by Joe Thorne
At the top of the CWU-Royal Mail agreement is a header. “Final Draft – 5 November 2009 —- 1.10AM”. This innocuous line is emblematic of the CWU negotiating team’s strategy: it indicates that the text was agreed more than 7 hours after the strikes were called off. What sort of negotiation strategy is this – to abandon the bargaining power represented in industrial action, on the promise of a deal yet to be finalised?
At every step along the way, it has been clear that elements of the CWU leadership were looking to do whatever they could to avoid members taking industrial action: we hear that Billy Hayes was arguing internally for the action to be called off after the first national strike day a fortnight ago. Members have been much more impressed with Dave Ward, but this deal is no deal.
As the Financial Times puts it, “In the interim deal, the two sides agreed to suspend strikes and further changes to working practices until a final agreement on modernisation and job security is reached by the end of December.” On “local issues” – a category which, particularly in London, represents a large part of the reasons behind the strike – the parties agreed to”engage in genuine negotiations to reach local agreement.” This, in other words, is an agreement to seek agreement at some point in the future, with the help of an as yet unspecified “agreed independent person”.
Elections for the CWU’s Postal Executive Committee are in February. Will there be any backlash? Perhaps, if this works out badly, and members fully understand what has been done. But any such backlash may be too late. The next two months, the run up to Christmas, are the time of postal workers’ greatest power: this is the window for the most effective action. It is often said that reaching final, detailed agreement on the full range of issues will take up to four weeks of intensive negotiation. This may be so, but it should be seen as Royal Mail’s problem if they don’t begin to negotiate seriously, soon enough. And there are plenty of ‘red lines’ which could and should have been included as the basis for negotiations. The union’s position is that strikes will resume if negotiations falter: CWU members need to argue that this option be taken if Royal Mail does not immediately make final concessions on core issues. The real and present danger is that agreement on a final deal could be strung along until it is too late.
Post workers have a tradition of militancy, and spreading unofficial action. There have been real changes which make this harder than before: not least, in many areas, a higher turnover of workforce (and hence fewer experienced militants) than there once were. Historically, the CWU postal section has not had an independent rank and file movement: action, official or unofficial has more or less been organised through and mediated by the formal structures of the union, and in many areas, at branch and regional level, unofficial action is understood as a tactical option, rather than a horror to be avoided at all costs. In the 2007 and 2009 strikes, the base of the union appears to have become more susceptible to the direction of the official national leadership, perhaps partly – some have speculated – due to the fact that Hayes et al. represent a “left” leadership: removing some of the sense of antagonism between militants and the official union. If the pattern of the 2007 strikes are repeated, the deal reached will be far short of what members need (see below for a summary). If this pattern continues, postal workers and the CWU will be ground down.
In the next two months, things could go one of three ways. The workers may be sold out passively, rank and file pressure may generate further official action, or spreading unofficial action may develop. It is in the grasp of workers to avoid the first possibility, and maximise the chances of the other two being effective. CWU members should push inside the union for the action to be resumed, insisting on the most democratic forms of rank and file control. But they cannot rely on this strategy being successful. Therefore, they should also be prepared, should it be necessary, to take, support and spread unofficial action, from office to office, from one end of the country to the other. The tradition of not handling work from striking offices needs to be resurrected: it is the breakdown of this tradition which allowed London to remain all but isolated for nearly four months of one-day-a-week strike action.
Postal workers are strong. They are particularly strong now. Solidarity with this dispute shoud not drift away; the deal reached thus far is no deal at all. Press for a return to action, action for a real deal.
* In November 2007, CWU members voted to accept a deal by 64% on a 64% turn out. A rank and file communication at the time described some of the problems with it:
- Flexible working-potentially every day
- Pensions destroyed in the future-working until 65
- Continued threats to mail centres
- Uncertainty over continued payments for Door to Door
- A pathetically below-inflation pay deal
- Agreement to changes in start times which were initially imposed
- Long days and short days agreed-for example the possibility of a nine-hour Friday
- Potential working in neighbouring offices and work outside normal duties
- No amnesty for sacked reps