The ballot result in the postal workers’ CWU union – which saw members voting to accept a deal to end the dispute with Royal Mail by 51,000 to 28,000 – has disappointed many union activists.
The deal, recommended by the CWU executive, accepts a below inflation pay rise and a host of changes to working practices, many of which are intended to be negotiated at a local level.
Despite its recommendation, only 41 percent of those balloted voted to accept – far fewer than the 66,000 who voted for a national strike earlier this year.
Many activists are questioning why the union’s leadership urged acceptance of such a poor deal, given that the rank and file of the union were solid in their support for continuing strike action.
One part of the answer is that many in senior positions in the CWU accept Royal Mail’s plea that the company is in dire straits financially – and that workers must make concessions if Royal Mail is to remain in business.
It is true that government decisions have forced Royal Mail to deliver its competitors’ mail at a financial loss to itself. And the company’s pension scheme remains underfunded to the tune of about £5 billion.
But the key reason for Royal Mail’s crisis is government policy. Postal workers did not sanction the business’s 17-year pensions “contribution holiday”, nor did they authorise the “liberalisation” of their industry.
The union should have mounted a serious political campaign to force the government to reverse these policies.
Many activists rightly argue that CWU general secretary Billy Hayes’s closeness to the Labour government helped prevent such a campaign from taking place.
As the postal workers’ strike developed, there was a real possibility of inflicting a major defeat on the government’s attempts to limit public sector pay rises.
As the stakes rose, Gordon Brown responded to a parliamentary question by telling strikers to “get back to work”. The CWU leadership – with one hand tied to Labour – found it hard to respond.
While proximity to Labour can explain why the CWU leadership did not sanction a campaign to challenge the government, it does not explain why some who are highly critical of the union’s link with Labour worked to get a yes vote in the ballot.
The London region is known for its industrial and political militancy, yet played an important role in gaining acceptance for the deal. Many London activists felt confident they could bat off any later attempts to erode conditions resulting from the deal.
In other parts of the country the problems for the “no” campaign were different.
According to Paul Moffat, the CWU’s Eastern region secretary, the lack of a clear alternative to the leadership position hampered attempts to reject the deal.
“In many regions there was a constant mantra of ‘there is no alternative’ – you’d hear good people repeating it at union meetings,” he told Socialist Worker.
“Nevertheless in the Eastern region we were able to defy that and get seven of our ten branches to recommend a no. We did that by spelling out clearly that, actually, there was an alternative.”
According to Paul, large votes against the deal could be won where there was strong local organisation making a confident call for rejection of the deal, a vigorous political campaign and the resumption of strike action in the run-up to Christmas.
The acceptance of the deal on pay and conditions has opened the way for a host of further attacks on postal workers. In particular, Royal Mail and the CWU are now discussing the future of the pension scheme.
The company wants to close the average salary scheme to new members, raise the retirement age to 65, increase employee contributions and reduce benefits.
Shamefully it appears that the union has largely accepted this. Last week the London region voted to endorse a document which accepts that winning the right to retain the existing pension scheme is “easy to say, but hard to win”, and that it is unlikely that union leaders would run a political campaign on a scale that would be successful.
The document concludes that the union must now consider a “Plan B” – fighting to ensure that Royal Mail’s proposed new scheme, based on career average earnings, is as good as possible.
This is an enormous concession. It accepts that the battle to defend the final salary scheme is almost certain to fail, and it takes the heat off the battle to ensure an effective political campaign.
This may find acceptance among some in the national and regional leaderships, but it is unlikely to be greeted with enthusiasm on the shop floor.
The prospect of doing a tough manual job until the age of 65 could mean that many postal workers will not live to enjoy much retirement.
The key task for union activists must now be building on the strength of the strikes in order to win opposition to attempts to derail the pensions fight. This requires strengthening rank and file organisation in the union.
Those who are angry about pensions need to see a viable alternative strategy to that put forward by the leadership.
And the union’s political fund must cease being a blank cheque for those in the government who are bent on attacking postal workers.
After the ballot, what is the way forward?
Open meeting for all CWU members. Speakers include John Farnan (pc)
Sunday 9 December, 2pm Exmouth Arms, 1 Starcross Street, London NW1