Royal Mail workers were poised to begin a national ballot over pay as Socialist Worker went to press. Union negotiators met with management for last-ditch talks on Tuesday. Unless these produced real improvements in the existing offer union leaders had pledged to start a strike vote.
Royal Mail is offering workers a 3.1 percent rise, which is below the rate of inflation. Management also want to break some of the workforce into 'business units' and negotiate with them separately.
This is another step along the road of privatisation and 'market testing'. A CWU branch official from the south of England told Socialist Worker, 'Pay has become an issue which focuses a lot of resentment at the managers. There have been dozens, hundreds, of disputes in the last 12 months over bullying, victimisation, increased work and so on. These have been fought locally, unofficially and largely successfully. Now there is a national issue which could pull us all together, and inflict a big defeat on the employers and the government which stands behind them.'
New Labour ministers will be terrified by the prospect of a big battle in the run-up to the election. John Keggie, the CWU union's deputy general secretary postal, was invited to 10 Downing Street for talks with Tony Blair's officials to try to get a deal agreed.
Union leaders are also under pressure from the membership, who want to end low pay and long hours. Outside London a postal worker gets just £240 a week, often for six days work. John Keggie will also be worried that any backsliding over pay might harm his chances in the forthcoming election for the CWU's general secretary. The Post Office's recent £2 million rebranding as Consignia is a sign of the direction bosses want to go.
CWU leaders have avoided the possibility of a strike for as long as possible. Now the crunch is coming.
LIVERPOOL: Some 200 workers walked out on Monday night at the Copperas Hill office. A part time worker was suspened for allegedly verbally abusing a manager. The worker was later reinstated but the strike spread as union members demanded a full review of disciplinary procedures and an end to harassment. By Tuesday 400 were on strike.
BRISTOL: Around 150 workers struck in a dispute over overtime. The action began on Friday of last week among 70 workers at the Easton Business Park. At the weekend more offices came out as workers refused to cross picket lines. The dispute started when management axed workers' overtime payments for extra sorting on behalf of workers who are sick or on holiday.
STOCKPORT: Around 100 workers at the automated processing centre struck on Tuesday.
WATFORD: Workers walked out at the end of last week on a short strike.
The Communication Workers Union Broad Left met last weekend. Around 70 activists from the post and telecom industries discussed a range of issues-but the focus was the executive elections.
Billy Hayes, presently a top CWU national official, appealed to the meeting to support his campaign to be general secretary after Derek Hodgson retires. Hayes made a very left wing speech, saying his campaign would be about 'a socialist candidacy on a socialist agenda against John Keggie, who represents the right and the modernisers' approach'.
His supporters pointed out that he had opposed the Falklands War, the Gulf War and NATO's recent war in Yugoslavia. However, other people at the meeting raised Hayes's record on the executive, where he has not been an open critic of the leadership. Crucially for some, he backed the Way Forward package, which represented a concerted attack on pay and conditions.
Broad Left members on the executive said that Hayes had only rarely backed the left. Hayes was also not prepared to say he would reject the £96,000 a year package for general secretary. In the end the meeting voted by the narrowest margin not to support him. The left cannot abstain from this issue. There is still time to get a left candidate who is untainted by their record at the top of the union. A confident socialist campaign based on the concerns and struggles of rank and file members could win wide support and stuff Keggie.
Left activists should discuss how to get a socialist candidate and ask why Broad Left leaders have not produced one. If no such candidate can be found then CWU members will have to vote for Billy Hayes.
A defeat for Keggie would be a slap in the face for Tony Blair as well as the supporters of 'partnership' inside the union.
POST WORKER, the rank and file paper, is available now, including reports on strikes, and the latest on privatisation and pay. Several CWU branches have already placed bulk orders. Get your own copy and some to sell to workmates. Phone 0958 478 631.