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The postal workers’ strike

A postal worker reflects on the recent series of strikes.

The Royal Mail kept changing the goal posts. What originally started about a pay rise and impending redundancy plans, then involved the fight over pension entitlements and the right to retire at 60 years of age, became, for the Royal Mail mandarins, a campaign to end what they described as "Spanish practices"  – a racist epithet that is insulting to the many hundreds of Spanish who work in Royal Mail – and a demand for total flexibility at work.

What just was the "employers agenda", to use a term from the last big postal dispute and eventual agreement of the mid-90s which was supposedly the "way forward" for the business? Was there a hidden motive behind the intransigence of  Leighton and Crozier that provoked the strike? It is not as if the CWU hasn't a history of compromise or reached deals that often favour management over its own members interests to protect the industry's viability. We have always got to try and look at the bigger picture, which only the bosses and government have the blueprint of, and see beyond the fragmentary glimpses of their real objectives through the fog of battle.

For the worker, it is the money they take home and the amount of work that they must do to earn it that is foremost in their mind, and – let’s not hide from the reality – it is to get the most for doing the least. However, for management, it is the entire opposite. They endeavour to extract the most work out of its workforce at the most minimum of cost. The inevitable class struggle, in other words.

This was the postal dispute, a conflict between worker and boss. And it was management who were the aggressor in the dispute, with:

Executive action on their pension proposal cuts
Executive action through the imposition of later starting times
Executive action through the imposition of network changes
Executive action through the ending of Sunday Collections
Executive action against Engineers, the net effect of which will mean a reduction of 10% of posts.
Executive action through the cessation of Employee Share of Savings Scheme (ESOS).

Postal workers. who had withdrawn their labour, offered to return to work for an increase in pay and more talks over working procedures, but the managers initially refused this offer. The Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Business   told the workers to accept the management’s terms, while the High Court has  ruled one week’s planned strike unlawful.

The Union wanted the issue of pensions removed from the pay deal as it is a Group-wide issue, not just for the postal grades. Royal Mail wanted union support to roll out new technology programme. The CWU said they would agree on the basis that there is a share for workers of any savings made. On a later start, the union said they would accept the principle but that each office should be able to maintain earlier starts if arrival patterns justify it. Isn't that flexibility? Certainly not the Luddite response against modernisation that Royal Mail's PR message endeavour to convey to the general public. It was on this basis that a settlement was negotiated.

What about the question of whether Royal Mail and/or the government possess a secret plan? With a union keen to broker a deal, as they have always done before, but with a management that kept switching the issues it may not be too paranoid of postal workers to believe that such a plan exists. Nor are they the only ones.

"...the DTI, the department responsible for this huge national asset [Royal Mail] , has officials deployed full-time looking at alternative forms of ownership. Regular talks have been held with investment bankers, Royal Mail executives and Richard Gillingwater, head of the Shareholder Executive, which looks after the state's business interests... officials from the DTI have also held deeply hush-hush meetings with Royal Mail executives that have reached the point of discussing the detail of potential changes in ownership, not just the theory..." (Mail on Sunday, 22 August 2004).

A partial flotation of Royal Mail would raise anything between £4 billion and £6 billion if a buyer could be found – a buyer who would like to inherit a low cost and compliant work force with a new more limited pension fund liability – a business with a defeated trade union and demoralised membership.

As socialists, we shed no tears that this state-owned company may become privatised. Only those like Lenin who believed socialism, as he put in State and Revolution, means to "To organize the whole economy on the lines of the postal service" after the example of Bismarck's Germany, remain under the misconception that it matters.

Regardless of ownership, the necessity for postal workers to organise within their industry and resist the attacks of their employers will continue and to which socialists will offer their support and solidarity , whether it is against the likes of Leighton and Crozier, appointees of the State, or against some rival mail company take-over, or a possible future Private Equity buy-out baron. The class war will only cease when capitalism and the wages system ends.

ALAN JOHNSTONE