As postal workers await the results of their national ballot for strike action, due back on 8 October, regional strikes around the country have remained, in the words of one London postal worker, “very solid.”
“A resounding yes vote in the national ballot is very likely; the big question is whether that’ll force Royal Mail into serious negotiations in and of itself. There’s always the worry that national officers will settle for a deal far short of what people want at a local level.”
This worry is shared by many CWU militants. The current dispute is widely seen by rank-and-file activists as the legacy of the shoddy deal reached at the end of the 2007 dispute, in which the CWU leadership conceded to Royal Mail’s demand to introduce cuts locally (hence the regional, office-by-office aspect of the first phase of strikes). There was a substantial grassroots mobilisation and vote against that deal in 2007.
“That was organised in a fairly ad hoc way, but those people are still in touch so those connections still exist. In London and Bristol, workers have established ‘monitoring committees’ to keep an eye on whatever comes out of national negotiations.”
A more immediate question, though, is what CWU leaders will be going into those negotiations to fight for. Much of the rhetoric from the union has comprised wholesale broadsides against the basic way in which Royal Mail management relates to workers. Fine — there’s plenty to criticise — but a strike needs more precise demands than “Royal Mail bosses are bad and they should stop being bad”. Behind the rhetoric, the CWU leaders’ perspective is weak.
“The central demands the national officers will focus on are about getting commitments from management that the union will be consulted on all future job losses and cuts. They want an end to management unilateralism.”
It’s right that the union wants to put brakes on unrestricted management brutality and claw back some kind of say in what happens to its members’ jobs. But this defensive firefighting will not undo the damage already done, or the market set-up which guaranees future damage. Postal workers need to go on the offensive for a positive vision of a public postal service run by workers and users.
Many postal workers at a local level have clearer demands: “They want the specific changes that have been introduced recently [mainly job cuts and “cross-functioning”, where delivery workers are arbitrarily moved from one walk to another or asked to do the jobs of workers of different grades] to be reversed.” And as for the idea of workers’ control in the service, “you'll find that about 90% of posties probably believe we could run the service better than the current management.”
It’s those 90% of posties — rather than a walled-off group of largely unaccountable national negotiators — who should be in charge of the dispute. There’s an urgent need for more frequent national reps meetings, and for city and region-wide reps meetings, in order that ordinary workers can, through directly elected representatives, debate strategy and decide, step by step, what the focus, tactics and demands of the strike should be.
It’s a strike that Royal Mail management appears to be taking seriously. Reports of large-scale scabbing operations being organised by management in preparation for the national strike are difficult to confirm or deny.
“We've heard about warehouses in Dartford and Peterborough, and we’ve heard that management have recruited 500 casual staff through the Manpower agency in Greenwich. But whether these are intended to clear the existing backlog or break the upcoming strike isn’t clear.” This danger highlights again the need for rank-and-file control over the dispute: “The union doesn’t seem to be challenging it. It might be investigating but we've not heard much about it.”
As organised scabbing and the use of casual and agency staff increases, the union will be faced with a difficult task.
Although the natural instinct towards casual workers being used to undermine union workers’ pay and conditions is hostility, it is only by organising these workers and bringing them into common struggles that the labour movement can hope to end management’s tactic of playing casuals and permanent staff off against each other.
Organising casuals and workers working for private delivery companies (and fighting for their conditions to be levelled up to Royal Mail standards) is essential for a long-term strategy.
As the national strike develops, wider labour movement solidarity will become essential. “Some workers have a bit of a sectional attitude about the postal service; they think they can just go it alone without anyone's help. That’s why there's never much effort put into producing or widely distributing literature for the public to explain why we're on strike. But local solidarity and support committees can be important; other trade unionists just need to get down to the picket lines, explain that they want to help and show what solidarity they can offer.”