‘Don’t call it a summer of discontent’: CWU’s Dave Ward on strike action and trade union ties with Labour

The CWU’s general secretary spoke to NationalWorld about the BT and Royal Mail disputes, Keir Starmer’s Labour and ‘levelling up’

<p>CWU general secretary Dave Ward has called for a “race to the top” (Getty Images) </p>

CWU general secretary Dave Ward has called for a “race to the top” (Getty Images)

On Thursday afternoon, in a live-streamed press conference held by the Communication Workers Union (CWU), it was announced that two of the union’s three national ballots of BT workers for industrial action had passed with large majorities, while the third, for the smallest arm of BT Group’s business, EE, fell just eight votes short of meeting the legal turnout threshold.

The result is being heralded by the CWU as an almost unprecedented mandate for industrial action, particularly in the call centre sector, where around 9,000 BT workers are employed, many from home.

BT OpenReach engineers backed action too, meaning around 30,000 of them will also walk out on strike should BT decline to renegotiate the flat £1,500 per annum pay increase the company imposed earlier this year - which union figures fear is unlikely.

NationalWorld spoke to CWU general secretary Dave Ward in the run-up to the announcement of BT ballots to discuss the dispute, another national ballot the union has out for industrial action at Royal Mail Group, and how the trade union movement is preparing to to step up to the very real challenge the current moment presents for working people.

Royal Mail and BT disputes - and the ‘modernisation’ claim

In both the BT and Royal Mail disputes, and similarly for the RMT’s national dispute, there has been a suggestion by government and bosses that trade unions are almost instinctively resistant to change and ‘modernisation’.

But Ward, a longtime veteran of the trade union movement who was elected to lead CWU in 2015 having first become a branch secretary in the early 1980s, is keen to challenge this idea.

He says unions negotiate and deal with changes to business structure on an almost-daily basis, but that the term ‘modernisation’ is often thrown around cynically to push through changes that suit management.

“On these modernisation agendas, when you strip them bare they’re never a real modernisation agenda. It is never focused on how you grow a business, it’s always focused on cutting back on certain things.

“These so-called modernisation changes always mean for workers that you work harder and faster, for less. That’s not modernisation. Don’t call it that; it’s not what it is.”

For Royal Mail in particular, changes in the company’s business model, away from letters and toward parcel deliveries, mean that the group is now competing with some firms which utilise agency labour or otherwise have worse conditions for staff.

But Ward is resistant to the accepted wisdom that this must inevitably lead to a race to the bottom on standards for working people.

“I accept that the labour market issues are a problem for any company that’s got decent terms and conditions. The question is how we deal with that.You’ve got a government saying it’s about ‘Levelling Up,’ so we’re pulling in the political debate to say ‘You can’t level up the UK if in the world of work the agenda is all about levelling down’.

“And as part of that we’ve got to have an honest conversation, and say that competition has not innovated that market. What it’s done, its main job, is it has created these insecure employment models that are threatening all workers.

“And the UK economy can never be a high pay, high wage economy, if we’re going to prioritise competition with no level playing field.”

Both the BT and Royal Mail disputes relate primarily to pay, with both firms imposing a below-inflation pay offer after negotiations with the CWU failed to result in an agreement.

While both firms claim they have offered workers as much as they can afford to, Ward rejects this outright.

Royal Mail managers have voted to strike in a dispute over what their union describes as an "ill-thought-out redeployment programme"

“BT made £1.3 billion [post-tax profit] last year, they paid £700 million out to shareholders; Royal Mail made £758 million and paid £400 million to shareholders. And both companies have chosen to impose pay settlements. So this is not like we’re bargaining, they’ve imposed them, whilst at the same time, the leaders of those companies have increased their earnings by staggering amounts.

“They’re protecting their profit margins by putting up prices in front of inflation. So BT put its prices up by 10% when inflation was 5%. That feeds into the shareholder dividends and their own wages, and then they’re doubling down on workers at the same time.

“And Royal Mail is very similar, their prices went up by pretty much the same thing, about 10%.”

For Ward, this problem isn’t confined to the two companies his members are involved in disputes with, but is an issue that can be seen across the entire economy.

“One of the things I’m trying to say is that the real common denominator to every injustice at the moment, is that there is a structural imbalance of power and wealth. It permeates the world of work; how the economy is rigged against working people. And it is the driving force to all of the inequalities that exist in society.”

‘A new deal for workers’

Inflation has hit levels not seen in more than 35 years, with wages in most sectors nowhere near keeping up with its runaway pace. At the same time, plenty of evidence suggests corporate profits are rising.

To Ward, these conditions make the trade union movement as vital as it has been in decades.

“What’s happening at the moment with the cost of living crisis cannot just be some kind of win or lose situation around pay. I personally think this is the start of something very different and very, very big in the UK.

“I think unions are going to come together under the banner of what we call ‘A new deal for workers and new social settlement’.

By targeting boardrooms and applying political pressure linked to the idea of levelling up, Ward says unions can and will protect workers from an inflationary crisis which is not of their making.

But for the strategy to work, Ward says, unions may need to rethink both their internal policies and how they work together across the movement.

He speaks effusively about the need to rethink the model of trade unionism currently favoured, and move toward “serious collaboration” between unions, in a bid to create a “race to the top” on pay and standards.

“The unions have got to step together. We need common bargaining agendas across sectors of the economy. We’ve got to stop the squabbling over members and everything else.

“We have to get them all around the table and sign up to set the standards of pay and working hours; how you deal with technology; how you deal with equality issues; and put it all on the table. We all have to be saying the same things.”

“What I’m saying to other trade union leaders at the moment is this cannot be it, this moment we’re in cannot just be about individual pay disputes.”

With the CWU’s strikes, the real possibility that the RMT will announce more days of strike action, a number of public sector unions warning about potential walk-outs in the coming months and new smaller disputes popping up across the country on a daily basis, the term ‘summer of discontent’ is becoming more and more commonplace.

But Ward thinks this framing plays down the potentially seismic shifts that this moment could bring about in society, and the way workers could emerge from this period of crisis with an updated and improved social contract.

“So we had the financial crash back in 2008, you’ve now had the pandemic, you have the cost of living crisis, there’s a climate crisis, there’s a fourth industrial revolution, there’s all these crises. Unless we do something here, the rich are getting richer and the powerful are getting more powerful, and working class people are paying the price.

“This can’t just be a ‘summer of discontent’ as they’re calling it. I’m not really interested in that. It’s the summer of building collectivism for me, and building this movement that in itself will change the dynamics in the world of work and how the economy operates.”

As a key member of the Trade Union Congress (TUC) and one of the larger unions affiliated to the Labour Party, Ward sees the CWU’s role in affecting this change as a central one.

“We have a strategy that we call ‘building collectivism’. And it’s not fancy words, it is a serious strategy with three parts.

“One is that you come together with common bargaining agendas in trade unions, and you create the race to the top. We moan about the anti-trade union laws, but I’m saying there’s a way of tackling that by reintroducing sectoral bargaining amongst ourselves.”

Ward says this approach across industries could win significant progress for working people, crucially including those who are not currently signed up to a trade union.

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As an example, he cites the practice of outsourcing, which allows firms to bring in insecure and often low-paid staff in industries where labour rights for in-house employees are relatively strong, such as in the healthcare sector.

Ward says that by making insourcing a key aim in negotations across a whole sector, thousands of workers could be brought in-house, with the benefits that come with that.

“We have to change the dynamics, and that I believe then will lead to the change, rather than waiting for the political change of a Labour government to come in and change the law.

“We can do more ourselves than what we can by continuing to think that next year or the year after that someone’s going to come and save us - it ain’t gonna happen.”

The next part of the strategy, laid out by Ward with increasing enthusiasm as the conversation goes on, is all about “deepening in a structured way the links with community organisations”.

During the height of the pandemic, and since, grassroots community groups sprung up to provide mutual aid and support to those in need.

At the same time, organisations like Acorn Community Union or Living Rent in Scotland, which use organising models not dissimilar to that of the trade union movement, have become increasingly engaged in affecting change through direct action, led by their members.

Ward, who says he has always gravitated towards those who “do politics in practice, rather than in theory,” says the trade union movement should look to work more closely with these kinds of organisations.

“The second strand of the strategy is really deepening in a structured way the links with community organisations. In the CWU what we’re going to do is say that for every union branch in our union, if you join up you will also sign up to support a local community group. And we will build collectivism with that. You can choose what group, we’re not dictating that, just that it’s got to be some kind of group that is organised in order to support people that are really struggling in their community.”

Trade unions and the Labour Party

One of the big questions for trade unionists at this moment is that of the link between the labour movement and the Labour Party, particularly in Westminster.

Under Keir Starmer’s leadership, many trade union figures feel the party is tacking right and failing to back trade unions in key disputes, despite promises made during his leadership campaign.

In normal circumstances this would represent an unwelcome but not-unprecedented shift - but with conditions for working people in such drastic decline, many see this failure of Starmer to support the rights of working people to stand up for themselves as a tragically missed opportunity.

Keir Starmer speaks to the media in Wakefield after Labour's by-election win (Picture: Ian Forsyth/Getty Images)

Ward, a lifelong member of the Labour Party, strikes a mostly diplomatic tone when it comes to Starmer’s leadership.

That said, he stresses that CWU has “had enough of Westminster style politics” and instead wants to focus on backing “changemakers in positions of power, maybe not on a national level, but in local and regional areas”.

On shadow justice secretary David Lammy’s controversial intervention on a vote to strike over a 10% pay cut among British Airways staff, Ward says he was disappointed and only failed to “come down harder on it” during the same show, which he also appeared on, as he hadn’t seen it live.

Lammy later apologised for his criticism of the strike, claiming he hadn’t been fully aware of the details of the dispute, but the spat evidenced the unease at the top of the Labour Party around backing workers in industrial disputes.

This had come to the fore previously when a letter by Starmer urging any front-bench Labour MPs not to attend picket lines was leaked. The request, described by trade union figures as “a completely avoidable misstep”, was not followed by a small but not insignificant number of Labour MPs.

“The third part of our strategy relates to the political side. And this is why we took a decision not to disaffiliate last year. We had calls for disaffiliation and I actually think in our union that [a motion to disaffiliate] would have possibly been close to being carried.

“We put our strategy forward as an alternative. And it is based on the simple thing that I’ve always stood on anyway, which is we’re only going to support politicians who support us.

“But there’s also got to be a shift now to regional and local politicians.”

Will this come at the expense of close ties with the central Labour Party?

“We’ve made the decision in our union that apart from our affiliation fee, we are not giving any more money to the central Labour Party. Instead we’re going to support the development of this connection [with regional leaders]”.

Still affiliated to Labour, the CWU was central to efforts to push the Community Wealth Building policy at last year’s conference.

Community Wealth Building is an economic strategy that has been applied with notable success by the Labour-run council in Preston, which mandates that public sector procurement and that of large ‘anchor institutions’ in a community prioritise local suppliers.

Ward says this could even mean trade unions and regional leaders collaborating to open up worker-run businesses designed by the communities they serve.

“Our strategy now, with the employer, with the government and with regional politicians, is to say, for example, rather than closing them down, we’re going to open a Post Office on a completely different model. Run by workers, predominantly. It would be supported by the company, by the local politicians. And the products and services that it developed would be designed to support what the needs are of that particular community.”

Levelling up is a phrase that Ward uses often, and he is uncharacteristically complimentary about the Conservatives for the way they have introduced this idea into the mainstream.

“They came up with levelling up, which I think is a great political phrase. The government is completely right on that. I’ve said it’s the most important development politically in decades.

“I know that they aren’t going to deliver it in a way that we would, but we can.”