Comments on the recent summer postal strike - by a striker, 2007

A postman looks at recent developments and future implications in the recently suspended strike.

Submitted by Red Marriott on August 17, 2007

Why was the strike called off?
The obvious answer is that the union called the strikes off because Royal Mail (RM) was willing to negotiate. Dave Ward publicly offered for the union that if RM would enter "meaningful" negotiations they were willing to call off the pending action.

A commentator wrote "It does not take a genius to realise that an astute management could easily use this[offer] as a device to drag everything out, demobilising members over a period.", going on to say that by emphasising negotiations rather than calling on RM to withdraw its proposals for a massive change in postal workers terms and conditions - which is what the dispute is about - Ward was already signalling that the union would compromise.

There is no doubt the union is ready to compromise. The union role is doing deals, it is now back at the negotiating table where it wants to be and where the membership wants it to secure a favourable settlement.

At the same time, when the strike was suspended, a lot of posties were angry: the attitude expressed again and again on the Royalmailchat forum was, 'We had them on the ropes why give them a break?' and why couldn't the union negotiate from a position of strength? But other posties are more accepting, one said: ‘Neither side could negotiate under duress.’ The practice of the union suspending strike action - with management also agreeing to suspend executive action - for negotiations is pretty normal in industrial relations. But it doesn't have to be: the 2003 strike was settled under the duress of the unofficial action, and I have seen official railway and tube strikes be negotiated at the same time as on-going strike action.

So why did the union make its offer?
Presumably in the face of RM’s apparent stubbornness, the union wanted to appear reasonable: ‘We are willing to negotiate, so should RM be’. Perhaps also as a nod to having public opinion onside. (Yet a greater emphasis on the proposed closures of local post offices is something the union has not exploited as much as it could in this respect.)

Moreover the weakness which Ward showed in making the offer had a genuine basis. We should remember the feeling after the first two one day strikes: RM were playing hardball - they appeared unmoved, the workers were concerned the action wasn’t working, the union were desperate to get into negotiations. There was a feeling that we were having no impact and had to escalate to make RM take notice. In the staggered actions the union discovered a very effective weapon. This escalation at no extra cost to our pay was more effective than either side was prepared for. Thus one might say that when the union made its offer of suspension of Industrial Action in return for talks, the strike felt weak and most workers wouldn't have expressed a problem with the offer, now when the impact of the staggered action has given us the advantage we see cause to regret it. The union probably feels pleased enough with getting back to the table.

One can talk about mistakes in the union's strategy. One might say the union should not have said that it would suspend the strikes in return for talks. One could also say that in the attempt to win the strike vote they shouldn’t have said, as they did, that in the event of a yes vote they would not call us out on indefinite all-out strike. Why declare your hand like this? The trouble with seeing these as ‘errors’ is that it imagines oneself in the position of the union leadership - but to have got into the position of union leadership one would have to see doing deals as what its all about, one would have to make compromises and play the necessary political games, including bringing together more and less militant areas. Thus the reality would be that one would be more or less the same as the leaders that are there. The process you have to go through to get to leadership more or less guarantees it.

Union strategy v workers interests
The strength and sense of possibility posties were starting to feel in actually striking has been somewhat deflated by the suspension of the action. But the union sees it as natural that members have done their job - as strikers - and they are now doing their job - as negotiators.

Yet the first national official strike in a decade had us mobilised, in the staggered strike action we had found an effective weapon and RM didn't seem to know what to do. The unofficial strikes that broke out showed we had more in reserve. One could feel that we could have pushed home our advantage and really knocked RM and the government back. Yet whatever the anger at going back when we felt strong, however many grumbled 'sell out', we had been called out by the union and we went back when the union asked us to.

There is an argument that the union could probably have got a better deal if it had not got itself into a position where it felt it had to suspend the strike action in return for negotiations. But the union wants to do a deal - similarly, workers in general perceive a need for a deal be done. The resolute attitude that some express of 'don’t give 'them an inch' is probably not typical; some posties, some offices and areas are less hardcore/resolute than others.

The bosses' strategy
There is the possibility that RM are just playing for time, while they prepare to go back on the offensive or even have a distinct plan for this already in mind. However the union has been assured these will be ‘meaningful’ negotiations and though RM could be completely lying that is probably unlikely. Another interpretation of the events is that RM was too optimistic about what it could get away with. It adopted a business plan that called for rapid painful change for the employees and thought it could force it through. RM, like the union, perceived that the workforce would not be up for an all-out stoppage. If there was a strike they thought they could weather it. They were on record as saying they thought the strike would weaken after the first few days of action. It didn't. RM underestimated the strength of support there would be for the strike. Also it seems the staggered strike strategy wrongfooted them. It made unworkable their chosen strategy. They appear so rattled from the effectiveness of the strike that they have backed down from the hardball approach and are now back to the necessity of doing a deal.

So probably with a level of consultation with the government it is likely that RM will settle for something less than they previously thought possible and necessary. It's also likely the government is worried about the encouragement a long-running solid postal strike will give to other approaching public sector actions over below inflation wage offers. Add to that the possibility of a snap election being planned before Christmas and the undesirability of strikes ongoing during election campaigning - and we can see why PM Brown may have now ordered Leighton and Crozier back to the negotiating table.

Tactical choices/future developments
Some sort of deal is a likely outcome. Yet there is a clash. The government has created an environment with competition and the Postcomm regulator that tries to force a level of restructuring that the union right now - with the effectiveness of this strike behind it - probably won’t agree to. The union will probably not feel able to convincingly deliver and sell to posties anything the workers would consider a really bad deal. So if the government and RM remain determined to to push harder than the union and workers will accept, then there could be a return to strike action. To those of us excited by the strike this is obviously attractive as it opens the situation up again.

But the point is the government/RM can retreat. Even if they are seen to be defeated this time they will come back in 6 months or a year. (Probably even if they are going to retreat they will not want it too obvious.) Also the governmentt, while perhaps willing to have the restructuring delayed, will not want too much conceded on the pay offer because of the example it would give the rest of the public sector. Unfortunately the signs are the union’s main focus is resisting the business plan and it won’t push too hard on pay.

Good and bad deals
The government and RM want to restructure the post office. They want fewer postmen doing more work with worse pay conditions, pensions etc. They also want to cut costs by reducing the service the post office offers to the public. That is to say; in the post office as across the economy, they want to increase the rate of exploitation. The union sees its role as defending and if possible improving its members pay and conditions. It does so by negotiating deals. This often involves delivering financial savings and structural change - i.e., it can include selling jobs on the basis of voluntary redundancy, and in return some of the savings that RM makes then go into pay improvements for the remaining workers. The kind of deal the union likes to do is to accept job losses due to machinery but to negotiate the conditions of its introduction. So it is willing to concede change in return for improvements in the remaining workers pay - but this clashes with RM’s line that posties are already overpaid.

Against RM's constant attempts to make the job worse and increase the rate of exploitation, workers have an interest in defending their current conditions that is the current level of exploitation. The union expresses this interest – i.e. it wants exploitation to continue but not to rapidly increase. If workers want to keep their jobs, they also have such an interest. Perhaps in favourable conditions workers can get deals which mean less exploitation - (more pay and less work) - but these seem rare in an environment that has been created to persuade workers that at best only a less harsh increase in exploitation is possible. In other industries it is the threat of global competition that has made workers get in line.

Part of the strength of posties - like railway workers - is that our jobs cannot be sent to China, nor does it make capitalist sense to set up competing national postal systems. The whole point of the government's introduction of competition in the post sector, through arrangements like RM delivering competitors' mail 'the last mile', has been to artificially create a competitive environment.

Workers are supposed to accept attacks on them by RM because otherwise their work will go to other companies. The feeling this creates for us is of having to fight just to keep things where they are or even just to slow down the employer and the outside forces trying to break us.

Yet as this strike has shown we are a tough nut for them to crack. But if - for the moment - they ease up on in their plans for a complete restructuring of the postal service, they will for sure soon return to this goal at a more favourable time.

How can we judge the deal that sooner or later the union will do? From my point of view and perhaps that of others excited by the strike, I don't want to give anything to RM thus any deal will be likely to be bad. But against the cries of 'sell out', another point of view expressed on Royalmailchat was that: ‘there will have to be a bit of give and take on both sides? That is NEGOTIATION! not imposition! which is what HE [RM chairman Leighton ] wanted.’ - and this view will probably prevail.

Royal Mail appeared to want to force through its changes unilateraly. The union could not accept its marginalisation. Now we have forced RM to negotiate. Yet what really matters to us is our working conditions. If posties judge that the union is recommending a bad deal, one should try to get it rejected (Royalmailchat will be a useful forum for posties discussing this).

If a bad deal is agreed by Ward - that is to say a deal that workers won’t stand for even if they reluctantly vote to accept it - then as RM try to implement the deal and managers start imposing the new working conditions this could provoke unofficial strikes and action.

There are two related issues on the negotiating table - protecting the union's role as mediators and protecting our conditions as workers. The union is likely to fight harder to defend the former than the latter. Nevertheless for the union, a bad deal for workers is risky; it threatens membership levels and credibility. At the same time workers can see that their conditions will only get worse if the particular union form at the post office is undermined.

The perception that one started the strike with was that the postal workers (including the union form they have created) is an obstacle for RM/the government/capital. At the moment we can say that they certainly have not overcome that obstacle. So whether or not a deal gets done now, the situation is set for future conflict.