Royal Mail bosses have set a course for confrontation with the postal workers’ union, the CWU. Royal Mail CEO Adam Crozier (who last year ‘earned’ £2.7m) and his cronies have bypassed the union and told employees that:
(a) they can have a non-negotiable 2.9 percent pay rise, take it or leave it;
(b) they can probably cheer themselves up with a one-off bonus of £400 (crumbs from the £600m annual profits about to be announced); and
(c) they are to get the chance to become shareholders in the company.
The CWU has responded that the attempt to impose the pay offer “is premature and a blatantly hostile act”, and correctly identifies the shares offer as creeping privatisation. This view was roundly endorsed by delegates at the CWU conference in Bournemouth, who voted on 23 May to begin a strike ballot in six weeks if negotiations on pay, pensions and the future of the post office are not resumed.
Both Crozier, Leighton and their chums and the Labour government want to see the public postal service fully privatised, affording urgently-needed investment opportunities for the absorption of surplus capital. However, although they all want to skin this cat, there are splits opening up on all sides concerning the best way to do so.
One approach would be to choke off public subsidy, strip Royal Mail of its monopoly privileges and leave it to fend for itself on the ‘free’ market. On 1 January this year, indeed, the postal service was opened up to competition, and clearly there are some who would like to see the government stonewall Royal Mail’s plea for a £2bn bail-out to plug its pensions gap and upgrade equipment.
A differing view, and one which finds natural adherents amongst those bourgeois enjoying a direct stake in the existing business, is that Royal Mail should be fattened up before privatisation. By this way of thinking, the pensions deficit should be underwritten by the state and the board of directors should be given the wherewithal to bully and bribe the workforce into quiescence. Some in government seem to incline to this view.
Workers should heed neither of these conflicting counsels, but should rather take the opportunity provided by capitalist disarray to seize the initiative themselves in the fight back against all privatisation plans.
Any doubts about the seriousness of the privatisation threat should be instantly dispelled by the scalded reaction of Royal Mail when the CWU proposed holding an entirely run-of-the-mill consultative ballot in the workplace to sound out members’ views on the shares scam and creeping privatisation. Mail managers were instructed to prohibit the ballot and tear down union posters, while a Royal Mail spokesman bleated that the union was “carrying out a political lobby about privatisation”, and “political lobbying using working time isn’t part of the framework agreed between Royal Mail and the union”. (The Guardian, 10 May 2006)
The ritual disclaimer that followed – “Royal Mail and the government have made clear that privatisation is not going to happen” – only drew attention to what it sought to conceal. When an elephant enters the drawing room, standing in front of it and declaring “there is no elephant” convinces nobody.
Despite all the management bullying, there was a member turn-out of over two thirds for the consultative ballot, of which 98.5 percent voted against privatisation.
Postal workers will advance their struggle most successfully by thinking more politically, not less. The CWU conference saw 99 percent of delegates endorsing a motion calling on the union to break with Labour if the government went along with the shares scam. Maybe the next consultative ballot might ask members whether they think it’s a good idea anyway for the CWU to keep bankrolling the Labour Party to the tune of over £500,000 annually through affiliation fees, plus thousands more on backing Labour candidates at the hustings, while that same party in government is leading the campaign to privatise every remaining corner of public service, and using the law to bash every union-led effort to resist this vandalism.
Postal workers might also remember what Billy Hayes told the international peace conference in London last December, when he spoke of the confusion in trade union circles over the question of how to end the occupation of Iraq. He said that some people were succumbing to the lie by which the decolonisation of India and Aden had once been resisted: “if the troops leave, there will be a worse mess”. Against this, Hayes insisted, “If you don’t support those who are fighting imperialism tooth and claw in the occupied countries, how can you fight it at home?”
When those who make such statements match their deeds to their words, break the link with the imperialist Labour Party, and extend the formal campaign against union-bashing laws into a mass popular campaign to break those laws, then real headway will be made in clearing away some of the social-democratic lumber currently blocking the path to the social revolution.