Billy Hayes, the general secretary of the Communication Worker Union (CWU), denies saying that his organisation was in a stronger position than the miners were at the start of their strike 25 years ago. Nevertheless, the miners’ historic, year-long struggle for jobs is a suitable reference point for postal workers.
The difficulty the CWU has in reaching an agreement with Royal Mail management has echoes of the challenge that the National Union of Miners (NUM) and Arthur Scargill faced. Eventually, of course, the NUM returned without an agreement with the state-owned National Coal Board (NCB) and pit closures followed soon afterwards.
No agreement was possible because the state, directed by the Thatcher Tory government, was determined to shut pits that were deemed “uneconomic”, mines that did not make a profit. A quarter of a century later, the state-owned Royal Mail, directed by the New Labour government, is adopting a similar standpoint.
Commercial profitability is what drives Royal Mail management. “Modernisation” in their terms means the destruction of tens of thousands of jobs. By all accounts, the draft agreements have been so vague that the CWU executive has felt unable to sign on the dotted line and call off the strikes, whatever the recommendation of the negotiators led by assistant general secretary Dave Ward.
Tens of thousands of jobs have already gone in recent years with the CWU doing little about it. Signing up to the management’s agenda this time could well sound the death knell of the union as a fighting force because membership could be halved within a short time.
So if the CWU leaders are serious they have no time to lose in mobilising against the management AND New Labour. It is simply dishonest for them to call on business secretary Lord Mandelson to intervene. Mandelson has – and it’s on the side of the management.
New Labour is the main enemy. This government imposed capitalist, profit-making criteria on the Royal Mail, which is why thousands of post offices have closed and the delivery service has deteriorated as a result of cost-cutting measures. It has long ceased being a public service in the accepted sense of the word.
New Labour is ready to return with plans to part-privatise the Royal Mail, which it has shelved and not abandoned (if they lose the election, the Tories will carry on where Mandelson left off). The massive state financial deficit from bailing out the banks makes a sell-off a racing certainty.
One of the key lessons of the miners’ strike is that no single group of trade unionists on their own can defeat the government and the state, which in this case includes the employers and the anti-union laws that serve to weaken effective industrial action (the Tories are planning to impose new laws on top of those retained by New Labour).
The future of the CWU is at stake and union leaders must say so loud and clear. They need to mobilise the membership in indefinite strike action and defy the anti-union laws to picket out the strike-breaking force being recruited by Royal Mail.
In place of redundancies, the CWU should demand job sharing at no loss of pay to advance the right to work in a period of mass unemployment. In place of overpaid Royal Mail management, there is a case for a joint worker-consumer control of the service.
Making the post a genuine public service will require a government that is not in the grip of big business and the banks, as all the major parties are. That’s a tall order but the CWU, by being decisive and rejecting naked commercialism, could help open a discussion about achieving a real political change.
If the union leaders are serious about winning this fight, they need to show it or step aside for those who are committed to saving every job.