The attack on postal workers’ wages, pensions and shift patterns is not just a private affair for those who happen to work for Royal Mail. The attack is part of a more general war of attrition against the public postal service, cutting the ground out from under Royal Mail and preparing it for sacrifice to its cherry-picking private competitors.
Like education, health and pensions, this is a key public service; the right to send and receive mail at an affordable price is a bread-and-butter issue that affects the whole working class.
However, the response from the trade-union movement to this and other attacks upon public services, and upon those who work within them, has been at best fragmented and half-hearted. In the months that have elapsed since Brown threw down his gauntlet, imposing a below-inflation pay ceiling on the public sector, there has been plenty of talk about a ‘coordinated fight back’.
And after the PCS motion to TUC congress calling for such ‘coordination’ was passed unanimously, the General Council even spirited up a shiny new National Committee for the purpose. Yet despite the creditable readiness of civil servants, postal workers and even prison wardens to respond to strike calls, there is no more sign of ‘coordination’ against Brown the PM than there was when Brown the Chancellor declared war all those months ago.
The postal workers in particular excelled themselves in 2007 by their willingness to respond to strike calls, even where the sporadic and hesitant character of the tactics did little to inspire. And the degree of anger felt by those workers was clearly revealed in the wildcat strikes with which workers in Liverpool and elsewhere greeted Royal Mail management’s attempts to foist non-negotiated new rosters onto staff returning from official industrial action.
Yet this combative spirit was left high and dry when a bourgeois court decided to rule the most recently planned 48-hour strike illegal. Instead of challenging this class ‘justice’, the Communication Workers Union (CWU) at once announced the suspension of the strike, repudiated the unofficial walk-outs and proceeded to sit down with management.
With the judicial gun pointed at the union’s head, the Labour government joined in the fray, demanding that the union settle on management’s terms.
And as the CWU submitted to these negotiations under duress, who should we find chairing proceedings? No less than Brendan Barber himself. Taking time out from inventing National Committees to Coordinate the Fight Back, the General Secretary of the TUC reverted to the role for which his entire social-democratic education has fitted him: that of gendarme of the bourgeoisie planted in the workers’ movement.
On 22 October,, the CWU national executive ratified the deal and announced there would be a full individual members’ ballot. Yet the Royal Mail workforce had long since made their opinion of such deals crystal clear when they voted so overwhelmingly for industrial action in the first place.
The fresh balloting over the deal, a lengthy and pointless rigmarole, proved to be less an exercise in democracy than a measure designed to stop the strike momentum in its tracks. By the time ballot papers had been dispatched on 7 November, for a ballot which closed on 27 November, it was clearly understood that the strike campaign had been quietly buried.
The deal now being sold to members by the CWU (a rise of 6.9 percent spread over 18 months) means that for the moment they may escape a real-terms pay cut.
But in return for not yet living their wages slashed, the workforce is expected to stomach job cuts, divisive attacks on the pension rights of new entrants and the imposition of ‘local trials’ of new ‘flexible working’ rosters – all in readiness for the moment when the Labour government can get up the courage to complete its demolition of this vital public service.
Meanwhile, CWU members’ subs continue to swell the Labour coffers!