The ballot on whether postal workers will accept the deal brokered between the Communication Workers’ Union and Royal Mail closes on 27 November. Despite the difficulty of restarting action after such a prolonged lull, and the heavy pressure in favour of the deal from both the union leadership and management, CWU activists say the ballot could be close.
Activists met last month and launched a “CWU Rank and File” group to campaign against the deal and create the embryo of a rank-and-file network on the post — something that has been sorely missing over the years, with militancy not matched by political organisation and thus easily manipulated by the union bureaucracy. About 30 branches, a third of all CWU postal branches, have recommended that their members vote no.
In response, the leadership has issued a podcast to all members (available on the union website). In it, deputy general secretary and chief postal negotiator Dave Ward argues that the deal “is the best that can be achieved in the circumstances”.
Pay, flexibility, pensions
Ward, Hayes et all argue that in terms of pay the deal represents a significant improvement on Royal Mail’s original offer. The reality is that postal workers are still being offered a real terms pay cut. The original offer was 2.5 per cent. Now Royal Mail is offering 5.4 per cent over two years, beginning in October not April. 1.5 per cent next year will be dependent on accepting increased “flexibility”, which will mean further reductions in pay. So much for the figure of 6.9 per cent bandied about in the press!
In terms of flexibility, the leadership has accepted the key elements of Royal Mail’s demands. New working practices, including the later start times the imposition of which sparked so much wildcat action over the summer, will mean not only further de facto cuts in pay and an even more back-breaking workload for those that remain after jobs are culled (something on which the deal is completely silent).
The deal includes restoration of docked facility time, but nothing about the reinstatement of reps and activists victimised during the dispute.
The leadership’s argument that the union can negotiate the details of ‘modernisation’ locally are a recipe for branches being picked off in ascending order of strength, in place of a united fightback.
Formally pensions are not included in the deal, but in fact it was made clear to the PEC when they voted that agreeing a framework on pensions was a condition for Royal Mail’s “Pay and Modernisation” offer. The CWU leadership has agreed to the closure of the final salary pensions scheme in favour of a career average one and a retirement age of 65 for new starters. Meanwhile, it emphasises that existing workers will still be able to retire at 60 while studiously neglecting to add “without detriment” — making clear that current members will take a hit too.
As Postal Exec member Dave Warren, who voted and is campaigning against the deal, put it in an interview in the last Solidarity: “I’ve never known an agreement with so much in it of the union agreeing to imposed changes after they’ve been imposed. It couldn’t have been worse if we had refused to agree and just let management try to impose those things unilaterally without union agreement.”
The politics behind the deal
Dave Ward’s podcast makes clear, once again, that behind the recommendation to accept the deal is an acceptance of many of Royal Mail’s arguments about the future of the industry.
Ward argues that CWU members “really cannot face away from change”. What does he mean by this banality? Take the issue of pensions: “We understand the need for reform because when you look at the figures you can see that no change on pensions will cripple the business financially.”
This idea is central to Royal Mail’s case, that postal workers must pay for the crisis that management have created. The CWU leadership do not dispute that basic idea
For all their left rhetoric, this is fundamentally no different from the period in the late 1990s when Alan Johnson presided over a policy of supporting commercial freedom for Royal Mail in a liberalised market. The basic elements of liberalisation are being not only accepted but actively argued for.
Hence the union’s silence over the abolition of Sunday collections, mail centre and post office closures and the like.
Restart the action!
A majority voting no will not, of course, means that the action restarts automatically. But it is the first step in that battle. A no vote will allow those activists who have organised against the deal to massively up the pressure on the Postal Exec and the union leadership to get the strikes back on, with the maximum possible participation and decisions made by elected strike committees, not by relatively unaccountable union bureaucrats.
At the same time, the way in which Hayes, Ward and their supporters have cynically and undemocratically manipulated members, turning the action on and off with little accountability, poses the need for root-and-branch change in the CWU. (So does the fact that only five Postal Exec members voted againt the deal!)
That means a fight to remake the union so that it fights consistently for its members’ interests, instead of seeking to act as an intermediary between workers and management, the Labour Party leadership and the government.
This should be the direction in which CWU Rank and File develops.