STRIKES ARE back in the Post Office. The anger against management last week burst through the union leaders’ efforts to hold it back. A quarter of the Post Office’s cash handling network was closed by unofficial walkouts at the beginning of last week as CWU union members reacted angrily to a management briefing.
It was so dictatorial that even the union’s deputy general secretary, John Keggie, who supports ‘partnership’ with the bosses, described it as ‘insensitive, antagonistic and authoritarian’. Cash handling depots in London, Bristol, Preston, Glasgow and Edinburgh took action when they were briefed about business plans to ‘outsource’ the entire operation to Securicor.
Some offices were out for one day, some for two. A striker at Canning Town in east London told Socialist Worker, ‘We have had more than enough of being pissed about. We were just told that our jobs were being handed over to people who make big profits by paying crap wages. ‘The whole industry is facing privatisation or private companies coming in and taking over the work. The union has huffed and puffed but not confronted management and the government. It was better before, when people walked out when they were under attack rather than waiting for strike ballots. So we walked.’
An Edinburgh striker said, ‘The union leaders have just voted through a deal on the outsourcing of the cleaning and maintenance section, Romec. That accepted the principle of outsourcing. It’s not surprising that management have jumped in and outsourced another section straight away.’
A Bristol CWU member told Socialist Worker, ‘We can see people striking or preparing to strike in the fire service, the councils, the schools and elsewhere. Why should we be left out? This is the best time to fight privatisation.’
Union leaders knew last week that they could not simply condemn the strikes. National officer Andy Furey said that although the action was unofficial and unballoted he could ‘appreciate and understand the frustration and anger’ the management communication had caused. ‘Our members were told they were going to be sold along with the furniture,’ he said. But the union leaders are already preparing to repeat the same disastrous strategy they carried through with Romec, the cleaning and maintenance section.
General secretary Billy Hayes said last week that the union is opposed in principle to any form of privatisation ‘by the front door, back door or side window’.
But he then spelled out that he really means the union is opposed to privatisation unless the price is right. A deep crisis of leadership is now emerging in the CWU. For over a year the union has officially tried to prevent strikes on the basis that management would also ‘play fair’ and not impose decisions on the workforce.
But management has not taken the slightest notice of this restriction. Instead they have announced plans for 30,000 job losses, pushed ahead with outsourcing key sections, held down pay and attacked the union’s internal democracy. The union leaders were pushed to hold a strike ballot over pay. A big majority of the members backed action.
But then the union leaders settled for almost the same offer they had rejected in the first place. Another ballot was held over the outsourcing of Romec. This time it was not even counted because the majority of the executive accepted a deal which protected most of the existing workforce’s rights but gave away the principle of the sell-off.
Rank and file members have become increasingly frustrated with the union’s strategy. After the Romec deal the left wing general secretary, Billy Hayes, spoke to senior lay officials in the union and acknowledged, ‘I know that some of you think I’ve sold out.’ Heads nodded round the room.
Sections of the union leadership who have gone along with the ‘partnership’ strategy are now reconsidering it. That is welcome, but they can certainly not be trusted to lead the resistance. Activists need to fan every ember of fightback in the offices and build wider rank and file networks.
Cash handling members are considering further unofficial action. That is exactly the way to go while also stepping up the pressure on the union leaders to start fighting. When Billy Hayes was elected to lead the union in May 2001 there was great rejoicing that the ‘partnership’ approach with management had been defeated. But in the last 17 months the partnership approach has become more entrenched – with disastrous results.
Billy Hayes now has another chance to back the new feeling for real action. He must take it.
IN ANOTHER sign of the mood to fight, over 1,000 workers at the giant Mount Pleasant site in central London stopped work unofficially for a day last week.
They were striking over disciplinary action taken against eight workers in the priority services section. The eight had been told that if they pleaded guilty to a ‘misunderstanding’ over a management instruction then they would not face any significant penalty. Instead they were handed serious punishments.
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