Leaders of the CWU postal workers’ union have suspended national strike action planned for today and Monday of next week following a new offer from Royal Mail.
But the “interim agreement” signed by the union and the company early this morning does not solve the key issues behind the dispute and instead leaves the door open to a further wave of attacks.
Crucially, it states that there will be “no industrial action in the run-up to and during the Christmas period” – on condition that on-going negotiations are proceeding to the union’s satisfaction.
This will allow the company to clear the huge backlog of mail that has built up through weeks of local and national strike action, and will avert action when management are at their weakest.
Cancelling the strikes has led to bitter scenes in mail centres and delivery offices across Britain. Many union reps told Socialist Worker they have been inundated with members demanding to know why the union has squandered the chance take action during the Christmas period – when the volume of mail is at its height.
The attacks that triggered the dispute – Royal Mail’s plans to slash jobs and impose unagreed changes to conditions, known as “executive action”, are to remain in place while local negotiations take place.
But the deal does not say what should happen in the interim. So delivery workers who have been allocated new rounds that can only be finished if they are prepared to work unpaid overtime could still find themselves subject to disciplinary action if they can’t complete their duties and “cut off”.
The document signed by both parties says “overall job numbers” will be based on a “fair and transparent level of workload”. But offers no guarantees that the company’s preference to turn full time jobs into part time ones will come to an end.
Again, this question will become part of “local negotiations”.
Many union activists are rightly worried that the deal will simply buy Royal Mail time, and that they will withdraw from any meaningful local talks in December, and then announce new attacks in January.
By then the union will have completely demobilised its members and demoralised many of its activists.
The positive aspects of the deal – which include a return of normal opportunities to earn overtime, an end to diverting mail away from mail centres that are deemed by the company to be troublesome, and an end to victimisation of union reps – are far outweighed by potential pitfalls.
There is no reason for the CWU to have signed up to such an agreement.
A few weeks ago Royal Mail boss Adam Crozier and Labour minister Peter Mandelson were confident that the union would fall apart and that the strikes would collapse. But after last week’s national strike Mandelson was forced to “shut up”, and government ministers stopped touring TV studios to denounce the strikes.
The national strikes were rock solid, with many offices reporting less scabbing, not more, as the second wave of action started. This put Royal Mail and the government on the defensive, and opinion polls showed massive public sympathy with the union.
It was the postal workers’ defiant action that forced new talks. The threat of escalating strikes to two days a week, combined with the decision by some areas to target the scab centres frightened management and Labour.
The whole point of spreading local fights to one that involved the whole country was to move from local agitation to national agreements. Now the flow is the other way round.
What happens if Royal Mail use the local negotiations to insist on their measures going through? Are offices supposed to fight on their own? Will each office come to its own agreement only to find that others nearby have got a better or worse deal?
If that were the case it would have a terrible effect on the union’s ability to launch future national fights.
What’s been gained so far does not match the courage and sacrifice of postal workers across Britain. And, there is already plenty of evidence that, far from backing off, Royal Mail are preparing to take a tough line against union demands.
The only course of action is for union activists to put up the most determined resistance at a local level, while arguing hard for the return of national action