Whatever happened to the unions?
The following article was written by an active trade unionist, working-class militant and supporter of The Other Campaign.
I have been a postal worker since 1980 and have stood on every picket line during every strike we have been involved in.
All through the 1980s and 1990s the talk on picket lines (once the football was got out of the way) was how things would improve for the working class once a Labour Government replaced the Conservatives. Hadn’t our Trade Union General Secretaries Tom Jackson, Alan Tuffin and Alan Johnson repeatedly told us so in an endless stream of UPW/UCW/CWU literature?
There was quite a bit of hope in the air when the Labour Party won the 1997 General Election. After all, hadn’t we members of Trade Unions funded the victory? Surely the Labour Party would look after us?
Labour are now hoping for a fourth term in power and the workers paradise still hasn’t materialised.
Postal workers are as aware of this as any other workers. We’ve had Labour’s Peter Mandelson trying and failing to sell us off, Labour’s Allan Leighton running down services by making thousands of full-time jobs part-time and abolishing the second delivery and making the only delivery much later in the day, stopping Sunday collections, stopping morning collections from post boxes and, along with his accomplice Adam Crozier, allowing private firms to use Royal Mail staff to deliver their mail at a cost to the taxpayer and postal workers pension funds of at least two pence per item. None of these things could have happened without the blessing of the Labour Government. Why do the leadership of the CWU continue to fund the Labour Party? Why does Billy Hayes throw his toys out of his pram whenever someone suggests withholding donations to the Labour Party? “Arise Sir Billy”? Who knows?
The latest sell-out is the deal Royal Mail and their partners in the CWU want us to vote for. This includes even later start times, longer Saturday hours (but not for CWU leaders or Royal Mail bosses) no extra payment for unaddressed leaflets, which now stands at the magnificent sum of 1.67 pence per item (in 1980 it was 1 pence per item!) because the once guaranteed early start allowance has been used to fund the delivery of these unwanted and deeply unloved items of garbage through Britain’s letterboxes.
The deal goes much further than this. Royal Mail boast that the deal will help them push through change (and in Royal Mail, change is never progress) at a pace which suits them.
Just about everyone involved in the postal service, postmen, postwomen and customers agree that the service has gone to pot in the last five or six years. Just like public transport, education and the NHS in fact!
So the talk on many picket lines in 2007 and 2009 turned to how things could be improved for everyone concerned.
Right: CWU head bureaucrat Billy Hayes. Last year his salary was £97,647 - around five times the average salary of a postal worker.
Anyone who has worked for Royal Mail for any length of time can see how things could be improved. Royal Mail know this, and in the past, competitions were held to see who could come up with a more efficient way of doing the job. Anyone making a suggestion could win a biro! It was called ‘Brainwaves’ and it was a standing joke until Royal Mail pulled the plug on the thing!
Really, who should we make suggestions just so as some already overpaid office boy with the title of ‘manager’ can pocket another bonus? So we all stay nice and quiet and watch the them struggle and foam at the mouth as they try to bully staff into compliance. Of course the bullying often works! We have staff arriving for work half an hour early for no extra pay. We have staff using their own cars, for no extra petrol money while Royal Mail happily does away with van driving duties. But a growing number of staff refuse to play the Royal Mail game and carry out the job to the letter (literally!)
It can be different and it used to be different. Until quite recently, if a colleague had a wedding or a football match to get to one Saturday and could not get the day off, people would volunteer to help him or her with their delivery. They would take a street or two and deliver the mail so as their friend could get away early and not miss out on the big day. I’ve seen fans of the Reds help out fans of the Blues so as they would not miss an FA Cup tie. I’ve seen people take out part of a delivery so as someone could take their daughter to Alder Hey for an appointment. I’ve even seen a Jehovah’s Witness help a Baptist so as he could get to a friends funeral in Manchester
All this changed when the CWU called off the 2007 strikes, just as we Royal Mail on the ropes. For £400, (which was ours because we’d earned it!) Royal Mail and the CWU brought in ‘flexibility’. This now meant that anyone with a few minutes spare time on their hands would be forced to carry out deliveries to cover sick absence and annual leave.
Left: Unite joint general secretary Derek Simpson, the workers’ fat cat and stooge of the gutter press.
Needless to say, being forced to do something is completely different from volunteering. Even the British Army understand this! So, when the Bully Boy in charge patrols the office telling people they have time to get back and ‘cover’ a duty, that time evaporates! Instead of rushing through the job to help a mate, the job gets done by the book and the ‘manager’ ends up having to deliver the mail himself. There’s no happier sight these days than a ‘manager’ arriving back in a delivery office soaked to the skin and exhausted, his feet aching and with a pile of undelivered adverts which he couldn’t find the addresses for!
But here’s the difference! In one instance, we’re working for ourselves. We help each other because we’re happy to do so. We make each other a cup of tea. We give to collections to help those less fortunate. We tell strangers they have left their headlights on. We bring back wheelie bins for elderly neighbours. We lift prams off busses. It’s the most natural thing in the world to help others!
Most of us do these things with no thought of reward, but it would all become different if we were ordered and bullied to do them, but such is the nature of work under capitalism. Things which are necessary for life to function become a chore when, if society was based upon cooperation, they would become more pleasurable.
One of the main topics of conversation on picket lines and internet message boards was how much better the job could be run if there were no managers getting in the way. The old saying “Bosses need workers – workers don’t need bosses” is very true.
What is the function of trade union leaders in these disputes? The answer is to keep the present system running by entering into cozy deals with management. The 2007 Agreement which encouraged bullying and harassment by low level managers sowed the seeds of the 2009 dispute. With Christmas looming, the CWU bosses, not wishing to upset their friends in Government, called off the strikes.
It should be borne in mind that the national strikes of 2007 and 2009 were forced onto the CWU leadership by countless small, local disputes, mainly due to the policy of Royal Mail in giving local managers a free hand to re-write any agreements they had with the CWU and to use whatever bully-boy tactics they thought fit against staff.
Because the leaders of the CWU are so remote from the daily lives of the people they’re supposed to represent, it is only natural that they feel at home sitting around the table with top level managers. The massive salaries and expenses these Wimbledon based hacks receive for allegedly looking after the interests of the membership means they have very little in common with us. No wonder the propaganda about the latest deal from both managers and the CWU is so alike!
Left: A picket by members of the CNT-AIT, the Spanish anarcho-syndicalist trade union.
How much better it would be to have a union run along democratic lines, where representatives work alongside members and carry out the same job, had to stand for re-election on an annual basis and received the same pay levels. How much better it would be if there were no links between the union and any political party which only exist to ensure the vested interests of a political elite instead of the best interests of the members. A union based on solidarity, mutual aid and direct action has to be better than the farcical situation the TUC unions find themselves in which is to be flunkeys of the bosses.