Mail dispute set to defeat union leader

Chances of settlement fade as activists get angrier, reports Barrie Clement
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It has been a long and vicious war at the Royal Mail and Alan Johnson, leader of 130,000 postal workers, has become one of its victims.

Mr Johnson may make one more attempt today to impress the postal executive of the Communication Workers' Union with his favoured solution to the long-running dispute. Otherwise, the committee may order more stoppages to follow next Tuesday's scheduled strike.

It has been a depressing haul for the general secretary of the CWU. Over the last two years his members have been involved in a series of damaging skirmishes with management largely concerned with fears over job security. According to some estimates the stoppages - most of them unlawful - made up one in three of the days lost through strike action in the entire economy.

Along with senior management - with whom he is on good terms - Mr Johnson has brokered ceasefires in local disputes rather than peace settlements. And when his union seemed to be heading for an official national dispute with the Post Office, he spent weeks trying to restrain his activists with proposed settlements.

Then, reluctantly, he called a nationwide strike ballot in protest at productivity proposals and in pursuit of greater job security. The result tended to undermine management's theory that the unrest was simply being fomented by activists. Members of the CWU voted by three to one for national strikes.

More talks were hurriedly undertaken by Mr Johnson, but the executive - which is in day-to-day control of the dispute - rejected management's amendments to its "New Way of Working" proposals and their attempts to reassure staff about their future.

Finally, CWU walked out on their first national stoppage on 21 June. There were a further two walkouts while Mr Johnson continued attempts to reach a settlement. All proved fruitless.

Then came his most embarrassing miscalculation of the mood of his colleagues. Having persuaded them to call off last Friday's walkout under government threats to withdraw the Royal Mail monopoly on delivering letters, he went on to agree with management a settlement that he felt confident of selling to the executive. He proclaimed publicly that a deal was virtually complete.

His colleagues, however, felt he was "bouncing" them into a settlement. Voices were raised and fingers were wagged and they refused to accept it. So incensed was the executive that they rowed back on all the nods and winks conceded in hundreds of hours of talks. Yesterday, as activists gathered in London, the clock had been turned back to March when the present negotiations began.

The main management concession secured by Mr Johnson was that the productivity proposals would be the subject of prolonged negotiation, with study groups, pilot trials and joint talks over 15 months. In particular, "team- working" would not necessarily result from the talks.

In return Mr Johnson agreed that his union would drop the objection in principle to group working. The executive rejected that on the grounds that such working methods would sideline the union and was simply a device for extracting the maximum amount of work from employees for the minimum in return.

Given Mr Johnson's reluctance to lead the union into industrial action in the first place, he may be one of the last people qualified to bring it to an end.