Sunday, 18 October 2009

Scabs, bosses, and bureaucrats in the Royal Mail dispute

As I wrote a week ago, postal workers have voted for a national strike. The action is in opposition to Royal Mail's "modernisation" plans, including 50,000 job cuts and a pay freeze. Whilst workers battle against being hung out to dry by their employer during the worst economic crisis in decades, despite a company profit of £321 million, those doing the hanging have been rewarded for it with £10 million in bonuses.

Today, the BBC reported that Royal Mail is planning to hire up to 30,000 temporary staff to "deal with the backlog caused by the strikes as well as helping with the Christmas rush." As the BBC point out, "employing extra people to do the work of staff who are on strike is illegal under employment law." However, lax enforcement of employment laws that aren't beneficial to employers make this irrelevant, as proved by the use of scab labour in the Enterprise Liverpool dispute. Now Royal Mail is hiring the 30,000 temps - instead of the usual 15,000 - to "cut the impact" of strike action, and yet still this is "not about bringing in workers to do the work of striking staff" but "clear[ing] any backlogs."

The difference between hiring staff to do the work of strikers and hiring staff to clear the backlogs created by people being on strike is merely a semantic one. That it is sufficient to make this violation of employment law merely a footnote in the news says everything we need to know about the value of the working class to the state.

More importantly, hiring so many temps in order to deal with the backlog of the strike is an admission by Royal Mail that they cannot cope with the loss of roughly 60,000 people even for such a short time. Clearly, then, the proposed loss of 50,000 for good is utterly untenable.

As Communication Workers' Union (CWU) general secretary Billy Hayes notes, this is not about saving money or improving "efficiency" but "about a culture of management that seems to think in a democracy that the workforce have to do just what they're told." And, given the disasters that will follow for the company if it continues with its "modernisation" plans, it is an indictment of an undemocratic, top-down system of workplace management.

On Friday, the CWU learned that Royal Mail planned to strengthen this failed system in "a Royal Mail document which expose[d] that the company wants to sideline the union." "The internal Royal Mail document, called 'Dispute: Strategic Overview', says that Royal Mail is prepared to continue with non-agreement and makes threats about taking facility time away from CWU reps."

There are significant problems not only with the way the CWU have handled the strike, but also with the top-down, bureaucratic form of worker organisation they embody. As the World Socialist Web Site (WSWS) revealed at the start of the month, "the current conditions in the postal service are the direct result of the deal reached between the CWU and Royal Mail at the end of the 2007 national dispute" and the union "has repeatedly expressed its agreement to “modernisation.”" Thus, the postal workers would be better off breaking away from the union leadership to fight Royal Mail for terms favourable for them, not trade union bureaucrats. However, the Royal Mail's "strategic overview" is not an attack on a corrupt union that doesn't serve its members but on the very ability of workers to organise effectively.

Faced with such considerable hurdles, the prospects for victory look grim. But this means that organisers on the ground need to reconsider their perspective and fight to ensure that workers' interests are put before the concerns of bureaucracy or "greasing the wheels" in this dispute. It most certainly does not mean that they should call off industrial action. To do so would only serve an employer which is destroying a public service whilst holding its workers accountable for the same failures they are fighting against.