Postal workers’ strike

Printer-friendly version

Despite all the talk about the 'end of the class struggle' over the past decade or so, the spectre of the class war just won't go away.

In May and June in France, government attempts to make drastic attacks on the pension system led to a huge number of strikes and demonstrations by public sector workers. Austria and Greece saw large-scale mobilisations by state employees against similar attacks. There have also been a growing number of smaller spontaneous walkouts, like the one at Heathrow last summer. Perhaps even more important is the mounting evidence that workers everywhere are beginning to ask questions about what future capitalist society - with its plunge into poverty, war and environmental destruction - holds in store for us all.

The current unofficial strike of around 25,000 workers in the post office in the UK is the latest expression of this world-wide revival of struggles. And there is ample evidence that the ruling class has deliberately provoked the postal workers, with the aim of crushing them and so 'setting an example' to other sectors of the working class - just like they did to the miners in the 80s. Government and bosses on the offensive

As with the miners in the 80s, there are of course issues specific to the postal sector.

After years of poor industrial relations, mounting financial losses and the impending pressure of competition from the private sector, the Royal Mail's newly installed senior bosses, backed in different ways by the government and the Communication Workers' Union (CWU), have sought to attack the pay and working conditions of its employees. An estimated 17,000 of the required 30,000 job losses have already been achieved and the 'Way Forward' national agreement provides the basis for brutal increases in productivity (i.e. exploitation).

The post office bosses thus have every interest in having a showdown with their workers - in provoking a strike that will give them the pretext to dismiss militants and impose an even more ruthless regime in the workplace. Their behaviour in the past couple of weeks has been provocative in the extreme.

Almost immediately after the strikes around the issue of London weighting, postal workers in the capital, and increasingly across the country, have been faced with a wave of intimidation, bullying and enforced changes to working practices by local managers. Those who have refused to accept the changes have been suspended. Their fellow workers have walked out on unofficial strike in solidarity. Managers have sent unsorted mail (so-called 'blacked mail') to other centres, where workers have refused to touch it. They themselves get suspended resulting in more walkouts. Thus the strikes, initially involving relatively small, petty incidents, escalated into a veritable national crisis. And once the strike had reached this level, there were further revelations about how Royal Mail managers were being told by their superiors to demand entry to mass meetings, take photos of picket lines, and engage in other forms of witch-hunting.

So either the Royal Mail has suddenly gone barmy, or this is part of a conscious strategy of provocation. And if it is, it is impossible to imagine that the higher-up bosses aren't acting in concert with the government.

What's at stake in the post office isn't just the question of making it more competitive economically at the workers' expense. The postal workers have in the last two decades established themselves as the most militant sector of the entire working class in Britain. Time and time again they have shown their contempt for the official union rule book and have responded to bosses' attacks by walking out on the spot, and deciding in mass meetings whether or not to go on strike, instead of allowing their anger and unity to be dispersed by official ballots.

This is why the government - the executive arm of the capitalist state - has every interest in smashing the postal workers and their 'bad example'. Faced with a rising tide of working class anger, and a slow but real development of class consciousness, they hope that by taking on and defeating the postal workers they will be able to nip this renewal of class struggle in the bud.

The postal workers have shown a tremendous determination to defend themselves and an inspiring ability to spread the struggle within their own sector. But, as with the miners in the 80s, one sector alone cannot push back an attack that is being coordinated from the heart of the capitalist state. The postal workers have shown what solidarity among postal workers means. To fight off this and future attacks they need to call on the solidarity of all the other sectors who are becoming increasingly discontented - local government workers, firefighters, airport workers and all the rest�and these other sectors will need to link their demands to those of the postal workers. Is this an attack on the union?

On picket lines up and down the country, postal workers have expressed the belief that the bosses are out to smash the CWU. This idea is reinforced by union officials and by papers like Socialist Worker: "�the union's future, indeed its whole existence as an effective organisation, is now on the line" (Socialist Worker, 1/11/03). Their national leaflet dated 28/10/03 is entitled 'One Union, One Fight'. They want the workers to see the defence of the union and the defence of their pay and working conditions as one and the same.

On the surface it appears that the attack on the postal workers is an attack on the union: one of the conditions for a return to work at Dartford, for example, has been an end to time granted for union activities during the working day; in many sorting offices, union representatives were the first to be suspended for rejecting additional management demands.

But the ruling class is well aware that it needs the unions to maintain order in the workplace. The response of the official unions to this dispute has once again shown that the union machinery is on the side of the bosses, not the workers. The national leaders are distancing themselves from the strike movement: "The CWU has repudiated this action and has made it clear to our branches and members that we do not support unofficial action." (CWU press release, 28/10/03). Furthermore, the union would dearly like to gain some control over the situation. When Allan Leighton, the Chief Executive of Royal Mail, failed to convince a mass meeting of strikers at the Greenford centre in West London to return to work, the leader of the CWU, Dave Ward, said "I hope this experience has impressed on Allan Leighton that he needs to instruct his managers at every level a need to discuss, consult and negotiate with the CWU. The only alternative is industrial anarchy" (CWU, 27/10/03). Clearly the last thing the unions want is 'industrial anarchy'! The role of unions everywhere, since 1914, has been to keep workers' struggles in a prison of legality, to sabotage efforts by workers on strike to extend their struggles outside their immediate locality and the particular sector involved.

However, a militant sector like the postal workers can't be kept under control merely by the well-paid bureaucrats at the head of the CWU. Thus, although it doesn't officially support the strike, the union is giving free reign to its rank and file network of shop stewards and local branch officers, leaving them to keep control of the mass meetings and the picket lines. While these people may well believe they are acting to defend their fellow employees, workers must never forget that their role is to serve the interests of the unions and thus of the employers and the state.

What the ruling class wants is not to liquidate the CWU, but to increase its control over the workforce - to make postal workers give up their bad habits and keep to the union rule book. What it wants is for the CWU to ensure that there are no more wildcats - only symbolic, ineffective official strikes. No more direct and immediate appeals for solidarity, only paralysing union ballots and cooling-off periods.

The lesson that workers in the post and elsewhere must draw from this is not that they should rally to defend the union. They should instead defend everything that expresses their independence and their ability to organise themselves. Mass meetings must be real centres of discussion and decision-making, not answerable to any union apparatus. Delegations to other workers, or to negotiate with the bosses, must be directly controlled by the mass meetings.

Above all, we have to reject the 'corporatist' trade union view that each sector should stick to its own grievances and demands. We must recognise that workers everywhere face the same attacks, and unite our resistance against them.

WR, 1/11/03.


Recent and ongoing: