Some 130,000 postal workers in the Communication Workers Union were due to return to work today after taking successful strike action in defence of terms and conditions.
However many workers were scandalized to discover that management had imposed new attendance times without their consent. This provocative action fuelled the latest walkouts in different parts of the country. Royal Mail confirmed that unofficial strike action is taking place in Liverpool and London. The unofficial stoppage was called at district offices throughout Liverpool and soon spread to the main sorting office at Copperas Hill, while workers at branches in east and south London also walked out. In Glasgow workers at the Victoria Road office have also joined the unofficial stoppage. The action could easily spread to other offices around the country.
Royal Mail worker David Wall, a postman with the Walton office in Liverpool, said hundreds of postal workers had gone back to the picket lines to protest against the changes to flexible working hours. These included the end to leave early once staff finished their round. He explained that the unofficial strikes were triggered by new Royal Mail rules, which they had not consented to. Usually, postal workers began their shift between 0500 and 0530 and were free to go when they had finished their round. But management has stepped in to stop this practice, provoking anger and the walkouts.
Royal Mail spokesperson reiterated the line that the company was “extremely concerned at the unlawful unofficial strike action taking place at a handful of sites”. He continued, “Unlawful action is wholly unacceptable and must be condemned by the trade union”.
It was this loss of flexibility, and not pay, which was the main reason why postal workers were on strike. It was Royal Mail management that introduced this flexibility when it suited them, but now they want to take it away claiming they needed to “modernize” the business and save money.
It is clear that Royal Mail management is determined to break the union and impose their cost-cutting measures on the workforce. In this, they have clearly got the backing of the government who has refused to step in and settle the dispute. This strategy is part and parcel of the government’s attempt to hold down public-sector pay increases to about 2% over the next three years. This has provoked fury amongst trade unionists and has opened up the possibility of a “winter of discontent”.
And also the possibility of the CWU being a bit more choosy with its political fund?
For many years the traditional argument in favour of the link between the union and Labour has been that affiliation wins a certain amount of influence on the party’s policy.
Billy Hayes, the CWU general secretary, repeated this at last month’s Labour conference, saying that the government had listened to the union’s concerns, and, as a result, had decided against the privatisation of Royal Mail.
But during the course of the strike with Royal Mail that argument has lost much of its support.
Most postal workers are acutely aware that their bosses are government appointees, and that the liberalisation of the postal industry – which forces Royal Mail to deliver its rivals’ mail at a financial loss – was a Labour government initiative.
The result has been a widespread feeling that the union’s political fund, which most CWU members opt to pay, bankrolls the Labour Party without any return for the union.
If the union’s political voice is to be maintained, the acute political anger at the betrayals of the Labour government must be allowed an outlet.
While the union is set to debate the issue next year, some in the union leadership have attempted to use bureaucratic methods to prevent a full and frank discussion.
The price of this approach could lead to the serious weakening of the union’s political voice.