What is at the root of the dispute in Royal Mail?
The postal workers and their union the CWU are one of the most important bastions of well-organised workplace trade unionism which remains from the great build-up of trade unionism among blue-collar workers from the 1940s to the 1970s.
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 union, and much of their terms and conditions in the face of the global race to the bottom which has afflicted workers in blue-collar jobs throughout private industry. This trade-union strength rests in part on the post office still being essentially a public service.
Royal Mail bosses want to put an end to this. Their agenda is to see postal workers exposed to the same “rigours of competition” and “discipline of the market” as other workers in the deliveries and logistics business. That means casualisation, speed-up, job cuts, and lower wages.
Governments and Royal Mail bosses have been driving for "liberalisation" (opening-up to capitalist competition) and privatisation since the early 1980s, when the Thatcher Tory government removed the Royal Mail monopoly on larger items (1981), broke up the old Post Office structure into six bits (1981-6), and privatised some of them.
Governments across Europe have been doing the same sort of thing. It is part of the general drive to batter organised labour with global competition which has been central to the new era of capitalism since 1980.
The New Labour government wanted to part-privatise Royal Mail, and backed down only because it had too much trouble on its hands in the run-up to a general election. If the Tories win the next election, they are almost certain to go for privatisation - as they did in 1996, but this time with the vigour of a newly-elected government rather than the tiredness of one about to lose office.
Royal Mail bosses and politicians say that postal workers are refusing to move with the times. They must adapt or die.
Why should we want to move with these times? Why should we want to be in tune with the new capitalist era which has produced spiralling inequality across the world, and now given us the great credit crash of 2008?
In fact postal workers are well-placed to resist the craziness. Other industrial concentrations have been shut down or shifted offshore, but that cannot be done with the mail.
People will use electronic communication instead if postal workers strike? They will anyway. There still remain huge numbers of letters to deliver. And even in the most "liberalised" postal-service "markets" in Europe, the company with the universal service obligation - the duty to provide a service to every letterbox, not just in chosen city centres - still has well over 90% of the trade.
Isn't it that European postal workers have made the adjustment, but British postal workers have lagged, and now have no choice but to catch up?
According to the latest European Union statistics (December 2007), UK prices for a standard first-class letter are lower than in other large West European countries (France, Germany, Italy), and the percentage of such letters delivered on time is substantially higher.
In Germany, where Deutsche Post is majority private-owned, and there is more competition, the unions had to campaign for (and, in November 2007, win) a minimum wage for postal workers of £7 an hour. Progress?
Compared to most European countries, though, "liberalisation" has been pushed faster in Britain, not slower. The Financial Times (13 October) reports: "In the 1990s Royal Mail made healthy profits, but much of these were siphoned off by the Treasury in 'special dividends' instead of being invested in new technology... More recently, de-regulation was introduced faster than in the rest of Europe".
So the bosses keep coming back, again and again, with new plans, each time telling the postal workers that it's a matter of "modernisation"?
Yes. In 1996 it was the "Employee Agenda". In 2003 it was "Major Change". That deal was a big blow to workplace militancy in Royal Mail, which once accounted for one-third of all strikes in Britain. Levels of strike action fell from 50,000 days a year up to 2002 to about 3000 in 2005. But the union retained much strength.
In 2007 a major industrial battle between postal workers and Royal Mail ended with the union leadership letting industrial action dribble away, and then, after a long pause, pushing through a deal which gave Royal Mail bosses a go-ahead for "flexibility".
The 2007 deal conceded unilateral changes (in starting times, for example) imposed by Royal Mail bosses during the dispute, and called for such "flexibility" as bosses being able to vary workers' daily working hours within a weekly total, to shift duty time up by to 30 minutes, to ask them to work from a different office, and to cover absences.
The "flexibility" was to be negotiated locally, but with the proviso that offices would only get their next pay rise after they had shown satisfactory "flexibility".
Jobs have been cut steadily. More recently, Royal Mail has started taking on all new employees as part-timers. It is a drive to fragment and control the workforce.
But it's necessary to get a good service?
All the bosses' pushes have gone together with a reduction in service. The second delivery went. Sunday collections went. Reliability of delivery has been cut as fewer and fewer people have the same postal worker, someone who knows the patch, delivering every day. Meanwhile workers have to take out larger loads of mail, and do longer stints of delivery.
How should the union respond?
It should make a clear stand of principle that the post is a public service, not a profit-making enterprise on the market. It should demand that the Government take responsibility for sorting out the Royal Mail pension fund deficit - largely created by the Treasury siphoning off money in the 1990s - and guarantee postal workers decent pensions.
And the CWU needs to organise casuals and workers in private delivery companies, fighting to raise their poorer conditions to a level with permanent Royal Mail workers.
As we wrote in Solidarity back in June 2005, Royal Mail workers "also need to involved those working for potential competitors. These are [Royal Mail workers'] allies, not [their] enemies. The threat of competition will be used to drive down terms and conditions, not to mention jobs, in all areas of the industry. Maximising resistance to this will blunt the edge of those who seek to gain from privatisation, and strengthen those opposing it".