Billy Hayes is reluctant to talk about strikes.
I thought at first it might be jealousy – all the other unions seem to be striking – but I’m assured the guarded manner of the CWU general secretary is a result of the negative, one-dimensional portayal of unions in the mainstream media.
(Pictured: Billy Hayes addresses CWU conference, Bournemouth)
But strike action is very much on the agenda of delegates at the CWU’s annual conference, particularly on the issue of privatisation of the Post Office, so it is an issue the general secretary cannot avoid.
“We will continue to fight the Communications Bill,” he declares.
“Nothing’s over ’til it’s over so we’ll maintain our opposition to it. We’ve done so for years and gained some concessions, and we’ll keep doing it.”
Will his members strike over it?
“We’re not afraid to take strike action,” he replies. “We don’t have to apologise to anyone for strike action. We’ve had lots of strikes. Strikes are a mean to an end.”
With so many other unions striking against cuts, does he feel left out of the action?
“No,” he smiles, “but I can see why people are angry. They’ve seen a real drop in living standards.
“Mervyn King, the governor of the Bank of England, said there hasn’t been a comparative drop in living standards since the 1920s.
“Workers are seeing attacks on the welfare state that are affecting them, so they’re getting concerned about their jobs, their working conditions and their future.”
But it is not just the drop in living standards and working conditions that concerns him; it is also the anticipated drop in standards of the postal service, an inevitable consequence of privatisation.
“The problem with privatisation is that bosses are more interested in providing a profit than than they are in providing a service, and that leaves everything in a mess,” he says.
“We’ve seen what happened when they privatised the Dutch and Argentinian postal services – it was a real mess – and what happened after they privatised the energy supply in this country.
“We’ve already had a glimpse of things to come with the increase of stamp prices – that’s a big increase driven by a desire to improve profitability, not improving services.”
I’m told the CWU has defeated the privitisation of the Post Office three times already, without resorting to strike action but, as the interview comes to an end, I allow my curiosity to get the better of me, and try once more to draw Billy out on the strike issue.
“We’re not frightened to take strike action if necessary,” he concedes. “I think what’s likely to happen is what always happens when you privatise a workforce: you see more stress on them, more tension, so you see more disputes. At the end of the day, whether we strike or not, the CWU will be there representing our members.”
So, an admission of sorts but, most importantly, a warning to the government that the union will not sit idly by and watch the Post Office be thrown to the open markets.