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Postal Workers' Ballot Narrowly Lost
THE DECISION of postal workers not to strike by the narrowest of margins - less than 2% or 1,700 votes out of 95,000 votes cast - is undoubtedly a blow to postal workers' attempts to end the poverty pay they have endured for decades.
Bill Mullins, Socialist Party Industrial Organiser
Like the firefighters earlier this year, many of them saw the campaign as a chance to win a decent basic wage.
This was the case, particularly in south east England, where the cost of living is higher than in the rest of the country. That is why, in a separate ballot, the London workers in Royal Mail and other parts of the Post Office have voted to take strike action over London weighting, by almost three to one.
The capitalist press of course is 'sexing up' the result as the end of the road for militant trade unionism. The Financial Times, as the mouthpiece of the finance capitalists in Britain, is the most vociferous.
It called the result a victory for "sensible trade unionism" and a blow to the "awkward squad" of newly elected trade union leaders, including Billy Hayes and Dave Ward, the general secretary and deputy general secretary of the postal workers' union, CWU.
It seeks to fit this result into a pattern that: "Follows the defeat of the firefighters' strike over the winter and the election defeat of Mick Rix of ASLEF."
It even offers the opinion that the civil servants are unlikely: "to put their industrial muscle behind the threats of action over public-sector pensions by Mark Serwotka of the PCS".
Does the ballot result indicate the ending of the left shift in the unions and the working class?
There are many reasons why a small majority of postal workers decided not to vote yes for industrial action but what seems to have swung many is the bosses' propaganda, which the union leaders were unable to answer satisfactorily.
The impression given by the union leadership was that any ballot for strike action would be used for bargaining purposes only. They had little idea of an overall industrial strategy to win the claim.
Rumours abounded that the union would organise discontinuous action or even localised strikes of key workers.
Under these circumstances, many postal workers would have weighed up how much they would lose if there were strikes, compared to what the union leaders would accept in the bargaining at the end of the strike.
The lack of a spelled-out strategy by the union leadership contrasted with the seeming determination of the bosses to defeat the union. Alan Leighton, the chairman of Royal Mail, had indicated that his proposals would not have meant compulsory redundancies but if the workers went on strike then all bets were off.
By going over the heads of the union directly to the members, he put doubts into some postal workers' minds over the future of their jobs if there was a strike.
He sent out five letters directly to the workforce in their homes.
His blood-curdling threats that a strike would see the "end of the Post Office" seemed to make some inroads into the confidence of the workforce. The union campaign, whilst putting out good agitational material about the bosses' greed - some Post Office directors have increased their own salaries by 270% in the last two years - was not enough to win over the majority of the workforce.
Leighton openly invited private companies to prepare to take as much Post Office work as possible in the event of a strike. It would be theirs to keep, was the message.
This was done with the complete backing of the postal regulator and the government which said early on that they would lift the Post Office's monopoly on letter delivery in the event of a strike.
It was in effect a declaration of the privatisation of the Post Office.
Coupled with his statement to the workforce that: "If you vote with the union activists against the deal, or don't vote at all, we begin the process of commercial suicide", the stakes were set extremely high for the union and their members.
How should the union leaders have answered this?
ONE OF the main lessons of the firefighters' strikes was that each time the government raised the stakes, the union leaders seemed to back down and looked completely taken by surprise.
Billy Hayes and Dave Ward correctly opposed John Keggie's methods when he was in charge of the union's pay negotiations with the Post Office. Alan Leighton and co believed that they could do a deal with outgoing deputy general secretary Keggie and bring in 'modernisation' changes without union opposition.
But when Keggie lost the election to Dave Ward the bosses were completely thrown by the more militant stance of the new leadership of the CWU.
Nevertheless Alan Leighton's threat to destroy the Post Office and hand it over to private companies should have been answered with an immediate appeal to the whole of the trade union movement to come to the aid of the postal workers and the union.
It was not enough for the post workers' leadership to cry foul when Alan Leighton went over their heads directly to the members. They should have responded by calling on the whole of the trade union movement to defend the Post Office against the privateers and the vultures waiting to pick over its bones.
They should have called for Alan Leighton's sacking because of his blatant attempt to hand over the whole system to the private sector.
Leighton's methods were like those of Michael Edwards in the car industry in the seventies. Like Leighton, who was appointed by the Blair Labour government, Edwards was also appointed by a Labour government, then under Jim Callaghan.
Edwards went over the heads of the shop stewards and with connivance of the right-wing trade union leaders, sacked the leading shop steward in the Longbridge plant, Derek Robinson.
The result of this setback in the Post Office is that the company will now seek to drive forward its 'modernisation strategy'. That is, the ending of the second delivery, the establishment of new shift patterns and cutting tens of thousands of jobs.
The union's campaign exposed management's juggling of the figures. They claimed the Post Office was in the red and had enormous losses of £ hundreds of millions every year.
Now they reveal that they will have, miracle of miracles, an operating profit of £100 million this year and £320 million next year.
The rise of the so-called awkward squad and the shift to the left in the unions has not been the result of a conspiracy by a handful of activists but is a direct result of the anger and bitterness in the Labour government felt by many workers.
It is also a result of the fat cats' greed and all the abuse and indignities which workers are made to suffer at work, under the unbridled market forces released and encouraged by New Labour.
Postal balloting - as it is intended to be - is a lottery. The postal workers were receiving letters from the management at the same time as they received their ballot paper from the union.
The press and television was full of stories about the 'damage' a strike would do to the Post Office. Sitting in isolation at home, this was bound to have an affect on those workers less involved in the day-to-day skirmishes between the bosses and the union.
In the better-organised workplaces, the support for the union was undoubtedly there. But the further you got away from the big sorting offices and into the smaller workplaces, the more management propaganda would have had an affect.
The CWU in the Post Office remains one of the better organised unions. That will determine the outcome in the long-run, not a ballot result.
This is after all no more than a snap-shot of the postal workers' mood, which can soon change into its opposite under the impact of fresh attacks by the bosses.
In The Socialist 20 September 2003: