Workers Hammer No. 200

Autumn 2007


Class battle in the postal service

We reprint below a Spartacist League leaflet issued on 8 August and distributed to postal workers battling Royal Mail over pay and in defence of their pensions. In the wake of a number of wildcat strikes in Scotland and elsewhere by postal workers furious at management’s provocative victimisation of strikers, on 9 August the CWU leadership of Billy Hayes and Dave Ward treacherously suspended all further official strikes in order to hold talks with the management. Calling off the strikes did not go down well with the union’s members. At London’s Mount Pleasant sorting office, angry postal workers told Workers Hammer sellers that they feared a sell-out.

As we go to press the CWU has announced that the talks, extended to 9 September, have ended without agreement and that Royal Mail intends to push through its agenda of attacks on the wages and conditions of postal workers. In response the union has now said it is planning to call further strikes before the end of September.

Victory to the CWU Strike!
Postal workers battle Royal Mail and Labour government

The series of strikes begun by the Communication Workers Union (CWU) on 29 June, the first national postal strike since 1996, is the first test of the Gordon Brown-led Labour government and is of vital interest to all public sector workers. Under Tony Blair, Labour opened up the postal service to private competition while Gordon Brown as chancellor imposed a pay freeze on public sector workers and slashed tens of thousands of jobs in the civil service alone. To compete with private courier companies who are vying for the more lucrative parts of the postal service, Royal Mail management is hell-bent on driving down wages and slashing jobs of postal workers. This year postal workers, who are extremely low-paid, have been offered a below-inflation 2.5 per cent pay “rise” — effectively a pay cut — and are facing upwards of 40,000 job losses as well as attacks on their pension arrangements. To defend postal workers against this assault it is necessary to mobilise the full strength of the union to shut down the postal service.

Since the programme of strikes began, postal workers have staged several wildcat strikes which are a result of the ineffectiveness of the sector-by-sector, one-day stoppages that the CWU leadership has organised. The “official” actions often mean that union members in certain sectors are working while the union members on strike that day are picketing outside. Scandalously, the CWU leadership is putting some union members in a position where they are authorised to cross their own union’s picket lines! This is a losing strategy. It is corrosive to class consciousness and indeed is a complete travesty of the most elementary principles of the class struggle: Picket lines mean don’t cross! An injury to one is an injury to all!

Defiantly upholding these principles, including refusing to handle scab mail, postal workers have walked off the job on numerous occasions. On 30 July in Scotland, postal van drivers from Glasgow refused to cross CWU picket lines at Edinburgh airport. When management provocatively threatened these unionists with victimisation, workers in Glasgow walked off the job. When four workers in Edinburgh were then suspended for refusing to handle scab mail from Glasgow, an elementary act of class solidarity, the rest of the workforce walked out demanding they be reinstated. Similar provocations by management have led to walkouts in Oxford, Liverpool and Tyneside.

The CWU leadership’s piecemeal strikes are designed to avoid a serious confrontation with Royal Mail, behind which stands the Labour government and the anti-union laws. At a Liverpool strike rally on 21 July, CWU leader Billy Hayes boasted that the CWU “got the Labour Government to carry a commitment in its Manifesto not to privatise Royal Mail”. Viewing the capitalist government as any kind of ally is the kiss of death in class struggle, where it is critically important to know who one’s enemies are! Regardless of whether Labour currently backs total or merely partial privatisation, management at Royal Mail is bound by the logic of the capitalist market and the quest for profits to turn the screw on postal workers and therefore on the CWU.

Taking on the vicious Royal Mail bosses is no easy matter, and this government would not hesitate to use the full force of the capitalist state — which consists of the police, the army, the courts and prison system — to try to smash this strike. However the working class cannot secure the most basic necessities of life by accepting the framework of the capitalist system. It is necessary to fight for what we need, not what the bosses say they can afford. The question before postal workers is one of forging, in the course of their battles, a new class-struggle leadership of the union. This is linked to building a revolutionary party based on a programme that will lead the working class in a fight to overthrow the rotten capitalist system through socialist revolution.

For a class-struggle leadership of the trade unions

Britain’s “flexible” labour market that Blair and Brown boast about is based on grinding exploitation of the working class, which especially in low-paid jobs includes a large immigrant and minority component. Socialist Worker reports that in Watford an attempt by management to use Polish immigrant workers as scabs failed when the strikers appealed to the workers on a class basis; the majority of the Polish workers refused to cross their picket lines. It is in the vital interests of the CWU and the whole working class to oppose the government’s anti-immigrant racism, including the work ban on workers from Eastern European EU countries, and to fight for full citizenship rights for all immigrants!

In opposition to management’s attempts to hire immigrant workers to break the strike, a class-struggle leadership would organise immigrant workers — and “casuals” — into the unions and demand equal pay for equal work and full union wages and conditions for all workers! The CWU should also unionise workers in companies such as TNT: Organise the unorganised! Against the threat of redundancies, a class-struggle leadership would divide the available work among workers and demand 30 hours work for 40 hours pay and full cost-of-living adjustment. These demands transcend the framework of capitalism and thus require a political battle against the strategy of the CWU leadership.

Billy Hayes and deputy general secretary Dave Ward publicly repudiated an effective and hard-fought “unofficial” strike in late 2003 by over 35,000 postal workers that almost brought the postal service to a grinding halt. Management provocatively threatened to invoke the anti-union laws, but then changed tack and opted instead to collaborate with the CWU leadership. Sabotaging gains that had been won on the picket lines, Hayes and Ward agreed to a rotten deal that surrendered to management on two key points: collapsing two mail deliveries into one, in addition to thousands of job losses. As we wrote in “Hayes & Co sabotage wildcat victory”, Workers Hammer no 186 (Winter 2003-2004),

“This sell-out should come as no surprise to postal workers. While they defended their union in defiance of the anti-union laws by holding fast to their pickets against spying and threats by managers taking ‘notes’ and filming workers, Hayes and Ward refused to back the strike because it was ‘illegal’. Instead, Ward issued a statement on ‘How to Resolve Unofficial Strikes’, proposing that the disputes over pay and ‘major change’ be taken to the arbitration service ACAS. This is a strategy of surrender to the bosses.”

ACAS is not some neutral agency, but a weapon of the capitalist state for the purpose of undermining the unions in struggle.

Break with Labourism: Build a revolutionary workers party!

The key to building a revolutionary workers party is breaking the working class from all illusions in Labour, “old” as well as “New”, which have tied them to the capitalist rulers for almost a century. The CWU leadership’s loyalty to New Labour union-bashers has recently angered the membership, who at the June CWU conference dramatically overturned the leadership’s decision to support Alan Johnson for deputy leader of the Labour Party. One conference delegate compared the decision to “having a fry up for the bailiffs before they repossess your cooker”. Johnson, a former general secretary of the CWU, backed Tony Blair’s privatisation schemes and was responsible for introducing top-up fees for students. New Labour has gone out of its way to demonstrate its hostility to trade unions. However, even before Blair, Labour in office always defended the interests of British imperialism at home and abroad: Labour used troops to break the firefighters strike in 1977, sent the troops to Northern Ireland in 1969 and introduced grotesquely racist immigration controls, including “virginity” tests for Asian women in Britain in the 1970s.

The reformist Socialist Workers Party (SWP) and Socialist Party act as an obstacle to forging a revolutionary party by reinforcing illusions in Labourite reformism. The SWP is acting as a mouthpiece for the CWU bureaucracy, refusing even to mention the anti-union laws while giving a left cover to so-called “left” Mark Serwotka of the civil service union, the PCS, who has been mouthing off about “solidarity” with the postal workers but doing nothing to organise strikes in his own union. Noting that the civil servants face over 104,000 redundancies, the SWP is circulating an appeal for a “common response” by the two unions, “to strengthen the bonds of fighting unity between our two unions” (Socialist Worker, 4 August).

A defiant postal strike could be a launching point for a desperately needed fight back by the civil servants against the Labour government’s attacks. But mobilising the strength of the PCS requires a political fight not only against Serwotka, but against his executive, on which the SWP’s Sue Bond sits and which is dominated by members of the Socialist Party. This leadership agreed to a rotten sell-out deal on pensions in 2005 which means new entrants will have to work five more years (to age 65) to qualify for their pension. The SWP reports that the PCS “still [has] a live ballot for strikes” (Socialist Worker, 21 July) while honking on that: “United union action can force Gordon Brown to act”, which is fundamentally no different than the perspective of the pro-capitalist trade union leadership.

As we wrote in “Hayes & Co sabotage wildcat victory”, Workers Hammer no 186 (Winter 2003-2004),

“The working class has the power to put an end to British capitalism and to build a different type of society, governed not by the quest for profit but by human need. For that we need a party that rejects the bankrupt Old Labour tradition of relying on parliament and other institutions of the class enemy, and instead relies on the mobilisation of the social power of the working class, allied with all those oppressed by British capitalism, in the revolutionary struggle for a workers government that expropriates the capitalist exploiters. That is the kind of party we of the Spartacist League are fighting to build.”