Britain: National Postal strikes begin

A battle that mass strike action can win

Royal Mail bosses in Britain have declared war on the postal workers and their union, the Communication Workers Union (CWU). They are intent on providing a worsening mail service to the public and on giving post workers intolerable workloads and terms.

Adam Crozier, the well-paid boss of Royal Mail, said at the time of the last national strike in 2007 that his aim was "to ensure all paid hours are utilised". This turned out to mean that he and his fellow managers would determine exactly how and when the workers will work and at what pace, without ’interference’ from the union or its activists.

This was to be a charter for the unrestricted ’right of management to manage’, even where the workloads have been determined in the past by mutual agreement with the union and by ’custom and practice’ in the workplace, particularly in the sorting centres and the delivery offices. This is all to end as far as the bosses are concerned.

The agreement to end the 2007 national strike was considered by many activists in the union to be thoroughly unsatisfactory. It included pilot studies to be done in certain areas on how the managers’ ideas would work in practice. Ever since then the bosses have pushed the boat out and taken more and more control (characterised by many workers as bullying tactics), not just in the pilot study areas but across the board.

The result has been an increased number of local strikes from one end of the country to the other, and now the CWU leadership has been forced to organise a national post strike in response to the anger and pressure of the union’s postal members.

The crucial issue for postal workers is how they can win this battle and how they can force management – intent on cuts – back into its hole.

The press is full of stories about the ’weak’ position of the union and the ’strong’ position of the bosses, but nothing could be further from the truth. Among the scare stories about Royal Mail losing customers, was a little admission that over 99% of all letters are delivered to the letter box at home or in the office by Royal Mail.

It has been reported that Royal Mail managers will recruit 30,000 temporary workers to help them defeat the strike. But it is impossible for them to simply replace the work of over 120,000 experienced CWU members by either outside agency workers or private companies. Even TNT and other companies involved in the profitable business part of the mail market are forced to take bundles of these business letters to Royal Mail delivery offices where they are then taken by CWU members ’the last mile’ for delivery to the letter box.

Wider union support

This is not to say that there aren’t great dangers in the situation, for instance TNT has declared that it will start doing ’last mile’ delivery. So it is incumbent on the CWU leaders to give resolute and adept leadership and for the rest of the trade union movement to support the postal workers. The CWU must demand that the whole trade union movement comes to their aid if there is an attempt to use a scab army drawn from the unemployed to break the strike.

If managers claim that their aim in using agency based temporary workers is to help sort out the huge backlog of mail piled up in the sorting and delivery offices following the local strikes, this should also be opposed in any area where CWU branches believe it is detrimental to their dispute, or if it could be used to undermine their jobs, wages and conditions.

By the way, Paul Kenny, general secretary of the GMB general workers’ union, pointed out that the threat to use agency labour came in the same week that Lord Mandleson (Business Secretary) "delayed employment rights for agency workers".

The CWU has threatened legal action against the use of agency workers while the strike is taking place, as it is nominally illegal for agency workers to replace strikers during an official dispute. Such legal action is sometimes necessary, but may not succeed, because Royal Mail will most likely argue that the agency workers are doing separate work to that of the strikers (this argument has previously been used during other workers’ strikes).

In any case, the whole battle won’t be won in the courts, it will be won on the picket lines and in what type of mass strike action can bring about the maximum effect and unity of workers.

The decision by the CWU postal executive to continue with sectional action, based on the different operational roles of the membership, has merit in the sense that it will cause a high degree of disruption to Royal Mail. But equally, at the start of a national strike, there is great value in having action that unifies the greatest possible number of workers at the same time. This can only be brought about by all the CWU members in Royal Mail coming out together, whether it is for one day or two days or more.

Tactics

It is true that some areas have taken a lot of action already, such as London, but even more areas have only had a limited experience of action up to now. It would have been better for the union leadership to bring all the workers out together at the start of the national action and then maybe afterwards take forms of sectional action such as those on 22 and 23 October.

Another reason for united national action is that separating workers into different days of action could leave delivery drivers vulnerable to victimisation by the bosses.

The union leaders have said that workers out on strike on one day should then go into work the following day even if this means crossing picket lines. This is the case with mail lorry drivers, for example, who will be out with the sorting offices and then be expected to drive the following day to delivery offices when it is the turn of the delivery offices to be out on strike. There is a danger that this can lead to a certain demoralisation, though some union members in areas already taking this type of action are in favour of it.

Future of the post office

Whichever type of action, the CWU leaders are right to refuse to call it off as a condition demanded by management for referring the dispute to Acas (industrial relations tribunal). Talks must be conducted from a position of maximum union strength, which determined strike action can deliver. If this struggle continues for any length of time with management remaining intransigent, the need for indefinite all-out action could be posed.

As well as the workers’ jobs, wages and conditions, this strike is also about the future of the post office and whether it remains in the public sector. The government’s failure to privatise a part of it this year was primarily because the general economic conditions were not favourable for their plan, following the banking crisis. But this government is driven by the market and despite calls by some commentators to take into account the social role of the postal service, it is deaf to these appeals.

New Labour or the Tories will continually seek to sell off Royal Mail, and the forces that stand in their way are the CWU membership and the massive public opposition. This opposition can be drawn upon in a determined CWU-led fight.

Our demands:

  • A series of strikes leading up to Christmas and beyond if necessary.
  • CWU to demand support from the whole trade union movement if Royal Mail try to break the strike with scabs.
  • No more "modernisation" deals – end the attacks once and for all.
  • Defend all jobs.
  • No to increased workloads.
  • Defend the union, defend the reps.
  • Bring back ’in house’ all previously privatised work.
  • For a united fight to defend public services across all public-sector trade unions.

As the national strike to defend the postal service and its workforce began on 22 October, two Communication Workers Union (CWU) members spoke to The Socialist about the importance of the dispute for all workers.

"I have worked for Royal Mail for almost 30 years, I have been a rep for 20 years and have seen many industrial conflicts in my role as a local distribution rep.

I have seen management regimes come and go. Some try to marginalise the union, some try to reach a negotiated settlement with us. But this is the worst management regime I have ever encountered.

In our last dispute in 2007, the recommendation to cease industrial action was a big mistake.

My CWU branch, North West Central Amal, recommended rejection to the nationally recommended deal. Our view was that we could have the best agreement in the world but these managers can’t be trusted to honour it. Our branch view has been vindicated.

Now a 76% ’yes’ vote for industrial action has stunned Royal Mail and the media. The Labour government has been exposed as egging on Royal Mail to crush the CWU. The revelation on BBC Newsnight about the leaked secret strategy document has sent shock waves throughout the workplace.

The membership are up for this battle."

A Manchester postal worker

"As a working man all I ever wanted was to provide a decent living for my family. I have worked for Royal Mail for over five years in an office in Lincolnshire. Nothing much seems to happen there, except now we are fighting for our very existence as workers.

The changes we have endured are from a Labour-backed Royal Mail management. Through all this carnage the national leaders of our own union still have blind faith in a Labour Party who are more right wing than "dear old Maggie" ((Thatcher) ever was.

We know from our own struggles of the past, decisive, positive action is the key in any industrial action.

The fundamentals of this strike could and will have repercussions for every worker in the UK. The bosses will seize every opportunity to casualise work, creating vast fortunes for the few, and misery for the many.

The message now is still the same as it was a hundred years ago. Unity is strength. We need a workers’ party for the workers. We should cut all trade union funding to the neo-liberal parties. We don’t want much, all we want is the world."

A Lincolnshire postal worker

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