Workers Hammer No. 209
CWU leaders demobilise strikes
Postal union in vital struggle for jobs
DECEMBER 19, 2009 — The Royal Mail bosses, with the Labour government behind them, are hell-bent on “reform” in the postal service and they are out to crush the union to get it. The workforce has shown its will to fight to defend jobs and conditions with months of regional strikes and finally, in October, a series of national strikes. But on 5 November Dave Ward, deputy general secretary of the Communication Workers Union (CWU), signed an interim agreement with Royal Mail, suspending the national strikes just when they had begun to bite. The union leadership’s pledge of class peace in the run up to Christmas — the heaviest mail period of the year — without extracting any major concessions in the long-running defensive battle against Royal Mail, was tantamount to surrender. At the core of the interim agreement is the lie that the interests of the workers and bosses can be “aligned”.
When the national strikes began in October they were resolutely undertaken by postal workers fed up to the back teeth with relentless attacks. In an article entitled “Faced with such an attack, it would be folly not to strike” (guardian.co.uk, 21 October 2009), Seumas Milne wrote: “In recent months, Royal Mail’s meat-headed management has accelerated attempts to impose job cuts and office closures, longer shifts and increases in the working week, heavier workloads, longer and faster delivery rounds, more casual and part-time working and effective cuts in pay — while reports of rampant bullying, harassment and sackings on paper-thin pretexts multiply.”
Milne reports that 63,000 jobs have been cut in the past five years. With more of the same in store, what was necessary and overdue was the mobilisation of the full strength of the union to shut down the postal service. Instead the CWU leadership, before caving in and suspending the strike, repeated the piecemeal, half-hearted strategy it carried out in the last national strikes, in 2007. Sector-by-sector one-day stoppages with one section working while others picketed, placed CWU members in the position where they were meant to cross their own union’s picket lines. This is a losing strategy, corrosive to class consciousness and a 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!
A week after the 8 October ballot results showed the CWU membership more than ready to do battle, a Royal Mail document called Dispute: Strategic Overview was leaked to the BBC. A declaration of war on the union, the document lays out the company’s strategy of “actively down-dialling [the] role of [the] union”, reducing its rights to the “legal minimum” and ramming through its decreed changes to working conditions “with or without union engagement”. Both Royal Mail and Peter Mandelson, the Labour government business secretary, coyly denied knowledge or authorship of the document but as CWU general secretary Billy Hayes commented, it represented “a cynical attempt to derecognise the union” (cwu.org, 16 October 2009). Meanwhile Royal Mail proceeded with plans to hire 30,000 scab workers and was setting up and operating scab mail centres to do the work of the unionised workforce.
Royal Mail was playing hardball. At the same time the strikes were solid, and a backlog of tens of millions of letters and parcels strengthened the union’s hand. The agreement suspending the strike provides no stop to the job-cutting plans of Royal Mail, nor to the changes to working conditions — so called “executive action” — which have been imposed. Back at work, slammed against the wall by the same regimen of bullying, threats, work overload and harassment, workers’ frustration at their leaders’ capitulation mushroomed. Bowing to pressure from the base, London regional CWU officials in late November called on the national union executive to restore the strike, and it is not precluded that growing pressure could force the national executive to do so.
From the outset of the economic crisis, the Labour government has been clear that its medicine for dire recession is to slash jobs and wages, and that the public sector unions must be brought to heel. This comes on top of decades of decimation of industrial jobs. An article on the Financial Times website titled “Lofty ideals give way to thwarted hopes” notes: “The rate of decline in the manufacturing share of the economy under Labour has been 2.7 times faster than under Mrs Thatcher’s government” (FT.com, 2 December 2009). Many other public sector workers have closely watched the unfolding battle of the postal workers, understanding that the outcome would affect their own struggles. The fact that unionised public sector workers on scandalously low pay have not struck in their hundreds of thousands alongside the postal workers is down to the refusal of the union leaders to engage in concerted class struggle against the Labour government.
No to Labourite class collaboration!
Underlying the recent strikes is the unfinished business from the 2007 battle in the post office, when the CWU leaders called off national strikes against the wage and job-slashing of Royal Mail and agreed to the company’s demands for “flexibility”, cuts to pensions and a paltry wage rise. Labour’s plan to privatise the postal service has been shelved for now, but Royal Mail is nevertheless bound by the logic of the capitalist market. Its drive to modernise the postal service is in response to fundamental changes the industry has been undergoing internationally. According to the Economist (15 October 2009) replacement of billing, advertising and personal written communications by email and other electronic means, together with competition from private companies such as TNT, means the Post Office’s traffic is shrinking by an estimated ten per cent yearly. Management blames falling revenue, predating the economic recession, for a deficit estimated at up to £10 billion in its pension scheme. Automation measures in Britain lag behind other European postal systems, and the postal service plans to bring in “walk sequencing” equipment in the New Year which will greatly cut the time and manpower now employed in sorting mail.
Defence of the working class against economic attacks and union busting demands a class-struggle fight against the bosses and their government with its panoply of anti-union laws. This cannot be won within the framework of the capitalist profit system which demands job losses and a “flexible” low-paid workforce. It is necessary to fight for what the workers need, not what the bosses say they can afford. What’s needed to fight against job losses is a shorter working week with no loss in pay, and spreading the available work, as part of a fight for jobs for all. Wages and benefits must rise with the rate of inflation; benefits for the unemployed must be extended until they get jobs. All pensions must be guaranteed by the government. Marxists do not oppose technological advances in industry, but fight for job re-training at company expense when the results mean that fewer workers are required. These transitional demands are designed to demonstrate that the struggle against unemployment and attacks on the living standards of the working class must be linked to the overthrow of the capitalist order. But such a strategy requires relentless political struggle against the politics of the trade union leaders.
Bureaucrats such as Hayes and Ward are experienced hands at selling out the battles of their besieged membership, sowing demoralisation within the union. As in the wildcat strikes in 2003, Hayes & Co now look to the ACAS conciliation service (specified in the interim agreement along with the TUC) to broker talks with the bosses. ACAS is not some impartial arbiter, it’s a weapon of the capitalist state to undermine class struggle. And it is a crystal clear snapshot of the class-collaborationist politics of the TUC that they brokered the interim agreement between Royal Mail and the CWU in November, working to “align” the class interests of the workers and bosses, which are counterposed.
What we wrote of the supposedly “left-wing” trade union leaders of the Hayes/Ward ilk when they sold out the wildcat strikes six years ago is equally true today: “It’s not simply cowardice, it’s political. To wage such a struggle would mean a direct confrontation with Blair’s Labour government. But while they decry ‘new’ Labour’s attacks on the unions, the policies of the ‘awkward squad’ are premised on the lie that the workers’ interests can be served by parliament, the very institution of capitalist class rule in this country” (Workers Hammer no 186, Winter 2003-2004). In the course of battling against these attacks it is necessary to forge a new, class-struggle leadership in the trade unions, linked to the building of a revolutionary party to lead the working class in a fight to overthrow the decrepit capitalist system through socialist revolution.
Crucial to that struggle is defeating the poisonous chauvinism of the official trade union leaders such as the Unite and GMB bureaucrats who led the reactionary strikes against foreign workers in construction in early 2009. As we wrote in “Down with reactionary strikes against foreign workers!” (Workers Hammer no 206, Spring 2009): “The strikes were not intended to secure more jobs or indeed any gains for the working class as a whole, nor to defend existing jobs. They were about redividing the existing pool of jobs according to the nationality of the workers. These reactionary strikes, pitting British workers against foreign workers and immigrants, are detrimental to the interests of the multiethnic working class in Britain and those of the workers of Europe as a whole.” We insisted, “The bottom line for the trade union movement must not be whom the contractors hire, but at what rate of pay and under what conditions they work. The way to undercut attempts by the bosses to ‘level down’ the wages and working conditions, including safety standards, of all workers, by playing off one nationality against the other, is for the unions to demand: Full union pay for all work at the prevailing rate, no matter who does the job! Equal pay for equal work! ”
A class-struggle leadership in the CWU would counter the bosses’ attempts to use immigrants as strikebreakers by fighting to organise immigrant workers into the union, demanding equal pay for equal work and full union wages and conditions for all workers. Full citizenship rights for all immigrants!
What’s needed is a political battle in the union against the bureaucracy. The last place such a battle will come from is the ostensible “leftists” within the unions, such as the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) and the Socialist Party. Militant noises aside, these Labourites have always acted as apologists for the trade union bureaucracy, whose reformist programme they share. Today their members hold positions of influence in the bureaucracy as “labour lieutenants of capital” in their own right. Less than a week after Socialist Worker limply headlined in their postal strike coverage “How do we fight when union leaders waver?” (31 October 2009), Jane Loftus, the CWU president and a prominent SWP member, voted for the interim agreement calling off the strikes! Caught with their pants down, the SWP publicly admitted this scandal one month later in the 28 November 2009 issue of Socialist Worker, which tersely noted that Loftus had resigned from the SWP, having “caused problems for our members in the union and much wider”. We can imagine. In January 2009, they condemned the reactionary Lindsey oil refinery strike slogan “British jobs for British workers” while at the same time circulating a petition in support of the strike demands, which included the call for “local” jobs for “local” workers. This poisonous “Britain first” protectionism too is endemic to Labourite reformism.
For their part Peter Taaffe’s Socialist Party grotesquely welcomed the interim agreement calling off the post strikes remarking that it “does allow the CWU to regain some element of trade union control in the workplace and therefore does push back the attacks of the bosses” (Socialist, 12-18 November 2009). Social-chauvinists to the core, this is the group which lent leadership to, and whitewashed, the reactionary strikes against foreign workers at Lindsey oil refinery. And since 2005 they have bragged about the deal negotiated by the executive of the PCS, in which their members are prominent, requiring new entrants to the civil service to work five more years to qualify for a pension! Part and parcel of class-collaborationism is the notion that police and prison guards — whose job it is to beat and jail striking workers, blacks, Asians and immigrants — belong in the trade union movement. This virulently anti-working-class stance paid off recently when their long courtship of the Prison Officers Association won them a new recruit — POA general secretary Brian Caton! We say prison guards out of the trade union movement!
Workers need a party that rejects the bankrupt politics of old Labourism purveyed by the trade union misleaders and fake leftists, and instead fights to mobilise the social power of the multiethnic working class in a revolutionary struggle for the overthrow of capitalism and establishment of a workers government.