Throughout the summer the mainstream press was full of hot air about a new ‘winter of discontent'. So editors, both tabloid and broadsheet, must have breathed a collective sigh of relief when postal workers walked out en masse in October. With further action threatened by public services workers in response to paltry pay offers and the possibility of large scale action in response to job cuts at the BBC, the media's nostalgic dreams of a rerun of 1979 seem to be finally coming true. But, as usual, reality is more complicated. Unlike much that appears in the media the current strikes are not a repeat, a rerun of past ‘glories'. Workers don't struggle in order to fulfil the media's desires.
Response to an international crisis...
The growing unrest in the public sector is just the most visible national expression of a more general feeling of anger felt internationally throughout the working class. While capitalism's crisis deepens with the shock waves of America's emerging recession reaching every corner of the world, attacks on working conditions continue to increase and the number of job losses in all sectors rises daily. Whether it's on the question of pensions, housing, healthcare, jobs or the environment capitalism can't provide a perspective for the future. It is a system that has reached a stage of decomposition from which it can never escape.
Nowhere is this chaos clearer today than in the housing market. A recent biannual report from the IMF stated that, "housing markets have boomed in a number of fast-growing countries, most notably Ireland, Spain and the UK, with rapid price rises and sharp increases in residential investment relative to GDP exceeding even those observed during the US housing boom" (The Guardian 18.10.7). Put simply a number of European countries risk a US-style collapse in house prices, where according to The Guardian (25.10.7) "sales of existing homes [have plunged] to their lowest rate since records began", as the ‘credit crunch' continues to reek havoc on the American economy.
Economists may argue that the European market is more robust because it hasn't "seen such a marked deterioration in lending standards as the US" (The Guardian 18.10.7) but in Britain at least, a record number of repossessions suggests otherwise. This perspective is reinforced by the IMF report, "the extent of house price over-valuation may be considerably larger in some national markets in Europe than in the US, and there would clearly be a sizeable impact on the housing markets in the event of a widespread credit crunch" (The Guardian 18.10.7). The Bank of England is certainly nervous. In its half-yearly Financial Stability Review it "admits it would need to learn its own lessons from the handling of the three-day crisis at Northern Rock - the first run on a big UK bank in almost 150 years" and is critical "of the way banks made risky loans and them passed them on to other institutions" (The Guardian 25.10.7). So perhaps sub prime loans are not just a US problem? Ten years after Black Monday no matter what the bourgeois press tells us economists are still no better at predicting the markets. Confidence is sliding; confusion reigns.
...an international class struggle...
In response to all of this chaos only the working class is able to provide a perspective. Over the last four years the working class has regained its combativeness, shrugging off the illusions that appeared in the aftermath of the collapse of the Eastern Bloc in 1989. The struggles in, for example, France and Austria around the question of pensions in 2003 marked a turning point in the class struggle. Workers have slowly, tentatively, been returning to struggle. The evidence for this can be seen internationally with strikes stretching from Bangladesh to Brazil, from baggage handlers in London to textile workers in Cairo. As we wrote in International Review 130, "not a month passes without struggles taking place somewhere in the world, giving expression to the essential characteristics of the workers' struggle internationally, and bearing with them the seeds of the future: workers' solidarity across the barriers of corporation, generation and nationality". The recent postal strike in Britain and the potential for further strikes in the public sector must be seen in this context, in the context of the international class struggle, not through the distorted vision of the bourgeois press.
One characteristic of recent struggles is the question of a perspective for the future and the postal strike was no different. The latest official strikes at the beginning of October saw up to 130,000 walk out against the Royal Mail's provocative ‘modernisation plans', in reality an attack on jobs, wages, conditions (particularly so called ‘Spanish practices') and pensions. As one postal worker said to The Guardian (12.10.7), "they [the management] want to turn the screw". The press portrayed the strike as a ‘classic' struggle between Royal Mail management and the leaders of the Communication Workers Union (CWU) reporting on traditional late night meetings at TUC headquarters. But as we explained in WR 308, the CWU were late to ‘take the battle' to the Royal Mail and their recent complete capitulation to all of the Royal Mail's proposals except on the question of pensions, which will be discussed separately, justifies postal workers' concerns that a rotten deal would be forced on them. By removing the pensions issue from the current ‘deal' with Royal Mail management the CWU has been able to get postal workers back to work, at least for the time being. Thus fulfilling their role as a cop in the workplace: workers' militancy has been dampened and the strike movement, albeit temporarily, has been defeated.
...and expressions of class solidarity
This is not to say that postal workers have begun to openly challenge the CWU or have lost their illusions in the unions. Throughout the strike the CWU managed to maintain control over the majority of postal workers, but some interesting developments did take place during the strike that echo recent struggles internationally and provide lessons for future struggles. Throughout the strike there were real expressions of class solidarity. Although only at a local level there was a tendency for unofficial walkouts and wildcat strikes that began in the summer and continues as we write this article. At the height of the strike "some 30 depots out of a total of more than 1,400 were affected by wildcat action in London and Liverpool" (The Guardian 12.10.7). These walkouts were often in response to suspensions of workers who refused to cross picket lines (which in Liverpool included Polish agency workers) and spread spontaneously throughout the country. Workers also expressed solidarity and discussed the progress of the strike online on the Royal Mail Chat forum. The internet has opened up a new arena for workers to discuss, one which has been exploited in a number of recent struggles but most notably during the fight in France against the CPE in 2005 where participants used blogs and online forums to exchange ideas and spread the struggle.
Solidarity is the key to any struggle and although this was a strong feature of the postal strike, particularly in the wildcats, workers weren't always able to extend solidarity between offices and depots. Direct links between different groups of workers weren't made because the struggle remained within the union prison. As we wrote in World Revolution 308, "postal workers can't win alone". Workers in all sectors are under attack: in the health service workers conditions are deteriorating; teachers have just rejected their latest pay offer; on the question of pensions "more than a quarter of Britain's largest companies want to offload their final salary retirement schemes to the new breed of pension buyout funds to escape the increasing costs and regulation of guaranteed pension plans" (The Guardian 19.10.7). Of course none of this is unique to Britain. While the postal workers were on strike, rail workers in France went on strike over the pension reform plans of Sarkozy's government, closing down the Paris transport system.
So, the real lesson of the postal strike is that in order to win, workers need to spread the struggle, both throughout their own sector and across union divisions to other sectors. Workers need to revive the mass meeting where workers from all sectors in struggle are welcome and encouraged to discuss the current situation. None of this is easy: many workers still see the unions as the only way to fight the bosses' attacks and the recent behaviour of the CWU won't change this overnight. These illusions are reinforced by the left who insist that rank and file initiatives can put enough pressure on the CWU leadership to turn it into a ‘fighting union'. But if workers can begin to extend solidarity across these barriers, and there is evidence that a minority of workers have begun to do this (see the article on Dispatch in WR 307), they will see the potential of their collective strength.
From out of the shadows
British anti-parliamentarian communist Guy Aldred wrote in 1916, "The Word [i.e. the struggle against capitalism] must be whispered in the shadows before it is proclaimed from the housetops". The postal strike was part of the ‘campaign of whispering' that is currently taking place internationally amongst the working class. Workers are stepping out of the shadows and beginning to rediscover their collective voice. It may be some time before they are shouting from the rooftops, but the struggles that happen today provide important lessons for the future. Capitalism has no perspective to offer and with the attacks on pensions workers are slowly beginning to realise this. William 1.11.7