Significance of the postal strike – a savage skirmish on the eve of a wider battle
24 February 2006
The conclusion of the Belfast postal workers strike was widely greeted on the left as a victory. It’s hard to see evidence of victory in the circumstances of the return to work.
· The workers demanded an enquiry into the victimisation and bullying they were experiencing. Management offered an enquiry into future industrial relations. The final agreement left the issue unclear.
· The enquiry agency is the Labour Relations Commission - typically made up of a single trade union representative and two bosses representatives, its hardly impartial.
· The workers had no sooner returned to work than the 'no victimisation' clause was torn up and there are calls for a further official strike.
So why the victory call? In part this is due to a left culture that is unable to recognise any other condition. Following the Irish Ferries defeat one left group elevated this Polyanna-like cheerfulness to policy, proclaiming that any hint of defeat would demoralise the workers.
However there is a more specific reason for the positive view of the left. The postal struggle may be not be a victory, but it was a battle. After decades of cosy deals between union bosses, employers and government, of surrender before the fight or half-hearted posturing, there is a certain exhilaration in seeing rank and file workers take centre stage and fight a bitter and determined struggle in defence of their rights.
What the Post office dispute was, was a skirmish. It was a sharp conflict at the forefront of an advancing battle. The workers have retreated, but they have retreated in good order and there is still time to learn the lessons of the skirmish, to tally our strengths and weaknesses and the strengths and weaknesses of the enemy and to prepare for the ferocious struggle that lies ahead.
What is the nature of the coming battle? Gordon Brown has spelt it out for workers in England and Peter Hain for the North. Public services are too expensive. There are too many public service workers. Their wages, conditions and pensions are too generous. This is to be corrected by new public service charges, by deregulation that will allow cutbacks, sackings and wage reductions and by the transfer to the private sector of large segments of public wealth through the selective privatisation of services. The workers have to be made to accept this, which means a culture of victimisation and bullying aimed to wipe out workers rights, combativity and any trade union structures that they might use in their own defence.
The great strength of the postal strike was that it was based on rank and file organisation. This gave it the verve and energy of grass-roots democratic organisation
However the overwhelming advantage of this form of organisation is that it largely counters much of the force of the bosses 'nuclear option' - The Industrial relations act.
It is often forgotten that early versions of anti union laws were targeted directly at workers - and were largely ineffective for that reason. The workers had little in the way of resources which could be seized and jailing them led to widespread solidarity action. The laws only really began to bite when they targeted the bureaucracy and the union resources they controlled. The union leaders gave in so quickly that no-one knows the extent of the laws – they have never been tested in full.
So when the post office threatened to hold workers and local officials personally responsible for the financial cost of the strike the threat was credible – however the defiance an growing solidarity badly wrongfooted the employers.
However the grassroots organisation had weaknesses. The workers were reacting directly to specific incidents, but to win the strike they needed to broaden and generalise to win the support of all postal workers and of public service workers generally. They needed to be able to control and direct the resources of their union and not just their own actions.
By themselves they were not able to demonstrate that the bullying was not just the actions of a few managers but a general management strategy or that the pressure driving the bullying were the forces of deregulation and privatisation trying to force more work for less and poorer conditions. They were not able to answer when the union leadership openly condemned them, when a fellow union slandered them and seemed to accept the excuses of local union officials that they could not openly support the strike.
Although it may not seem obvious, they need the beginnings of a working class policy – one that opposed bullying, saw it as a management policy linked to privatisation, was aware of the long-standing collaboration of union bosses and was willing to fight for democratic control of union resources and, faced with union officials sympathetically explaining that they weren’t able to openly support the strike, politely ask them to resign and make way for those who could see there way to openly fighting on the side of the workers.
This was very clearly illustrated by the mass rally. You had a rally that had no representative of the union involved on the platform and where NICTU was conspicuously absent. The rally fell into the old trap of seeing workers policy as some balancing act between Orange and Green – both Sinn Fein and the PUP were on the platform. Not surprisingly neither had anything to say about the working class and both advised a return to work. The presence of a NIPSA delegation was some faint hint on the possibility of solidarity but none of the unions called on their members to come out and there was no clarion call for a fight against privatisation that could have mobilised public workers in general and drawn in wider support.
We have had a skirmish. It is a skirmish in which the troops fought with determination and bravery but where all the union generals vanished from the battlefield. Some useful weapons were at hand but it takes time, reflection and a broader discussion before a full armoury can be assembled. Meanwhile the Post office have returned to the attack and the government it putting together a savage offensive across a number of fronts
As with all skirmishes its significance will only become clear when the broader battle is fought – but there is no way to avoid that broader battle,