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Year 2009 No. 69, October 29, 2009 ARCHIVE HOME JBBOOKS SUBSCRIBE

Victory to the Postal Workers! Defend Postal Services!

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Victory to the Postal Workers! Defend Postal Services!

The Postal Strike Is Our Strike

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

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Victory to the Postal Workers! Defend Postal Services!

The latest three-day strikes by postal workers are set to go-ahead today, October 29, after the mail operator and the CWU failed to reach an agreement during resolution talks yesterday. A CWU spokesperson said that as things stand, the strikes will go ahead. More than 120,000 postal workers will walk out across three days, just a week after the initial two-day national strike that resulted in an estimated backlog of 30m letters. WDIE stands firmly with the postal workers in their strike against the dictate of Royal Mail and in defence of their rights.

The first thing to be said about the postal workers’ strike is that is a stand against the anti-social agenda which is being imposed on the whole of society – imposed to serve the interests of the owners of capital against the public good. The monopoly media and the government would like to keep hidden the issues at stake and make out that it is the postal workers and their union who are at fault and holding the country to ransom.

The whole history of this dispute stretches back a number of years, and demonstrates that Royal Mail and the government have been the enemies of the public good throughout this time. The introduction by the government of Lord Mandelson as Business Secretary has served in fact to intensify the assault on the postal workers and the postal service as a whole. It has served to consolidate the stand of Royal Mail management that the issue is for the postal service to become an industry, to be competitive in a national and global market, compete with other carriers whose aim is to make the maximum return on capital, and "modernise" to this end. The postal workers know full well that this kind of "modernisation" means stepped up exploitation and that they become simply the slaves of Royal Mail management. This must not pass! It neither serves the public good nor the social economy as a whole that Royal Mail and the postal service go down this path. No worker in industry or services will agree to becoming a slave whose only role in life is to do the bidding of the overlords who accumulate capital, nor of a government which is supposed to serve the electorate.

It is in this context that the President of the CWU, Jane Loftus, has declared, "We are fighting to defend a vital public service from the circling vultures of privatisation. We are fighting to stop thousands being forced on to the dole and full-time workers being replaced by casual part-timers. And we are fighting to stop management breaking the strength of the union and making our already pitiful pay and long hours worse." This embodies the spirit of resistance of the postal workers. They will not stand by and see negotiated and agreed contracts together with agreements with the union torn up by the management. The proposal of Royal Mail to take on 30,000 casual workers in a thinly veiled defiance of long-established employment legislation is designed to be a provocation and an arrogant show of strength.

The workers are right to reject the capital-centred outlook of Royal Mail management. What gives the management the right to decide against the wishes and the interests of the workers who themselves make up Royal Mail? The workers have been battling against this outlook for the past two years, since the last postal strike, and for the seven years before that when the Postal Services Act was passed. This Act followed the proposals of the White Paper of 1999, and it was none other than Peter Mandelson when he was Trade Secretary who formulated this "new dawn" for the Post Office. Now he is concerned that "Royal Mail’s finances will be plunged into the red," as he said in his statement on the dispute, made to the House of Lords, since in 2008 Royal Mail "made less than 1 per cent profit". This is the nub of Mandelson’s "concern"!

WDIE denounces the provocative and bullying tactics of Royal Mail, and calls on the working class and people to condemn them and get further organised, alongside the postal workers, against the anti-social offensive and the fetish of competition which is being upheld as the norm. We call on everyone to condemn the tearing up of the terms of national and local agreements by Royal Mail under the signboard of "executive action". We call on everyone to reject with contempt the disinformation spread by the government and Royal Mail management, and to condemn the reckless disregard of the public good by government and management who are prepared in going to war with the postal workers to cause serious damage to the socialised economy and to inconvenience the public as a whole.

Article Index

The Postal Strike Is Our Strike

John Pilger

This article was originally published on 22 October 2009 in the New Statesman

New Labour has done its best to destroy the Post Office as a public institution. Postal workers deserve our solidarity

The postal workers' struggle is as vital for democracy as any national event in recent years. The campaign against them is part of a historic shift from the last vestiges of political democracy in Britain to a corporate world of insecurity and war. If the privateers running the Post Office are allowed to win, the regression that now touches all lives bar the wealthy will quicken its pace. A third of British children now live in low-income or impoverished families. One in five young people is denied hope of a decent job or education.

And now the Brown government is to mount a "fire sale" of public assets and services worth £16bn. Unmatched since Margaret Thatcher's transfer of public wealth to a new gross elite, the sale, or theft, will include the Channel Tunnel rail link, bridges, the student loan bank, school playing fields, libraries and public housing estates. The plunder of the National Health Service and public education is already under way.

The common thread is adherence to the demands of an opulent, sub-criminal minority exposed by the 2008 collapse of Wall Street and of the City of London, now rescued with hundreds of billions in public money and still unregulated with a single stringent condition imposed by the government. Goldman Sachs, which enjoys a personal connection with the Prime Minister, is to give employees record average individual pay and bonus packages of £500,000. The Financial Times now offers a service called How to Spend It.

Best of Britain

None of this is accountable to the public, whose view was expressed at the last election in 2005: New Labour won with the support of barely a fifth of the British adult population. For every five people who voted Labour, eight did not vote at all. This was not apathy, as the media pretend, but a strike by the public – like the postal workers are today on strike. The issues are broadly the same: the bullying and hypocrisy of contagious, undemocratic power.

Since coming to office, New Labour has done its best to destroy the Post Office as a highly productive public institution valued with affection by the British people. Not long ago, you posted a letter anywhere in the country and it reached its destination the following morning. There were two deliveries a day, and collections on Sundays. The best of Britain, which is ordinary life premised on a sense of community, could be found at a local post office, from the Highlands to the Pennines to the inner cities, where pensions, income support, child benefit and incapacity benefit were drawn, and the elderly, the awkward, the inarticulate and the harried were treated humanely.

At my local post office in south London, if an elderly person failed to turn up on pension day, he or she would get a visit from the postmistress, Smita Patel, often with groceries. She did this for almost 20 years until the government closed down this "lifeline of human contact", as the local Labour MP called it, along with more than 150 other local London branches. The Post Office executives who faced the anger of our community at a local church – unknown to us, the decision had already been taken – were not even aware that the Patels made a profit. What mattered was ideology; the branch had to go. Mention of public service brought puzzlement to their faces.

The postal workers, having this year doubled annual profits to £321m, have had to listen to specious lectures from Peter Mandelson, a twice-disgraced figure risen from the murk of New Labour, about "urgent modernisation". The truth is, the Royal Mail offers a quality service at half the price of its privatised rivals Deutsche Post and TNT. In dealing with new technology, postal workers have sought only consultation about their working lives and the right not to be abused – like the postal worker who was spat upon by her manager, then sacked while he was promoted; and the postman with 17 years' service and not a single complaint to his name who was sacked on the spot for failing to wear his cycle helmet. Watch the near frenzy with which your postie now delivers. A middle-aged man has to run much of his route in order to keep to a preordained and unrealistic time. If he fails, he is disciplined and kept in his place by the fear that thousands of jobs are at the whim of managers.

Subversive forces

Communication Workers Union negotiators describe intransigent executives with a hidden agenda – just as the National Coal Board masked Thatcher's strictly political goal of destroying the miners' union. The collaborative journalists' role is unchanged, too. Mark Lawson, who pontificates about middlebrow cultural matters for the BBC and the Guardian and receives many times the remuneration of a postal worker, dispensed a Sun-style diatribe on 10 October. Waffling about the triumph of email and how the postal service was a "bystander" to the internet when, in fact, it has proven itself a commercial beneficiary, Lawson wrote: "The outcome [of the strike] will decide whether Billy Hayes of the CWU will, like [Arthur] Scargill, be remembered as someone who presided over the destruction of the industry he was meant to represent."

The record is clear that Scargill and the miners were fighting against the wholesale destruction of an industry that was long planned for ideological reasons. The miners' enemies included the most subversive, brutal and sinister forces of the British state, aided by journalists – as Lawson's Guardian colleague Seumas Milne documents in his landmark work, The Enemy Within. Postal workers deserve the support of all honest, decent people, who are reminded that they may be next on the list if they remain silent.

Article Index

From the Party Press

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

Workers’ Daily Internet Edition, October 14, 2007

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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