By Matthew Cookson
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How do we fight when union leaders waver?

This article is over 12 years, 2 months old
Britain’s ruling class has united behind Royal Mail bosses to pour vitriol on striking postal workers.
Issue 2175

Britain’s ruling class has united behind Royal Mail bosses to pour vitriol on striking postal workers.

Tory leader David Cameron “condemned” the strikes. Business secretary Peter Mandelson says he is “beyond anger” with the CWU union.

Royal Mail has meticulously planned its offensive to break the union, backed by the government and the media, as Socialist Worker revealed last week.

Members’ anger forced the CWU to call strikes. Yet at the same time, union leaders are asking for negotiation with a management intent on breaking their union.

So the top TUC bureaucrats have intervened to host “talks” between the CWU and the bosses – when they should have been organising solidarity across the workers’ movement.

This follows in a long tradition of union leaders failing to use the full power of their members to win.

The reason why union leaders act like this is not a question of their individual qualities or defects, but the position they find themselves in.

For instance, CWU general secretary Billy Hayes and deputy general secretary Dave Ward both come from the left of the union. They were elected after a wave of militant action against the bosses’ attacks.

But once elected, full-time union officials, no matter how left wing, become removed from the pressures facing their membership. They have the material benefits of a well-paid job and are free from the demands of the capitalist boss.

The trade union bureaucracy has a distinct role in society. It balances between the two main classes in capitalist society – the employers and the workers.

So, the officials attempt to control and hold back workers’ struggles and “negotiate” with the bosses.

But they cannot take this too far, as their position rests on their members – if this is weakened in favour of the bosses, then so is the union leaders’ standing.

This means that trade union bureaucrats can do good things. Unions like the RMT transport union run campaigns to unionise migrant workers. Union leaders can launch scathing attacks on government policies that harm their members.

Even right wing union leaders can be forced to lead strikes to defend their members.

But the role of union leaders means that they are in favour of reforming capitalism rather than overthrowing it. That means they will only take things so far.

And the anti-union laws and many unions’ affiliation to the Labour Party also play a role in keeping the union leaders in check.

None of this means that socialists and militants should abandon unions, or treat left wing officials the same way as right wing ones.

The best way to take the struggle forward is to organise workers on a rank and file level. A strong organisation of this nature could support the officials as long as they were representing the union members, but could act independently the moment their leaders began to look for some way to settle their dispute unfavourably.

The recent history of post disputes shows the importance of these groups. In late 2001 a national ballot for strikes over pay was defeated.

Managers were ecstatic. They told postal workers that the “world had changed” and set about trying to crush the CWU. But workers responded magnificently to the bosses’ offensive.


Following an unofficial walkout in Oxford, two drivers were sacked. The entire mail centre walked out immediately. Every delivery office in the county soon joined them. Other mail centres refused to handle the work and management caved in.

Then workers struck unofficially in Wolverhampton after management put up questionnaires including racist comments on the staff noticeboard. The action forced management to apologise and pay the workers for their loss of earnings.

The third major flashpoint was in the capital, where workers were striking officially for London weighting. Royal Mail management planned to weaken the CWU by defeating this militant group of workers and it launched a major attack.

A manager suspended all the drivers in Southall, west London, after none of them volunteered to do deliveries. The work was then moved to Greenford where CWU members refused to touch it. Many were suspended and the workforce stopped working. Other strikes broke out at Dartford in Kent.

The action spread across the country, causing a huge mail backlog.

As the pressure intensified on Royal Mail, bosses backed down. They agreed to rip up their new charter for workers, not to victimise union reps, negotiate over deliveries and that the CWU was not responsible for the strike.

Rank and file action had won – and saved the union in the process. Management has attempted to chip away at its strength since, and has also launched full-scale offensives, such as the one that that we are seeing now.

Union leaders will wobble in the face of government and management pressure, and be willing to accept worse deals than their members’ action deserves.

The only thing that can stop this is pressure and independent action from below. It was the demands from grassroots postal workers that forced the CWU leadership to turn this year’s local strikes into a national dispute.

Post workers, and workers in other unions, will need to build up rank and file networks that can take action independently of the leadership.

This way they can hold their union leaders to account, overcome the failures of the bureaucracy – and beat the bosses.

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