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Royal Mail: 90+ per cent for action – but officials mess up boycott

The lessons for our national strike: rank and file initiative and control

Last year saw a completely new type of threat to the postal service – the biggest so far – taking privatisation the “final mile”. But the workers have responded with a massive vote supporting industrial action, writes a Communication Workers Union rep

If anyone in the Coalition cabinet or Royal Mail senior management thought postal workers had given up protecting their jobs, conditions or the invaluable service to the public that they provide – then they would have been sorely disillusioned by the recent consultative CWU ballot result.

The union sent voting papers out to 112,000 members in Royal Mail. On an impressive 74 per cent turnout, the results were a staggering rejection of Business Secretary Vince Cable’s “big idea” – the privatisation of Britain’s postal service.

• 96 per cent opposed privatisation

• 92 per cent were ready to boycott private competitors’ mail – e.g. TNT and UKMail deliveries

• 99 per cent supported the union’s claim for an above inflation pay rise

• 92 per cent wanted to withdraw their cooperation with management.

These figures reveal that workplace organisation and members’ militancy has recovered from the strikes in 2007 and 2009, both of which saw magnificent solidarity and courageous defiance of management harassment, but ended in unnecessary defeat. Clearly the workers are ready to take on the government again – as can be seen in particular in Bridgewater, where CWU members have been on strike two Saturdays in a row to protest against bullying and the breaking of national and regional agreements.

But we have to learn the lessons from these past defeats and make sure rank and file postal workers are in control of our own dispute, not the Postal Executive Committee and the full-time officials. We need to elect workplace, branch and regional strike committees to push for an immediate official ballot and organise newsletters, pickets and ensure every member is on board.

We also need a rank and file conference of all those branches, like Bristol and Bridgewater, which recognise the fact that we will only win this vital dispute if we take control of it from day one.

• No more delays – for an immediate official ballot and a programme of sharply escalating action up to an all-out and stay-out strike

• Demand what we need, not what Cable and management say they can afford: a flat raise pay increase to recoup all money lost since the recession; no privatisation; bring TNT, UKMail and all the private carriers into public ownership without compensation

• No secret talks and no suspension of action without members’ consent, which cost us dear in 2007 and 2009.

TNT set up provocative service

In June private postal company TNT began a rival delivery service in West London, with plans to roll it out to city centres across Britain. This would end Royal Mail’s monopoly on delivery; TNT could bypass it completely, delivering its own and competitors’ post. Even a privatised Royal Mail could franchise delivery to it!

It would undermine the six-days-a-week, one stamp goes anywhere Universal Service Obligation – TNT is only delivering three days a week, and cherry-picking profitable city centres.

Given that TNT staff are part time, on low wages and reportedly zero hour contracts, this is potentially the biggest threat to CWU members’ jobs wages and conditions yet, endangering the union itself. Once in place TNT could provide a viable scab service in the event of a postal strike.

As CWU General Secretary-Postal Dave Ward said in June this year: “TNT is allowed to set up delivery networks on an unlevel playing field – delivering what they want, when they want, where they want on poverty pay and with no quality of service standards.”

Combined with privatisation beginning to pick up speed, this represents a mortal danger to the USO and the CWU itself. Alarm bells rang in the CWU’s Wimbledon HQ, pressing the leaderships’ respond; their solution was to organise a boycott of TNT and UKMail to highlight the dangers to the postal service.

The sorry saga of the boycott

From Autumn 2012 Dave Ward and other national officers convened a series of big regional meetings for full-time officials, area reps and workplace reps. They presented a two-pronged strategy. The first was another anti-privatisation campaign to mobilise public opposition to a sell-off and threats to the USO.

The second was the idea of boycotting the rivals’ mail to alert the public to the new threat to the USO, particularly those living in rural areas that rely on it and ironically tend to vote Tory or Lib Dem. This was their alternative to a national postal strike against privatisation.

A boycott was a novel idea and in some ways attractive. It would mean instead of us striking for pay and getting branded greedy by all the newspapers and TV channels, we would be taking action to defend the public’s postal service.

It would massively expose the issue – at least 45 per cent of our mailpouch is stamped TNT and UKMail – so-called Downstream Access or DSA mail. Within days there would be a mountain of already-privatised mail clogging the offices. TNT only delivers to West London and there is no scab network that could take even a fraction of it. It would kill two birds with one stone, showing we were a force to be reckoned with and put off any capitalists hoping to buy Royal Mail.

All the reps and officials who got up to speak in discussions agreed we had to act, but many asked how a boycott would work, was it legal? The leadership promised at those meetings and in the months after that they would seek legal advice and consider how to actually carry out a boycott. They’ve repeated this over and over for nine months without ever explaining to the workforce how they intended to answer both questions.

Finally with the renewed threat of privatisation this Spring and Royal Mail bosses, in anticipation of it, refusing a pay rise, they organised the consultative ballot, which closed on 18 June with a brilliant result: 92 per cent supported the “boycott of competitors’ mail”.

The next day Royal Mail duly went to court – as they had warned for weeks they would do – and CWU tops agreed not to go ahead with the boycott until 28 June court date… where they caved in. Dave Ward gave the bad news: “”We have accepted the advice of lawyers that it would not be legal to take action on boycotting competitors’ mail on the basis of the consultative ballot result alone.”

Why couldn’t their lawyers have told them that before they even raised the idea last Autumn? Of course even this negative legal opinion wouldn’t be the end of it. If the leadership had toured the branches, met workers locally and built up confidence and momentum, a boycott – legal or otherwise – may have been possible given the long term opposition to the DSA rip-off and rising anger over revisions (cuts) and management bullying in the last year.

But instead they just did the usual: sitting in Wimbledon, sending out leaflets and the union magazine. The boycott posters sit tacked up on union boards around the country, shiny and useless.

The whole boycott story will make a lot of workers and reps confused and angry. Dave Ward, Billy Hayes and the rest of the Postal Executive Committee, left wingers included, have wasted nine months on a tactic that the union leaders were never serious about. Nothing has been done to prepare members for the need for a sustained national strike.

Wimbledon speaks: “I really don’t know”

Now some officials are backpedalling and putting it about that the union never intended to use the consultative ballot for a real boycott, and knew it would take a legal ballot for this; it was all just an exercise to engage members!

Utter crap. We were sold the boycott as good coin for months, it was unanimously endorsed at conference in May, and in meetings up and down the country it was sold as a real tactic that we were going to try to carry out.

And it’s contradicted by the belated admission that it is illegal so we can’t do it, The waffling in the press by a CWU spokeswoman after 19 June, quoted in PrintWeek, shows they are all over the place. She admitted, “Royal Mail had already given notice they intended take this court action before they knew the result of the ballot” – so why didn’t they prepare for that? She called the court drama “a bit of a nothing” – then why did they drop the boycott?

The official went on to say: “I really don’t know what will happen next. This has never been done before; nobody has ever suggested boycotting particular types of mail, it’s a complete unknown and we can’t say anything. But a boycott is still possible”. If they don’t know now, they never will!

Dave Ward on 28 June announced they had finally accepted it was illegal but “We are now considering how this action could be taken. There are a number of outstanding issues for our members in Royal Mail and we are exploring the possibility of holding a national industrial action ballot which could also deal with the boycott.” This is just face saving. We need to prepare to strike against privatisation.

No more misleadership

The embarrassing fact is the boycott was always plainly illegal, as Workers Power stated in March, “it means an illegal strike”; we rightly warned that the CWU tops weren’t serious about it and weren’t really doing anything to organise for it. It is difficult to see how it could be made to work even with a legal ballot, given that even if we did a work to rule, i.e. to contract, we wouldn’t be able to just pick and choose what mail we delivered. This would just be a messy, confusing road to a proper strike, through a lockout or through victimisation – or possibly with court injunctions and more damaging climbdowns by CWU tops.

Unfortunately this whole sorry saga won’t have raised members’ confidence in the leadership after the sell-outs of the 2007 and 2009 strike, for some it will undermine the idea of striking at all, since Ward & Co. can’t be trusted to lead a strike.

But there is a silver lining to the boycott fiasco. It proves to many members and reps first-hand that the CWU leadership cannot be trusted to lead a determined fight against privatisation.

Branches, reps and activists that are alarmed at the results of this sorry affair and see the need for a hard-hitting industrial action should take the initiative. The rank and file need to get organised to push our leaders forward, hold them to account, and be prepared and able to go forward without them if necessary.

The 2007 strike began so well and showed magnificent initiative, as thousands of workers walked out against victimised workers who refused to cross picket lines, spreading the action from Scotland down into England, as far as oxford and Watford before forcing the bosses to rush to the negotiating table. Liverpool wildcatted for three weeks at the end, as a sell-out was brewing. But without a rank and file movement able to spread the action and sustain it, and the power to open up and the secret negotiations and control our leaders, the strike was lost.

We need to launch a rank and file movement across the CWU to hammer out a strategy to win the struggle against privatisation, and develop a new leadership to take it forward.

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