Following the suspension of strike action by the Communication Workers Union, many will cry ‘sell-out' and ‘betrayal' by the union bureaucrats. This article argues that both the methods it used while the struggle was on, and the decision to call a halt to the action, were examples of the union doing its job: sabotaging the class struggle from the inside.
In early November, the Communications Workers Union reached an ‘Interim Agreement' with Royal Mail management. This agreement brokered by Acas and the TUC effectively called off the national postal strikes as they were about to enter a third week. In reaction to a massive campaign of calumny against the postal workers' struggle this agreement was heralded as providing ‘a period of calm' and ‘a strike-free Christmas'. This agreement did not specifically rule out strikes during the period leading up to Christmas period, but provided for local ‘reviews'. As it happens there have been no reviews organised at the local level by the CWU.
It was clear to many postal workers that the Interim Agreement was just a manoeuvre that would undermine the struggle in defence of jobs and conditions. This was very clearly revealed by Dave Ward and the CWU's Postal Executive Committee in the covering letter sent out with copies of the agreement. "We should tell our members that it was right to suspend strike action. We have always promised our members that we would not take unnecessary strike action" This is really rich! At a time when postal workers are fighting massive attacks the union thinks that strike action could be deemed ‘unnecessary'! This has been seen by many postal workers as a ‘sell-out' by the union tops of the CWU. In reality this is not an accidental ‘mistake ‘ on the part of the CWU, or the application of incorrect tactics, but is a continuation of its previous sabotage and isolation of the postal workers' struggle. Above all the CWU wanted to take control of the movement. The CWU, along with the rest of the British bourgeoisie, did not want the inspiring example of a sector of workers, with a reputation for militancy in recent years, fighting against job cuts and worsening conditions and prompting other workers to struggle.
Eighteen months ago postal workers in many offices reacted to local negotiations which were attempting to implement phase 4 of the 2007 Pay and Modernisation agreement. Across the country, but particularly in the London area, workers in local offices fought against attacks by Royal Mail management trying to impose job losses by so-called ‘executive action'. The calling of the national strikes was supposed to end the isolation of local offices by confronting RM management with a national work force.
In section 4 of the Interim Agreement it says "Royal Mail and CWU have reached agreement to accelerate and complete the modernisation programme by jointly resolving all outstanding issues from phase 4 of Pay and Modernisation Agreement 2007".
This modernisation programme agreed to by the union means a massive clear-out of staff. This is the issue which is at the heart of the postal workers' struggle. The programme is not accepted by the majority of postal workers but is being implemented by Royal Mail even during the so-called ‘cooling-off' period. Although postal workers were signed up to the Agreement by the CWU there were several local walk-outs. The national strike was intended to end local initiatives.
The difference between the 2007 and 2009 strikes
In 2007 the strike was defeated by the use of the union tactic of the ‘rolling strike' which, as we said in WR 328, saw "the wearing down of the movement through partial action limited in time and geographical extension". However, during the strikes we saw very important expressions of solidarity, with refusals to cross picket lines and the blacking of mail. The latter was particularly important in Scotland where the suspension of drivers refusing to work blacked mail helped spread the strikes. Even though these strikes did not move out of the framework of the unions, or spread beyond postal workers, they marked a significant extension of the movement, because they were for the most part unofficial and at first out of the control of the union. We also saw the holding of mass meetings. What was decisive was the fact that the struggle didn't spread to other sectors of the working class. This strengthened the position of the CWU and re-enforced the union stranglehold.
In the 2009 strikes we saw postal workers isolated at first at the local level, with some workers being involved in one-day strikes over a period of 15 weeks. Many workers lost thousands of pounds in lost wages trying to defend themselves at a local level. The CWU then called the national rolling strikes, only to call them off three weeks later. All this has had a profoundly demoralising effect. Many workers faced with the attacks on their wages and conditions are considering getting out of Royal Mail before things get even worse. This is an individualist response but not unexpected when the CWU, with the indefinite postponement of the national strike, has reduced the struggle to a local level.
There is a profound cynicism amongst postal workers towards the CWU but not yet a dynamic to go beyond the framework of the unions.