The postal workers' fight against the latest attack on their jobs, conditions and pensions is not over yet, even if workers are at present being balloted over an "agreement" made between the union leaders and Royal Mail.
This year, between June and October, they took their first official national strike action for 11 years, in a series of 24-hour and 48-hour strikes. But when the official strike was finally called off by the union leadership on 15 October, it was amid a wave of unofficial action, which had developed outside of the union leadership's control and which was sparked mainly by Royal Mail's "premature" implementation of new working conditions, the subject of the dispute in the first place.
Predictably, the deal stitched up behind closed doors and after much delay, is a sell-out by the union leadership. In the meantime, they have mostly managed to put a stop to the unofficial strike wave, even if spontaneous walkouts will continue to flare up over day-to-day issues no matter what union HQ says or does. This ever-present militancy on the ground will inevitably make it difficult for Royal Mail to implement its plans against the postal workers. Whether it could provide the basis for an effective fight back to reverse the current attacks, and if so, how, remains an open question.
The privatisation agenda
Of course, the main underlying issue which has been looming larger and larger over postal workers' heads for years - as well as over the heads of all those who use the mail service - is the governments' drive to privatise it.
This drive began in earnest under the Labour government after 1997, but it has been the more commercial parts of the service which have been affected first and most radically - like business post, as well as the Post Offices, large and small.
The fact that Blair appointed a former chief executive of Asda (now Wal Mart-UK), Alan Leighton, to the board of Royal Mail in 2001 and then made him chairman the following year, was not just a symbolic gesture addressed to big business. It was also a clear indication of the fact that Labour was determined to turn the postal service into a lean and, above all, profitable service, able to satisfy the greed of City investors.
Predictably, every argument about the need to "adjust to modernisation" and the "threat of competition" in a deregulated world has been used in an attempt to convince postal workers that they should give in to Royal Mail's job-cutting and condition-cutting frenzy.
However, despite all the talk about electronic mail and private mail carriers, 30 years after the introduction of e-mail and 6 years after postal deregulation for parcels (letters were deregulated in 2006), Royal mail still handles over 99% of a still growing volume of letter post (even if a lot of it is junk, which is another big bone of contention for the workforce). It also delivers the vast majority of its competitors' mail and packets (the "final mile), because of the unique network which has been developed over 167 years - since the introduction in 1840 of Rowland Hill's new "penny post"!
Even if it has suffered severe cutbacks in the last 10 years, the Royal Mail Letters division - that is the main part of the service including sorting, collection and deliveries of letters and packets - has retained a workforce which is very substantial - 170,000 according to RM's 2006 figures - and, therefore, potentially powerful.
Indeed, these operations are still very labour intensive - unlike most of the rest of Europe. There is an obvious political reason, because cutting the service and the workforce too abruptly could be damaging for Labour in electoral terms. But there are also more "practical" reasons. Like the incredible incompetence displayed by Royal Mail bosses in their efforts to automate the operations so far, which has led to huge financial losses and long delays in implementation. That said, the bosses' failure to cut as many jobs as they would have liked, is to a significant extent, due to postal workers' resistance.
It is not for lack of trying that government ministers and RM bosses have had such poor results. They have tried all the tricks in the book, to get postal workers to go along with their plans. For over a decade, for instance, job cuts have always been tied by Royal Mail to workers' annual pay rises.
Under Leighton, who thinks everything in this world can be bought and sold, a system of "rewarding" workers with a share in the "cost savings" achieved via job cuts, has become the norm. But even these so-called efficiency and productivity bonuses - bribes to sell jobs - have not delivered the level of cuts that the government hoped for.
The past record of the CWU leadership
It must be said that the difficulties experienced by ministers in trimming down the postal workforce, have certainly not been due to the fierce opposition of the CWU leaders - quite the opposite!
In today's context, this may go some way towards explaining the present frame of mind of the workforce. Because it was partly the conduct of the union leadership 11 years ago, during the fight against the "Employee Agenda" and the betrayals which followed during the "Way Forward" negotiations, which led many postal workers to doubt that an effective fight back can come out of any "official" initiative, even if the faces at the top of the union have changed since then.
For starters, the CWU leadership went along with the government's pre-privatisation fragmentation of the Post Office - the purpose of which, at least in part, was all the better to divide and rule. So, the present day "Royal Mail Group" has come to operate as a series of distinct businesses, each with its own structures and budgets - even if they are all still wholly government-owned or at least 51%-owned, as in the case of Romec Facilities Management (cleaning and engineering) and Quadrant Catering. The exception is the 14,200 post offices of which 97% are today privately owned franchises, under the control of Post Office Limited (POL). The remaining "Crown Post Offices", which are still government-owned are also soon due to be franchised, 70 of them to WH Smith.
So today, postal workers are split up according to which division of "Royal Mail Group" they work for, even if they work in the same office and in closely linked jobs. The biggest workers' battalion, which comprises 80% of the total workforce, is to be found in Royal Mail Letters. There are 4,103 workers in Parcelforce, 10,760 in Post Office Limited (Counters) and 4,800 in Romec and Quadrant. And the pay and conditions of each of these sections is negotiated by CWU leaders, but each in splendid isolation from the other!
That this should be the bosses' intention is understandable, but that the CWU leaders should have gone along with it, is an illustration of how far they are prepared to stoop, in order to be good pals with the top bosses and government ministers!
The implications of accepting this sectionalisation of the workforce leads to some very absurd situations in the event of disputes, however. For instance, during this year's Royal Mail strikes, counter workers from the few remaining Crown Post Offices were staging their own separate half-day strikes over pay. And when one of these half-day strikes coincided with the first 24-hour Royal Mail strike, no connection was made between these "two" strikes, despite the fact that the workers involved all face the same employer, have many of the same issues and are represented by very same union!
Having accepted the fragmentation of the workforce, the CWU leadership has also conceded to the government's demands on productivity and efficiency - i.e. on job cuts - every year since 1996. These demands escalated dramatically in 2001, after a three-year plan was announced to put the Post Office (called "Consignia" at the time) back into profit. This plan included 30,000 job cuts, to be born mainly by workers in deliveries and mail sorting. The union leadership signed up to it.
Meanwhile, workers were expected to stretch themselves over tasks which were formerly done by several of them. The "reward" for accepting the cuts was a few pennies here and there in bonuses and productivity deals. As if a bit more cash on a pay cheque - even if it was a significant amount, which it never was - could make up for the potential damage to health, life and limb!
Yet this is the crude assumption which has dominated the CWU leadership's dispute-handling strategy over the past years.
A flash-back to 2003
From the point of view of the present dispute, the events of 2003 have a certain importance, because of the way in which the CWU failed to organise the resistance they had promised against the abolition of the second daily delivery.
At the time, Royal Mail was attempting - and sometimes succeeding - in implementing changes, without the traditional "by your leave", to the union bureaucracy. As a result the CWU leadership felt they needed to prove to Royal Mail's executives that their help would be indispensable to force RM's agenda down the throats of the workforce.
With the single daily delivery looming and even more job cuts, the CWU leadership recommended a vote against the 2003 pay deal. But they presented this ballot over pay as a vote of confidence in the union.
From bitter experience, however, many workers had no confidence in the leadership's capacity or will to lead a fight - not over pay, nor the second delivery. But neither did they have very much confidence in themselves. What is more they smelled a stitch-up over the second daily delivery which the leadership was now saying would be dealt with in a separate ballot, for delivery workers only. The vote went against the union leadership's recommendation and for the pay deal.
This was the background to the 2003 unofficial strike - when workers just took matters into their own hands after managers tried to go ahead and implement the changes in the job which came with switching to one daily delivery. One strike lead to another, and kept spreading for a two full weeks (some offices were out even longer) before the leadership of the union managed to take control and get workers to go back. In the end, the workers had made a demonstration of their own strength, but they did not find a way to use it to make any real gains. This did not, however, prevent union leaders from hailing the outcome of the unofficial dispute as their victory, which, they said, had forced Royal Mail to "respect" the union. Maybe, maybe not, but this was not what the workers had been striking for!
Nor had workers gone on strike to see their union reps help organise the end of the second delivery and the resulting job cuts during the subsequent period! Yet this was exactly what happened next.
The stakes this time round
Not surprisingly, almost 4 years have followed, during which the workforce has not felt confident enough to act against the bosses in any co-ordinated way. Partly at least, this is because of a generally felt suspicion towards the CWU leaders. It is important to stress, however, that this general mood has never prevented workers and the local union reps from taking on managers on a day-to-day basis, by spontaneous strike action - just walking out - whenever and wherever needed.
Last year, because of the scale of unofficial strikes taking place at the time of the annual pay talks, it might, for once, have been possible for the union leadership to achieve something. But they not only squandered an opportunity, but betrayed the membership yet again. Unsurprisingly, RM demanded totally secret pay talks and the cessation of all strike action locally, as well as a moratorium on all disputes for the duration of the talks. Yet if RM bosses wanted such conditions for the pay negotiations, it was probably an indication of how worried they were about the prevailing situation. This surely meant the CWU officials were potentially in a strong position. Besides, any union worth its salt would have told RM to jump in the lake, on the basis that agreeing to tie the hands of its members and act behind their backs was a dereliction of its duty.
Not the CWU, however. Instead, its leadership proudly proclaimed that in exchange for a "no-strike deal", Royal Mail bosses had agreed not to down-grade full-time jobs to part-time jobs - that is, for the duration of the talks! Of course, Royal Mail proceeded to revert to doing this straight afterwards - and in fact today there are few, if any, new jobs being advertised for more than 30 hours a week.
So, what is at stake in this year's dispute? Obviously, Royal Mail intends to continue its privatisation drive - under the guise of "modernisation". Adam Crozier, the chief executive responsible for RM's Letters Division, made sure he was heard early on in the dispute decrying 90 or so "Spanish practices" which he said had to be eradicated from the workforce, for RM to become "competitive" compared to its rivals. These "rivals" are the private postal companies which, according to Crozier, pay their more productive workers much less! And by the way, the insult (or compliment?) to the Spanish workers is a reference to established "old" ways of working like "job and finish".
Royal Mails intention is to implement new ways of working. This includes flexibility of the length of the working day and annualisation of working hours, as well as flexibility of job functions - with the obvious aim of cutting the number of workers yet further, while increasing the amount of work each worker does, in fewer hours, at much lower cost.
Then there is the vital issue of pensions: postal workers' occupational pension scheme is one of the few large final salary schemes left - and one which still allows workers to retire at 60 years, on a full pension. The government wants to close this scheme, replace it with a less favourable one for new entrants and increase workers' retirement age to 65 - just as it has done in the civil service and NHS. Royal Mail has been using the usual excuse - a huge deficit in the fund (latest estimate £6.5bn), even if this is probably petty cash, compared to the savings made by successive past governments during their 17-year long pension contribution holiday!
This year's dispute started a while before the actual negotiations began in March this year. Already before Christmas, workers in some Mail Centres had been sent letters offering either early retirement, voluntary redundancy, or a buy-down from full time to part-time working. The closure of the pension scheme to new starters had also been talked about already. But more importantly, start and finish times were already being changed in some delivery offices - and Royal mail bosses stated that they wanted flexible start times in place by April!
In Manvers, South Yorkshire, delivery office workers had already had to go out on unofficial strike in mid-January, to prevent the local manager from cutting the night shift completely and taking an hour from the Tuesday shift and adding it to the busier Thursday or Friday shifts. Workers held a rally and march in their town to protest. In the end, the changes were suspended, on the grounds that nothing had (yet) been sanctioned by the union.
At the end of March, both Royal Mail and the CWU leadership had made their preliminary announcements as a prelude to pay negotiations - and already almost all of the concessions which RM was going to demand, were out in the open. These included the "reforms" concerning pensions (although a "consultation" over this issue actually began separately on April Fool's Day), a reduction in wage costs (based on RM's claim that workers are paid 20-28% more than TNT, UK Mail and UPS workers) and flexible start and finish times.
Again Royal Mail insisted, and the union agreed, that its "strategic" plan should be kept secret, as well as the details of the talks, ludicrously citing "commercial confidence". But this time, despite the fact that the union offered a "no-strike" deal during talks, RM actually turned it down!
However, it was not long before Royal Mail's "first offer" was revealed by the union leadership - but only in summary form. They said they did not need to publish the details of the "strings" since they were not accepting them. In fact, this offer was so outrageous that some workers even assumed the bosses were being deliberately provocative!
A 0% rise in the hourly rate, was proposed, in other words a de facto pay cut! This was to be "ameliorated" by the payment of £250/£550 lump sums, if the union agreed to £350m worth of cuts and a range of new flexible working practices, in the run up to automation. The final salary pension scheme was to be closed to new members and retirement age increased to 65 for all active members by 2010. The details of the pension changes would be consulted over for the required 60 days starting in October.
In the event, RM was probably not trying to be provocative. It had no real reason to think the union leadership would not eventually swallow a bad offer, after making the usual empty remonstrations, on the basis of its past record. It probably had every intention of offering an increase in pay, just as long as the flexibility (and therefore job cuts) could be achieved. As for pensions, it was intending to push postal workers as far as possible into line with other public sector workers.
The bureaucracy's quandary
CWU leaders reacted by issuing a leaflet complaining about how they had been "betrayed" by RM bosses. To give a taste of the language which the union leaders use these days, we will quote part of it here (it began "dear colleague"):
"Last year CWU and Royal Mail agreed a joint commitment on how we would deal with change and the new competitive environment. This was based on an intelligent approach underpinned by the following objectives:
- Growing the business and developing new products and services responsive to the customer
- Modernising the company by working with the union and negotiating change in a way that is acceptable to you
- Focusing on higher basic pay and raising the value and status of your job
- Job security and safeguarding your pension
Suddenly Royal Mail has abandoned our agreed approach and have been panicked into a cost-cutting frenzy in every workplace. Royal Mail are now displaying a defeatist attitude towards competition. The union will continue to reject Royal Mail's short-sighted policies and insist that the company returns to our jointly agreed strategy for dealing with pay and the future.
In the meantime it is crucial that you support your Branch/local reps by not agreeing to any changes until a National Agreement has been reached. Our priority is to reach an agreement - but we are left with no alternative other than to also prepare for a National Industrial Action Ballot."
Obviously the CWU leaders have forgotten the days when they used to argue that RM should be a non-profit-making, public, service. Today, the only game in town for the union leaders is partnership with the bosses and helping to "fight the competition"! This piece quoted above also, however, sets out the union bureaucracy's quandary. Because the usefulness of the union bureaucracy lies exclusively in its ability to sell bad deals to the workforce and control the consequent reaction, thus preventing strikes and disruption. The bosses are not looking for partners for any other reason, and if need be, would even prefer to do without them! That said, with a deal as rotten as the one offered this year, they knew they would need the CWU leaders to force it down the workforce's throats. And by deliberately overbidding, they were also giving the CWU negotiators the opportunity of winning back the confidence of the membership by showing they could achieve some concessions.
The last straw
A union "campaign" was immediately started against the pay deal and the strings. By the 1 May, Royal Mail had pulled a new offer out of its hat, while scolding the union leaders for revealing the secret details of the first one. This time it would give a 2.5% pay rise and a £600 lump sum, but all the strings remained attached. By 10 May this had been formally rejected by the union executive committee and a strike ballot was prepared. The results, announced on 7 June during the CWU annual delegate conference registered a 77.5% "yes" vote for strike with a respectable turnout for a postal ballot of around 66%. Three weeks later, on the 29 June, the first 24 hour strike was held.
It was rock-solid and for good reason. For postal workers, this pay offer along with flexibility and pension strings was seen as the final straw. Especially given all the radical changes, the job cuts, the cuts in the service and downgrading of the job to part-time which everyone has been enduring over the past 6 years.
Although the workforce has lost a whole layer of senior activists to RM jobs axe, and quite a few of today's workforce had never been on strike before, the general perception was that this was the last opportunity, while their forces were still more or less intact, to push the bosses back.
Add to that the context of a pensions "crisis" for workers and job insecurity - and it is not surprising that so many workers were determined to take up this fight. But this change in mood was not because of a sudden perception that the union leadership had become less servile. It was because they felt there was no other choice.
Right from the word go, however, there were misgivings over taking one-day strikes. Many felt it was much better to go "all out" right from the start - and for as long as it takes.
There were also questions asked by Romec and Quadrant workers about why they were not included in the action - as if it would not have been possible to include them - even officially if need be. Instead, they were told by their own CWU officials to cross the picket lines - even if some local reps took it on themselves to promise to support them if they refused.
Trying to find a way back into RM's fold
From the start of the CWU leaders' reluctant 24 hour strikes, they called on RM bosses to come back to the negotiating table - and gave 7 day strike-free periods in between the first three 24 hour walk-outs to encourage this, to no real avail.
By the end of July, since their conciliatory noises were still not being heeded, a 2- week programme of escalating action was launched - rolling strikes - where sections took action in turns, with the idea of causing maximum disruption to the post, at minimum cost to the strikers.
But what did it cause? Actually it resulted in a whole wave of unofficial strikes! At one point these disrupted almost the whole of Scotland's postal service. For instance in one case during the "rolling" action, drivers, who were not on strike had refused to cross airport-workers' picket lines - and when they returned to their own office, they were suspended by their managers, thus causing their office to walk out and a knock-on effect all over the area. This was a typical example of what happened up and down the country - and it is certain that it was not the intention of the union leaders!
By early August, CWU leaders were proposing to re-open negotiations, by way of secret talks prefaced by a "joint statement" with RM. Royal Mail waited until the 9th August to accept, probably "helped" at this point, precisely, by the wildcat strikes.
The Joint Statement stipulated that talks were to take place in confidence, unless mutually agreed that there should be a briefing; that RM would stop implementing its changes by "executive action" and that the CWU would suspend industrial action; and that the TUC and the industrial conciliation service ACAS would preside. Both sides would commit to an agreement by 4 September.
By then, workers had taken, at most, 4 days of official strike action each (although some had taken a lot more action, but unofficially) - which was 4 days out of 49 days since a strike situation was declared.
By the 9th September, a framework agreement was on the table, but workers were not yet allowed to see it. As talks apparently went on, RM managers continued to go ahead with implementing proposed changes to starting times, shifts, collections, etc., wherever they could get away with it.
By the 20 September, after 5 weeks of talks, the union negotiators decided that they were unlikely to produce the kind of agreement which they could sell to the membership. The talks were stopped.
The CWU London Division issued a letter to members entitled "A Price Not Worth Paying" which explained that the current negotiations had failed because of the unacceptable changes required by RM - this offer was "a million miles away from being acceptable", it said. On 25 September, the leadership announced it was calling more strikes. This time there would be two 48 hour strikes involving all the Letters workers together - but if that didn't frighten RM, then there would be a programme of "rolling action" again "until the resolution of the dispute". They added that specific delivery units could take 2 hour strikes at the end of the day if they had been forced to start later.
The union also published the details of the 9 September framework agreement plus its own alternative solution.
This included a request for RM to withdraw the pension proposals and decouple any negotiations over pensions from the pay offer. In fact pensions is a group-wide issue - affecting Counters, Romec, Quadrant and Parcelforce workers, as well as managers. And of course these sections have their own separate pay and conditions deals, so nothing definite could be decided on pensions anyway, without the co-ordinated cross-group consultations already planned for October.
The CWU also asked RM to stop implementing its "unworkable flexibility proposals" by "executive action" and suggested to renegotiate a few other issues. In exchange, the union leaders would agree to a new pay package "funded from the savings from automation"! And a new productivity scheme - "the opportunity to make realistic savings locally ... that provides people with local incentives for all hours saved - not as RM propose - only those hours saved above the local budget. They also proposed that offices should negotiate locally over starting times - thus proposing the further isolation of each office. Indeed, Joint Working groups were envisaged to introduce the new ways of flexible working.
The wildcats scare them
The first 48-hour strike which began on Thursday 4 October was followed by a second on Monday the 8th, so that with the weekend in between, it seemed like 5 solid days of industrial action.
The union held a rally in London on the 8th, rather than a demonstration (they had cancelled a national demonstration planned for August, because talks had resumed). The main message from this event was that Gordon Brown should be intervening - against Royal Mail bosses - to "sort out the dispute"! Billy Hayes and Ward appeared - saying they would be going back into talks with RM that day and that they were actually very close to an agreement. Then later the same day, despite this, apparently the talks broke down.
Workers were supposed to go back to work on the 10 October, and 5 strike-free days were meant to follow. But it was not to be! Royal Mail had already given notice that new start times would be brought in on the 8 October, by "executive action". So when many workers went back to work after their 48-hour strike, they were met by managers who told them they were not on pay and that their starting times were now half an hour to one hour (or more), later.
So they walked straight back on strike again. The first wave of these wildcat walkouts included 21 delivery offices in Liverpool and the Copperas Hill sorting office, all of the east London delivery offices plus the big Bow sorting office, plus south London's Nine Elms office, delivery offices and distribution depots, all went straight back out on strike again. This time it was unofficial and they were in control of their strikes themselves. Workers in parts of Scotland, including Glasgow and Edinburgh - and later the following week in west Yorkshire also went on strike.
The biggest numbers of workers involved in these spontaneous wildcats were in Liverpool - at least 1,000, in east and south London - 2,000. But at least 60 offices around the country and over 5,000 workers were involved altogether in this unofficial action, and it was threatening to spread too, with large offices (like London's Mount Pleasant) discussing the possibility of taking "solidarity" action. Certainly this time Mount Pleasant managers did not dare to bring in mail from striking offices and a sorting office was opened temporarily in north London, where casuals were meant to be hired to sort the mail.
Obviously in a real panic, RM then suddenly decided on the Friday (12 October) to try to get a legal injunction against the official strikes called for the following Monday and Tuesday. The judge granted it, even though the basis for it was totally spurious and would not have stood up if challenged. The CWU leaders duly issued a notice calling off these strikes. But despite this, they went back into talks with RM that same Friday. And lo and behold, they pulled an agreement out of the hat before the sun had set!
This left the workers who were out on wildcat strikes potentially high and dry, because they could no longer expect to be joined on strike by the "official" strikers after the weekend, or at all, for that matter. They were being sent text messages by their officials telling them the strike was off, because a deal had been made, but... its content was secret! Since for them this affected what they decided to do next - stay out, spread the strike, or go back - it was all the more frustrating.
Anyway, now there was reason for further tension - because while nobody knew what was in the deal (except the high-ups on both sides), it had first to be ratified by the postal executive committee (PEC) of the CWU before being revealed and put to the vote. But they would only start looking at it the following Monday, after the weekend!
By the middle of the following week the rest of the official strikes still programmed for the end of the week (as they were not affected by the injunction) had been called off. Wildcat strikers were still out in Liverpool, but by the Wednesday they had voted to go back to work, after 9 days on unofficial strike - even as others were walking out in west Yorkshire.
It took the PEC until the next Friday to make any statement - when it said it had finally approved the agreement by 10 votes against 5. But before anyone was allowed to have any details, the deal would have to go back to RM and the union negotiators, including postal leader Dave Ward first! Then it would have to come back to the PEC again for ratification! What a run around and how contemptuous towards the workforce!
This mind-boggling bureaucratic prevarication by the leadership meant that it was not until Monday 22 October (10 days after the deal was struck) that the long-awaited content was allowed to reach the eyes of the workforce. This 2-year "Pay and Modernisation Agreement" was not worth the wait, of course, as previously explained. Of course, pay was increased - by an amount equal to official inflation - 5.4% over 2 years payable immediately (but nothing for the 2nd year) with an additional 1.5% conditional on the implementation of some of the changes.
RM also apparently came to its senses over the pensions issue which it removed ("decoupled") from this deal, although in its own statements it still claims to have achieved agreement in principle over the closure of the scheme to new entrants and a retirement age of 65 - from the RM Letters negotiators, at least.
As to flexibility changes and the cuts, the CWU writes: "from a starting point where Royal Mail clearly wanted a subservient workforce and a non-existent Trade Union, the company has now accepted that all further change will be negotiated nationally and locally with the union". Clearly, what matters for Ward is that the union machinery remains in control, jointly with managers, not that the workers take control of their own conditions!
Basically, what the agreement now says is that changes would be negotiated locally, there would be a separate deal on new automation, and joint working groups would have to negotiate on the other changes. In a way it is really putting off until later, the attacks on workers conditions and the cuts (that is, those which are not already implemented - like the end of Sunday collections). Which is a clear enough indication that RM bosses finally discovered, 7 months into the dispute, that they would not get what they wanted in the way that they wanted it! But it also means that local units and reps will be in the worst position to "negotiate" on flexibility, that is, on their own.
Nevertheless, while the union bureaucrats may choose to twist the gains of the workers' fight to their own ends, the concessions, small and vague as they may be, are clearly the result of the last wave of strikes - the two 48 hour official strikes, but especially the wildcat strikes which followed. It was this action which finally scared RM into its compromise - as the co-incidental timing of injunction and the agreement proves.
It also scared the government, it seems. John Hutton who is the minister responsible for the Royal Mail - as head of Brown's new Department of Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform (the old DTI), had to appear before the Trade and Industry Committee the same day that the deal was struck - to answer questions on the role of the government, as nominal shareholder on its behalf, in the dispute. Besides claiming that he could not have interfered, as shareholders have no business meddling in "management" affairs, he let something else slip! During a discussion on the impact of the strike, he commented: "Whether it is wise to put government offices in Liverpool, I am not quite sure, when you need a reliable postal service, but never mind: it is one of the more difficult areas for industrial relations in the Royal Mail Group." We can only add: and long may it remain so!
Of course, now the CWU leaders want the membership to vote "yes" for the agreement. Whether they will follow this advice remains to be seen. But it is not a "no" vote which will make the difference, but rather what workers decide to do with their hands and feet.
The workforce is not in such a bad position, should it decide (again!) to act. There are almost 200,000 workers in this still nationalised industry. And these 200,000 workers are in the unique position of being able to communicate with each other, if all else fails, via the post bags they collect, carry, tip, sort, and deliver.
So far, Royal Mail has not been able to implement the changes it wants - or it has only done so in isolated offices. Postal workers have a long tradition of making "agreements" un-implementable which, as evidenced by this dispute already, is a tradition which has not been lost! And certainly the capacity to fight outside of the control of the union leaders has not been lost.
What is missing is the confidence to do this consistently, to co-ordinate actions and to constitute ad hoc structures at local, district, regional and national levels, whereby workers can be brought together to decide what to do on a daily basis during periods such as the one they have just been through. But Liverpool workers and to a less extent, east and south London workers have already shown how easy it is to get started down this path.
Of course, on a larger scale, this may not be quite so simple. But it is not so difficult either. The more workers involved, the more abilities and talents there are to pool together. So we must hope that over the next weeks and months, postal workers will be able to carry on their fight - and this time, keep it in their own hands. And win.