Royal Mail Goes for Broke

Submitted by AWL on 27 September, 2007 - 2:02 Author: Sacha Ismail

GREG Charles is branch secretary of South West London Postal Communication Workers’ Union.

SI: With the attacks on pensions, Royal Mail management seems to be stepping up the fight.

GC: Once new dates for action were announced, we knew this would happen — the intensity of our action in October has obviously alarmed management, and they are striking back. They have retaliated not just through the attack on our pensions, but with executive action to push us harder on a number of fronts — start times, night duties, workload and so on.

What’s the CWU’s response? Is it adequate?

Yes, the union is getting ready. The four days at the start of October will hit hard, making it easier to tip management off balance when the rolling programme kicks in. So on that score things are in hand. Of course, we need to fight more politically — to get our message out the wider community, and put political as well as industrial pressure on PostComm and the Government.

The CWU delegation at Labour Party conference has just voted for Brown’s proposal to remove the right of unions and CLPs to send motions. What do you make of that?

I haven’t kept fully abreast of the Labour Party stuff, so it’s difficult to form an opinion straight away. But the move was clearly marked out by Gordon Brown from the time he became leader, or even before then. I’m totally opposed to it. It was the unions that formed the Labour Party, but this is just another move to take it in a totally different direction, away from the working-class. It means denying our unions a voice in politics. If what you say is right, I’m disgusted, but I’ll have to look into it. I’m sure it will be taken up in the union.

Some have compared this dispute to the FBU’s strike over pay in 2002-3: which began well, but then petered out as the leadership got cold feet. Do you think that’s fair?

No, I don’t. Clearly we’ve had a period of calm, while talks were going on. It was right to suspend the action to make clear that we were willing to talk. And another good thing about the talks is that we can now see even more clearly management's intentions in terms of pensions, pay, flexibility — their plans for our entire terms and conditions.

Now that there’s no agreement, the action is not petering out. If anything it’s getting harder. We’ve got four days coming up, over a whole weekend, in the October period when things are getting really busy. We’re in this to win.

What about other public sector unions striking alongside the CWU?

Well, we have our own dispute and we want to win through our own industrial strength — but of course joining together with other disputes can make a vital difference. In the rank-and-file, I think there's a willingness to do it, but the general secretaries are a different matter — of course.

PETE Firmin is branch vice-chair and political officer of London West End Amalgamated CWU.

SI: With the attacks on pensions, Royal Mail management seems to be stepping up the fight.

PF: From the start it was clear they were on the offensive. The union’s response to this has been inadequate; the CWU leadership hasn’t understood the significance of all this in the same way that management has. Management have come out with things like “it'll be as bloody as the miners’strike” and “we can sit out six months of strikes”, and the union has not taken that on board.

But with the announcement of new strike dates, aren’t things getting back on track?

It’s taken us an awfully long time to get round to it. The previous dithering is also a sign that things could be called off again at any moment.

What do you think about the rolling programme?

It has good and bad sides. The good side, obviously, is that we cause maximum disruption for minimum loss to us – we can cause four days of chaos while only losing one day’s pay each. It creates huge backlogs.

The downsides are two-fold. It frees up managers to move around and do different jobs, which obviously wouldn’t be the case if we were all out; and because different sections are out at different times, it means people delivering and so on to places that are currently on strike.

The instruction from the union nationally is to cross picketlines, but for obvious reasons people don’t want to do that. That’s what caused the huge wildcats in Scotland, Liverpool and so on, when people were victimised for refusing to cross. So it’s a mess, and one that will continue.

Some people have said all out now, and to a certain extent that’s my view. But I’m really not sure the members are there yet, that postal workers are willing to lose that much in a bid for victory. So it’s a real dilemma. But part of the problem is that the leadership aren't even having that debate.

Some have compared this dispute to the FBU’s strike over pay in 2002-3...

I think that’s a very good comparison. If the leadership do try to call things off, there's no structure in the union to hold people accountable and get it back on, no rank-and-file movement as such. There's Postal Worker [run by the SWP], which has a very wide readership: I've been trying to get it to call a national meeting of supporters since early August, and there may be one in October, but they're obviously not keen.

Postal Worker has an alliance with certain members of the PEC [the CWU’s postal executive], and as a result has in the past prevaricated and even advocated a vote for job-cutting deals.

As in the FBU, the leadership are out of their depth, industrially and politically. They should be making the issue about whether it's the workforce or the bosses who pay for change in the industry, but instead the CWU is saying: ok, we’ll pay, but not that much.

Over the question of job losses, the union says it doesn’t object to job losses providing those that remain benefit. But firstly, what about those who lose their jobs — and secondly, with 40,000 job losses we’ll all be working harder! The policy is contradictory because the leadership aren’t really challenging the framework of liberalisation.

As in the FBU, the members are being wheeled out like a stage army, with potentially disastrous consequences.

You’re speaking to me from Bournemouth, where the CWU delegation to Labour Party has just voted for Brown's proposal to disenfranchise the unions and CLPs. What are your thoughts?

When it becomes known among the activists, it will massively increase the pressure for disaffiliation. People will say, there's no ability, even theoretically, to put things to the conference, so why be in the party anyway? Our argument, opposition to both disaffiliation and capitulation, will be even more difficult to make. But most of those advocating disaffiliation will not be putting forward a political alternative — that’s another similarity with the FBU — so it’s an argument we have to have.

Will other public sector unions strike alongside the CWU?

I'm not convinced that the leaderships are really up for it. Look at the example of PCS, which has a live ballot mandate but has failed to use it. The CWU can’t hold off waiting for others. Joint days of action would be great and should be fought for, but we can’t rely on them or wait.

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