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British postal workers take on privatization

October 19, 2007 | Page 6

ALESSANDRO TINONGA reports from Britain on an important labor battle.

MORE THAN 100,000 postal workers took part in two 48-hour strikes in early October, crippling Britain's Royal Mail service--and the confrontation continued with a wave of unofficial walkouts and plans for further action.

Leaders of the Communications Workers Union (CWU), which represents Britain's 130,000 postal workers, and Royal Mail officials announced late on October 12 that they had reached an agreement, and the CWU's executive committee was set to discuss it and make a recommendation before a membership vote.

But postal workers in some cities say they will continue strike action, no matter what the CWU leaders decide.

As negotiations took place last week, postal workers carried out unofficial action over some of the very work rules at stake in the contract. Walkouts in London, Glasgow, Liverpool and other major cities slowed the Royal Mail's recovery from the earlier national strikes that shut down the postal system altogether.

The walkouts are the culmination of a fightback against management's efforts to privatize services and break the power of the CWU.

Pay is one issue. Royal Mail officials were offering wage increases that wouldn't have kept pace with inflation, amounting to a pay cut, say workers.

Management also wants to close the pension plan to new workers, raise the retirement age from 60 to 65, and convert the calculation of pension benefits from a "final average salary" basis to "career average earnings." Royal Mail would net more than $3 billion in savings from this recalculation. The CWU says a 40-year-old postal worker with 20 years of service would lose roughly $120,000 in benefits under the proposal.

Another central issue is work rules. Royal Mail wants more "flexibility" in the workplace and has demanded a number of changes in work practices, from an end to Sunday mail collections to restrictions on overtime.

One proposed concession that workers are especially bitter about is changes in shift times. Traditionally, postal workers could start work before 6 a.m. and leave once their delivery rounds were complete. Management wants to force a later start time and require workers to remain for the full length of their shift.

"They decided to change start times of thousands of workers from next week, without any agreement with the union," said Gareth Eales, secretary of the Northamptonshire Amal CWU. "Those who have carefully arranged their child care and family lives around their shift patterns will find that their managers can destroy their plans at a stroke of the pen."

Management's attempt to impose the start time change--on the day after the two 48-hour national strikes, no less--provoked the wildcat walkouts last week.

At a delivery office in east London, when workers turned up for their normal start time of 5:15 a.m., they were told by management that they wouldn't be paid for any work they did before 6 a.m. The workers immediately walked out and spread their strike to other delivery and processing facilities in the area. By 8 a.m., 1,000 workers were on strike across east London. Walkouts proceeded along the same lines in other cities.

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ROYAL MAIL'S argument for demanding changes in benefits and work rules is the need for "total flexibility" to remain competitive on the world market.

Management is setting up plans for huge layoffs. Officials claim that Royal Mail is 40 percent overstaffed and that 40,000 jobs will be cut. That means forcing five workers to do the work that six do now.

Already, plans have been announced to close mail centers several mail centers, including in Oxford, one of the strongest union-organized facilities with a fierce reputation for standing up for its members and showing solidarity for other workers.

Oxford postal workers have consistently met industry targets set by the center's regulator and were told they were within "desired quality of service levels." Yet managers claim the center is being shut down because of deteriorating quality, low efficiency and high costs.

The closure is seen by many workers as a scare tactic to justify Royal Mail's demand for pay cuts and provoke a fight.

"This is the latest attempt to provoke unofficial action at Oxford," said Noel Fay of CWU South Central. "Royal Mail scare tactics are an integral part of its attempts to intimidate us. It believes that by isolating parts of the workforce, it can then ruin the national dispute and break the union."

The fight against privatization of the Royal Mail is also a struggle against the government, led by Britain's Labour Party.

Prime Minister Gordon Brown is the driving force behind recent attacks on public-sector workers. At a recent conference of the Trades Union Congress, Britain's main union federation, Brown told delegates that they must accept his pay increase limit for public-sector workers of 2 percent, which is below inflation.

Additionally, Royal Mail's top bosses, Allan Leighton and Adam Crozier, who have been bullying and harassing the CWU, are appointed by the Labour government.

Nevertheless, CWU General Secretary Billy Hayes continues to insist that the union needs to have a friendly partnership with the Labour government. Scores of CWU's rank and file disagree, and many are withdrawing money from political funds that are destined to go to the Labour Party. There are rumors that the future of the CWU's support for the party will be debated at the union's next annual conference.

It's still unclear whether the strikes at Royal Mail, official and wildcat, have turned back management's attack, but they are a clear expression of the deep frustration of workers with privatization and the Labour government. The outcome of this fight will shape the future of labor struggles throughout Britain.

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