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(en) Britain, Catalyst # 13 (Summer 2005)

Date Thu, 15 Sep 2005 15:43:18 +0300

· Post Office privatisation to be disguised as workers' ownership
· Strike action needed to defend Public Sector pension rights
· Don't fall into the TUPE trap
· Rank and File building workers organise
Post Office privatisation will be disguised as workers' ownership
In spite of Labour's manifesto commitments the government plans to
privatise the Post Office. Lobbying Labour MPs, who have shown in the
past that they will settle for cosmetic changes to avoid defeating the
government in Parliament won't stop this. Post Office workers have the
organised strength to mount the campaign of industrial action needed to
defeat this.

The election was hardly over before the government began to brief
journalists that it was considering privatising the Post Office. This is
a complete reversal of what appeared in the Labour manifesto that stated
there were "no plans to privatise" and that Labour wanted a "publicly
owned Royal Mail". Not that we should be alarmed, because Labour leaks
are making it clear that should it go ahead it will not be a nasty
Thatcherite privatisation but rather a nice New Labour affair under
which the workers themselves will take control of the Post Office.

All nonsense, of course, for the idea being floated amounts to little
more than a sugar-coated management buy-out under which Post Office
Chairman, Allen Leighton, and his fellow executives will borrow the
money to buy 51% of the Post Office from the government and then hand
out a few token shares to each worker. Once in control, Leighton and co.
will set about slashing jobs and destroying working conditions as the
Post Office becomes a money making machine for the new owners. And if
anybody doubts the pure greed of Post Office directors look at chief
executive Adam Crozier, for example, who got a £3m pay and incentive
package in May - nice work if you can get it.

CWU puts faith in Labour MPs

The Post Office union, the CWU, in response to the leaked proposals,
talked about mounting a campaign aimed at mobilising opposition amongst
the public and Labour MPs. The union has already written to all Labour
MPs making clear their opposition to any attempt at privatisation.
Central to the CWU strategy is the idea that, with Labour's reduced
majority, they'll get the support of enough Labour MPs to defeat any
privatisation proposal in the House of Commons. This is putting a great
deal of faith in Labour MPs, not known for being over-endowed with

Given that the privatisation proposals are being dressed up in the
language of "mutualism" and "employee ownership", the virtual certainty
is that, faced with a Labour defeat in the Commons, and no doubt after
winning some "vital" concessions, enough Labour MPs will back the
government, just as they did over Iraq and tuition fees. Quite frankly,
for the CWU to be putting its faith in Labour MPs is the equivalent of
the turkey pinning all its hopes on Christmas being cancelled.

Labour's privatisation proposals, should they go ahead, will not be
defeated in the Commons, but in the workplace. Despite setbacks in
recent years, the Post Office is one of the few remaining industries in
Britain that retains a reasonable workplace based union organisation.
That organisational strength can be used to organise a campaign aimed at
taking strike action to defeat privatisation. Workplace meetings can not
only be used to expose media and management lies and win support for
strike action, but they are also the means by which workers can retain
control of their own struggles and ensure no behind-the-scenes
back-sliding by union leaders.

Post Office privatisation is not just about making Leighton a
multi-millionaire. Privatisation has never just been about making the
rich richer. It has also been a means of undermining working class
organisation. The government knows that if it wants to extend
deregulation by opening up mail delivery in Britain fully to competition
it must break the virtual monopoly of the Post Office. And to break that
monopoly it knows it must defeat union organisation within the Post
Office. The privatisation proposal being muted by Labour, based on bogus
employee ownership, are an attempt at breaking the postal monopoly while
trying to avoid strike action by postal workers.


Strike action needed to defend Public Sector pensions

Workers across the public sector were set to strike on March 23rd to
defend pension rights but the strike was called off when a deal was done
with the government. The same attacks on pension schemes are due to be
implemented in April 2006, and John Prescott is already under pressure
to renege on the deal. Only effective strike action will defeat these
attacks and workers have to be ready to take it.

Local government bosses still intend to raise the minimum retirement age
from 50 to 55, as well as the age at which the full pension is payable
from 60 to 65. If they get away with that then another set of
cost-cutting measures such as average salary, as opposed to final
salary, pensions and higher employee contributions will be brought in.

Increased life expectancy

This is "justified" on the grounds that average life expectancy has
increased but it isn't that simple. The truth is more to do with the
"pensions holidays" taken by the bosses, where they have not paid their
share of the money into pension funds, leaving a shortfall. TGWU boss
Jack Dromey blamed the Tories for cutting pension funding "to smooth the
move from poll tax to council tax" in the early '90s but Labour hasn't
made up the deficit.

In any case, average life expectancy and the life expectancy of working
class people are not the same. Since 1974 life expectancy at 65 for men
has increased by more than 4 years and for women by more than 3 years,
but over the equivalent period for a male caretaker the increase was
only a year-and-a-half and for a female hospital cleaner there was no
increase at all. What's more, the longer you work the shorter your life

The only problem with final salary pensions is that these discourage
people from going part-time towards the end of their working lives. This
is a particular issue for teachers but it applies across the board.
Sorting this out would actually cut the need for early retirement and
allow services to retain experienced workers for longer. Since the
"unfairness" of final salary pensions is one of the bosses'
justifications for wanting to scrap them they would extract a high price
for concessions - unless they were under considerable pressure from
industrial action.

No guarantee

Back in March UNISON hailed a victory when John Prescott agreed to scrap
regulations decreeing an increase in the minimum age at which workers in
local government can claim their full occupational pension. As well as
crediting this "victory" to Dave Prentis, then seeking re-election as
General Secretary, the union highlighted lobbying by sponsored Labour
MPs, rather than the threat of strike action, as the key factor in the

It is difficult to take this at face value. First of all, the only
promise from the government was of negotiations - no guarantee was given
that they wouldn't force through the same changes if the unions didn't
agree to them. Secondly, in the run up to an election the political
impact of strike action on a Labour government would have been greater.
Consequently, the issue will be revisited with workers in a weaker
bargaining position. Thirdly, there is no doubt that it was the threat
of strike action, not lobbying MPs, which forced Prescott to back down.
Prentis has actually saved the government from itself.

UNISON's National Local Government Conference actually first voted for a
ballot on industrial action over pensions in June 2004, and the issue
was then pursued via Labour Link until December before finally deciding
to proceed with the ballot. Meanwhile, the civil service union PCS -
less loyal to the Labour Party leadership - had planned strike action
all along. Prentis only elbowed his way to "leadership" of the strike at
the last minute. Some civil service workers are understandably
suspicious of his role.

Organise for strike action

We need to organise, and to start now. The real issues and the need for
strike action have to be understood in every workplace. Meetings
especially need to be held in poorly organised sections. Rank and file
action committees need to be set up and links have to be made between
civil service, local government, health and education workers so that it
will be harder for the government to pick us off one at a time. Finally,
in the light of UNISON's behaviour the issue has to be linked to
breaking the stranglehold the Labour Party has on the unions.


Don't fall into the TUPE trap

Union officials tell workers in public services facing privatisation
that they won't be worse off because TUPE (Transfer of Undertakings
Protection of Employees) regulations will protect them. Workers are told
they will not lose their jobs and their existing terms and conditions
will be protected. This protection is not only worth less than people
are being told it's worth, it is also leading us into a dangerous trap.
We must fight transfer itself not just start thinking about TUPE deals
as soon as privatisation is mentioned.

There are two things that management and senior trade union officials
are not prepared to acknowledge. Firstly, TUPE offers a degree of
protection but it does not guarantee anything. It only prevents you
losing your job because of the transfer. If the employer can argue that
they are having to cut jobs for some other reason they are perfectly
free to make people redundant. For example, they might argue they have
to cut jobs because of a cut in funding and that this cut isn't
connected with the transfer. The same principle applies if they want to
cut pay and conditions. The only real way to ensure you hold onto your
jobs and conditions is strong trade union organisation; the law is a
false friend.

Undermining union organisation

This brings us to the second point. The whole business of privatisation
and TUPE transfers is designed to undermine the power of public sector
trade unions. Once privatised, workers cannot legally take part in
public sector strikes, even if they affect their own pay and conditions.
They can only take official action to defend their existing terms and
conditions if their new employer is attacking them, without support from
public sector workers. What's more the privatised worker is caught in
the "TUPE trap". If they fight on their own to get better pay and
conditions for themselves any improvements they win will change their
contracts and end what protection TUPE provided. Meanwhile, endless
hiving off of different departments further reduces the strength of
workers still in the public sector.

In Haringey Council workers in the housing department facing
privatisation are demanding to stay as council employees. This is not as
contradictory as it seems. Under ALMO (Arms Length Management
Organisation) deals the housing stock is in theory still owned by the
council, although a private company has been set up to manage it. If the
tenants are being told this means they are still council tenants, then
housing workers can still be council workers. (Legally speaking they can
be "seconded" to the ALMO.) Some public sector workers that the
government has tried to transfer under PFI (Private Finance Initiatives)
have already won this type of deal.

Privatisation is clearly designed to undermine the power of the working
class in the public sector, a key objective for bosses in local and
national government. Workers who fight transfer are challenging this
agenda head on so concessions won't be won without action like worker
non-cooperation and strike action, or threats of strike action. The more
cautious trade union officials are also likely to reject action in
favour of TUPE deals. Militant workers have to force officials' hand
through independent organisation. We need to organise workplace
assemblies and start thinking about unofficial forms of action.
Remember, the future of trade unionism itself is at stake.


Rank and File building workers organise

Workers in the construction industry look to be gearing up for some
serious opposition to the latest insult thrown at them by the employers.
A new Rank and File coalition has been formed to oppose new contracts
imposed by the employers with the connivance of full-time union
officials. They are looking for help in distributing newsletters and
bulletins on building sites.

Major construction firm Laing O'Rourke has recently imposed a new
Contract of Employment on all its site workers, meaning large pay cuts
for many and everyone having to rely on the employers' 'discretionary
bonus'. Disgracefully, but not surprisingly, these attacks were fully
supported by the full-time officials of the three major building
industry unions - UCATT, TGWU and GMB. This treachery, coupled with the
sudden imposition of the new contract ensured that where resistance did
occur it was fragmented and unsuccessful.

Other employers, seeing that Laing O'Rourke appears to have gotten away
with it, are now following suit. Rank and File activists in the
construction industry believe that it's not too late for workers to
begin real, organised resistance to these attacks, as long as it occurs
at a grassroots level independent of the management stooges who run the
builders' unions. A meeting took place on 14th June in London to
coordinate the fightback, and there has been considerable interest from
individual workers as well as the national Rank and File Building Worker
Group and union branches such as the GMB SOLO branch and Northampton
UCATT, fed up with the outright betrayal of the union bureaucrats.

This new Rank and File coalition is looking to spread resistance to the
new contracts nationally whilst also fighting for improvements in wages,
working hours, sick pay, pensions and the constant deaths and injuries
caused by so-called 'site accidents'. As well as looking to link up with
building workers they are asking for support from other sympathisers who
can hand out newsletters and bulletins on their local building sites and
so spread the message wider without the fear of being sacked or
blacklisted. Some Solidarity Federation locals will be among those
participating in this organising drive. In a national climate where none
of the TUC-affiliated unions is democratic and none truly stands up for
its members this type of grassroots initiative needs to be both
supported and replicated in other industries. Get in touch and get

The Building Worker Group can be contacted on 07767615354


We welcome comments and contributions, contact us at:
Catalyst PO Box 1681 LONDON N8 7LE email nelsfsolfed@fsmail.net

The Solidarity Federation - International Workers' Association (SF-IWA)

We seek to replace capitalism with a stateless society based on the
principle of from each according to their ability, to each according to
their needs. In the medium term and as an essential forerunner of such a
society, SolFed promotes and seeks to initiate anarchosyndicalist
unions. SolFed seeks to create a militant opposition to the bosses and
the state, controlled by the workers themselves. Its strategy can apply
equally to those in the official trade unions who wish to organise
independently of the union bureaucracy and those who wish to set up
other types of self-organisation.

Our activities are based on Direct Action - action by workers ourselves
not through intermediaries like politicians and union officials. Our
decisions are made through participation of the membership. We welcome
anyone who agrees with our aims and principles. We recognise that not
all oppression is economic, but can be based on gender, race, sexuality,
or anything our rulers find useful.

To find out more contact: SF-IWA PO Box 29 SW PDO MANCHESTER M15 5HW
email solfed@solfed.org.uk

Freesheet of the anarcho-syndicalist Solidarity Federation
Jacque <flintagainstflint-A-riseup.net>

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