The government and bosses are terrified by the prospect of a national postal workers' strike. But union leaders are not pressing home workers' strength. That is the message from the events of last week.
On Tuesday John Roberts, chief executive of Consignia (the stupid new name for the Post Office), told a Commons committee that 30,000 postal jobs were to go. The Communication Workers Union (CWU) immediately said there would be a strike ballot of all its postal members unless the threat was lifted within 24 hours. Consignia verbally retreated. Post bosses rushed to sign an agreement with the CWU that avoided a strike.
Roberts now said, 'We have not got a firm figure for future job losses. The CWU will be fully consulted when we have firm proposals.' The disarray in the management camp is clear. But the union leaders have also sold the workforce disastrously short.
They have missed a first class opportunity to smash management's entire strategy of making people work harder, and of privatisation. CWU deputy general secretary John Keggie has agreed with Consignia that the union will 'cooperate over any voluntary redundancies' as part of a £1.2 billion cost-cutting programme.
The deal says management will take 'no steps' towards compulsory redundancies. But it rules out compulsory redundancies only while negotiations take place about cost-cutting. After that they might be back on the agenda. The text actually only has an ambiguous assurance that there will be an agreement which 'is built upon reasonable alternative job offers and voluntary redundancy'.
As soon as the deal was signed Roberts repeated, 'We can never rule out compulsory redundancy.' Jane Loftus, CWU national admin rep, told Socialist Worker (in a personal capacity):
'The union leaders have thrown away a chance to get the action going and to stuff Consignia. If there had been a strike ballot last week there would have been a 75 or 80 percent vote for a strike. Why are we giving the other side more time to build up scab services? Why are we saying yes to any sort of redundancy programme?'
On 11 October this year John Keggie said the £1.2 billion programme would mean precisely 30,000 jobs to go. Those cuts are still in place. It will be disastrous if there are mass redundancies, whether they are voluntary or compulsory.
The great danger is that tens of thousands of people will leave the industry, with the union acting as policeman to ease the process and union leaders strongly opposing any action to stop redundancies. The government and Consignia have not backed off over privatisation.
Management says only that they will consider 'meaningful alternatives' to their proposals to sell off the vehicle fleet and some other services. That leaves it entirely open for them to press ahead with selling off huge parts of the Post Office.
The Financial Times commented on Saturday, 'Privately, those involved in the negotiations believe that the agreement has postponed confrontation with the unions rather than solving the thorny issue of how Consignia will reach its £1.2 billion cost-cutting target.' Rank and file CWU activists have to deepen their organisation now. Talks over this year's pay deal are still going on. At the moment Consignia is offering less than 2 percent-with strings attached even to that pathetic offer. Activists should push their branches to demand:
- No job losses-postal workers are not to blame for the problems in the industry.
- The union calls a national strike ballot if Consignia continues to push its privatisation and job-cutting agenda, or if there is not a decent pay deal.
- Support for the Post Worker paper, the voice of the CWU rank and file. This paper has already won wide support, and extending its network will be important for the battles to come. For copies phone 07904 157 779.
Xmas binge for bosses
Post bosses spent over £20,000 on a Christmas binge just hours after threatening 30,000 workers with the sack. Managing director Stuart Sweetman and nearly 200 guests stuffed themselves on a £50 a head meal and guzzled over £6,000 of booze.
One of the fine wines on offer cost £32.50 a bottle. Some 22 Post Office executives were joined by top politicians. They included trade and industry minister Alan Johnson (former general secretary of the CWU union) and Lord Sawyer (who wrote a recent 'independent' report on industrial relations in the post).
Bosses have cancelled Christmas meals for workers in many parts of Britain, and in Birmingham they have withdrawn a £100 bonus.
More stress for those who stay
What will happen to workers and the postal service if 20,000, 30,000 or 40,000 jobs go? It will mean even harder work for those who are left.
There is already a culture of bullying and intimidation by management. That is designed to force people to accept horrendously unsocial hours and slog their guts out during every moment they are at work. Martin, a delivery worker in the West Midlands, says:
'Already there is heavy pressure to take out more than your maximum bag weight of 16 kilos. And the way the system works means that you keep getting more mail loaded onto you as you do the delivery. So the weight doesn't drop. There are vans coming round with extra stuff, and then there are special boxes to top you up.
I start work at 5.32am, six days a week, for £240 a week basic. I wake up on a cold, bleak, black morning, and I just wonder what I'm doing it for. The job is getting worse, and most people are beaten by the time they are 50. We cannot take working any harder. It's brutal already. I don't see any of these fancy bosses who talk about productivity coming out on a round in the morning. They are little Hitlers who need to be taken down a peg or three. The union has got to start fighting properly. It's got to be a real fight.'
The government panicked as soon as the union threatened a strike ballot. Ministers feared a very powerful group of workers might launch a big strike over an issue which would strike a chord with millions of other workers. About 50,000 postal workers struck unofficially and routed a management offensive just before the general election this year.
Ever since then the government and post bosses have been wary about provoking action. Their main hope is to use the union leaders to hold back rank and file militancy. But Roberts's statement overstepped the mark. Perhaps his comments were an attempt to see if he could gain a further retreat from the CWU union. Or perhaps he was just arrogant, stupid and unthinking.
In any case, he not only enraged ordinary workers, he also forced the union leaders to promise resistance. Tony Blair told the Commons that job losses were a matter for the company and unions to deal with. But behind the scenes there were desperate manoeuvres. On Wednesday of last week trade minister Douglas Alexander made phone calls to Consignia managers and CWU union leaders.
Bosses admitted to the Financial Times that they had been left in no doubt that the government was 'concerned and angry' about the way the announcement had been handled. Consignia bosses will be cleverer next time.
The postal service is getting worse. But it is management's fault, not workers'. These are the bosses who spent millions on a name change (to Consignia) that nobody wanted and who have managed to underestimate the demand for stamps at Christmas.
They say strikes are to blame for losses. But 1996-7, the year of the national strike, was the year the Post Office made nearly half a billion pounds profit. The problem is under-investment.
The government has taken £1.5 billion of surpluses from the Post Office and given it directly to the Treasury over the last decade instead of reinvesting it.
'I don't trust leaders'
'We have been sold a crap agreement. Management are quite happy to see the service get worse. They want to have a two-tier system, where businesses get early deliveries and domestic customers get deliveries late in the day. If you want more than that you'll have to pay extra. If people complain they will be told that it's workers' fault and we need more privatisation.
I do not trust the union leaders. Keggie has always been for deals that give away our rights. I thought we had elected Billy Hayes as our union leader-a left winger. But there was no sign of him on the TV and the radio during last week. Unless he's got a good excuse, Billy Hayes is the invisible man-and that's useless.'
EDINBURGH CWU MEMBER