Workers in the postal CWU union have smashed their reballot, forced on the union by the courts last year, with a 94.5% yes vote – only slightly below the last ballot’s 97.1%, and on a 63.4% turnout.  Once again, staff have overwhelmingly rejected Royal Mail’s plans to rip up the “Four Pillars” agreement with the CWU and restructure the business, threatening thousands of jobs and an array of attacks on terms, conditions and union rights. [1]

Wrong time to strike?

To the surprise of many, when CWU leaders Dave Ward and Terry Pullinger announced the ballot result to members on Facebook,[2] they said they would not set dates for a strike, explaining that “it’s not the right moment for us at this particular point to take industrial action”.  Since then Terry has said “we’ve got no choice in the matter”, citing the “unprecedented circumstances” of the coronavirus crisis. 

Instead they have publicly proposed to Royal Mail that the company and union jointly provide an “emergency service” to help deliver medicines and food bank parcels to those in isolation, as the only service with the ability to visit every address 6 days a week. A condition of this would be a “truce”, an agreement to cease executive action from Royal Mail and a commitment to talks to resolve the dispute. 

As Terry said, “If we don’t meet with the right response from Royal Mail, at least everyone will know it’s not because the union didn’t try to do the right thing but because it’s the employer that didn’t want to listen to us” and “will be judged in the court of public opinion”. If that happens, he pledges the dispute will be back on, and workers will need to hold him to this promise.

Emergency service or one-sided truce

Some staff will support this decision, feeling that workers can’t look selfish and worrying the public will not back a strike at this time. But others are angry at Royal Mail’s failure to deal with the corona crisis and support staff health and safety.

The proposal to become the “fourth emergency service” is a good one. Workers and the union feel strongly that they have a duty to the public to support anti-corona efforts, which will require mass testing and delivering aid to those in self-isolation. The postal network already delivers NHS test kits and samples for other conditions. But how would this work without government support, especially as the multinational giant Amazon announces it is also gearing up to supply these necessities? 

More immediately, Royal Mail won’t want a truce unless it is in their favour. They had already embarked on restructuring to hike efficiency and profits, and now they have the additional costs of the virus on top. With twice the costs to recoup, they will dig in against any reversal of their plans.  

Any proposal for a genuine truce requires a clear deadline and demands: reverse all executive action including Parcelforce, genuine support for staff health and safety, no loss of income, a genuine plan of social action that means no profiteering.  So far, possibly in hopes of not rocking the boat for a deal, the CWU officialdom has actually made few demands on the company publicly despite its bosses trying to make workers pay the cost of school closures or self-isolation.

There is a danger that even if the CWU’s offer fails, the leadership will hold back action for months in hopes that the crisis will abate, while Royal Mail press on with their plans. This could deflate workers’ anger and breed passivity. Parcelforce ballots already had a much lower turnout than other parts of the company, with one coming in barely above the anti-union laws’ 50% voting threshold and the other just below it and so inoperative. 

Self-defence is no offence

“We don’t ballot just to go on strike, we are balloting to raise the profile of what’s happening to Royal Mail and the fact that this great public service is under threat,” Terry argued in defence of the new strategy.

But public opinion didn’t stop privatisation despite huge unpopularity. Only strike action can stop a determined management backed by a Tory government. And given the escalating coronavirus crisis, without dramatic action the Royal Mail dispute will be way down the news agenda and public priorities.

Setting strike dates will prove to be the only way workers can defend themselves and defeat Royal Mail’s agenda. The resulting media outrage would actually give the union a chance to make its case and expose Royal Mail’s rejection of its truce, piling pressure on the company for the union’s demands including its call for an emergency service.  Most of Britain’s workers will understand the reasons for the strike, however the media companies and newsroom editors – who would never have supported striking posties even in the best of times – try to spin it.

To show it takes public health seriously, the CWU should pledge to provide emergency cover for NHS and medical items, sending in teams from the picket lines to go through the mail (without in any way helping sort or throw it in), remove these items and deliver them.

The union can point out how Royal Mail is taking the same line as the government – making workers pay for the crisis – and kickstart the TUC into an active campaign against this, e.g. for benefits at the average wage from day one of self-isolation or unemployment, creating the best conditions for solidarity with the dispute and winning public support.

Watch your leaders

It is right that the CWU has highlighted lofty social goals but the only way to create an emergency service worthy of the name, and the only way to overcome inevitable protests from Royal Mail about bankruptcy, is the solution no one wants to raise: renationalisation. Given the huge costs of containing the coronavirus crisis, the millionaire big shareholders shouldn’t get a penny in compensation. The only way to provide a quality fourth service is under workers control, to ensure no corners are cut and stop profiteering.

Workers should demand, as a minimum, that their union sets a deadline of no more than a week to achieve concrete commitments, then announces the date for a strike and starts an active campaign to build for it.

No doubt there are genuine worries that any move to strike could bring an injunction – but the truth is that even without the coronavirus, a court might well have struck down the strike on a flimsy excuse, and then what?  The CWU leadership has no plan B for injunctions, as shown twice last autumn. That requires rank and file organisation able to take unofficial action, something lacking so far in the dispute and which the leaders oppose[3].

At times like this, with the dispute in danger of being swallowed up by the crisis and bureaucratic inaction, an organised rank-and-file response is more important than ever. This is both so postal workers can defend their health and conditions on the shop floor and to watch their leaders to ensure that a truce doesn’t mean a rotten peace that gives Royal Mail bosses what they want.