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Year 2007 No. 71, October 14, 2007 ARCHIVE HOME JBBOOKS SUBSCRIBE

The Fetish of Competition and Having Contempt for Anyone and Everyone

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The Fetish of Competition and Having Contempt for Anyone and Everyone

Statements of the CWU and TUC

Postal Workers and Royal Mail: The Historical Background to the Dispute, Getting Organised

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The Fetish of Competition and Having Contempt for Anyone and Everyone

It was announced on Friday, October 12, that terms for settling the postal services dispute had been reached between the Communication Workers Union and the Royal Mail, with Brendan Barber of the TUC chairing the talks. The terms, which have not yet been disclosed, are to go before the union’s executive on Monday.

This followed a High Court injunction in favour of Royal Mail to restrain the CWU from calling out its members in Mail Centres and Delivery Offices on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. A rolling plan of 24-hour strikes had been planned, with workers striking at mail sorting offices and airports on October 15, deliveries and collection hubs on October 16, and Royal Mail drivers on October 17. Strikes were also planned at manual data entry centres and the Heathrow world distribution centre on October 18. Royal Mail had used the industrial relations laws, which place legal restrictions on the ability of the workers to organise to defend their interests, to argue that the union had failed to state with sufficient accuracy the number of workers likely to be affected on the first two days. A demonstration against these laws and to demand a Trade Union Freedom Bill is to take place this Thursday, October 18.

The dispute has demonstrated the prejudice and contempt for the public good that putting in command the fetish of competition in the marketplace carries with it. The fetish of competition becomes the be all and end all, benefiting not the economy as a whole and the people’s needs, but competing centres of capital. It has meant for Royal Mail riding roughshod over the rights and interests of the postal service workers in pursuit of the "flexibility" in working practices necessary to compete in the postal market. This is what is termed "modernisation".

Furthermore, the concern claimed by Royal Mail that it should serve its customers is also a fraud. The very idea of putting competition first and last, attacks the whole concept of a universal postal service, that will be of service to all and will deliver to all, irrespective of cost. Resources since 2006 have been increasingly put into competing with some 17 other companies in the profitable business mail sector, and still Royal Mail complains that it has lost 40% of the corporate sector to rivals. This is the meaning of Adam Crozier, Royal Mail chief executive, when he insists that "flexibility is the main issue at stake". The concerns of the workers and the value of the work that they carry out count as nothing in the face of the driving force of "competition". The workers are considered merely incidental to grabbing a share of the market vis a vis Royal Mail’s competitors, and the consideration of serving the economy and the public good comes nowhere. In this capital-centred outlook, the demand of the workers that they should not be treated as slaves is regarded as the greatest stumbling block to being competitive, and as an outmoded insistence on what are insultingly called "Spanish practices". The workers are treated not as human beings worthy of respect and who are the most important resource, but as adjuncts to technology and fixed capital, whose conscious participation is regarded as an overriding nuisance to be overcome or bought off.

In this scenario, the media also plays its role in promoting the anti-worker, anti-conscious ethos which is supposed to govern the way society is run. This is why, according to the Royal Mail management, it is regarded as a "stakeholder" and why they thank the media for their support. The workers on the other hand are not regarded as "stakeholders". The media, hand in glove with the business managers and the government, promote that competitiveness or the lack of it is key to everything, and that workers must suffer every indignity to increase their flexibility, productivity and in every other way prostrate themselves before the needs of capital to enrich itself. They promote the image of workers as a kind of race apart whose only aim in fighting for their interests is to cause chaos and is motivated by selfishness. In this way, the human factor/social consciousness is viciously attacked, the aim of serving the public good negated, the role of workers in building a national economy ignored, and everything is done to hide the fact that the workers are an integral part of society and are also taking a stand in favour of the fate of that society. That everyone should be able to plan their lives, take control of their future, unite as one in a common aim for the public good and the individual and collective good is buried under the propaganda that the postal workers in order to be public spirited must unite behind Royal Mail’s business plan, should work together with the CEOs and government and follow the line of "mature and responsible industrial relations".

This is a pernicious form of "social Darwinism", the survival of the leanest and fittest in the market place in cut-throat competition, and devil take the hindmost. In other words, it tries to put human beings on the level of animals, while in fact all of society’s resources are marshalled by an alliance of government and big business to favour the extraction of millions and billions of pounds by the financiers, privateers and the aristocracy of capital.

In this context, the workers are finding their pensions attacked, as well as their pay, conditions and quality of life. They are finding that the monopolies and the government are attacking the collective strength of the workers, who must be isolated, cajoled and threatened individually under the pretext that individual rights are paramount. Individually in fact the workers are expected to be at the beck and call of every whim of management, who go out of their way to be provocative, and respond to the full "functional flexibility" demanded of them, covering shifts, absences, other duties, coming in earlier or later at short notice, respond to the vagaries of the weather, work different hours on different days of the week. In short, the workers’ role as wage slaves is brought out to the full, and they are supposed to shape themselves around work, handing over their lives to the company. In addition, the neo-liberal agenda is one of ensuring that agency workers are the norm, and that all jobs are temporary and on contract.

The attitude of Royal Mail to industrial relations is very revealing. They have a strategic plan which they are determined to railroad through no matter what. Under the guise of "principles", Royal Mail is taking a stand, bullying the workers that "the offer is the offer, the money is the money and the words are the words", and are determined to put "business recovery" over any other consideration. Clearly the workers are right to take up this struggle in the face of the Royal Mail’s spurious moral highground that discussion with the unions is simply a nuisance and they have to get on with running the business, and that managers have to manage. Royal Mail is shaping its strategy and tactics very consciously with the participation of local managers, and at the very least the workers have to be equally conscious in discussing their own strategy and tactics. The objective situation demands it.

The working class and people are struggling against and cannot afford to be reconciled to the disharmony, chaos and enrichment of the few that the fetish of "competition" brings with it. Royal Mail and the government are trying to suggest that the workers are the problem and that the issue is changing the workers’ heads and altering their behaviour in order to come to terms and grow to love their new working environment and flexible ways of working.

However, the postal service does not belong to the owners of capital. It is our postal service, along with social services as a whole. Even more to the point, it is our economy, we decide. This is the slogan of the working class and people. The anti-social offensive and the neo-liberal programme of New Labour must be defeated, and a pro-social agenda presented and fought for. The workers and their union have been fighting this battle against the neo-liberal agenda, and will go on doing so. The workers’ stand is just, and we call on the working class to intensify their struggle to build the Workers’ Opposition and to elaborate their vision for a new society against this moribund one based on individual private gain and exploitation bereft of principle. It is our economy and we must decide!

Article Index

Statements of the CWU and TUC

CWU – Royal Mail joint statement

12 October 2007

The agreed terms covering all the issues in the dispute will be considered by the union’s Executive on Monday. Both parties will make a further statement thereafter.

Adam Crozier, Chief Executive Royal Mail

Brendan Barber, General Secretary TUC

Billy Hayes, General Secretary CWU

Dave Ward, Deputy General Secretary CWU

Royal Mail Dispute: CWU statement

10 October 2007

CWU remains resolute in seeking an acceptable negotiated settlement. Elements of Royal Mail’s proposal remain unacceptable and we hope to resolve these outstanding areas through negotiation.

CWU believes the time is right for the Government to intervene in a positive way to resolve the dispute. Talks are due to resume today and CWU remains committed to achieving an agreement.

This morning’s unofficial action was sparked by management’s imposition of unagreed changes, particularly over later starts, and reflects the frustration felt by postal workers at Royal Mail’s executive action.

PM's intervention in post dispute "will not help"

10 October 2007

Commenting on the Prime Minister's statement at PMQs today that the dispute "should be brought to an end on the terms that have been offered", TUC General Secretary Brendan Barber said: "I am disappointed that the Prime Minister should intervene in this way, at such a delicate stage in the negotiations. This will not help find a sustainable resolution to the dispute."

Article Index

Postal Workers and Royal Mail: The Historical Background to the Dispute, Getting Organised

The postal services dispute has been, and is, an important battle not only between the postal workers and the Royal Mail employer, but in terms of the direction of the economy and the motive force of a socialised economy. The workers are not prepared to be treated as incidental to making Royal Mail "competitive" and paying the rich. Their dignity as workers and their rights as human beings are at stake. Neither are they reconciled to the capital-centred programme of the government and Royal Mail on the future of the postal service. The historical background to the dispute sees the character of the mail service change in accordance with the motion of society from the social welfare state of the 1960s, the crisis in these arrangements in the 1970s, and the privatisation of the 1980s and 1990s. The 21st century opened with a "Third Way" path for the "reform" of the Post Office, one in which the company was expected to be competitive in the national and global market according to the doctrine of neo-liberal globalisation, while the government held 100% of the shares in the public limited company. It is certain that these struggles over the future of the postal services and the rights of the workers will continue in coming months and years also, whatever the precise outcome of the present dispute, as a reflection between the contention between what is for the public good and the interests of the owners of capital. This contention is bound to continue until such time as the workers have the power to enforce their decisions on the public good and the direction of the economy as a whole.

In 1969, the General Post Office was changed from a government department, to a state run company and the position of Postmaster General was abolished. At that time, the whole of telecommunications was part of the Post Office also.

In the 1980s and ’90s, unlike other state run bodies such as British Gas and British Telecom, Royal Mail was not privatised. This was largely due to the campaigning of the Communication Workers’ Union, on behalf of its postal members, and Margaret Thatcher decided that privatisation was not viable.

In 1999, the government introduced its White Paper "Post Office Reform: A World Class Service for the 21st Century" which opened the door to the transformation of the Post Office into a public limited company. It would become, in the words of the then Trade and Industry Secretary Stephen Byers, "subject to a combination of effective market disciplines and regulation and be allowed new commercial freedoms".

In 2000, the CWU conference raised two serious issues. Firstly, one concern was the link between the trade unions and the Labour Party and the political levy which goes to fund that Party. The delegates overwhelmingly turned down a proposed increase in the political levy from 10p to 12p a week, not just on the basis of their interests but on the basis of Labour’s policies on pensions, tuition fees, and its refusal to repeal the anti-trade-union laws. This leads to the second serious issue raised by the CWU conference. The delegates voted to break the link with the Labour Party, that is to withdraw "financial and moral" support from Labour, if the government ever privatised the Post Office in full or in part.

In 2000 also, the Postal Services Act was introduced. The Act carried the "restructuring" of the Post Office further down the road of following the dictates of the market place. This was consistent with the EU neo-liberalist agenda to open up postal services to competition. The Act changed the Post Office into a public limited company, changing the name from Royal Mail to Consignia plc. A reason for this name change was so to have a name for the international market. Before this Act, the Post Office was a statutory corporation in what is termed the "public sector". At this stage all the shares were owned by the government, or, legally speaking, by the Crown. The Postal Service Act meant that the government could now exchange and sell shares in the post office to cement commercial strategic alliances – in other words joint ventures or other partnerships which it considers of commercial advantage.

The two main problems that came out of the Postal Service becoming a plc: the postal service now became competitive, that is to compete both on the domestic market and internationally, with other postal and carrier contractors for profit. The other problem is that the Post Office would be allowed to borrow from the private sector to finance investment, and there is no requirement that the lowest interest rates be sought. The limit of this borrowing was set to £5 billion in 2000. In other words, the financial institutions benefit from the loan interest on the Post Office debt.

In 2001, the government set up a postal regulator, Postcomm, and offered licences to private companies who were then able to deliver mail. This opened up postal markets three years ahead of the rest of Europe.

In 2002, the CWU were in dispute with Consignia over their outstanding pay claim, which was due for introduction on October 1. The union was seeking a 5% pay claim. Deputy General Secretary of CWU (postal) John Keggie said, "65 percent of our members are still working six days a week starting at 5.30 in the morning and in some cases even earlier….Their offer of an increase worth less than £5.00 per week, when some directors are earning over £4,000 a week is simply not on."

Consignia confirms 15,000 job losses, around 7% of the workforce. Trade and Industry Secretary Patricia Hewitt has the nerve to describe the 15,000 job losses as a "turning point". The CWU blames under funding for the job losses, and pledged to resist any attempt to force through redundancies. Consignia also announce plans to close more than 3,000 urban post offices. The director of the Child Poverty Action group, Martin Barnes, said: "Post office closures will hit poor and most vulnerable the hardest, it will not be places like Hampstead or Richmond that will lose out. Instead, it will be areas already hit hard by poverty and deprivation."

There are fears that Consignia could become another Railtrack, i.e.wreck the postal service through privatisation and under-investment.

After public opposition and postal worker boycotts to the name Consignia, the postal service is re-named Royal Mail plc.

In 2004, after Adam Crozier becomes chief executive, there are reductions in delivery to once daily.

On January 1, 2006, the postal service market was fully liberalised, completing the process of removing the monopoly enjoyed by Royal Mail for more than 350 years. Licensed companies other than Royal Mail were able to collect, transport and deliver letters and charge customers for the service. The TUC had voted unanimously to oppose liberalising the postal market with Communication Workers Union general secretary Billy Hayes saying that any partial sell-off would be "a privatisation in my book".

In 2007, Royal Mail Group plc becomes Royal Mail ltd. Official industrial action takes place for the first time in 11 years over pay, conditions and pensions. Also threatened is the loss of 40,000 jobs. The CWU also strikes to resist the way these cuts will affect the public.

What should the workers do?

This long running dispute between postal workers and Royal Mail ltd is a struggle that has seen the workers take great stands. But in view of this history, the question is posed as to how the workers are able to transform these stands into an organised opposition to the systematic attacks on the whole working class. Royal Mail and the government have been in league from the beginning and workers must have no illusions about their motives or that they represent the workers of Britain. Those who run the postal service must be accountable to society. A modern communications system should be part of a socialist planning for the economy and to meet the people’s needs in a new society. As an integral part of this perspective, the workers in their independent collectives have to inform themselves of the facts and the issues and discuss them with a view to deciding themselves on their course of action. How are workers to take hold of what belongs to them and place the assets of the socialised economy under common control, affirm their right to political power and empower the people to decide on the direction of the economy? This is the central concern.

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