Sunday, 8 November 2009

Union bureaucrats betray postal workers to cut a deal with bosses

On 5th November, BBC News reported that "postal strikes have been called off until at least the New Year to allow for fresh talks between Royal Mail and the Communication Workers Union." The BBC was joined by other news outlets in its jubilance that Christmas post has been "saved," and the "threat" of a strike "lifted." However, when TUC general secretary Brendan Barber spoke of a "a period of calm" to allow "the two sides" to map out a "long-term deal," neither he nor the media made mention that "the two sides" did not include the postal workers themselves.

Indeed, throughout the strikes, the CWU has acted as a third party - its position diametrically opposed to that of the ordinary workers, and its differences with the bosses minor and tactical. As the BBC notes, "while the CWU accepts that some redundancies are required, the two sides disagree over their extent." The self-interest of the union bureaucracy became further aparent when CWU deputy general scretary claimed the opening of "super-depots" as part of the largest strike-breaking operation since the miners' dispute was "not a sticking point."

Now, the CWU has issued a letter to branches which includes the full text of the final deal with Royal Mail. As Joe Thorne's analysis in The Commune is particularly scathing;
At the top of the CWU-Royal Mail agreement is a header. “Final Draft – 5 November 2009 —- 1.10AM”.  This innocuous line is emblematic of the CWU negotiating team’s strategy: it indicates that the text was agreed more than 7 hours after the strikes were called off.  What sort of negotiation strategy is this – to abandon the bargaining power represented in industrial action, on the promise of a deal yet to be finalised?
At every step along the way, it has been clear that elements of the CWU leadership were looking to do whatever they could to avoid members taking industrial action: we hear that Billy Hayes was arguing internally for the action to be called off after the first national strike day a fortnight ago.  Members have been much more impressed with Dave Ward, but it seems as though that trust may have been misplaced: this deal is no deal.

As the Financial Times puts it, “In the interim deal, the two sides agreed to suspend strikes and further changes to working practices until a final agreement on modernisation and job security is reached by the end of December.”  On “local issues” – a category which, particularly in London, represents a large part of the reasons behind the strike – the parties agreed to”engage in genuine negotiations to reach local agreement.”  This, in other words, is an agreement to seek agreement at some point in the future, with the help of an as yet unspecified “agreed independent person”.

Elections for the CWU’s Postal Executive Committee are in February.  Will there be any backlash?  Perhaps, if this works out badly, and members fully understand what has been done.  But any such backlash may be too late.  The next two months, the run up to Christmas, are the time of postal workers’ greatest power: this is the window for the most effective action.  It is often said that reaching final, detailed agreement on the full range of issues will take up to four weeks of intensive negotiation.  This may be so, but it should be seen as Royal Mail’s problem if they don’t begin to negotiate seriously, soon enough.  And there are plenty of ‘red lines’ which could and should have been included as the basis for negotiations.  The union’s position is that strikes will resume if negotiations falter: CWU members need to argue that this option be taken if Royal Mail does not immediately make final concessions on core issues.  The real and present danger is that agreement on a final deal could be strung along until it is too late.
Postal workers are now in a position where, as far as politicians, the bosses, and the public are concerned, their action is over. If that does not change, as Thorne stresses, "postal workers and the CWU will be ground down" and "the deal reached will be far short of what members need." This warning comes with the suggestion of an alternative;
In the next two months, things could go one of three ways.  The workers may be sold out passively, rank and file pressure may generate further official action, or spreading unofficial action may develop.  It is in the grasp of workers to avoid the first possibility, and maximise the chances of the other two being effective.  CWU members should push inside the union for the action to be resumed, insisting on the most democratic forms of rank and file control.  But they cannot rely on this strategy being successful. Therefore, they should also be prepared, should it be necessary, to take, support and spread unofficial action, from office to office, from one end of the country to the other.  The tradition of not handling work from striking offices needs to be resurrected: it is the breakdown of this tradition which allowed London to remain all but isolated for nearly four months of one-day-a-week strike action.
One thing is for certain - the fate of the postal workers hinges upon what happens next. Solidarity with the workers is vital if we are to see an outcome other than victory for the bosses, cementing the demise of this public service.