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Lessons of the postal strike: The Bosses Can Be Beaten
THE POSTAL workers' decisive defensive victory against management intimidation will give confidence to all workers involved in struggle against the bosses.
Firefighters immediately got the message and started an unofficial work to rule the day after. The Financial Times on 6 November commented: "If striking workers hold most of the cards in their collective hand, legal niceties matter little... Firefighters must have thought, the postal workers have done it and the sky hasn't fallen in."
In one decisive blow, the union leaders' refrain of the last 20 years about the incapacity of unions to take effective industrial action because of anti-union laws was substantially overturned. The postal workers showed that taking immediate continuous action - rather than a slow process of balloting and taking one-day strikes - is far more effective.
Their action, coming on top of earlier successful unofficial action at Heathrow, shows that bosses are not as strong as they make out when faced with effective action.
The postal workers' action was particularly effective for a number of reasons:
Firstly, unofficial action doesn't allow management time to prepare strike breaking activities or for their propaganda to take effect. Secondly, it allows workers to decide the nature of their action and its duration, rather than union leaders who often try to limit official action to one-day strikes.
And lastly, the postal workers had a huge financial impact costing the Post Office and big business hundreds of millions of pounds. They undermined the government and management propaganda that the private sector could step in and deliver the post. Despite the advent of electronic communications, big business is still hugely dependent on postal deliveries.
BY CONTRAST, FBU members took unofficial action in frustration at the consequences of a lousy deal. Firefighters' common refrain last week was anger equally directed at employers and their union leaders.
However, their leaders soon throttled their unofficial action by declaring a national ballot, saying it was to avoid militants gaining control of the dispute.
The firefighters' frustrations will serve as a warning to postal workers to ensure their union leaders do not throw away their recent gains. Negotiations are taking place, similar to those of the firefighters, where management want to strike a deal linking pay to changes in working conditions, requiring targets to be met in every sector of the Post Office before pay awards are triggered (see below).
The socialist warned last week that the current victory is only one skirmish in a bigger battle. Postal workers must ensure they are in control of future action. They should demand that a special conference is held to report on negotiations and guarantee their union leaders respond to the pressure of members' anger. This conference could be a springboard for further action if the management do not concede the postal workers' demands.
As well as gaining confidence from their victory there are lessons to be drawn to ensure future victories.
More widely, a mood has been building up for some time amongst many workers that enough is enough. Public-sector workers are especially fed up with the low pay and modernisation programmes of New Labour - a code for cuts and sackings.
Many workers' anger has reached boiling point - evidenced by the whole rash of ballots for action or strikes currently occurring: tube workers; teachers; Sellafield workers; BBC workers; Royal Mint workers and London local government workers amongst others.
New Labour is obviously worried and is preparing legislation to give them the power to declare any strike they consider "disruptive" illegal.
A wave of industrial action looks possible given the enormous confidence many will draw from the postal workers' victory that the bosses can be beaten.
Postal Strike - Questions And Answers
Have the postal workers won a complete victory?
They have forced management to completely retreat from their plans to arbitrarily impose new working conditions and carry out attacks on trade union activists in the Post Office.
However, there are a whole number of issues that have gone for negotiation at the conciliation service Acas, with a proposed deadline of 10 December to reach agreement. Although the outcome of these talks will not be binding on either side there will be pressure for a deal to be done.
What issues are up for negotiation?
Management want to carry out a 'modernisation' programme - known as Major Change - which they hope will see the introduction of a single delivery, the loss of 30,000 jobs and savings of up to £1.4 billion.
The unions want to ensure that a pay agreement is not dependent on the arbitrary targets of local managers and that there is a decent offer on London weighting, where the union have put in a claim for a flat-rate £4,000 for all postal workers in London.
Does the union accept any of Royal Mail's proposals?
At present, there is a lot of debate about the facts and figures involved. The Communication Workers' Union have shown that management have fiddled the figures and continually shift the goalposts in the argument. For example, the Post Office claimed that they were making huge losses which meant they couldn't afford the union's pay claims and yet last week they announced a profit of £60 million.
Currently the sticking points are that change has to be negotiated and agreed not imposed at national or local level; that any extra money is not tied (as it has been with the firefighters) to the completion of all major change programmes both locally and nationally and that if single delivery is to take place then it is based on fair and manageable workloads.
Hasn't the single delivery already been introduced in some areas?
Yes it has. Management claim it has been introduced in 500 offices, the union claims it has started in only 25.
The single delivery accounts for 4% of mail and 20% of costs and is a key target of management in reducing costs. Where it has been introduced it has caused many postal workers to complain of excessive workloads.
The union accepts that it can bring more efficiency and is taking part in reviews on single delivery where it can negotiate with local management. However, it is arguing that there should be a national agreement on the issue.
So will there be more strikes?
Strikes on London weighting are still pencilled in for later in November and December but it is possible that the union may put those on hold while negotiations take place. But postal workers in local offices have shown that they will not accept any management attempts to impose change or try and break the union. Management, locally and nationally, will be more wary of picking a fight.
However, there are a whole host of issues yet to be resolved. Even if the union negotiated a deal with management by 10 December, it is possible that unofficial action could resume again if local managers attempt to put their own interpretation and impose unacceptable workloads and conditions.
Alternatively, the union must be prepared to fight back if management retreat and try to buy time for a while longer in order to come back at a later stage to break the union and impose their modernising, cost-cutting, job slashing agenda.
In The Socialist 15 November 2003: