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Billy Hayes: Socialist Worker got it wrong

This article is over 21 years, 6 months old
BILLY HAYES, general secretary of the Communication Workers Union, has responded to two recent articles in Socialist Worker. One was by Exeter postal worker Fran Choules, the other by Socialist Worker journalist Charlie Kimber.
Issue 1829

BILLY HAYES, general secretary of the Communication Workers Union, has responded to two recent articles in Socialist Worker. One was by Exeter postal worker Fran Choules, the other by Socialist Worker journalist Charlie Kimber.

They concerned the tactics unions should adopt when faced with privatisation. They specifically centred on lessons from the Post Office’s plan to set up a joint venture between the Romec cleaning and maintenance section and Balfour Beatty. This joint venture went through after the company accepted the union’s demands over the terms of transfer of staff.

Billy Hayes

‘CHARLIE KIMBER (5 October) believes that the strategy that the CWU has adopted is not the best tactic, but does not lay out what he believes should be the most appropriate response. No other union in Britain has been prepared to ballot the whole of its members to defend itself on such matters.

If Charlie is advocating unofficial action he should say so. Members of the Socialist Workers Party have not advanced such a policy at branch or national executive council level, so what does he suggest we do in the circumstances? Of course, for the CWU to simply ballot on privatisation would be illegal – such a ballot would probably be stopped before any envelope went out.

Unlike South Africa, you cannot have strike action on privatisation – it is a ‘political’ issue in the UK. That is one of the reasons we are part of the United Campaign to Repeal the Anti Trade Union Laws.

As to unofficial action and defying the law, as Charlie knows only too well, the CWU has been involved in more unofficial industrial action than any other union. I well remember giving evidence in Court No 3, the Strand, when our union was fined just short of £1 million for refusing to repudiate the action of our members. Charlie was in the court to hear the case.

No other union in the last ten years has faced a similar fine. As to the ‘price being right’, in the case of Romec, we laid out a strategy to defeat the Romec sell-off based on legal advice from the top labour lawyers in the UK. Our claim on members’ terms was met in full, and the trade dispute ceased to exist. To take industrial action in such circumstances would be ‘infantile leftism’ of the worst kind.

The CWU will defend its members in line with conference decisions based on all the options. In launching our campaign to defend our members in CHD we drew on our collective experience with Romec and refined our tactics.

The 26 October piece described the union’s tactics as at best ‘naive or at worst duplicitous’, something I have not heard one member at any briefing ever say. The measure of a tactic are the objectives reached.

The union achieved a 95 percent yes vote for strike action on the issue of CHD. The employer signed an agreement that stated, ‘Cash Handling and Distribution confirm that they will withdraw completely their proposal to outsource CIT, Safenet and Cash Handling Centres’ – successful, I believe!

In the past 12 months I have attempted to move the CWU to play a progressive role in the labour movement. Throughout this period I have become very conscious that everything I say and do will, in some manner, be examined by CWU members.

Journalists, including socialist journalists, who are not subjected to this sort of discipline find it easy to write without a sense of consequence or accountability. The leadership cannot operate without the full involvement of the rank and file.’

Fran Choules and Charlie Kimber

‘IT’S EXCELLENT to have this debate. We think the strategy around Romec was wrong. We think the union could have done more to stop the joint venture. The executive’s idea was that the union would fight only over terms of transfer because it was illegal to ballot against privatisation.

Some on the executive thought that this was all that could be achieved. Others probably hoped the employer would not accept the terms and therefore the privatisation could be fought through a simple industrial dispute. The union held a national strike ballot on the issue. But then the employer seemed to offer a deal that accepted much of what the union was demanding.

So any action was called off. The strategy failed to stop the joint venture and the so called guarantees over transfer rights are already turning sour with Balfour Beatty seeking to impose worse conditions for new entrants. That is why we called for a new approach. Fortunately, as Billy says, in the case of CHD the union ‘refined our tactics’. In fact the tactics were completely different.

CHD members walked out unofficially and gave the clear message that they did not want a settlement that talked about transfer terms. They voted 95 percent for strikes. The union leaders reflected that and said they would hold sectional and possibly national strikes involving non-CHD members over the privatisation. That is why the employer backed off.

We want more of that sort of action as more privatisation and ‘liberalisation’ looms. It is incredibly dangerous to focus on the terms of transfer. As to illegal action, nobody demands that unions should look to get their funds seized or that general secretaries should try to get jailed. But there is no doubt that sometimes action that goes against the anti-union laws is the only way for workers to defend themselves.

The CWU was fined in 1995 in the case that Billy mentions. But this did not stop postal workers continuing to strike without following all the dictates of the anti-union laws.

There were huge strikes in Newcastle and Scotland just after the case, followed by the waves of unofficial strikes that Billy refers to. Most of these strikes won and in no case did the employer feel confident enough to return to court.

The strikes were what kept the union strong and, in large part, created the mood that helped Billy defeat John Keggie for union general secretary. It is great that Billy has spoken out so strongly against the war and has actively supported initiatives like the European Social Forum.

There will always be debates about the best way forward. We look forward to continuing them, while building solidarity with the firefighters, opposing the war and fighting attacks on postal workers. As Billy has said, ‘Cowards and traitors may sneer, but concessions on the ideas of flexibility and for globalism have no place in the policies of a trade union’.’

What do CWU members think about this debate? E-mail [email protected]


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