THIS YEAR'S conference of the Communication Workers Union (CWU) was the most political ever. There is sometimes a sense in the union that the 'big politics' discussions are the preserve of relatively few activists and that the rest do not really get engaged until the nitty-gritty discussions about pay, jobs and hours. If that were ever true, it certainly wasn't this year.
The hall was packed for debates about Iraq and Palestine, globalisation and the threat from the BNP. It wasn't just the formal debates. Speeches on every issue touched on wider politics. The pensions discussions touched on the French mass strikes, the discussion of honorary membership led to a passionate argument about New Labour and the firefighters!
Most of the CWU delegates are manual workers in the Post Office or telecom firms and are instinctive Labour voters. They are the people who home secretary David Blunkett claims 'back the war while the middle class liberals wring their hands'.
Yet these delegates voted unanimously to support George Galloway against the witch-hunt inspired by New Labour. No delegates spoke against the union affiliating to the Stop the War Coalition.
The political ferment around the war has not just touched 100,000s of students, school students and activists. It has changed the worldview of many workers. One sign of that was the sale of over 400 copies of Socialist Worker during the conference.
As a CWU delegate from the north east of England told Socialist Worker, 'Up to a year ago I would have said that Blair was basically trustworthy and that the union should do its best to keep out of politics. Now I think differently about both those issues. The war has proved totally that Blair is a liar and I don't see how the union can abstain from such huge issues which are about the whole way the country is governed.'
A fringe meeting, hosted by the rank and file paper Post Worker, brought around 150 delegates together to hear George Galloway speak. Many then discussed whether people on the left should stay and fight inside Labour or instead seek to build an alternative.
No single view emerged, but the debates are going on with a seriousness and an intensity far beyond anything that has gone before. In the CWU engagement with wider issues is strongly encouraged by many in the leadership and, in particular, by union general secretary Billy Hayes. He has spoken at all the big anti-war marches and at events organised by Globalise Resistance.
In a debate about the Tobin tax - a measure proposed to tax currency speculation - Billy Hayes told the conference, 'Every day over $1 trillion flows through the money markets. The vast majority of that is not about trade, it's about speculation. The G8 met in Evian and presided over a world where some are incredibly rich and some people starve, a world where some have wealth beyond dreams and some have to watch their children die.'
Such speeches are a breath of fresh air. But it is not enough for unions to speak out about war and globalisation. They also have to show they are fighting directly over working people's lives here. Unions must do something about the bullying boss, the pay packet that doesn't stretch to the end of the month, the scandal that some postal workers do up to 70 hours a week and that British Telecom wants to export call centre jobs to India to slash costs.
The absence of action over such questions can cause cynicism and disunity. There were danger signs at the CWU conference. The union was deeply split during the recent election battle between John Keggie and Dave Ward for the post of deputy general secretary. Some of this was a left-right split but there was also a geographical basis to the division. There were renewed signs of this regionalism at conference, although there were also powerful voices calling for unity.
The most effective way to pull the union together is national action over pay and other issues. The conference passed a motion calling for substantial increases in both basic pay and London weighting.
Steve Higginson from Merseyside told Socialist Worker, 'We really need a battle over pay but there is a fundamental question that has yet to be answered. Is the union going to argue over how big a pot of money is available for wages or just squabble over how the pot that the Post Office is ready to give gets distributed? It would be wrong to get more money by selling thousands of jobs or allowing management to butcher our conditions.'
Post Office management's vision is to allow pay to rise on the basis of overturning present working conditions and jacking up productivity. Deliveries, processing (sorting) and distribution (transport) are all facing job-cutting reviews which, if they are accepted, will trigger cash bonuses. These are essentially bribes, a bit of sugar on a very nasty pill.
This strategy used to be called the 'road map to £300 a week' but, perhaps after recent events in the Middle East, is now often dubbed the 'flightpath to £300'. The 'flightpath' will see 12,000 people jettisoned as job losses bite because of the changes in deliveries. The CWU leadership has grudgingly gone along with this.
The conference discussed whether to accept the job losses in order to get increased pay. The executive's position was passed by only a wafer-thin majority.
However the executive was then defeated when delegates insisted that the agreement should go to a ballot of all Royal Mail workers - not just deliveries. The rank and file paper Post Worker is likely to campaign against the deal. Battles could flare up over this issue or others - such as London weighting or the Post Office's decision to stop using rail transport.
The confidence and politics generated during the war can increase demands for a real fight against Blair and the bosses here.