At the heart of the looming confrontation between Royal Mail management and New Labour on one side and the Communication Workers Union (CWU) on the other, is the nature of public services in a period of free-market globalisation. Although still state owned, the Royal Mail is an arms-length company that is actually run as a business concern by extremely overpaid executives. They insist that the business has to "modernise" to face up to more efficient, cheaper competitors in Britain and internationally. The CWU fears that up to 40,000 jobs are at risk. A one-day strike on June 29 is planned over pay and in an attempt to put pressure on Royal Mail to change its plans to make thousands redundant. Following a breakdown in talks yesterday, CWU admitted that management had refused to negotiate a settlement higher than 2.5% or change its plans. Dave Ward, the union's deputy general secretary, accused the Royal Mail of "deliberately misleading" the public by claiming that the union was demanding a 27% pay rise and opposing modernisation. Ward said: "What Royal Mail are doing is not modernisation. The truth is, they are intent on cutting services, cutting jobs and cutting pay. We have tried to reach an agreement but Royal Mail are refusing to negotiate."
If the CWU believes that a series of one-day strikes will force meaningful concessions from Royal Mail or the government they are sorely mistaken. Trade and industry secretary Alistair Darling condemned the planned strike, saying it would be "extremely damaging" for the Royal Mail and its customers. The stoppage will take place just two days after Gordon Brown becomes Prime Minister, and he is in total support of competition and "open markets" and will not yield to the CWU. The government is already shutting down thousands of post offices claiming that they are losing money, and ignoring their function as a vital public service. Ministers agree with Royal Mail chief executive Adam Crozier when he says: "We are losing business because we have failed to change and modernise - and as a result, our costs and therefore our prices are higher than those that rivals are charging in the intensely competitive business mail market, which makes up 90% of all postings." What’s at stake, therefore, is control of the Royal Mail. So long as it remains a profit-centred business competing with capitalist rivals, jobs will go and services will be cut. The CWU is therefore engaging in a political strike against a government which champions globalisation and which is standing behind bosses like Crozier, who is understood to have received a bonus of up to £370,000, taking his total package to more than £1 million. Isolated one-day strikes are inadequate and a poor response to a massive 77% majority for strike action. To widen support for their action, CWU leaders have to bring these issues out and put forward alternative, democratic, not-for-profit ways of running the Royal Mail. The CWU has to involve the rail unions and others in mounting a full-scale challenge to the government if it is to succeed.
Paul Feldman, communications editor