Over 700 workers attended the CWU union’s annual conference in Bournemouth this week.
Delegates passed a motion to continue fighting privatisation and to put pressure on Labour, demanding it renationalise Royal Mail if re-elected.
Mark Walsh argued, “We have to be clear that Labour must immediately re-nationalise Royal Mail. There’ll be a mass exodus of jobs if we don’t stop privatisation.”
“Thatcher started the privatisation agenda,” added John Woodhouse from Newcastle. “That was not just to privatise, but to smash the unions. Our job is to lead a fight against that.”
Some delegates felt that, while it is important to demand that Labour renationalise Royal Mail, strikes would be the best way to stop further privatisation.
In the postal industry section of conference, a motion calling for the rejection of union-management partnership models in Royal Mail was defeated.
Simon Midgley, area delivery rep Bradford & District, told Socialist Worker that, “the debate on whether and how this should happen will continue”.
The motion carried instead commits the CWU to holding a special policy forum to debate in full any proposals for union-management partnership.
The union leadership has not given a steer to effectively challenge the onslaught from Royal Mail bosses or privatisation. This has hit some workers’ confidence to fight.
The CWU accepted the marketisation of the postal service in its Business Transformation Agreement. As a tsunami of mail centre closures hits across Britain, the union remains tied to a no strike agreement over the attack.
The result is that many postal workers feel great bitterness and demoralisation.
Yet there was a willingness on conference floor to challenge the union’s national executive committee (NEC), particularly on union democracy.
The NEC backed motions seeking to cut industry sector conferences to once every two years and to cut the number of postal industry delegates to match telecoms. Both were defeated.
Bill Dixon from South London & Surrey opposed the NEC’s motion saying it would be “another nail in the coffin of democracy” if it passed.
Sadie from Northern Ireland telecoms spoke as a first time delegate. “Conference will lose the chance for development of new, younger members if delegation sizes are cut back,” she said.
Delegates passed a motion in the general section of conference condemning the Tories’ workfare programme as “slave labour schemes under the pretence of training and experience”.
The motion was responding to a CWU document earlier in the year that praised a Royal Mail work experience scheme.
One delegate said, “Parts of this union are doing deals we shouldn’t be involved in. This is not in isolation from the government’s attacks on benefits.”
Geoff, a delegate from Wessex South Central, added that the schemes will also “lead to attacks on conditions and pay. It will affect the entire workforce and it is being used deliberately to undermine trade unions.”
Then at postal conference, a motion that called on the union to “cease all involvement in Royal Mail’s work experience scheme” was defeated. Conference passed another that recognised the “prospect” of the Royal Mail work experience scheme in ”enhancing unemployed 16-24 year olds’ chances of finding employment in the future”.
Royal Mail’s scheme is a paid four-week programme where participants are allegedly guaranteed a job at the end.
But the scheme will be at agency-rate of pay, lower than union agreed pay. Not everyone who takes part will get a job straight away, but they will be placed in a queue until one comes up.
Both Royal Mail and the CWU leadership have said that if benefits are stopped as a result of anyone dropping out their scheme, the union and the company will pull out.
Some delegates were angered after the debate, arguing that while it may not be a slave-labour scheme and an improvement on Workfare, it remains a cheap-labour scheme and acts to enshrine a two-tier workforce on different rates of pay.
And doubt exists as to how far any guarantees, whether from Royal Mail or the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), will be held to account.
Will backing Labour protect us from austerity?
A heated debate took place on the question of the use of the union’s political fund. Motions were passed that reaffirmed the union’s strategy of working within the Labour Party as an affiliate. Yet the discussion questioned the union’s strategy to fight austerity.
Many—on both sides of the debate—pointed to the disgrace of the Labour leadership’s condemnation of the pensions strikes. They also denounced Labour’s role in implementing cuts.
But they were divided over whether the best strategy was to look to change the Labour Party.
Other motions backed calls for national demonstrations—one against youth unemployment and one in defence of pensions. And an emergency motion was passed sending solidarity to disabled workers facing the closure of Remploy factories.
A Greek postal worker addressed the conference. He ended his speech by saying, “We are right. We have workers on our side. We have the power.”
A Defend the Right to Protest fringe meeting attracted 60 delegates while 90 attended a meeting organised by the Show Racism the Red Card campaign.
The Tories’ agenda to smash workers’ lives created a politically charged and angry mood. But members will need to push hard for an effective strategy if they are to fight the government.