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CWU national reps meeting kicks off fight against Royal Mail privatisation

By a CWU postal rep

Up to 2,000 postal reps in the Communication Workers Union flooded the giant ICC conference centre in Birmingham on Thursday 12 September for an unprecedented meeting. They were there to hear first-hand the dangers of privatisation and the case for a ballot from CWU General Secretary Billy Hayes and David Ward.

Just that morning the government had announced that it would begin the process to “float” Royal Mail on the stock exchange, a big two fingers, deliberately timed for the same day of the meeting, to “spoil” its public impact and demoralise postal workers. Proof positive if it’s needed that the whole chain of government announcements is propaganda, intended to sow confusion and resignation.

It backfired though. Reps had heard about it on the news or on the coaches down to Birmingham and arrived already angry!

Before the meeting proper, reps were treated to a speech by the Royal Mail CEO Moya Greene, putting her case for privatisation and Royal Mail’s pay offer – she had been invited to ensure reps got full paid release for the event. What she got in return was a hostile reception and blunt rebuttals in the Q&A session after. It was a Royal Mail PR stunt to show “We’re listening” but, if Greene was hoping to find some weak points in the union’s armour among its reps, she was quickly corrected.

“Moya” and the pitch-perfect privatisation propaganda

Greene put on a pitch perfect performance, never looking rattled or angry – Royal Mail and the Tories will consider her pay (£1.6 million, up nearly 50%) well earned. But it didn’t convince anybody. Laying out her case for privatisation, an opportunity to free Royal Mail from the grip of costly government loan repayments, that the company couldn’t build in too many guarantees on conditions or it would be too rigid and inflexible to compete, Greene was mostly met with stony silence.

The mood did shift a gear when she sadly shook her head and said she really didn’t “understand why this company should be headed for a dispute” causing 2,000 people to simultaneously burst into laughter. Following that up later with the statement that most bullying wasn’t from managers but member on member, she got roundly booed and hissed. The penny dropped (and the temperature in the room) when Greene went on to state that in Royal Mail, like any organisation, 85% of the people were good and 15% were bad – many in the audience no doubt wondered if she meant us reps!

A question and answer session saw reps – many from workplaces striking against cuts and managerment bullying – challenge Greene on privatisation, unfair workload hikes and the bullying that went with them. At the end Greene, summing up, asked, “What have I missed?” In the silence immediately after could be heard one final perfect heckle” “Everything!” With that “Moya” and her clutch of Royal Mail minions waiting in the wings vanished off stage. So much for the first act warming up the crowd!

Dave and Billy take the stage

The Deputy General Secretary-Postal Dave Ward spoke first, explaining that he wanted every rep in the meeting to be clear on two things: that “the objectives for the strike ballot have to be industrial objectives” (in other words this was not a strike against privatisation but our terms and conditions); and there was “no prospect of us reaching an agreement with the employer without a big yes vote”.

The popular “Wardie” took apart Royal Mail’s pay offer, laying out all the strings attached, such as pension cuts. He reminded everyone of how the board, led by Greene, had shafted us with fake Colleague Shares and blanked the union on pay for two years until June’s consultative ballot had shown a massive response against privatisation and for a pay rise, i.e. only pressure works.

Despite some concessions – and Greene making it clear in her summing up that a three year guarantee on pay and conditions was not necessarily a final offer – little has actually moved, and he stressed that without a big yes vote we would see no further improvements in the offer. He gave a sobering account of how privatisation, unchecked, would tear apart the company apart.

Dave made clear the strategy of the CWU leadership: a “legally unprecedented” 10-year deal, locking in not just terms and conditions and union agreements but also Royal Mail’s current structure: keeping the part-time:full-time ratio the same, no two-tier workforce, stopping the company being broken up and bits sold (Parcelforce) or franchised off (mail centres, delivery offices). The Postal Executive’s aim is to “eliminate” or neutralise every conceivable danger that could arise from privatisation.

The union’s lawyers were working on “legally watertight protections” that would see the union seek an injunction against any new owners who tried to break this all-in deal, rather than the other way round. The deal would “change the balance of forces” and culture in the company for good. But for most of the his speech, the message was that the current Royal Mail deal on the table is too low, and “we can get a better deal but only if you deliver a yes vote”.

General Secretary Billy Hayes spoke about the political campaign against privatisation, the backing the union had received at the TUC and the union’s campaign at the forthcoming Labour Party Conference: to get it to pass a motion pledging to renationalise Royal Mail, arguing this could upend privatisation, since no one would buy it if a future Labour government could renationalise it.

He slated those who wanted to quit Labour, recounting the story of TUSC in the Eastleigh by election last year, which got 62 votes and came behind the “Elvis Loves Pets” party. But in the question and answer session several reps attacked Labour, with a Divisional Rep from the South West arguing we should take our money out of Labour if they won’t pledge to renationalise Royal Mail, and another asking more pointedly, if Billy thought that 62 votes was a joke why didn’t the union set up its own party which would get far more? Hayes in his reply just repeated 62 votes joke and avoided the question – which is about all a pro-Labour official can do these days. The argument is so transparently thin now after Miliband has refused to promise any reversal of Tory austerity.

The right strategy

The contributions from the floor also saw some critical questions for Ward’s speech, and arguments that went beyond where the leadership would willingly go without pressure from below. One rep argued that rolling strikes were not enough, didn’t we need to go all out and stay out? An Eastern division rep argued we had lost three years and 30,000 jobs from mail centre closures, before adding that the CWU was a strong union and if we fought we could win.

One rep got up to say that her members felt that we had caved in too early at the last strike, and asked why didn’t we stay out to get more – to applause. Another rep told how he had a pile of unopened issues of Royal Mail’s propaganda rag, The Courier, and mailings but barely anything from the union – referring to the silence and inaction from the top since June.

A supporter of Workers Power got up to speak about how we should call on the TUC to make good its promise of a day of action for all the unions to strike, and all strike together, which got a lot of support. He called on the leaders to get active in building for a yes vote, getting out into the local areas not just staying in Wimbledon for negotiations.

He insisted that while we could win concessions on pay and some guarantees, a strike against privatisation would mean we could ensure these weren’t undermined in the future by competition with TNT. He ended with an appeal to the militant sections in the room to get organised so the rank and file could control any action and ensure the weaknesses of past strikes were overcome.

Billy in his last contribution just repeated that, “We need a legally binding agreement; that’s the right strategy.” In reality, if we are strong enough to win and then enforce such an agreement – a feat that would take hard hitting action, indeed an “all out and stay out” strike – then we are strong enough to actually strike against privatisation and overturn it.

Other members of the left who were there, from the SWP and SP, were largely silent or uncritical in the meeting, as has been the coverage of it in Socialist Worker, which puts the leaders in a positive light, with no criticism of the “right strategy” of Hayes, Ward and the PEC.

The failures of the left in 2007 and 2009 to provide an alternative strategy have caused the SWP’s front paper, Postal Worker, and the CWU Broad Left led by the Socialist Party to decline and become marginalised. The same pressures to keep the leadership sweet reappear now – the SWP has no criticism of the PEC’s strategy, because it hopes to keep Billy Hayes on the platform of October’s Unite the Resistance conference.

But the rising tide of strikes and local disputes gives those who see the need for an “industrial” solution to privatisation, and the rank and file organisation needed to succeed the opportunity to recover – if we seize it. Striking against privatisation is a big job, but we don’t have to take it on alone; we can coordinate with other strikers – firefighters, teachers – and demand the TUC name the day for all the unions to come out together. The Birmingham meeting has to be the start of a debate on strategy among the reps and activists, not the end.

Next step: get a massive yes vote!

Ward had the last word and closed the meeting as he had started it: clear, firm, and really firing up the audience to get out a yes vote. He said that if a strike was called, it would coincide with a national demo, the biggest demo by postal workers since 1971. “The fights isn’t over because of the government announcement, we’ll decide when the fight is over,” he said to applause. However he also harshly attacked the “negativity” of the critics of the union leadership, stating some would “never be satisfied with any deal this union did”.

That said, Dave Ward’s last call to action, loudly applauded by every rep, are something every wing of the union must unite around in the coming two weeks: “There is no progress possible without a big yes vote, now it’s your job to deliver it.” The ballot comes out on 20 September and runs for two weeks to 3 October, so let’s do it!

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