Just how right postal workers are to fight for their jobs is borne out by today’s figures showing that the British economy, far from “recovering”, remains critically ill on life support. The sixth successive quarterly fall in output is the longest continuous decline since records began in 1955.
The estimates mean the depth of the current slump in output is close to the 6% fall seen between 1979 and 1981. None of the measures adopted by the state, including virtually zero interest rates and pumping £175 billion into the financial system is having a significant impact. The banks have simply taken the money and used it to finance another bout of speculation.
To lose your job in this situation is tantamount to joining poverty street. You can’t survive on dole payments and if you’ve got a mortgage, there is no help with housing costs either. There are few decently-paid jobs out there and mail workers would be crazy to accept management-imposed “efficiency” changes at their expense.
Their solid strikes this week show Royal Mail workers don’t accept that they should sacrifice their livelihoods on the altar of cost-cutting. Some 60,000 jobs have already gone in the last few years and the burden on those remaining is already intolerable.
This has drawn the accusation from management and New Labour that mail workers are standing in the way of “modernisation”. But what is this “modernisation” that Lord Mandelson and others are so fond of? Mandelson, of course, was the architect of “modernising” the Labour Party. This proved to be a cover for the actual destruction of what had gone before and its replacement with something quite different.
New Labour is not a “modernised” version of its predecessor. Instead, it is the political executive of the business and financial classes. This explains Mandelson’s vehement attacks on postal workers and the government’s sabotaging of a compromise deal with the Communication Workers’ Union.
The “modernisation” of Royal Mail in the same way is not intended to create a better place to work or to improve the service to the public. Instead, it is aimed at making it profitable so that the service can be privatised – by whichever party wins the next general election.
Placing the postal strikes in the context of the deepening economic crisis, it is important to support mail workers in developing a strategy that challenges the capitalist mantra of cost accounting and efficiency savings that inevitably lead to job losses and more intense exploitation for those left. The strategy would focus on an alternative, not-for-profit approach. For example, where new technology is applied, the results could include a shorter working week at the same levels of pay. It would expose the fact that in class society, the interests of workers and employers can never be identical.
We have to study alternatives to the capitalist approach, whereby cost reduction is always carried out to the disadvantage of the workforce. In any case, as we have seen, the profit-based approach leads inevitably to an over-reliance on credit and debt and thence to an uncontrollable crisis such as the one we are in now.
Bringing about change along these lines requires imagination and a capacity to look beyond the immediate struggle to protect jobs and livelihoods. By rejecting government-orchestrated intimidation and pursuing their strikes, postal workers are creating the conditions for doing just that.