Another step toward the full rejuvenation of North Staffs Trades Council was taken last night when it held a public meeting against the privatisation of the post office. 31 people were in attendance to hear the panel of speakers, and the proceedings were overseen from the chair by our very own Brother S.
Mick Kavanagh of the Communication Workers' Union executive (post) took to the floor first and spoke about what the CWU was up against. Contrary to statements put out by Royal Mail, the government and the media the simmering disputes between the union and management do not come down to unreasonable stubbornness on the part of the workers, it's about the nature of the modernisation the company is going through. Management are using the introduction of new technologies and working practices to not only destroy jobs in the industry, but break the influence of the union too. Their contempt for the union and the workers can be seen in the way they are implementing modernisation. For example, last week's localised walkouts happened because management reneged on prior agreements over the phasing in of modernisation. As a result of this the CWU are preparing to organise for a nationwide dispute, and the executive is pushing for a ballot.
Dave Nellist, Socialist Party councillor in Coventry and long-time campaigner against privatisation argued that now the three mainstream parties represent a triple alliance for privatisation. And what Royal Mail are trying to ram through the postal service are a package of measures that will throw 50,000 workers on the dole, open the door to full privatisation and put the universal postal service at risk. And no one thinks this is a good idea, apart from the government, management and Royal Mail's competitors who are looking forward to cherry picking the most profitable services. Dave also attacked the main excuse they always trot out to defend part-privatisation - the claim the business hasn't got enough of an income stream to sustain it and fill the pensions black hole. For starters, that's because the government has deliberately sabotaged Royal Mail's capacity to make money. Its departments already use private firms to deal with their vast quantity of mail, a move that could only be justified in terms of neoliberal ideology. And the problems with the pension have far more to do with the company taking a 13 year holiday from paying into the pot. But in sum the attacks on Royal Mail are part of a wider canvas designed to give the bosses the whip hand over workers. Privatisation, the export of jobs overseas, the importing of migrant workers on inferior pay and conditions - all these three combine to force wages, conditions and workplace organisation down.
H O'Harney spoke for the Public and Commercial Services union, gvae the CWU his support and spoke of the state of play in the civil service. At present, the PCS are having to fight 236 separate privatisation schemes - and this is despite no empirical data proving private provision offers a superior service. It's now got to the point where the government want to go down the US route and contract out army training to private contractors. What is needed, he concluded, was an alliance for the public sector between all the unions to see off privatisation and get our services back into the public's hands.
Last of all came Lee Barron, the CWU Midlands regional secretary. He likened the position assumed by management and the government to blackmail. They are basically saying to the workers they either roll over and accept part-privatisation or they will do nothing to fill the hole in the pension fund. Already the final salary scheme is closed to postal workers and the retirement age raised to 65. The 13 year pension holiday was management's mistake, but it is the workers who are paying the price. Furthermore the government and management have another ally in their quest to break Royal Mail up. The "independent" watchdog, Postcomm claims to be the guarantor of the universal service, and yet now spends most of its time encouraging privatisation. Finally, Lee reminded the audience that Royal Mail is no millstone around the taxpayer's neck. The group as a whole made a profit last year despite years of having its monopoly being chipped away and services forcibly withdrawn from the post office. If indeed it was that much of a donkey, why are firms lining up for the juicy bits?
Brother S than opened it to the floor. First to the microphone was Arthur Bough who set the political tone for the rest of the meeting. He said we keep fighting the same battles decade after decade - he asked when are we going to stop fighting rearguard actions to save public services and instead put them out of reach of the privateers permanently? He argued for a different kind of nationalisation - one that puts workers' control at its heart. Dave Nellist agreed and argued the postal service should be run by a partnership of the workers and consumers. Mick added the present set up is a step backwards from the management under Thatcher when the union had members on the board.
Another recurring theme from the floor was the issue of political representation. A Unison comrade felt we had lost our relation to a party that has the chance of changing things for our interests. But what comes next now Labour is lost to working class people? A PCS comrade argued for a public sector alliance that can bring trade unions and socialists together in a campaign that would include contesting elections.
Returning to the theme of workers control, Boffy argued there are £500bn in workers' pensions invested as capital sloshing around the British economy. And yet neither individual workers or trade unions have any degree of control over it. Because it is our money, should we be agitating more around this issue? For starters - no investment in firms looking to take advantage of privatisation.
In sum, this meeting was an encouraging beginning for building a wide campaign against privatisation across all the public services in the Potteries. It demonstrates the role a campaigning trades council can play: as a facilitator of relationships between trade union activists at a local level. The next step for the local TUC is to play its part helping coordinate this public sector alliance in North Staffs while drawing more union branches and activists into the organisation.