The politics of the post strike

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The postal workers' strikes have seen 130,000 workers taking action, with picket lines in every town and city across the country. Charlie Kimber looks at the impact of the dispute and how the political fallout has led many union members to question trade union links with the Labour Party.

For the past four months the strikes in Royal Mail have been the central question of working class struggle. It was always going to be a major battle, an important one for every trade unionist.

In early June some 130,000 workers in the CWU union brushed aside the propaganda from their bosses and voted overwhelmingly for action against pay cuts and 21 changes to working conditions - 77 percent voted yes on a 67 percent turnout. The vote was so overwhelming that the majority of workers at every Royal Mail branch in the country voted to strike. A series of one-day and sectional strikes eventually forced the bosses and the government to offer talks, a huge reversal from an employer who had said that "the deal is the deal" and no changes could be made.

Weeks of talks produced no result - and then the employers, backed by Gordon Brown, confronted workers with an even more vicious package. It was designed to break the union in order to impose a total transformation of working conditions. A further series of official and unofficial strikes brought Royal Mail to a crisis, and threatened to destabilise Brown's strategy towards the public sector.

A new deal emerged, which the union's postal executive (after a bruising struggle) has recommended subject to the achievement of certain guarantees from Royal Mail. If those assurances are given, workers will vote on whether to accept the offer. There is serious resistance because it gives away crucial concessions on pensions, "flexibility" and jobs as well as pay.

Throughout the dispute CWU members have shown great courage, sacrifice and solidarity. Far from crumbling, the strikes became more solid as they went along. Scabbing was never significant, and the union leaders' greatest problem was holding back unofficial strikes rather than persuading members to go into battle. During the strikes over 5,000 workers joined the CWU, emphasising that struggle builds the unions. New reps emerged in offices, fresh layers of leadership that could revive the union - if they are not repelled by the result of the strike. Other trade unionists have raised money, come to the picket lines and helped organise joint union meetings.

It is unclear what will happen in the next few weeks, but there are two areas where lessons can be drawn. The first is the question of unity between the postal workers and other groups of workers. Royal Mail workers are a very powerful group. As their strikes showed, they can cause huge backlogs of mail and massive problems for big business. According to Royal Mail, ten customers account for 20 percent of the total market, 100 for 40 percent.

The people who shout loudest during a post strike are the banks and utilities whose cashflow gets hit. In addition the strike underlined that competitors such as TNT, DHL and Business Post have a somewhat crucial defect - they all rely on Royal Mail to deliver the letters they collect and sort. The competitors are also customers of Royal Mail, and rely on its infrastructure and workforce. The private mail firms were hit hard by the strikes because they could not carry out their usual business of doing the relatively easy bit (collecting and sorting mail) and then dumping it on Royal Mail to do the deliveries.

Postal workers have real leverage, and had Brown called an election in early November he would have faced real problems if the strikes had gone ahead. But even postal workers need allies when they are opposing such a central plank of government policy.

Need for reinforcements

The post was the frontline of a wider assault by the government. Brown is trying to hold pay "rises" for six million workers below the rate of inflation - a real pay cut. He wants this not just for this year, but for at least three years. At the same time he wants mass job cuts, and each worker working harder and faster ("modernisation"). This is a strategic project where money is channelled away from areas of public service deemed inefficient in order to create resources to make big businesses more internationally competitive, hold down taxes for the rich and companies, and keep funding war and internal repression.

In 1996 eight days of 24-hour national postal strikes over an extended period eventually forced Royal Mail to back off from a far-reaching transformation of ways of working. But the stakes this time were much higher, and the need for reinforcements correspondingly greater. The success or failure of the post strikes was always going to have important implications for millions of other workers. So every union should have offered solidarity, and any union with disputes at the same time should have attempted to coordinate their action with the CWU.

The charge sheet is damning. The postal workers' first strike was on 29 June. The last strike during this latest phase of the battle with Royal Mail ended on 18 October. For 110 days the postal dispute was taking place. Of course it was punctuated by long periods without strikes. But, even if we restrict the analysis to the official strikes, there were six days of national strike action involving 130,000 workers, and a further ten days when one or other section of Royal Mail was out. So there were 16 days for another union to get on board and strike alongside the CWU. And yet it did not happen.

Who is to blame? In the early days most CWU leaders were either indifferent or hostile to the idea of striking alongside other unions. Labour loyalists such as CWU general secretary Billy Hayes were fearful that they would be portrayed as launching a "political strike", and as Gordon Brown has only just come to office a direct confrontation with the government was to be avoided. Others argued that a joint strike would draw attention away from the CWU's issues. Still others were vaguely in favour, but refused to give more than seven days notice of strikes in case it helped Royal Mail bosses to organise scabbing - and with only seven days notice other unions would find it impossible to come on board.

But gradually the argument inside the union shifted. Delegations from other unions to CWU picket lines helped to make coordinated action seem a possibility rather than just an abstract idea. When CWU members spoke at or attended rallies with other unions they began to feel they were indeed the vanguard of a broader battle, and that others would support them. Petitions began to circulate in July calling for CWU leaders to start urgent negotiations to strike alongside others.

Mark Serwotka, the general secretary of the PCS civil service workers' union, played a very important role. His speeches calling for coordinated action between the PCS and other unions electrified audiences of postal workers. Here at last a union leader was fighting to get the unity that could beat Brown. The PCS executive confirmed that Serwotka could hold meetings with the CWU to offer full support for its strikes, and coordinated action after the first round of strikes.

By mid-July the pressure from below had caused a shift, and a majority of the CWU's postal executive were in favour of seeking serious talks with the PCS over a date for action. Serwotka was invited to address the CWU leaders. But at just that point the PCS drew back. The union had started its own consultation on the next steps in its own campaign. The majority on the PCS executive felt nothing could be done until the consultation was over and that decision effectively ended the possibility of a joint strike. Other unions, such as Unison, could have struck with the CWU. But its leaders ran away from a strike in the NHS.

The battle to unite the fightbacks continues (in Unison and the PCS, for example). We need stronger rank and file networks to force union leaders to fight, or to win unofficial solidarity if they won't. But that can't be divorced from the question of politics. The central reason why there was no coordinated action is that union leaders were terrified of confronting a Labour government, especially once a November election seemed possible. Building greater workplace strength and building a political alternative to Labour remain inseparable.

And this leads to the second, and probably the most enduring, problem revealed by the dispute - the union's relationship with Labour. When the strikes began most postal workers saw the struggle as one against the hated Royal Mail bosses Allan Leighton and Adam Crozier. But as it went on, the role of the government became ever clearer. In mid-July Labour MP Emily Thornberry asked Brown if he would "join me in urging Royal Mail to enter into meaningful discussions with the CWU and thus ensure that the jobs, and the good pay and conditions of Royal Mail employees are protected".

This was a very moderate request. Thornberry was only asking Brown to support genuine negotiations during an important industrial dispute.

But he pointedly refused to do so. Indeed he did not even refer to the question of talks in his reply. Instead he demanded that "all workers should look at pay settlements as a means by which we can conquer inflation over the next few months". He was instructing the victims of inflation to accept pay cuts in order to hold down inflation!

Outflanked by events

As the strikes continued Brown condemned them as "completely unjustified" and business secretary John Hutton called for the union to accept what the bosses wanted on the grounds that "there is no way Royal Mail is going to be successful unless it reforms and changes and becomes as efficient as some of its competitors" - support for pay cuts and worse conditions.

Inside the union leadership Billy Hayes tried his best to deflect attention away from Brown. But he was steadily outflanked by events. Even before the first strike he faced revolt over his support for Alan Johnson as Labour deputy leader.

In a very prescient contribution to this debate at the CWU conference in June, London delegate Paul O'Donnell said, "In a short time we will be starting a dispute which could determine the future of the Post Office and this union. We need to fight on the industrial and political fronts. Backing Johnson sends out a wrong message. It's like having a fry up for the bailiffs before they repossess your cooker."

And during the dispute feeling grew against paying the bailiff's wages at the same time as he was repossessing you - paying money to Labour while the government was assaulting the union and its members. The idea that the strike "is all about Brown" became common currency on picket lines.

During the second strike, on 13 July, hundreds of postal workers besieged Royal Mail headquarters on Old Street, London. It was a heated occasion with managers quaking in their offices as angry workers hammered on the doors. Outside the biggest cheers were for a speech from the union's deputy general secretary Dave Ward, who said there was "a heavy responsibility on the people who really run the post office - the government. It's just not acceptable that we have a bloody Labour government which is doing nothing while Leighton and Crozier get away with wrecking our industry."

The pressure grew to such an extent that Billy Hayes was forced to attack the government. "If this was Northern Rock they would be pouring money in. There is no indication of their concern in the slightest," he told a recent rally.

There is now a raging debate about how the union should spend its money. Thousands of CWU members are withdrawing their permission to give part of their subscriptions to Labour, or withdrawing from the political fund entirely.

Following on from the expulsion of the RMT from Labour, and the withdrawal of the FBU, the debates inside the CWU are extremely important. Seven years ago the CWU conference voted to withdraw "all financial and moral support to the Labour Party" if the government privatises any part of the postal industry.

Two years later the conference voted that "donations to the Labour Party should be reduced", and that "the CWU shall affiliate to the Labour Party on the basis of the minimum amount". The union members agreed the money saved should be used for "political campaigning around issues of concern to the CWU".

Every year since there have been discussions about whether or not to break from only supporting Labour. Now the issue cannot be avoided. If the union is to keep members fully on board with paying the political levy, it has to reflect the feeling of deep anger over what the government has done. It has to democratise the fund and allow branches to support left Labour MPs and councillors, and left wingers in other parties, instead of just handing the money over to Labour.

A great industrial battle (which may be far from finished) has emphasised how politics and economics are intertwined, and how workers can be won both to serious struggle and to breaking from Labour.

For updates on the dispute go to the Socialist Worker website.