CRUCIAL DEBATES are going on in the Communication Workers Union about how to respond to the huge attacks postal workers face. At the union's conference last week they discussed what to do about job losses, privatisation and attacks on the union.
The new Post Office chairman, Allan Leighton, sent an insulting letter to all workers last week. It accused union negotiators of being in the Costa del Sol or watching the World Cup rather than ramming through the delivery changes the bosses want. The key debate on the first day of the conference was over whether the union should withdraw from the 'participation' structures set up after the Sawyer report into industrial relations in the post. Following this report the union agreed a halt to all strikes, but the bosses have still decided to refuse the usual paid leave for Royal Mail workers to attend the conference.
Royal Mail delegates either could not attend or had to be funded by the union-at a cost of up to £500,000. This is effectively a 'fine' on the union.
John Farnham, the divisional rep for East Anglia, told the conference, 'We do not want to be partners with people who behave in this manner to us. 'We stopped the industrial action. But management did not say thank you for that. Instead they attacked. When they see we are weak they go for us.' Andy O'Brien from Watford said, 'Remember, they had participation at Ford, and look at the result-Dagenham is closed. We should say no to subservience.'
Bob Cullen from Oxfordshire said, 'We won't stop Allan Leighton with a piece of paper. He is an ex-supermarket boss who is off his trolley. 'At the moment the management are walking tall. We have to take the employer on.'
But other speakers argued that it would be wrong to pull out of partnership. Billy Butterworth from Merseyside said, 'It would send all the wrong messages.' Deputy general secretary John Keggie said that the union could not go back to the 'bad old days' of unofficial strikes, and that strikes over pay would have opened the door to privatisation.
This is a total reversal of the truth. It is the failure to fight back which is allowing the government and management to impose the mass job losses and privatisation.
Unfortunately the motion to withdraw from partnership was defeated. The combination of the job losses and the sharp reduction in struggle in the post during the last year has meant a loss of confidence among some activists. They are unsure of how to meet the massive challenges they face. The union leaders were pleased to have persuaded the majority of delegates that strikes and confrontation are not the way forward.
But the mood could change very quickly as the situation teeters between demoralisation and outraged resistance. The sheer scale of the attacks-at least 30,000 job losses, rampant privatisation, depot and office closures, and attacks on the union-means that at some points a section or even the whole union could be hurled into a fight. In the next few weeks and months there are many potential flashpoints, including:
- The outsourcing of staff who work for the maintenance and engineering section Romec. Union leaders have been forced to promise a strike ballot of all 180,000 Post Office staff starting on 3 July. The ballot is over the transfer of pension rights and other conditions. But it could be used to take on the whole issue of handing services to the private sector. Strikes over the issue would be a great boost to confidence for all postal workers.
- The attempt to implement the new delivery patterns (known as TDS).
- The closure programme and job losses arising from the review of logistics (the mail transport division).
Activists must keep battling to win support for a fightback, for political resistance to New Labour's plans, and for rank and file organisation. Encouragingly, on the first day of the conference over 400 copies of the Post Worker rank and file paper were sold. Later in the week postal and telecoms workers were to meet to discuss the political fund, opposition to the war and other matters.
THE POST Office had been forced to back down in its long-running battle against north London postal workers Mick and Tom Doherty. They were sacked two years ago after allegations they had taken part in football violence. Both won employment tribunals which found they had been unfairly dismissed.
But the Post Office refused to follow the tribunals' findings that they should be given their jobs back. After a London-wide strike was threatened, bosses have now offered Mick £125,000 to settle the claim. Tom is on course to return to his job. Socialist Worker spoke to Mick Doherty about the case:
'This has been an incredibly stressful time for both of us and our families. We have lost money, been hounded by the press and suffered character assassination. Let's remember that we were never apprehended, arrested, charged or deported. It was a political decision to take disciplinary action against us. At the time I was leading industrial action by counters workers. I was the chair of the North/ North West London CWU union branch, a branch which had come under intense scrutiny for its determination to defend workers' rights. We now know that the select committee of the Department for Trade and Industry was consulted at every stage in the case. John Roberts, the Post Office chief executive, fully endorsed our suspension and sackings even before there had been a proper hearing. What manager was then going to go against that?
'There are two reasons why the Post Office has been forced to back down now. The first is that we wouldn't go away. We kept up the pressure by a determined campaign of stunts, political lobbying and so on. But I have no doubt that in the final analysis it was the strike threat in London which pushed management over the edge. The man who took over from me as branch chair is now facing the possibility of the sack just for attending the union conference! All the managers involved in the case have since been promoted. The government allows employers to get away with not implementing the decisions of employment tribunals.
'We could learn from the Italian workers-when Berlusconi tried to take away their rights there were millions on the streets. Alan Johnson, who is the minister responsible for tribunals, is a former leader of the CWU. He did not reply to my correspondence about this case. It has been a hard struggle. It is a great achievement to have humiliated the Post Office. This is a difficult time for postal workers, with the job cuts and privatisation. It is important to know we can win. We both want to thank everyone who supported us.'
ALLAN LEIGHTON has a long term plan to discipline the union and squeeze militancy out of the workforce. His method is modelled on the strategy used by Michael Edwardes in the car industry in the late 1970s.
Edwardes was appointed by Labour to 'sort out' the car industry. He appealed 'over the heads' of union officials to the workforce, and posed as their friend. He victimised militants and set up 'participation' committees which sidelined the union. Leighton would like to do the same in the post. He would like to break the rank and file activists, and use initiatives like the Sawyer committees to draw reps into a cosy relationship with management. He wants the workforce to see him as a dynamic force for good who is blocked by the stupidity of union opposition and a few conservative managers.
His letter to workers said, 'Frankly I'm hacked off with the whole lot of them, and I wouldn't be surprised if you were too.' It is gross cheek for this man, who gets hundreds of thousands of pounds a year from various directorships, to claim to be the friend of postal workers who flog their guts out for £250 a week.
CWU union leaders are certainly outraged by Leighton's attacks. But they are failing to take him on effectively.