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Behind the postal workers’ victory

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Issue 1750

Behind the postal workers’ victory

‘Volcano ready to erupt’

PROPOSALS FOR harsh new conditions fuelled last week’s strikes. Watford was one of the test beds for the new regime, and the revolt there will be seen elsewhere. Last year the Post Office and union leaders worked together to push through an agreement called “The Way Forward”. It was accepted by the narrowest of margins on a second round of balloting, and with gross lies told about what it meant.

It is supposed to give workers five day, 40 hours a week working. But many are still working six days, 41.5 hours a week. Management now want even more “flexibility” and even more unsocial hours for tens of thousands of workers. Some of those who now start around 5.30am would have to come in at 4am.

A worker at the east London mail centre in Whitechapel told Socialist Worker, “At the moment I start around 5.15am. That’s after a 12-mile drive to work. Other people have to come 20 miles. You can’t do it by public transport-the first train gets in at 6am. Now they want us in even earlier. To be in by 4am means leaving at 3.30am, which means getting up at 2.45am. I suppose it would be alright if I just gave up sleep entirely. Otherwise it means no social life and no energy to play with my kids. Sometimes I know I’m like a volcano ready to erupt, and it’s because of the bloody job, just so Royal Mail can make a bit more profit out of us.”

Conditions are bad enough already without making them worse. Mark Hollis from London told Socialist Worker, “I work in a team of 12, and I normally do 47 hours a week. The rest call me ‘part timer’ because everyone else works much, much longer. It is a disgrace that people are working incredibly long hours just to survive. The basic pay is so low, 300 a week before tax for inner London. People are totally knackered and yet they still get pushed to work even harder. Some people are burning the candle at both ends and in the middle as well. Their health suffers and their relationships go out the window. You can feel the pent-up aggression that’s around quite often. It’s a bloody horrible atmosphere. The managers are on your back all the time. You can either snap as an individual or as a group. It’s very important that we all snap together. Otherwise you just end up hitting someone or going round the bend.”

“WE’VE HAD it all. We’ve been squashed so much we don’t know which way to turn. But enough is enough. We don’t care about the anti trade union laws.”

  • WOMAN on the night shift at Watford

Union leader vote shock

THE CANDIDATE supported by New Labour was humiliated in the CWU postal and telecom workers’ union election for general secretary. Virtually everyone expected John Keggie, the union’s deputy general secretary, to win, and by a wide margin.

Instead Billy Hayes, the candidate who most of the left voted for, won an amazing victory by 36,047 votes to 32,279. Keggie stands for “partnership”, for working alongside New Labour and management. He is the man most identified with the controversial “Way Forward” deal in the post that was pushed through last year. The result is a reflection of the revolt in the post. It is a judgement on the Way Forward plans.

But it is also a body blow to Blairites in the CWU and in the labour movement generally. Mark, a CWU member from north west England, says, “Keggie is associated with all the bloody rubbish from New Labour, all the crap in the unions about working with the employer to make more profits. I’m really glad we stuffed him. I hope it means the end of his career.”

Billy Hayes’s manifesto had some good elements. He spoke at meetings about the need to get rid of anti-union laws, of the battle against pro-market globalisation, and of the importance of the revolt in Seattle in 1999. But this all sounded a bit hollow to some activists who know he has very rarely publicly disagreed with John Keggie, and that he helped push through the Way Forward.

A London CWU member told Socialist Worker, “When the result came out there was cheering on the picket line, ‘Keggie’s lost!’-great. ‘Billy Hayes has won’-not so great. We were laughing that it’s a shame you can’t have Keggie lose without Hayes winning. Loads of us voted for Billy Hayes because it was the way to slap Keggie across the face.”

The Financial Times told its business readership, “There are doubts about the depths of Billy Hayes’s commitment to the left.” However, it is great to see Keggie defeated. Now it is time to put pressure on Billy Hayes while building rank and file organisation.

“WE’RE WELL short of staff and haven’t got enough people to do the job. Management have messed up and they’re trying to get us to pull them out of the shit. We’re not doing it. If they retreat on this deal like they did on the last one and others before, then we’ll just come back out.”

  • STUART, Watford picket line

“EVERYONE’S FED up with the way things are going-not just in our industry. Everyone’s pissed off. All the main parties are just interested in quick fix solutions-they’re run by fat cat people. The government is against unions. They’re trying to break trade unions and this strike is the way to go to stop them.”

  • JOHN, Watford picket line

Ground won in action

HAD THE strike continued for a few days more, it is likely that New Labour would have been under pressure to rule out privatisation of the Post Office in the future.

Workers would also have demanded that Royal Mail drops a series of impending disciplinary cases against workers and also ditches a series of proposed office closures such as NDO in north London.

As it was, during the strike several branches raised their own grievances and demanded that they were addressed in the final settlement. The most significant example is London. For weeks a dispute has been brewing over an agreement called “Fit to Deliver”.

It sets out a process to determine the number of people required on deliveries and the shift system necessary to meet this. It involves “scientific management” studies measuring things like routes and types of houses.

Royal Mail was initially very keen on this deal because it believed it would mean big job cuts and expose “lazy post workers”.

But, to management’s horror, when the studies were carried out in the N3 district (Finchley) they found that the office needed five more jobs. So, entirely in keeping with Royal Mail style, management angrily declared that the “scientific” study was bogus. They then simply announced that in future they would carry out “tabletop revisions” where people sit round a table and decide how many staff are needed.

Delivery workers in London have been pressing for a strike ballot over the issue. When they joined the unofficial action last week, London workers then rightly demanded that revision of deliveries was part of the deal. They achieved a big retreat by Royal Mail, which said that there would be no changes to deliveries without proper negotiation and agreement.

Meanwhile, at Watford talks over the new working practices which sparked workers’ fury have been reopened, and a settlement had to be reached by the end of this week.

New battles ahead

CONSIGNIA PLC (the corporation which normal people call the Post Office) has already unveiled its next attack. It wants to set up a non-union subsidiary to compete with itself on mail delivery.

According to the Financial Times, “A cut price subsidiary would be set up in a single city, probably one with bad industrial relations such as Liverpool. “It would probably be non-union, and would focus on local deliveries of bulk mail for customers such as councils, utilities, government agencies and health trusts. Prices would be substantially lower than those charged by Royal Mail-perhaps as low as 10p a letter.”

Why does Royal Mail want to compete with itself? Managers hope competition would help discipline workers and stop them from striking.

If that strategy failed, there would be a ready-made scab workforce available. CWU union leaders should be pressured to call national action if serious plans for this job-slashing, union-busting, conditions-cutting firm are put forward.

“THE PEOPLE at the top of the union are extremely hostile to the wave of strikes that have swept the industry recently. They hate this sort of action just as much as management does. So we knew from the start that we would have to do everything ourselves and fight a battle on three fronts-against the bosses, against the government and against our own union headquarters.

When Liverpool and Stockport walked out it was essential to get some other offices out in support very quickly. There were two ways this happened. One was with the kind help of Royal Mail, which took work from striking offices to other places which everyone knew would not scab.

These offices then came out on strike and boosted the fightback. But management are not wholly stupid. After a while they tried to avoid the most militant centres and spread the work to places where the union is weaker. So then we had to generate our own campaign to get people out, even if they were not being asked to do our work.

To do any of this you need a network. It is not in general a group of branch secretaries-it goes lower than that. Most of the crucial activists are reps near the base of the branch, very much in touch with what ordinary workers feel. They suffer the whip of management when there is a speed-up, they share that raw anger you feel when you see someone harassed and intimidated.

People who come in at 5am and start the day with an insult from a manager are good leaders of other people who come in at 5am. Union officials who sit in offices, arrive at 9am, and start the day with a cup of coffee and the paper are not. It was this activist network that delivered the strikes. We’ve built it up. We’re mates, people who generally are on the same political wavelength.

We’re people who meet at conferences and courses, people who talk on the phone and by e-mail, read about each other’s struggles in Socialist Worker, Post Worker and so on.

So how it works is that we’re on strike, and I ring up another office and I know two or three reps. I explain what’s at stake, that there’s a really important issue here, and that maybe our jobs are on the line as well. These reps then go onto the floor and, well, “inform” their members about what is happening. Then it’s up to those members. Normally it’s simple. They walk. Sometimes the whole process is more spontaneous, coming directly from the shopfloor.

At Nine Elms in south west London the reps were clear they weren’t going to scab. They went in to management to discuss what was happening about diverting mail from offices on strike. By the time they came out the place was a desert. There was no one on the floor and they were all out on the gate.

In Manchester it was even wilder. They joined the strike, and all the reps were told by management that if they were seen on the picket line or organising in any way they would be sacked. So the reps were nowhere to be seen. At one point there was a rumour, put round by union HQ, that the strikes were all over and that Liverpool had gone back.

So the Manchester nightshift went in to work. Half an hour later they found out that Liverpool were still out and that the strike was spreading, so they all walked out again. No rep was involved in that-it was men and women who have no official union position who were arguing, organising and leading. There was only one “flying picket”. A group of about 30 strikers went from Liverpool to Warrington to get them out. It wasn’t aggressive or anything. It was just putting the issues to them, and of course they came out.

There’s a temptation when you’re on strike to keep things tight, to involve only a small layer of people in the organisation of the action. That pressure is even stronger when the strike is unofficial and illegal. One of the strengths of the Liverpool strike was that it was run by a quite large strike committee.

Instead of reducing the numbers involved, this committee extended them and also drew in fresh people who haven’t been elected to a branch position before. That’s a good lesson to remember. Talking about it now, it all sounds quite easy. I have to tell you that in some places we failed-people did work from striking offices or did breakdowns of mail from striking offices. They didn’t come out even though we wanted them to, and lots of rank and file members wanted to walk.

It’s no good just cursing them. We have to make the network stronger. If office A has not struck, we have to find people at office A who will organise next time. It’s no great secret. You see who’s decent at union meetings, briefings, annual conference and so on-you build up contacts. And sometimes there are people who were not quite confident enough to come out, or couldn’t find the right argument to win over the rest. So we have to enthuse them about what happened and give the arguments to use. Post Worker can play a seriously important role here.

At the moment 3,000 people buy it. Perhaps 6,000 read it. That’s quite a lot in a workforce of 160,000. But we could sell 6,000 or 8,000, and maybe 16,000 would read it. That’s one in ten. Now that excites me-that really is a network. The next battle is coming sooner or later. We have to strengthen the rank and file now.”

On the march

AROUND 600 postal workers and their supporters marched in north London last Saturday against the plan to close the giant NDO mail centre. The atmosphere was brilliant after the success of the unofficial strike, which NDO had joined.

At a rally after the march local MP Jeremy Corbyn restated his total backing for the campaign to keep NDO open and said that “jobs and services should come before Royal Mail profits”. The biggest applause was for Liverpool post worker Jane Loftus. She won a standing ovation, saying the strikes “have shown that we can fight and win, have shown that you can stand up to bosses and New Labour if you stick together”. After the march and rally the Post Worker rank and file newspaper held a meeting. Over 40 people were there and they agreed to build Post Worker and develop rank and file organisation.

Strike committee’s message

“LIVERPOOL STRIKE committee would like to thank every postal worker that took action during the dispute. The Post Office and the anti trade union legislation have failed in their attempt to break our solidarity action. Postal workers have suffered an employer hellbent on bullying and intimidating postmen and women to accept their agenda of increased productivity and privatisation.

Postal workers have shown their anger to the employer by supporting unofficial action. In the face of the law thousands of postmen and women have ignored the national union and the employer’s calls to return to work. No action or discipline has been taken against individuals or local union officials.

CWU members have shown that the anti-union laws can be broken and workers can win their demands. Ordinary members have expressed their determination not to see our union working in partnership with the employer and the government. Postal workers demand to be treated with dignity and respect and want the relentless attacks on our public services to cease. They have tried to break the CWU and failed.

Solidarity walkouts up and down the country have shown that when we stand together we can win. How far we have rolled back Post Office plans will be seen over the coming months. Postal workers have shown that when we organise together and support fellow workers in dispute we have real power to change the outcome. We now need to ensure the CWU national leadership understands our anger and frustration.

We expect our new general secretary to stand up to management and improve working conditions for all CWU members as well as ensuring a publicly owned Post Office. Thousands of postal workers have united and won. All workers should applaud this and learn from our dispute.”

  • LIVERPOOL STRIKE COMMITTEE statement sent to Post Worker

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