POSTAL WORKERS are facing a crucial few weeks which could determine what happens in the industry for years to come. Trade unionists in other industries will also be watching developments intently. Royal Mail managers have gone on the offensive after the shock announcement last week that postal workers had voted by 48,038 to 46,391 against strikes over pay. The outrageous assault from management provoked unofficial strikes in Oxford, and also forms the backdrop to the strikes over London weighting planned in the capital.
Why did the national vote go against strikes? There is no doubt that in too many areas the campaign was weak, especially when compared to a deluge of propaganda from management. Some divisional and branch officials, especially some associated with the old regime of former union deputy general secretary John Keggie, are almost genetically incapable of throwing themselves into a campaign for a strike. There may even have been a few who, to their great shame, wanted to lose the vote to humble Dave Ward, the new union deputy general secretary.
One CWU divisional rep told Socialist Worker, 'I know there were some officials who said they would go through the motions but then not really push the vote because they wanted to clip Dave Ward's wings. 'Then they woke up and found they had set back the union badly and given management a huge boost.'
The bosses' paper the Financial Times reported on Friday of last week, 'Keggie's friends say that he is 'pleased' with events.'
John Farnan, the CWU divisional rep for Anglia, told Socialist Worker, 'I think in some places people were complacent. Not enough was done, and at times it felt our material was tailing after Royal Mail's rather than defining our own agenda. For me it's part of the problem of the way the union is centralised and not enough power is at a local level.'
The vote doesn't just reflect the actions of a few useless officials. The defeat of the firefighters affected the mood in which the ballot took place. It meant some believed the bosses' dire warnings that the union wouldn't win even if the strikes went on until Christmas.
The union's campaign did not convince enough people about the real power that postal workers have-their capacity to stop 82 million items of mail a day.
Partnership has failed
THE VOTE was also a product of two years of 'partnership' with management. There have been almost no strikes in the post since May 2001, and a virtual no-strike deal followed the Sawyer review of July 2001.
Paul Turnbull, a Cambridge postal worker, says, 'The moratorium on strikes has had an effect on the union's organisation. It means that one of the ways that the solidarity links were maintained, one of the ways the union was kept sharp and the activists linked to the members, was allowed to wither. 'The unofficial strikes-most of which won-also gave you a sense of your power, which is very useful when management try to maintain that workers' action does not change anything.'
Add to that the last six months' when the union's strategy has been to be prepared to sell thousands of jobs and conditions for a little more cash. It must have confused some people when the union then turned round and said it was going to call a strike against a deal based on this principle. And last year workers delivered a good majority for strikes in a ballot over pay, and then got a rotten deal and no strikes.
The good thing is that all the factors that meant the vote went down can be addressed and turned round if the union, from top to bottom, throws itself into real resistance now.
This shows need for rank and file organisation
THE VOTE against strikes does not mean that workers are happy with life. It is just that not enough of them felt confident to fight. Nor is it true, as some reports have suggested, that management tactics represent some new method of sidelining the union. It's certainly true that Royal Mail's top boss, Allan Leighton, did try some slick marketing techniques in the campaign. But a more energetic campaign by the whole union would still have defeated him.
Nor has Leighton yet tamed the union's resistance, whatever he would like to pretend. That is why management has now gone on a ferocious offensive to press home their advantage.
But every activist, in the post and the union movement more generally, needs to understand what has happened. This setback reinforces the need to build rank and file organisation in the unions.
Billy Hayes, the CWU leader, is one of the new generation of 'awkward squad' union leaders. He has been excellent against the war and in supporting protests against the power of the multinationals. He undoubtedly wanted to see a big yes vote.
But just winning an election to an official position does not mean you have enough people on the ground to win workers to action. That requires networks of activists arguing in every office to challenge the bosses' lies, give confidence and raise the militancy of the union. The official leadership had not done this.
Post Worker, the rank and file paper, has made a great start towards creating these networks. But it was still too weak. Its sales and organisation have to be developed.
There was also always a big question mark about how Billy Hayes would deal with the political pressures against a strike from the Labour government. Billy Hayes insists that Labour is still the only party that deserves the union's money. He fiercely defends staying inside Labour, and brushes aside those who call for building a more left wing alternative.
The firefighters' defeat, the election defeat for Mick Rix in Aslef and now the postal workers' ballot pose questions for the 'awkward squad'. Winning elections and hanging on grimly to Labour are not what are needed to revive the strength of the unions.
Billy Hayes must now rise to the challenge. He must stand up to Royal Mail, fan every flame of resistance, and throw the whole union behind the London strikes.
'Now it's time to stand up for ourselves'
'WE ARE still in shock after the result. Postal workers were ringing me up at all hours after the announcement thinking it was a new strategy from Royal Mail to confuse us. No, I said, it's true-we lost a great chance to go forward to a better deal and threw that away.
Now they will be coming for all the reps, and anyone who stands in the way will be challenged. But there's light at the end of the tunnel-the mood which was seen in Oxford last weekend, and industrial action to come over London weighting.
If we win over this we will boost morale nationally and show that we're far from a broken force. It's time now to stand up for ourselves over every issue raised by Royal Mail, and not crumble.'
Kenneth Penfold, CWU member, Woodford Green
Post Worker meeting
Crunch time for our union
Speakers: Norman Candy, Jane Loftus (CWU national executive personal capacity) Saturday 4 October, 3.30pm Lucas Arms, 245A Grays Inn Road, London WC1 (King's Cross station/tube)
Solidarity with the post workers
For a convention of the trade union left Tuesday 30 September, 7pm Conway Hall, Red Lion Square, London (Holborn tube)
Called by the Socialist Alliance