Postal deal leaves DWP staff to fight alone

It worked then.

What’s that, you ask? Well, the “cooling-off” period.

A legendary tool for ending industrial disputes, this time it was used by the postal union, the CWU, which called off industrial action while the ballot on the deal took place.

Now a majority of CWU members have voted to accept a 6.9% increse in pay over two years and the accompanying erosion of terms and conditions…

This means that the much talked-about public sector alliance has come to nought. Okay, the Royal Mail deal breaks the 2% rule, but it opens the road to worsening conditions for postal workers and the eventual privatisation of the company, ending another public service.

The 80,000 members of the PCS at the Department of Work and Pensions, who voted two to one for strike action, must now fight alone.

Here’s what Permanent Revolution say about the Royal Mail deal:

Royal Mail: CWU Leadership Delivers Bosses’ Agenda
The ballot of some 130,000 CWU members employed by Royal Mail drew to a close on 27 November. Postal workers ultimately voted by 64 percent to 36 percent in favour of a two-year deal, agreed by the CWU general secretary Billy Hayes and his deputy, Dave Ward, in mid-October. The proposal had previously been ratified by a majority of 9 to 4 at the union’s national postal executive.

The agreement between the union tops and Royal Mail’s management came after eight days of official strikes starting in late June and amid a spreading wave of unofficial – and so ‘illegal’ – action that had halted all mail on Merseyside and wide swathes of London. Hours before the announcement of an agreement Royal Mail had applied for and obtained a High Court injunction against official strikes going ahead the following week.

From the outset of the dispute the key figures in the union’s leadership had shown little appetite for a fight, with Billy Hayes apparently investing hope in a Gordon Brown premiership as a source of relief. In mid-August the leadership suspended action for a six-week period in exchange for renewed negotiations that yielded little that was new. The High Court injunction appeared to offer a way out.

While the eventual pay offer was a slight improvement on the pay freeze Royal Mail bosses originally demanded, the total package still amounts to only 5.4 percent over two years from October 2007 – in short a real pay cut – and with any further increases tied to ever more ‘flexible’ working patterns. Under the agreement, nine-hour shifts on Fridays could become the norm.

In most every other key respect, the Hayes/Ward leadership made major concessions to the company, while in the process abandoning long-standing CWU positions such as the 35-hour week. The implementation of this deal will do nothing to stop the threat of 40,000 jobs losses in the service. There is no prospect of blocking the closure of several mail centres. Coventry’s centre is under immediate threat of closure and sell-off.

Likewise, the deal was silent about the fate of CWU activists who were suspended by Royal Mail management during the course of the dispute. Even before the deal went to the membership for a vote Royal Mail had terminated Sunday postal collections.

One element of the agreement, which the CWU leadership had claimed was a question for another ballot, was the pension scheme. Both Royal Mail bosses and the TUC’s general secretary, Brendan Barber, have insisted that the pensions issue was inextricably linked to the rest of the deal. The likely effect of ratification will be to sanction an increase in the retirement age from 60 to 65 years with a reduction in the average payout.

Fortunately, the deal provoked widespread and, to an unprecedented extent, organised opposition, reflected to some degree in the rejection of the deal by well over a third of the membership despite a hard sales pitch from CWU HQ. Some 35 branch committees across the country recommended rejection of the deal in the wake of a leaflet issued by two long-standing activists, Dave Chapple from Bristol and Pete Firmin from London West End Amal branch, and adopted by the second of two hastily organised weekend meetings. Still more branches might have rebelled against the leadership’s recommendation, but for the enduring personal loyalty in the London district of the union to Dave Ward.

Conspicuous by her absence from the ‘no’ vote campaign was union president and prominent SWP member, Jane Loftus. While she voted against the deal at the postal executive, she declined to join with two other executive members in asserting the right to publicly oppose the agreement and did not even disclose her own position on the deal at the 17 November delegates’ conference of the SWP-backed version of Respect.

In sharp contrast, SWP members among rank and file CWU militants have been to the fore in campaigning against the deal. Once more, as in the case of SWP PCS executive members voting for a 2005 deal increased the pensionable age for new employees in the Civil Service, it poses sharp questions about the accountability of SWP trade union tops. In Royal Mail the retention of a bureaucratic title seems to have become more important than mounting the strongest possible resistance to a deal that could well pave the way to the eventual privatisation of the whole operation.

Meanwhile, in an encouraging development, key figures in the campaign for rejection have called for a further meeting in central London on Sunday afternoon 2 December (at the Lucas Arms, Gray’s Inn Road, London WC1, tube: King’s Cross) to assess the state of play after the ballot result and to lay the basis for a more durable national network of rank and file activists. This will be essential in backing any unofficial action over the coming weeks and months and could be the starting point for a serious challenge to a leadership that has proved itself to be anything but an ‘awkward squad’ in recent months.

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