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As the postal workers ballot for strike action...
Are the unions on a collision course with Blair and the bosses?
THE 2003 Trades Union Congress (TUC) is taking place as postal workers ballot on industrial action. If the workers reject management's derisory offer and strike action begins later this month it will be the second major test of the 'New Left' union leaders - dubbed the 'awkward squad' by the mainstream media.
The first test began at about the same time last year, when the firefighters began to fight for a £30,000 annual wage - an initial increase of over 30%.
Then, a solid 'yes' vote - 89% on a 93% turnout - showed that the firefighters were ready to mount a huge struggle. This would have set an example to all public-sector workers being ground down under the poverty-pay policies of New Labour.
But the firefighters' determination was not matched by their leadership who were lucky to escape with a 'score draw' in a protracted dispute. During the dispute the government, despite overwhelming public support for the firefighters, showed it was prepared to call the bluff of the FBU leaders and face down their demands, whatever the cost and whatever it took, including mobilising the armed forces.
Both the government and the FBU leaders saved face in the dispute's ultimate resolution - although the anger is still simmering away in fire stations up and down the country - in that neither side was tested to the limit.
Had the FBU leaders seriously addressed winning the dispute and escalated the action, the idea that the dispute was 'Tony's miners' strike' would have been practically put to the test.
Given the weakness and backtracking of the FBU leaders, losing support from both the public and their own members, the union's tops were fortunate that the government did not try and rush through further radical changes to working practices and deliver on its implicit pledge to break the power of the union.
The FBU lives to fight another day, despite the inability of its leadership to see the consequences of their struggle and how to prosecute it successfully.
Inside the union, activists have expressed anger against general secretary Andy Gilchrist and many firefighters stopped paying the political levy to the Labour Party in protest during the dispute.
NOW, ROYAL Mail management is showing its intent to have a knock-down drag-out fight with the postal workers' union, CWU.
Management, under the direction of Chairman Allan Leighton and Chief Executive Adam Crozier (both on salaries of over £10,000 a week compared to the basic postal workers' wage of £262 a week), have done everything possible to try and provoke this dispute.
They have given out £20 million in bonuses to managers whilst giving workers a derisory offer, with strings.
At the same time the bosses are fiddling the figures to make the financial situation look much worse than it is. Top managers claim that Royal Mail is losing £750,000 a day or over £300 million a year.
Even if this figure was correct, which it is not, then the reason for it would be gross management incompetence. The workforce have increased productivity significantly in recent years but are still paid poverty wages.
But in fact Royal Mail made a profit of £60 million on its activities in Britain last year and makes a significant profit overall on its postal delivery service.
The balance sheet has been fiddled to include all the losses from Royal Mail's failed attempts at overseas business and also includes a massive upfront payment on pensions (about the equivalent of 30 years' worth within three years).
There are two reasons for this. One is by making the situation look worse than it is, management are creating a climate similar to that which existed before rail privatisation.
This is to prepare the way for the dismantling and selling off of the service, especially in axing 30,000 jobs. Secondly, the upfront pensions' payments represent a huge cash asset for any future privatisation pirates.
Additionally, even before the ballot over industrial action started, plans are being drawn up for private companies to deliver letters if a strike goes ahead.
Postwatch - the so-called consumer watchdog that reports to the government - has called for the suspension of the Royal Mail's monopoly for up to 12 months because they claim that the prospect of a year's business is thought necessary for private companies to invest in the mail infrastructure - even if a strike lasts for a lot less time.
Royal Mail management are preparing to face down the union and postal workers to introduce wide-ranging attacks on conditions and prepare the way for eventual privatisation.
One media commentator remarked that in appealing to the postal workers over the heads of the union leaders it recalls "the tactics of Sir Michael Edwardes at strike-prone British Leyland in the 1970s."
It is clear that the Blair government has installed Leighton and his cronies in Royal Mail, like Edwardes was installed at Leyland, to pick a fight with the leftward-moving CWU, break the union and carry out privatisation.
If a resounding 'yes' vote for action is returned in the current ballot (the result will be announced on 17 September) then postal workers and their union leaders should be in no doubt about the nature of this fight.
So far they have stood up to management pressure and bullying. But as the threat of action looms nearer more pressure will be brought to bear.
In the firefighters' strike, FBU union leaders constantly gave in to government pressure to call off strikes and this disorientated and demoralised many FBU members.
Blair's government, despite throwing everything at the firefighters, still did not break the union because of the determination of the leading rank-and-file members to ensure their leaders didn't capitulate.
But, the firefighters did not achieve the victory either that seemed within their grasp at one stage.
Any public-sector strike is now a major confrontation with a besieged government, desperately needing to face down increasing pressure over pay and conditions.
As was seen with the firefighters, any public-sector strike called now in order to be effective has to be all-out to win. And it needs to get backing, in the form of solidarity action from other public-sector unions, linking in to the struggle against privatisation and job losses.
There needs to be at least a national trade union demonstration in support of the postal workers.
Solidarity action will be especially necessary for the postal workers if management try and break the strike by using other delivery firms. If the union goes for discontinuous action, like occurred in the firefighters' dispute, this could give a vicious management the green light to launch an all-out assault on the union, taking advantage of the frustrations such action foster.
Then the bosses would prepare the way for privatisation. We've seen what a disaster privatisation has been for other public services, like rail, the coal industry and even in BT, where decades of hundreds of thousands of job losses have been followed by the company being driven to the brink of financial ruin.
ALTHOUGH THE TUC agenda shows a more combative edge against the bosses than has been on display in recent years - reflecting the rise of the new Left leaders and their influence in the unions - the practical implications of a possible postal workers' strike are likely to dominate the discussions amongst the Left union leaders at this year's TUC.
The 'awkward squad' now control most of the major unions in this country - potentially nearly five million workers who could be drawn into action in defence of workers who fight back against the bosses.
Potentially, there are many issues where public-sector workers could unite in action - from London weighting to pensions. But a national postal strike involving 160,000 postal workers will be the biggest test so far of the Left leaders' ability to turn words into action.
The 'Left' were elected because union members were dissatisfied with the old union establishment, who were seen as "being too cosy with the gaffer". But, as the defeat of Mick Rix in the train drivers' union ASLEF general secretary election shows, Left union leaders cannot simply rest on their laurels, believing that having Left credentials will see them retain their leadership of the unions.
Even if a postal workers' strike does not take place, then it is only a matter of time before other Left leaders are put to a sharp test industrially, which in turn is likely to put a further strain on the unions' links with Labour politically.
Although the level of strike action is still at a relatively low level the trend has been in a rapid upward direction. (see below) Indeed, the new Left leaders are likely to be pushed further in calling industrial action than some of them would consider desirable at this stage.
Despite an increasing confidence amongst workers, some of the Left leaders still display a lack of confidence in being able to deliver effective action to defend their members.
In the private sector, particularly, as the British Airways dispute showed, there is a crisis of profitability, which is increasingly pushing bosses to demand greater sweat and changed working practises.
Bosses, who until recently had a relatively easy ride from the previous generation of moderate union leaders, are now on a collision course with their workforces.
The trend towards greater 'efficiency drives' and cost-cutting is likely to intensify given the revised downward growth forecasts for Britain's economy.
The rising mood of discontent has shifted from removing the old union leaders towards the bosses themselves.
The Financial Times concluded recently that it's "possible that competition among both unions and union officials to be 'more awkward than thou' will lead to a return to poisonous industrial relations."
In the public sector there has been growing pressure on the issues of low pay, working hours and the weighting allowance in London. Throughout all sectors of the workforce there is a ticking pensions and working life timebomb.
Given the underlying class antagonisms and anger that exists in Britain, where working conditions and the social wage have been more eroded than in continental Europe, it's possible that a mass movement could be organised or even develop semi-spontaneously over the issue of pensions and social benefits which could surpass the movements in France and Germany.
New left leaders
HOWEVER, EVEN though a mood exists in many sections of society to fight the bosses and the Labour government, the unions are still recovering from how far they were driven back after the defeats of the 1980s like the miners and Wapping.
These led to the right-wing New Realism and 'social partnership' of the union leaders in the 1990s.
The election of the New Left leaders is both an indication and a hopeful sign that the working class is recovering its ability to stand up to the bosses.
But as the firefighters' dispute and the defeat of Mick Rix also showed there are limitations and weaknesses amongst these leaders. Although they have received widespread support as opponents of the old union establishment, their base inside the unions is still relatively narrow.
This means that union organisation at many levels on the shopfloor is still finding its feet. And, throughout the unions there is an urgent need to build mass, democratic broad left organisations to consolidate the Left's gains, in some cases to effectively rebuild the union's structures and to draw up a programme to take workers' struggles successfully forward.
There will be an increasing demand on the union leaders to turn words into action at shopfloor level. Trade union activists will now be weighing up the likely nature of future struggles and what kind of fighting programmes are needed to protect workers' conditions.
Given the bitter nature that most disputes will now take, many will conclude that having a Left leadership at the top, whilst important, in itself is insufficient.
Turn words into action
SOME OF the Left union leaders still have an outlook shaped by the defeats of the 1980s - which were overstated by the right-wing and utilised to maximum effect by the Tories and New Labour.
They have a cautious approach to leading industrial action, reflecting a certain lack of confidence.
But in the future they will be faced with having to turn words into action. To do that they will have to substantially strengthen the confidence and combative ability of the unions.
Socialist Party members are already playing a key role amongst the Left in many areas of the unions, from local level right up to the national executives.
At all stages our party members will advocate a strategy that will advance workers' struggles and consolidate the position of the Left inside the unions.
This means in some instances a patient rebuilding of the unions and learning the lessons of the past.
This is a real priority that will need to be addressed to prepare for the big industrial struggles that loom for the working class in Britain
Going the whole way
ON THE issue of the unions' political affiliation, the Left leaders have generally shown an unwillingness to disaffiliate from New Labour. However, given the huge anger of workers against Britain's fat-cat culture the union leaders could find themselves pushed much further on industrial action.
This in turn, particularly in public-sector industrial action, will find the Left union leaders facing difficulties in restraining their members who want to break with Labour.
Socialist Party members will be to the fore in supporting every move that democratises trade union funds. But we will also be adding that until the unions completely break from Labour this will inhibit their ability to struggle against the bosses when they are fighting them and financing them at the same time.
Reflecting the pressures they are under, local government union UNISON recently withdrew funds from Labour after Newham Labour council had stopped the automatic check-off of union dues during the London weighting dispute.
In retaliation, the union withheld the same amount in affiliation fees as the Labour-led council had withheld in union dues. But such half-hearted moves will not satisfy union members who are under attack.
And many workers will ask why bother only partially withholding money when the union should go the whole way.
Digby dishes it out
DIGBY JONES, director general of the bosses' union CBI, got his retaliation in first this week, as he prepared to speak at the TUC annual conference. "Unions are tending to block reform" he said.
"They are tending to put ideology and the arguments of yesterday ahead of the interests of most of their members."
He's obviously worried about the signs of greater combativity amongst trade union members as the bosses try to push for more privatisation, job cuts and a clampdown on pay rises.
"I only wish that trade unions, especially those who are adopting a more militant attitude to many things, would fight the battles of tomorrow and stop fighting the battles of yesterday" he added.
Most trade unionists will conclude that if Digby's worried, that's a good thing. But future battles will have to be planned in the knowledge that the bosses will fight tooth and nail to protect their profits.
In The Socialist 6 September 2003: