AROUND 250 CWU union divisional, area and branch reps met last Saturday at an official meeting to discuss the recent pay ballot, management attacks and the way forward for the union. The meeting was much more positive than anyone might have expected a week before.
The Oxford strike and the London dispute have given us all a sense that we can hit back against Post Office management. Dave Ward, the union's deputy general secretary, gave a good speech which was helpful at pulling the union together. He did not point the finger at any individual or area for failing to deliver on the pay ballot.
But there was a strong sense in the room that anyone who failed the test of the ballot should either change their ways bloody quickly or get out of their position.
It is simply not acceptable that some people did not even put round the official union material arguing for a strike over pay. There are big challenges ahead for us but we are not rolling over in the face of management attacks.
Royal Mail thought that in the wake of the ballot result they could simply force us to accept whatever they threw at us. We are not going down that road. At the meeting we heard that in the mail centres and among drivers our negotiators will go back to management and try to get talks going on a national agreement over pay and conditions.
If there is no response within four weeks then we could be moving towards a national strike ballot. In the delivery offices (which are much smaller than the mail centres) it will be harder to stand up to management.
But so far out of 1,500 delivery offices only six have signed up to management's plans for a new delivery system and the staff changes that go with it. Offices should try to hold the line and there will not be CWU agreement to changes on an office by office basis.
These industrial issues are very important and it was great to feel the union pulling together. But it was also very striking that there is a lot of political anger against New Labour among postal workers, far more so than at the union conference just a few months ago.
Early on in the meeting one delegate raised why we continue to give money to New Labour when it is the government that stands behind the brutal post office regulator and it is the government which appointed Allan Leighton, Adam Crozier and the rest to the top of Royal Mail to attack us.
The response was amazing. Many other delegates, including 'moderates' gave the leadership a hard time for their policy of hanging on to Labour. Billy Hayes says that when we go into battle there are Labour MPs who stand with us. But they are a tiny minority and they don't make any difference. How many Labour MPs have been on the picket lines in London or Oxford?
The chair of the meeting had to intervene to say that this debate would be revisited at the next CWU conference and could we get back to the industrial stuff! It certainly will be raised again and many of us won't forget how Labour has behaved towards postal workers-as well as over the war and other issues.
TWO CWU MEMBERS who were at the union national meeting
What we think
Organise from below
THE RANK and file has saved the CWU communication workers' union in the last two weeks. And in doing that they have helped to raise the spirits of many other trade unionists. By the rank and file we basically mean those members who are not full-time salaried officials of the union.
Much of the CWU leadership was thrown into turmoil when the pay ballot result came out. Some were willing to sign up to whatever management threw at them and to run away from the slightest hint of confrontation. But critical confrontations at Oxford and London have, as one CWU member recently told Socialist Worker, 'pushed Royal Mail management back from the gates of our castle, just when it looked as though all our defences had gone'. The Oxford strike was entirely driven by rank and file pressure and by the solid defiance of management by those branch and divisional officials who reflect and encourage rank and file strength.
The London strikes came through a similar process. A genuine resurgence in union strength in Britain depends on building and strengthening the rank and file. Even if people at the top of the union want militancy and struggle, they are helpless to bring it about unless there is strong pressure on the ground arguing and organising.
And all too often people get elected to the top positions promising to lead a fight but then run away from the struggle. In that case only a strong rank and file can lead action independently of the officials. Union leaders, even left union leaders, can crumble at the key moments or put their loyalty to the Labour Party before the interests of their members. Rank and file networks, rooted in the workplace, are far more resilient and far less likely to think that 'reclaiming Labour' is the way forward.
Some people in the anti-war and anti-capitalist movement look at the present state of the trade unions and despair. They say we need something different. We do need something different and it's called a rank and file strategy which tries to focus the immense potential strength of the working class.
The growth of rank and file networks in the Post Office around the paper Post Worker and among the readers of Socialist Worker is a huge step forward. It needs to be developed and copied in other unions. If we can strengthen the rank and file then we will add to Blair's headaches and weaken him still further.