Friday, 6 November 2009

Postal workers sold out by leadership

The BBC News website reports Dave Ward of the CWU saying the union's executive unanimously agreed to suspend the post strikes until at least the New Year. This is a hugely misguided mistake by the union leadership. It allows Royal Mail bosses and the government to re-take the initiative. Any momentum that was developing has now stalled.

How grim, too, that the vote was apparently unanimous - presumably even the most left-wing or militant representatives have fallen into line. I'm reminded of the old lesson that has always guided socialists in building grassroots, rank and file organisation: whatever differences there may be at the top (between left and right), it's the difference between bureaucracy and rank and file that is fundamental. The bureaucracy's role - mediating between bosses and workers - means they are always liable to compromise.

This is obvious with TUC General Secretary Brendan Barber, who has shown every sign of desperately wanting an end to the strikes, but there's a more subtle domino effect in the way this works. I recall Tony Cliff making this point about the General Strike of 1926: the right-wing leaders pull the left-wing leaders into a compromise, who in turn pull other forces (even the most left-wing) in the regional and local official structures into acceptance of negotiation and conciliation.

If rank and file strength isn't powerful enough, or there isn't sufficient solidarity, even the best people within the structures (socialist NEC members, local officals) can be pulled by the right wing's arguments. Cliff made the same point about the pit closures in autumn 1992: the TUC General Council ultimately won the day, through the pressure exerted via the union structures. Even left-wing leaders like Scargill compromised, rather than carrying through the kind of militant mass action from below that could have won victory.

In the case of the posties it's a terrible pity that strong enough rank and file organisation, independent of the union machine altogether, wasn't in place. This is the corrective needed to left-wingers inside the structures being pulled to the right and capitulating. It reminds us of the urgent need for renewing and building rank and file strength across the union movement - and indeed beyond, as contact with political activists and movements can enormously strengthen the capacity of trade unionists to act effectively.

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