Friday, December 11, 2009

Wobbly Days



" If a worker wants to take part in the self-emancipation of his class , the basic requirement is that he should cease allowing others to teach him and should set about teaching himself." - Joseph Dietzgen

As the postal workers' strike progressed in its stop-go fashion , it has become more and more evident that a power struggle was taking place within the union's National Executive . Those led by General Secretary Alan Johnson were reluctant from the outset of the dispute to confront Royal Mail with effective strike action, and have at every opportunity sought to minimise the effect of the strikes.
The strategy of a series of one-day strikes controlled by the union bureaucracy facilitated cancellation after cancellation of planned strikes to permit "negotiations", first with Royal Mail directly , then through the conciliation service , and back to Royal Mail. Having reached a settlement that he thought he could sell , Alan Johnson persuaded the Executive to call off a strike even though they had not seen the terms of the deal and had only a blank sheet of paper and his verbal interpretation to go on . (see article in our September issue ) Once the full details were available the deal was rejected and strike action resumed .
With a majority on the NEC determined not to compromise on the issue of team-working and not to be cowed by the government's threat to lift the postal monopoly , Royal Mail hacks set out to paint the strike as a personality conflict . The press blamed the strikes on "union militants" , personified by Johnson's heir-apparent , John Keggie .Royal Mail , the Tory government and aspiring "New" Labour prime minister, Tony Blair ,joined together in a chorus calling on the postal workers to hold a second ballot and to end the strikes . Now they have one , not because any postal workers wanted another vote but because of a convenient "irregularity " in the original ballot.
After throwing out Johnson's attempt to get team-working in through the back door , strike action resumed . A Friday/Monday strike hit the Post Office like never before . Almost two weeks were required to properly recover from the disruption , and members' morale was raised and confidence restored . More weekend strikes of this kind were in the offing and walk-outs from the floor in mid shift eagerly awaited . But the anticipated action was canceled. We were to be balloted once again, just to confirm to the Doubting Thomases that our resolve remained firm .That was the story for public consumption .
The truth of the matter smacks of intrigue , corruption and betrayal. Apparently , when the union informed Royal Mail of the original ballot results as the law requires , someone tippexed out the number of spoilt ballots-400-odd out of tens of thousands of a majority in favour of industrial action . This occurred only on Royal Mail's notification , no other . Lo and behold , Alan Johnson informs the Ntional Executive that he has legal advice from the union's lawyers that the strike ballot had been illegal ! If any more industrial action took place without a second ballot , then the CWU could be sued and made bankrupt ! Incredible as it may seem , Royal Mail with its extensive legal department had been oblivious to this tippexed "blunder" . In their ignorance , they had allowed damaging strike after strike to take place, costing them an estimated £100 million , and permitted British industry to suffer5 incalculable losses through the disruption of the post , all because some person or other had tippexed out a few spoilt ballot papers . Who , when , no-one knows . It just happened to be discovered just when the postal strike was entering a new phase - an increased offensive against out employer at a time when the " New" Labour Party ( Johnson is an executive member and ally of Tony Blair ) desired calm on the class war front to ensure election victory. Nor was Johnson finished there . If the majority on the National Executive dared to insist upon continuing the strike , then he would invoke the union constitution and call in the British Telecom executive members to overrule the Postal executive .
Naturally all of this was confidential , and ordinary members were to remain unaware of the realities. Fortunately , someone smelled a rat and had the honour to leak the details of this curious affair. Johnson is threatening all manner of dire consequences to whoever is responsible for leaking out this "accidental discrepancy".
So there you are . One unknown bureaucrat has "inadvertently" undermined the postal workers' struggle , a struggle which was in the process of breaking free of union leaders shackles.
Well aware that the tactic of one-day strikes possessed the advantage of minimum financial loss to members , activists also realised that it left control and coordination of the strikes in the hands of officials whose commitment to the dispute was questionable. Without the participation of the rank and file in the strike , a "holiday" feeling would pervade and apathy would grow alongside the union - authorised strike breaking and scabbing.
If ordinary members could not exercise for themselves the power they had when they withdrew their labour , and could no longer trust the union general secretary to represent them , then it is no wonder that the waverers and the indecisive mighty be expected to vote to end the strike and accept Royal Mail's proposals . Activists combated this trend . In Scotland , one branch embarked upon a campaign of flying pickets during strike days . Solid in their own office , members were able to send pickets to small isolated rural offices where management had persuaded workers that the "Employer Agenda" would not affect them too badly. Flying pickets pointed out that on the contrary smaller offices would be the first target for job losses . Their weakness would be exploited by the new breed of promotion-hungry managers. A show of strength was necessary , and the flying pickets continued in defiance of the law. Royal Mail resorted to using their private police to videotape those involved. CWU officials cooperated , issuing instructions that the secondary picketing was to cease. Needless to say , pickets have ignored this legal advice from the union.
Other forms of direct action have been used as well. Pillar box locks have been super-glued to frustrate scab managers clearing the letters. A few scab offices have had their entrance gates padlocked , offering pickets the amusement of seeing scum-bag managers scaling 12 -foot gates to get to work .
Throughout the country , there have been numerous unofficial strikes and walk-outs .Causes vary . Sometimes , as in the cases of Milton Keynes ( who were out for a week ) or Edinburgh the reason was victimisation of local union officials . Other times it is due to the improper use of casuals , as in Glasgow or the implementation of work practices not agreed locally . A number of unofficial disputes have now become official and are running concurrent with the national dispute. Many branches are demanding that the issue of dismissed or disciplined strikers feature in any future agreement with Royal Mail , something Alan Johnson is unlikely to do since he is perfectly willing to sacrifice loyal union members.
Nor have the activists ignored the wider implications of the postal strike for the union movement as a whole . In Edinburgh , a Workers Liason Committee has been set up to share experiences and provide assistance by joint actions to all unionists or others in struggle. The Committee has so far been involved in helping water workers resisting local re-organisation , the unemployed fighting new job-seeking rules, a Nigerian campaign against Shell oil , and against the closure of a local mental health hostel. Increasingly , it's become more and more clear to postal workers that we all face a common problem- capitalism and the drive for profits before peoples' welfare.The longer we fight Royal Mail in defence of our jobs and conditions , the more we come to understand that the established union organisation not only handicaps us in our fight , but actually acts against us . It's a lesson many of us have now learned , and now is the time for not just postal workers to endeavour to re-organise but for us all .



Despite an overwhelming yes vote for industrial action to press for a shorter working week and defend the second delivery , CWU leaders rejected an all-out strike , instead calling a series of one -day strikes .CWU General Secretary Alan Johnson and his bureaucracy of full-time officials made no secret of their reluctance to confront Royal Mail's "Employee Agenda " . They were forced into calling the strike ballot by rank-and-file activists and "leftists" on the national executive. But regardless of the pros and cons of one-day strikes , the end result for Royal Mail is a severely disrupted postal service. Or so the membership believed - the reality proved slightly different .
Well warned of the impending dispute , Royal Mail employed thousands of so-called "summer casuals" , hoping they would serve as strike breakers , but that hope was dashed by local management's treatment of them and the casuals' growing awareness that they were merely pawns . Almost all struck with the permanent staff.
Yet Royal Mail needn't have worried .CWU leaders were well qualified to sabotage the strikes' effectiveness and undermine workers' morale. They " failed " to implement an overtime ban and work-to-rule. After each strike the mail backlog was swiftly cleared by overtime work . CWU also instructed local officials to give management a clear hand in violating agreed procedures to deal with the mail backlog .
But it was on the picket lines that the ineffectiveness of the leadership's tactics became apparent. Instead of fixed time time starts to the strike , they chose a shift system - totally ignoring the varied shift patterns that made this completely unworkable . Perhaps an account of my own experiences will demonstrate the frustrations that ordinary postal workers faced .
Strike 1. Called to bring out the night shift first then the early and then the backshift , not finishing until 10pm. The first first of the nightshifts began at 5:30pm ! I was performing my own duties and covering the absences of my striking colleagues standing outside on the picket lines with the full approval of the union . The next day i was officially on strike , manning a picket line . Not only did i have to suffer the indignity of being unable to stop the streams of management drafted in from outlying administration offices to operate the sorting machines : fellow union members exempted from strike action under CWU orders to perform normally ( ie to actively assist the scabbing bosses by maintaining and repairing machinery being run by inexperienced and ill-trained scabs ) also crossed our lines . I also had to put up with the knowledge that canteen staff were dishing out free meals to the strikebreakers ! At one point , as i turned back a BT van ( in the same union , but a different industry ) , I had the embarrassment of explaining why my own engineer had driven through. I also met with the shame-faced apologies of Parcelforce drivers with written instructions from the union to ignore CWU pickets .
Strike 2. I'm backshift again , and the strike is supposed to commence with the backshift. The cutoff time is noon , so those who start work before this will be working until the end of their duty . This includes our local union officials .I'm on strike and my union rep is inside the office ! drivers with duties starting at 11:45am throughout the day are ferrying box and post office collections through my picket for management scabs to once again process. The drivers include some militant shop stewards suffering abuse from the public who believe they are scabs . The next day I'm back at work , the drivers are out on strike , the reps are too. Management brings in 20 new casuals to do driving and transfers ex-drivers onto driving duty . Angry and frustrated , we follow union orders and "bite the bullet ".
Strike 3. Suspended . Alan Johnson calls for consultation conference with the branch secretaries and field officers . Talks with Royal Mail resume, but no substantial progress is made and under NEC pressure Johnson sets four strike dates .
Strike 4. At last the union has got the message. It is an early shift strike . The members have also got the message. Dis-heartened , there is a poor presence on the picket . Not so management .Delighted with the strike- breaking success , managers are imported from Chesterfield to improve the scabs' performance .Too much for even the local officials , the talk is now of unofficial action and flying pickets to spread the wildcat strike . Whereupon appears a NEC member who threatens all manner of consequences if such an action is taken : we back down , but we ask the NEC to step up the action officially .The planned 36-hour strike has been downgraded to 24hrs.
Strike 5. Suspended again, on 12 hours notice. Union negotiators reached a settlement with Royal Mail and so without even seeing the agreement , the NEC supported canceling the strike. When they did get the details , the deal was rejected - but the planned 48-hour strike was already off. The NEC is unwilling to sign on to the bosses' plans , but also unwilling to commit itself to fighting them . No wonder that Royal Mail has decided to to halt further discussions , and that the membership is rapidly losing confidence in the unions' officials' will to win this struggle.
CWU leaders are ready to recommend Royal Mail's pay offer, but it is by no means clear if members are prepared to accept it .
Royal Mail had insisted that any pay raise be self-financing, stating that no extra money was available. But even before industrial action they conceded an extra 30 to 40 million pounds and withdrew some of the more unpopular elements .
But there is little support on the shop floor for what is on offer . CWU was pressing for a higher fully pensionable basic wage ( Royal Mail has paid nothing into the pension fund since the 1980s ) , offering to give up various allowances and bonuses. But many postal workers rely on overtime pay and holiday bonuses to make ends meet.
Royal Mail's feeble attempt to bribe workers into accepting an agreement which would lead to increased exploitation and job losses has not fooled most workers . Royal Mail's effort to sneak "team-working " arrangements into place has not escaped workers' attentions either.
So Royal Mail has resorted to another weapon in its arsenal- the "union". We possess a general secretary and a bureaucracy of full-time officials who from the very start of the dispute have done their very best to undermine resistance. Wheredoes this leave us ? Shall we submit to these manouverings and machinations , or do we carry on the fight ?
If the answer is fight , then the first order of the day is to organise. CWU branches must assert their independence from the official hierarchy . We should take control of the dispute locally and coordinate with other branches to make the strikes more effective , even if this involves presently illegal actions ( ie , no more exemptions for engineers or Parcelforce ) One out, All out .
Unions are not bricks and mortar. Unions are not bank balances. Unionism is about people - about expressing unity and solidarity .It's not about members in the same union , in the same workplace , being instructed to cross picket lines and strike break.
Throughout the dispute , the CWU leaders have used the Tory anti-union legislation to constrain and restrain the members. They have limited the numbers involved in the strikes, limited the picketing, and avoided secondary action.They have cooperated with Royal Mail's strike-breaking practices.
Will Strike 6 go ahead ? More importantly , can the membership assume the initiative, act with other workers in other industries , and transform our strike against management's " right to manage " into a fully conscious fight for workers' self-management and for social control over our industries ?
For the working class to defend our interests , we must organise outside the strictures of the official union hierarchy and confront directly the government's anti-union legislation. Only then will the employing class once again quake at the power of the workers

1 comment:

Matthew Culbert said...

Thanks for sharing those Alan.Brought back a lot of memories of similar events a decade or so before.