Communication Workers’ Union Sabotages Postal Workers’ Struggle

Déjà vu

On the night of 4-5 November the leadership of the Communication Workers Union (CWU) carried out their own plot to blow up the workers’ resistance to the one of the most aggressive managements in Britain. The postal strikes were called off in the early evening of 4 November but the actual agreement with the Royal Mail management was not signed until after 1.00 a.m. on 5 November. Now they have agreed to suspend all strike action until January thus throwing away the most powerful card the postal workers possess.

The union leaders were well aware of this.

On 22 October the Financial Times reported

“Parallels have been drawn with the yearlong unsuccessful strike by coal miners in 1984-85. Billy Hayes, general secretary of the Communication Workers Union - which represents almost 90 per cent of Royal Mail’s 141,000 postal workers - says his members are in a stronger position. Whereas the miners’ strike began in spring, when electricity demand was low and coal stocks high, these come in the peak period for pre-Christmas mail. The CWU’s action is also supported by a 76 per cent majority of those voting in a ballot, which the miners never held.”

In short, the union had signed away the main weapon of the workers on an empty promise.

This capitulation came as no surprise to revolutionaries, nor to most postal workers who have seen it all before. In 1996 the postal workers voted 3 to 1 for an all-out strike in defence of the service (the second delivery) and a shorter working week. This was converted into a series of one day strikes by the CWU. The postal workers accepted this as they thought that this would be just as effective in giving grief to the management but the CWU leadership issued so many exemptions from strike action that it was totally ineffective. The CWU (formed in 1995) was then headed by Alan Johnson who persuaded the NEC of the union to call off the one day strikes without any of them having seen the agreement he had supposedly signed with the management. When it was clear that there was no agreement the strikes resumed and despite lots of unofficial action the union leadership were still able to keep control of the movement via one day strikes (without even telling some workers who was on strike and who was not). It was a recipe for demoralisation - exactly as the union leadership wanted. It ushered in a new period of macho management in the post office. Within a few months Johnson was selected as a Labour MP and despite (or perhaps because of) once declaring his allegiance to the Communist Party of Great Britain (i.e. the pro-Moscow Stalinists) soon became a Blairite minister in the new Labour Government after 1997.

But the story was essentially repeated in 2007. On 16 October the new, supposedly “left”, leadership of Billy Hayes and Dave Ward also called off planned strike action without waiting for their own executive to see the deal. The rank and file workers in various places (London, Liverpool and Scotland) tried to continue with unofficial actions but the manoeuvres of the CWU had weakened resistance. A new ballot on the “Pay and Modernisation” deal in November led to 64% accepting it despite the fact that it conceded horrendous working practices (such as giving management the right to decide on the length of a shift) and was accompanied by a below inflation pay rise (i.e. pay cut) over two years. Since it was signed 63,000 postal jobs have been cut and Royal Mail have had a green light to attack the workforce all the harder. And it is these attacks which are behind the current episode of class war.

Unions Against the Working Class

Given the above history it is no mystery many postal workers are not surprised at yet another piece of sabotage by the CWU.

However as Royal Mail has a high turnover of staff, especially in the London area, quite a few have not had direct experience of the union’s antics before. On you can read that whilst many are talking about not paying their dues to the CWU there are just as many who are stunned by what they see as a union “betrayal”. But this is not about betrayal. It is about how unions function under modern capitalism.

Many unions started as struggle organisations in the nineteenth century. Their members paid dues directly into a pool which was held for hardship funds in the course of a strike.

Usually these funds were wiped out by any extended fight and there was a tendency for every other union to have a sense of solidarity with those on strike. There wasn’t a capitalist press owned by a few press barons which was widely read by the working class.

There was no union bureaucracy (which had to have a pension fund which was then taken from the dues) nor were there General Secretaries on a six figure salary paid out of members dues. As modern capitalism has developed it has become more and more centralised to the point where monopolies and state capitalist industries dominate economic life. The unions increasingly became integrated into this regulated capitalism and acted increasingly to negotiate wages and conditions more as capitalist arbitrators than as defenders of the working class. The unions - in league with the Social Democratic and Labour Parties - became increasingly satisfied with the system as long as it allowed them a say in its functioning.

They did not question the capitalist mode of production - they sought only to regulate it.

In the years immediately preceding the First World War the class struggle grew more and more conscious and revolutionary.

The unions and their Social Democratic and Labour Parties came under strain from revolutionaries who wanted to fight for socialism. The international capitalist class, impelled by both the contradictions of capitalism, and by their fear of the working masses, launched into the adventure of imperialist war in 1914. It was the defining moment of the century for social democratic organisations and the unions. The choice was stark: Oppose capitalism and its war, or side with the system and pass over to the other side of the class barricades. They took the latter course almost everywhere.

Henceforward it was the labour movement in every country which worked to ensure that capitalism would make enough concessions to halt the revolutionary impulses of the workers and in return they would act as policemen for the capitalist class in the workplace.

Since the First World War the unions have acted to ensure that even the most significant and conscious struggles would end in accepting the legitimacy of the capitalist order (as in the 1926 General Strike). Many on the so-called left (especially the followers of Trotsky) have argued that the failings of the unions are only about “a question of leadership”. Perhaps this was believable to start with but since every revolutionary or left leader who was elected to high union office has ended up acting as their predecessors (often then transferring to their ultimate reward in the House of Lords) it is patently not true. The CWU in the current dispute is no exception. Billy Hayes was elected as the left alternative to John Keggie, Johnson’s chosen successor, because Johnson was seen to have betrayed the postal workers in 1996. Today it is Hayes and Ward who have already negotiated away 63,000 jobs and have constantly assured the press that they will agree to some more going. The National Executive Committee of the CWU which contains members of the SWP and the Socialist (ex Militant) Party voted unanimously to call off the strikes. The problem is thus not just about personalities but about the role and function of the unions which operate for the benefit of UK Capital plc and not their members. The CWU leadership is not fighting for the workers but for their place in the capitalist order. They have repeatedly stated that they are prepared to cut jobs in the name of modernisation (and have already delivered thousands of cuts). They want to be recognised as part of the management and postal workers are sacrificing wages as pawns in their game if they call off the strikes now.

Roots of the Current Crisis

The CWU (a communications workers union which does not communicate with its own members who learned the strike was called off first from the media) has, like all unions tried to keep to the story that this is a simple trades dispute. But this is untrue.

This struggle in Royal Mail is a struggle for us all. It is not just about the working conditions of postal workers. It is also potentially about the way in which society is run. The Royal Mail workers stand for maintaining a service whilst the Royal Mail management stand for nothing but profit. And behind it all lies the UK state and the Labour Government.

And it is a system and a state in crisis. For years Royal Mail provided a decent, some would say world-class, service and it made a profit. But after the post-war boom ended this profit was not invested in the modernisation of Royal Mail. Instead the state forced it to cover its own growing debts. As the same article already quoted from the Financial Times about Royal Mail stated

“Short-sighted politicians in both main UK parties, as well as industrial strife, have played their part in holding it back. In the past the Treasury siphoned off profits: over 23 years until the late 1990s Royal Mail was forced to invest nearly £2.5bn in government securities while the postal service was starved of new equipment. It is now estimated to be 40 per cent less efficient than European counterparts.”

At the same time these “short-sighted politicians” also allowed Royal Mail a “pensions holiday”. In other words the Royal Mail did not make any contributions for nearly two decades into the workers’ pension funds.

Today there is a massive deficit of nearly £10 billion. Having created this monster crisis for themselves the “short-sighted” politicians then brought in the current management headed by Adam Crozier in order to force home “modernisation”. The idea was to shrink Royal Mail in order to privatise it.

This was defeated partially through the resistance of the workforce (acting outside of the CWU) and because the Government had no idea what to do about the pension fund deficit.

The Postal Workers’ Fight is our Fight

Many postal workers thought that working for a nationalised industry meant that they were actually providing a service and this is why they chose the job. But one other lesson that has been bitterly learned here is that nationalisation is not the same as the running of industry by the working class. Whether the owner of the Royal Mail is private or the state under capitalist conditions it still exploits the labour of the workers to provide profits for the firm whoever owns it. Under a society where the whole of production is based on human need and not capitalist profits services will be socialised and run for the benefit of the whole of society. This will mean that there will be more workers, but fewer hours and better conditions.

When real unemployment stands at millions this will not only take people off the scrap heap but also mean that work itself does not become the alienating drudgery that it is today under capitalist conditions. This is the direction the postal workers’ struggle is pointing us towards even if it will be some time before everyone recognises it.

In the meantime the current struggle is not over. The Royal Mail thinks it has bought peace until after Christmas when it can resume its cutting programme.

The daily provocations of the Royal Mail management, with their cameras spying on workers, are unlikely to stop (unless they suddenly get a lot smarter than hitherto).

The latest onslaught on the workforce is all the more fierce as it is a consequence of the collapse of the speculative bubble.

This has seen a huge drop in business mail and thus squeezed Royal Mail revenues still further. The management, like managements everywhere is trying to solve the crisis on the backs of the workers.

Workers have to resist and carry on the fight but this cannot be done under the CWU banner. Instead of letting the CWU undermine the struggle they need to unite with each other (setting up better communications between depots would be a start) and they need to form committees and hold mass meetings to get more and more involved in the actual resistance. Today no sector of workers can win in isolation but there are plenty of others who are being hammered and who have no alternative but to fight. This struggle needs to link up with other workers such as at BA, the firemen, the binmen in Leeds, Sheffield and Brighton, workers in further education (who have already shared picket lines with firemen) and make the issue one of defence of everyone’s jobs. And if the capitalists say that their system cannot support these essential jobs it is time to tell capitalism to move over and give way for a social system that values people before profits. This is of course a political demand but a capitalism in crisis offers us no other choice, nor any real future. For a society which makes technology work for us and not for profit we have to support the postal workers. At the same time we also point to the ultimate goal of the working class - emancipation from wage slavery. This cannot be won by one group, or even in one country, which is why we are openly committed to the creation of an international party to unite and lead the struggle for a sane society.


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