The impending battle between the postal workers and Royal Mail management is a political as well as an industrial battle.
It is not only a fight over wages, in defiance of Gordon Brown’s public sector pay policy, it is also about the future of the post office and the entire parcels and letter delivery sector. The outcome of the dispute will shape the future of trade unionism in the crucial communications and logistics sector, and impact on the relationship between the trade unions and the Labour Party.
This is a battle that Royal Mail bosses have been looking for. They have been predicting a “protracted dispute” and unnamed management sources have been telling the press that the postal workers — who management claim are 25% over paid — risk going the same way as the miners and car workers.
Royal Mail bosses have gone out of their way to make it clear that they are not prepared to “do business” with the CWU negotiators. For instance, last week neither Leighton, nor Crozier, the two top executives at Royal Mail, were prepared to meet with the CWU to examine ways of avoiding this dispute. Instead, they sent their underlings, people who couldn’t possibly make any significant concessions, to last weeks “talks”. This was a clear slap in the face for the senior CWU negotiators.
This stance isn’t just restricted to pay, Royal Mail management are not prepared to discuss with the CWU the underlying issue of the future of the post office, instead, all they are were willing to do is ‘sit down with the CWU to explain again the absolute need for Royal Mail to modernise".
For Royal Mail management this dispute is about two related and interlinked issues: breaking the power of the CWU, and implementing a programme of modernisation, and market liberalisation. The aim is to abolish the Post Office as it presently exists, that is, as a universal public service that delivers to every address in the country no matter how remote.
It is important to understand that Royal Mail management are not just working in their own interests. The attack on the CWU dovetails neatly in with the agenda of Royal Mail’s competitors who hope to use the dispute as a pretext for grabbing up profitable bits of the postal service.
The postal workers and their union the CWU represent one of the most important bastions of well organised workplace trade unionism remaining amongst “unskilled” blue collar workers. By applying the basic trade unionist principles of solidarity — the idea that unity is strength and an injury to one is an injury to all — postal workers have protected their pay, their agreements and much of their terms and conditions in the face of the global race to the bottom which has afflicted other workers in blue collar jobs throughout private industry. This trade union strength rests in part on the fact that the post office has remained essentially a public service.
Royal Mail bosses want to put an end to this, they have reason to hope for backing from Gordon Brown’s Labour government. Their agenda is to see postal workers exposed to the same “rigours of competition” and “discipline of the market” — the phrases are from New Labour’s new Clause Four — as faced by other workers in the deliveries and logistics business. That means casualisation and wage cuts. If postal workers want to see the future, then they can take a look at DHL were delivery workers face cuts in pay of over 60% per job, or redundancy.
The extent to which the Labour government backs the Royal Mail bosses will depend on what the other public sector trade unions do and on what supporters of the CWU do within the Labour Party.
Mark Serwotka, General Secretary of the civil service union PCS has talked of co-ordinating strike action with the CWU. That is a start. But what is needed is not just talk, but for all the public sector unions to unite in strike action to break the government’s public sector pay freeze. Teachers, health workers and local government workers need to seize the moment and bring forward their own demands.
If the trade union leaders try to restrict solidarity with the postal workers to behind the scenes lobbying, then they will fail. The trade unions and the labour rank and file must rally behind the CWU. The issue has to be forced on the National Executive in the Parliamentary Labour Party, and in every constituency in the country. The Labour leadership should not be allowed to give support and succour to the enemies of the CWU.
This postal workers dispute poses the question of what the labour movement is for.
Market efficiency and public service are very different things. Improving the efficiency of Royal Mail, is not about making sure that your granny gets her letters delivered every day. It is about breaking up the service into profitable bits and running down the rest. It isn’t about retaining postal workers who are part of and know the community they work in, it is about getting the job done at the lowest possible unit labour cost.
This is a fight for the principles of trade unionism and public provision. Rally to the postal workers!
What you can do to support the postal workers:
• Organise collections in support of the postal workers in your workplace
• Organise solidarity delegations from your union, workplace, college or school to the postal workers picket lines
• Invite postal workers to speak at your union meetings, workplaces and colleges
• Liaise with other trade unionists and supporters to set up a local postal workers support groups
• Raise the issue of support for the CWU in your local Labour Party. Mandate your Labour MP to support the CWU. Lobby MPs surgeries to put them on the spot.
• Organise in your own trade union to bring forward your disputes and fight alongside the postal workers.
• Campaign for the TUC to call a national day of action in support of the postal workers and in opposition to the public sector pay freeze.