Careful about criticising postal workers

Paul Donovan examines the issues behind the postal strike and warns if the railways are anything to

Does anyone remember postman Roger Annies, who rose to fame when he was suspended by Royal Mail for telling his customers how to avoid having junk mail delivered to their homes.

There was a great outcry in support of Annies, especially from some of those same newspapers who now condemn the Communication Workers Union for its refusal in the present dispute to accept worse terms and conditions for its members.

Parroting Royal Mail management they accuse the CWU of restrictive practices and standing in the way of progress toward more flexible working. This is ironic given that at the time of the Annies case, the CWU was busily pushing ahead, promoting the delivery of junk mail. It defended Annies against oppressive management methods but all the same argued the business case in the workplace for delivering junk mail.

The Annies/junk mail case illustrates how the union - in one of the few remaining nationalised industries - has been forced to not just defend its members' interests but also to promote the business in its present publically owned form.

RM management under Chairman Allan Leighton has effectively been stripping down the business over the past few years ready for private provision of the public service. The former ASDA chief's supine attitude toward liberalisation, offering very little resistance to the opening up by government regulator Postcom of the UK market a full three years before any other European country, did not suggest an unyielding belief in the merit of the publically run service.

The market was duly completely opened up in the UK at the start of 2006, encouraging new private sector companies to cherry pick the profitable business post while not picking up the universal service obligation - binding on RM - to deliver the loss making residential mail.

This further undermined the public service provider which previously had been able to subsidise the loss making residential side with the profits made on business mail. Leighton, Royal Mail Chief Executive Adam Crozier and the RM board have no interest in a publically owned, nationally run mail network.

The efforts of the board to introduce shares in Royal Mail for staff indicate that they would far rather the company were in the private sector.

The contradictions so obvious in the RM case crop up across the public sector where the unions are organised around nationally owned public sector industries. Public sector union Unison has been amongst the most vociferous defenders of the NHS as a publically owned and run service.

This contradictory position that the unions find themselves in can cause real problems in terms of their own organisation. As the major public services are privatised what do they do? Do they cling to the remnants of the public giant as it is destroyed in a death of a thousand cuts or do they accept the reality and recruit members in the new companies?

In the case of mail services, the unions face a dilemma as to how much energy they put into RM and how much they seek recognition with new competitors in the market like DHL, Business Post or TNT.

Another part of the communications sector provides a salutary lesson. When BT was nationalised back in the 1980s the unions put most of their efforts into securing the position with the major player in the market.

As a result the unions now have a good relationship with BT and workers there get representation and a better deal than most in the industry. However, in market terms BT has been dwarfed by other global telecoms operators like Vodafone.

This left the unions charged with taking their eye off the ball for putting less effort into organising in the new workplaces. The unions are now gradually catching up in this area but it has been a painful lesson. Essentially, the unions are stuck between a rock and a hard place.

They must represent members but are also wedded, due to practical and ideological factors, to the nationally owned publically run services. This at times forces them into a poacher turned gamekeeper role.

Unless there is a sudden turn around and return to the industrial relations architecture of the 1970s then unions will have to change their methods of approach. There will have to be a twin strategy. This will involve a more federal approach, seeking to get a foothold in as many different companies as possible operating in their sector while at the same time not giving up on the fruits offered by a declining monolithic public sector employer.

As for the present dispute, those amongst the public tempted to criticise the union's position would do well to remember it is one of the few voices left defending the tenents of a publically run accountable mail service.

If government gets its way the mail service will head down the same path as the railways with tax payers eventually being forced to cough up for private companies to run a worse more costly service - all in the name of neo-liberal dogma. A more progressive attitude toward the mail and other public services might be if it ain't broke don't fix it.

Paul Donovan writes weekly columns for the Irish Post and Catholic weekly the Universe. He also contributes to the Guardian’s Comment is Free site, Tribune and the Morning Star.
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The New Times: Brexit, globalisation, the crisis in Labour and the future of the left

With essays by David Miliband, Paul Mason, John Harris, Lisa Nandy, Vince Cable and more.

Once again the “new times” are associated with the ascendancy of the right. The financial crash of 2007-2008 – and the Great Recession and sovereign debt crises that were a consequence of it – were meant to have marked the end of an era of runaway “turbocapitalism”. It never came close to happening. The crash was a crisis of capitalism but not the crisis of capitalism. As Lenin observed, there is “no such thing as an absolutely hopeless situation” for capitalism, and so we discovered again. Instead, the greatest burden of the period of fiscal retrenchment that followed the crash was carried by the poorest in society, those most directly affected by austerity, and this in turn has contributed to a deepening distrust of elites and a wider crisis of governance.

Where are we now and in which direction are we heading?

Some of the contributors to this special issue believe that we have reached the end of the “neoliberal” era. I am more sceptical. In any event, the end of neoliberalism, however you define it, will not lead to a social-democratic revival: it looks as if, in many Western countries, we are entering an age in which centre-left parties cannot form ruling majorities, having leaked support to nationalists, populists and more radical alternatives.

Certainly the British Labour Party, riven by a war between its parliamentary representatives and much of its membership, is in a critical condition. At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has inspired a remarkable re-engagement with left-wing politics, even as his party slumps in the polls. His own views may seem frozen in time, but hundreds of thousands of people, many of them young graduates, have responded to his anti-austerity rhetoric, his candour and his shambolic, unspun style.

The EU referendum, in which as much as one-third of Labour supporters voted for Brexit, exposed another chasm in Labour – this time between educated metropolitan liberals and the more socially conservative white working class on whose loyalty the party has long depended. This no longer looks like a viable election-winning coalition, especially after the collapse of Labour in Scotland and the concomitant rise of nationalism in England.

In Marxism Today’s “New Times” issue of October 1988, Stuart Hall wrote: “The left seems not just displaced by Thatcherism, but disabled, flattened, becalmed by the very prospect of change; afraid of rooting itself in ‘the new’ and unable to make the leap of imagination required to engage the future.” Something similar could be said of the left today as it confronts Brexit, the disunities within the United Kingdom, and, in Theresa May, a prime minister who has indicated that she might be prepared to break with the orthodoxies of the past three decades.

The Labour leadership contest between Corbyn and Owen Smith was largely an exercise in nostalgia, both candidates seeking to revive policies that defined an era of mass production and working-class solidarity when Labour was strong. On matters such as immigration, digital disruption, the new gig economy or the power of networks, they had little to say. They proposed a politics of opposition – against austerity, against grammar schools. But what were they for? Neither man seemed capable of embracing the “leading edge of change” or of making the imaginative leap necessary to engage the future.

So is there a politics of the left that will allow us to ride with the currents of these turbulent “new times” and thus shape rather than be flattened by them? Over the next 34 pages 18 writers, offering many perspectives, attempt to answer this and related questions as they analyse the forces shaping a world in which power is shifting to the East, wars rage unchecked in the Middle East, refugees drown en masse in the Mediterranean, technology is outstripping our capacity to understand it, and globalisation begins to fragment.

— Jason Cowley, Editor 

Tom Kibasi on what the left fails to see

Philip Collins on why it's time for Labour to end its crisis

John Harris on why Labour is losing its heartland

Lisa Nandy on how Labour has been halted and hollowed out

David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

John Gray on why the right, not the left, has grasped the new times

Mariana Mazzucato on why it's time for progressives to rethink capitalism

Robert Ford on why the left must reckon with the anger of those left behind

Ros Wynne-Jones on the people who need a Labour government most

Gary Gerstle on Corbyn, Sanders and the populist surge

Nick Pearce on why the left is haunted by the ghosts of the 1930s

Paul Mason on why the left must be ready to cause a commotion

Neal Lawson on what the new, 21st-century left needs now

Charles Leadbeater explains why we are all existentialists now

John Bew mourns the lost left

Marc Stears on why democracy is a long, hard, slow business

Vince Cable on how a financial crisis empowered the right

David Miliband on why the left needs to move forward, not back

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times