Link to this page: http://www.socialistparty.org.uk/issue/601/8338
What we think
Postal workers force management back
The postal strike interim agreement between the Communication Workers Union (CWU) and Royal Mail contains a number of concessions forced out of the bosses.
These are a result of the national strike action taken over five days and before that hundreds of local strikes. The calling off of the strike at the last minute led to confusion and questioning amongst ordinary CWU members.
The news broke on the Thursday evening, just hours before the third wave of national strikes were due to take place. There was anger amongst many postal workers who were preparing to go to the picket lines on the Friday and the following Monday. There was also confusion because they couldn't understand why the leadership called the strike off when it was clear that the bosses were stunned by the level of support the strike had gained, including from a majority in opinion polls.
Many workers wondered what could be in the agreement that warranted the strike being postponed.
TUC secretary Brendan Barber said on the steps of Congress House that the "interim" deal guaranteed a period of calm up to Christmas. This added to the general bewilderment of all those who were thinking that the strike had been called off just at a time when postal workers had never been stronger.
Back to the table
But once they had a chance of looking at what was achieved by their mass strike action, many of the workers have drawn the conclusion that the deal (unanimously agreed it seems by the elected postal executive committee) 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.
One local CWU leader in the South West wrote to his members: "We have forced a vicious employer back to the table". He went on to say: "We know the interim deal does not settle every single problem in the industry but it gives us a foothold ... Royal Mail set out to destroy your union. We are still here".
The idea, often put forward in the right-wing media, that workers are ready to strike at the drop of a hat is wrong. In this case many think the interim deal opens the way to the reversal of the attacks on them and their union.
Workloads and other working conditions will once more be subject to negotiation rather than be imposed on the workers with the union shut out of the process.
In a number of places in the wording of the interim agreement the words mutuality or mutual agreement are used. This suggests that the union in the final agreement will, if not have a veto, at least be part of the process of any future changes, which themselves will be subject to agreement before they take place.
This issue of trade union 'control' is important. It lies at the heart of the battle in the postal workplace. It means the difference between the workers having some form of protection against a bullying management and none at all.
The Royal Mail bosses in the period leading up to the national strikes had launched a wholesale attack on the CWU. They sought to impose changes by ignoring the union and its local workplace reps. They went even further when they withdrew facility time for the reps and were well on the way to reducing the union to the bare legal minimum of facilities, forcing the reps back onto the job and allowing them no time to represent their members on day to day issues. It is written in clear language in the interim agreement that facility time will be reinstated to its previous level. The implementation of this will be a victory for the CWU and its members.
The start of the national strike stopped the bosses in their tracks and there was a palpable raising of the heads of the union activists in the days they were back at work in between the strikes. The action has shaken the management, at least at the top, including Lord Mandelson who has been notably quiet of late about the dispute.
However, if the national agreement comes to be seen as no more than a paper exercise then no doubt there will be pressure from the union branches and members to reinstate the national action. Also, local managers might take some time to take on board that there has been a shift in the balance of forces back to the workers and their union and the chances are that there will probably be more local walkouts as a result.
What would have happened if the strikes had not been called off, is something that can be argued about. Perhaps with the boot of the workers on the throat of the bosses then more concessions could and would have been made.
The job of leadership is to know when to advance and when to retreat. In the postal workers' case it was clear that it was the bosses who were in retreat. But also what has to be taken into account is the readiness of your own troops to continue to advance as well. Many postal workers were looking to Christmas as time to be with their families and to have a well earned rest.
It was no accident that one of the bottom lines laid down by the postal executive committee for any agreement was the ability to work overtime again. This had been removed when Royal Mail had announced the hiring of 30,000 temporary workers. Not only were these workers being brought in to undermine the strike but also to eliminate the need for any overtime in the busiest time of the year for Royal Mail. Overtime is seen by postal workers as a necessary evil to boost their low pay. Normally around 15,000 extra staff are taken on for the Christmas rush and postal workers are also required to do overtime.
The interim deal gives back this ability to work overtime and also brings back into the office of origin any post that was diverted during the strike, especially from the more militant mail centres and delivery offices. Some was diverted to special centres staffed by agency workers such as Dartford in Kent. Plans to organise demonstrations outside some of these offices added to the pressure on the bosses to make concessions.
There are a number of other issues dealt with, including a 'no victimisation' clause and reference to reviewing changes and in some cases renegotiating them in workplaces where they have already been imposed.
In London, 147 workplaces were or are in the process of being balloted for strike action against imposed changes, which may now be subject to renegotiation. London workers and some other areas have lost 18 days in strike action, a loss of around £2,000 per worker. Without national strike action these concessions would not have been made.
Under the interim deal there will be a review of progress every two weeks and at the same time national and local strike ballots will remain active. Postal workers will be watching the progress of these talks carefully and they will expect their leaders to reinstate the strike if it is clear that Royal Mail are deliberately dragging things out until they have got Christmas out of the way.
The national strikes were also a blow to the plans of New Labour to clear the way for wholesale privatisation.
Whatever happens over the next period the postal workers have forced the employers back. Other workers elsewhere have either taken part in action or are preparing for it, including bin workers in Leeds and now Brighton. Firefighters and bus workers in some areas are taking strike action or action short of a strike. The present period marks a decisive shift regarding workers' struggles. Most, if not all, of these strikes are of a defensive character. This is because as the recession continues to bite, workers are saying we will not take it lying down and allow all the gains we struggled for in the past to be lost.
In The Socialist 11 November 2009:
War and occupation
Postal workers strike
Defend the four campaign
Campaign for a New Workers Party
International socialist news and analysis
Socialist Party workplace news
Socialist Party review