At this year’s Communication Workers Union (CWU) conference (22-26 April), the controversial issue of the CWU’s role in “workfare” schemes in Royal Mail (RM) was swept under the carpet.
The CWU Executive supported a motion from South Central No 1 branch (which is influenced by the SWP) full of sound and fury about the principle of workfare, but which stopped short of criticising the current use of the system in Royal Mail!
Although the scheme agreed between the union and Royal Mail contains negotiated guarantees for those taken on, the interaction with the benefits system is unchallenged and of course gives trade union “cover” to the Government’s initiatives on unemployment. In his speech, Dave Ward the Deputy General Secretary (Postal), who is responsible for the scheme attacked “obscure political groups” who had criticised the CWU. He said it was the job of trade unionists to “get our hands dirty”.
An emergency motion restating the CWU’s opposition to the privatisation of Royal Mail was passed at the general conference (the union’s two sectors — postal and telecoms — have separate, parallel conferences).
At the postal conference, there were debates on the role of TNT providing delivery services (TNT are not unionised by CWU, and have a sweetheart deal with the Community union). The Postal Executive and many postal branches are still wedded to an approach that fails to take account of the liberalised nature of the industry and is based on protectionism rather than an outward looking, ambitious effort to organise the private firms and level up pay and conditions across the industry.
This position is exacerbated by the fact that there is recognition in Royal Mail, but not in other firms, which inevitably results in a closer relationship with management.
What is not inevitable is the current love-in between Royal Mail and the CWU, which resulted in the postal conference being addressed by Royal Mail CEO Moya Green. The fact that this invitation was issued on the eve of a possible Royal Mail sell-off by the Government indicates that any CWU campaign against privatisation may just be tokenistic. The fact that the Government is picking up the bill for Royal Mail’s pension schemes deficit makes its purchase much more attractive to capitalists.
The general conference also debated the union’s relationship with the Labour Party. A motion from the Greater London Combined branch called for the CWU to use its influence as an affiliate to fight for democratic reforms to the Labour Party which would allow the organised working class to reassert itself in the political sphere.
The substance of the motion was support for the demands of organisations such as the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy and the Labour Representation Committee: for more accountability in Labour Party policy making processes, more motions to Labour Party conference, the ability to amend policy documents, and retaining the role of political levy payers in the selection of the Labour leader. The motion was opposed by those arguing for disaffiliation, but as in previous debates on this subject at CWU conference, affiliation was reaffirmed with fewer than 25% voting against.
There was a small victory for democracy in the CWU at the Rules Revision Conference. The attempt by the Telecoms Executive to move the telecoms industry conference from annual to bi-annual was defeated. The so-called “Left Activist Network” (which is actually a centre-right faction), which currently controls the Telecoms Executive, was unsuccessful on this issue. However, they managed to deflect criticism of their industrial record over the past year.
Criticism of the Executive’s record on pay, including a recent deal which let BT off the hook with an unconsolidated bonus payment in lieu of a proper pay increase (which has seen BT profits soar and real wages fall), failed to achieve the support of more than a third of the conference. Likewise, criticism of the Executive’s ability to rollback BT management’s draconian “Performance Management” policies failed.
The CWU Broad Left needs to be renewed to take on the “company union”-type policies of the current Executive towards BT, and address the lack of a strong class-based approach to union organising that takes account of the interests of all workers in the communications industries.