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Royal Mail privatisation sparks CWU strike ballot

Postal workers should vote yes to fight not just cuts but privatisation too

By a CWU rep 

In late August rumours from government sources surfaced in the press that the Coalition could announce the float of Royal Mail on the stock market in September, aiming to start selling shares to investors in October. In response, officials in the postal union (CWU) have lit the touch paper to a strike ballot, promising to release a timetable on 2 September – and not a moment too soon.

The Tory-led government is getting nervous about the sell-off and wants to ram it through quickly before resistance can take off. Surveys show that the great majority (73 per cent) are opposed to the sell-off. The CWU’s campaign “Save our Royal Mail” has begun to gain momentum with petitioning and protests, the latest in Lib Dem Business Secretary Vince Cable’s Twickenham constituency. High street stalls are mushrooming and tens of thousands have signed petitions.

CWU ballot: Vote Yes!

Even more worrying for the Tories is the threat of a strike. Postal workers’ anger at Royal Mail bosses’ attacks on pay, pensions and workload hikes – all aimed at increasing profits to help privatisation – have seen the biggest rash of local strikes (including a few wildcats) since 2009. From militant individual offices like Bridgwater, on strike for eight days and counting, to bigger actions like the Plymouth-wide strike set to start on 9 September, the range of local disputes the determination to fight at the union’s grassroots has forced the move to a strike ballot.

The main tactic of the Tories and Royal Mail bosses such as CEO Moya Green are summed up in the screaming headline of the most recent issue of the staff magazine Courier: “YOUR FREE SHARES”.  The promise that 10 per cent of shares will be given free to staff (worth £2000 each), plus offers of a pay rise (below inflation and not legally binding after privatisation anyway), are the carrots being dangled in front of us. The stick is the threat that if workers strike and scupper a stock market sell-off, privatisation will still happen but with no free share giveaway. The great majority of workers see through this and the strings attached – a raid on our pension fund and signing up to a no strike deal. A national meeting of all unit reps on 12 September will likely kick-start the balloting period.

Rank and file control

The ballot should see a yes vote, but there is no room for complacency. Activists will need to campaign all-out for a big turnout and yes vote – and insist that the union’s leaders do the same. The many delays on the ballot, and periods of silence and inaction from the top, have led to some members questioning whether to just take the money and run – there is widespread mistrust of the leadership after the last strikes in 2007 and 2010 were run down and ended in rotten deals.

CWU General Secretary Billy Hayes and Deputy-GS Dave Ward should be actively fighting for a yes vote from the front to prove to members they are serious. Instead they have been conspicuous by their absence, sitting in Wimbledon HQ at the beck and call of Royal Mail, waiting for negotiations. The fighting wing of the union, like Bridgwater, need to seize the initiative and get organised. A national rank and file meeting, independent of union officials, could hammer out a strategy to win, and set up a network to campaign for grassroots control of any action.

One thing to debate is the leaderships’ current strategy. By ruling out industrial action against privatisation itself, the campaign against it has become limited to petitions, postcards and protests – but the Tories have shown no sign of backing down. And these tactics won’t stop the creeping privatisation “from below”, where TNT is setting up a rival delivery network.

CWU leaders’ claims that nervous Tories are looking for ways to “kick privatisation into the long grass” is just wishful thinking, as is the hope that a Labour government will reverse privatisation. Only now, after seeing which way the wind is blowing, has Labour come out against the “dangerous” privatisation – by setting up its own campaign instead of joining the union’s. Without relying on Labour, we should demand they back our campaign and strike, and reverse privatisation if elected – such a pledge would help damage privatisation’s prospects.

Meanwhile the ballot has become focused on securing a 10-year deal on pay, pensions and jobs in the event of a sell-off. This will never happen except in the event of an all-out fight that ultimately threatened the stability of the Coalition, bringing out other sections of workers. That should absolutely be our aim – but make no mistake, it is not the aim of Hayes and Ward. If we achieve our aim, we will be able to fight privatisation full stop – not just for better terms and conditions under it.


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