in the summer: expressions of real class solidarity
During the initial round of strikes in the summer, and again in the current ones, the CWU has maintained overall control of the struggle despite the existence of this cynicism. Workers have not challenged the CWU's overall direction of the struggle at national level. However, during the summer, a different tendency appeared at local level, with a number of unofficial walk-outs and spontaneous expressions of class solidarity.
At the beginning of August thousands of Glasgow postal workers walked out after 13 drivers refused to cross the picket line of the official strike at Edinburgh airport. The 13 drivers were suspended, prompting the mass walkout at Glasgow. This movement quickly spread to Motherwell and then to the rest of Scotland. At this point the CWU attempted to end the action, a spokesman telling the Scottish Evening News: "There are hopes of a resolution to the row over the delivery drivers. We are holding out the olive branch. We want to get our members back to work".
This movement prompted by management's strong-arm tactics was to spread to the whole of the country. In Liverpool, three days later, attempts by management to drive in mail resulted in a wildcat which was supported by Polish agency workers. In Newcastle, Hartlepool, Chester, Bristol the same scenario was repeated with solidarity actions after management suspensions. Throughout this period postal workers expressed a very high level of militancy and solidarity with victimised comrades. This has been impressive but there still remains a strong localised aspect to these struggles. With the exception of Scotland (where very quickly area after area came out over the suspensions of the 13 Edinburgh airport drivers) there has been a strong tendency to keep the strikes to local offices and we haven't seen the development of the flying pickets to other areas.
At the beginning of August, faced with an intransigent Royal Mail and a series of militant wildcat strikes, the Communications Workers Union called upon the services of the TUC and ACAS to broker a series of negotiations. Subsequently, Assistant General Secretary Dave Ward announced that the strikes would be called off pending "meaningful negotiations" with RM, and both RM and the CWU jointly called for a "period of calm". Both parties gave a commitment to reach a deal by the 4th of September. That date passed with an apparent deadlock and the deadline was extended to Sunday 10th September. That deadline was also broken and then further extended to the end of September. This has meant that there have been three separate ‘deadlines'. The CWU explained away these talks under the guise of appearing ‘reasonable' and ‘willing to negotiate' as opposed to the intransigent stance taken by RM management.
It is very clear that these delaying tactics were implemented in order to take control of the wildcat strikes. Most certainly they had the desired effect of having weeks of ‘negotiations' to dampen down postal workers' militancy. All this was a real setback for the workers.
The need for the struggle to spread
Despite all this, today on the picket lines postal workers are still expressing a strong resolve to fight RM's ‘Plan', which they understand very well is a massive attack on their pay and working conditions. But how to fight? This is the real question posed in all postal workers' discussions. Alongside the programme of rolling strikes, the CWU are proposing the tactic that postal workers ‘do the job properly'. In particular that posties stop using their cars for the delivery of mail and take authorised meal breaks. This will indeed lead to a jamming up of mail and massive backlogs in the system. But this tactic tends to reinforce the idea that postal workers can win this dispute mainly by keeping it going in their own sector until the management cave in. Experience shows that struggles that remain bottled up in one sector rarely force the bosses to back down, especially when they have the backing of the whole state machine, and when other capitalists are waiting in the wings to profit from RM's difficulties.
As we saw in the students' struggles against the CPE (legislation aimed at increasing casualisation) in France, or the recent textile workers' strikes in Egypt, what forces the ruling class to moderate its attacks is the threat of a massive movement spreading throughout the working class. Solidarity is a fundamental prerequisite. This was shown quite clearly in the series of wildcat strikes in the summer. Postal workers not only have to make direct links between different offices and depots but also to other sectors. As an example, Post Office Counters workers and ROMEC engineers in the same industry are facing the same attacks from the same employer. Yet there has been no attempt to link up the fight against RM. This is because the unions, with the CWU at the forefront, have religiously separated any joint action. And the issue is not just the post office, but the general attack on all workers, especially those in the public sector, who are facing a winter of deepening economic crisis, pay-cuts, redundancies and other attacks. Already a number of health workers, transport workers, education workers and others have shown their solidarity with the posties by joining their picket lines, but what is needed is a common struggle, not just ‘support' from other sectors. That automatically means organising across union divisions through mass meetings open to all workers in struggle. That may seem a big and dangerous step beyond leaving it all in the hands of the ‘professionals' of the trade union apparatus, but it's the only way the workers can really exert their huge potential strength. And any small initiatives in this direction - such as small groups of workers getting together to call for such methods of struggle (like the Dispatch publication mentioned in WR 307 , an initiative of libcom.org) - are steps in the right direction. Melmoth 5.10.07