The fight for the future of Royal Mail is intensifying.
Demands by leading activists in the postal workers’ CWU union for a national strike to beat back attacks by management have reached fever pitch after a third day of successful strike action across London, and parts of England and Scotland, on Friday of last week.
The union’s postal executive was meeting to discuss a national ballot as Socialist Worker went to press.
Dave Ward, the CWU’s deputy general secretary, was greeted with cheers as he told a 500-strong London strike rally last Friday, “You’ve demanded a national fight, and there’s going to be a national fight.”
Shortly afterwards, the union announced a further three days of strike action. These will start with delivery offices this Saturday, and spread to the network and mail centres on Monday and Tuesday of next week.
This action could involve far more workers than the 12,000 who struck last week.
Ward said that Royal Mail bosses are attempting to ram through “cost savings” that will destroy thousands of jobs.
Behind these measures stands a plan to break the union, in preparation for another attempt at privatisation.
He also said that another attack on the company pension scheme was imminent.
The level of management provocation is so intense that demands for strike ballots are flooding into CWU headquarters.
The union received requests from a further 73 units on Thursday of last week—bring-ing the total number which are balloting, or have already balloted, to around 500.
News that the union is >preparing national action cheered strikers.
From the platform of the London rally, union divisional rep Martin Walsh listed a catalogue of attacks, including the loss of 60 jobs in the delivery office that covers the EC postcode, and 65 in the office that covers W1.
Walsh said that in north London Royal Mail was attempting to make people work an extra 46 days a year but for less pay.
Walsh’s words were echoed by reps and activists from the floor of the meeting. They described how in many offices management are deliberately creating tension.
A newly elected rep from south west London described an atmosphere of bitter hostility after his manager forced workers of 25 and 30 years standing to give up their normal delivery rounds in order to be shunted into whatever duties were available.
The union rightly fears that this tactic, known as “outdoor absorption”, is the precursor to a wave of compulsory redundancies.
While everyone at the London rally was jubilant at the prospect of other parts of the country joining the strike, many leading activists in the union are worried that the national union is moving too slowly to spread the strike while attempting to stop solidarity action by workers in offices that are not part of the action.
Three of the most senior lay officials from the union’s south west region—Kevin Beezer, Chris Webb and Gary Watkins—last week wrote a strongly worded letter to the union’s assistant secretary in which they warned that many branches are “extremely frustrated” with the pace of the national union.
They said, “if we are not careful the employer will have introduced all their plans before we conclude a national ballot.”
A national ballot may see all existing local strikes put on hold, and, even if voting commences within the next two weeks, it could be two months before the first action is taken.
The danger of waiting for a national ballot to respond to the assault by Royal Mail is that by then many jobs will have been lost. In some parts of the country new terms and conditions will have been implemented.
That could lead to demoralisation and make winning the national strike vote more difficult.
Royal Mail must not be allowed to get away with this. The only way to stop it is for activists to prepare the ground for unofficial action.
Any attempt by management to impose unagreed changes cutting the number of delivery rounds, cutting jobs, or attacking conditions—should be met with immediate walkouts.
The union’s strength has been built on this type of response.
Typically, unofficial action has spread from one part of the country to another as management attempt to move work to unaffected areas.
In most cases, unofficial strikes have forced Royal Mail into a speedy climbdown.
In an instruction issued last week CWU general secretary Billy Hayes told branches that “it is important that picketing only takes place at or near the workplace where members have been balloted and not at any other office”.
Hayes went on to say, “Branches are reminded that only properly balloted industrial action is legal and any refusal to co-operate with management over these changes may be deemed unofficial industrial action and therefore illegal.
“This, of course, applies to use of supplementary staff and levels of overtime to clear any backlogs.”
This letter, coming before any secondary action has even taken place, can only encourage management—and those in the union who do not want a fight.
One union branch secretary told Socialist Worker that the letter was an insult to the union’s traditions.
“I can understand people who say that we should try and stay legal while a strike ballot is underway, but what are we supposed to do when Royal Mail is on the rampage in our offices—sit on our hands?
“And does Billy really expect us to start handling work from striking offices?
“What will happen to us when we’re on strike? Will other offices then start doing our work and undermine our strike?
“There’s no way we can stand for that.
“Unions are about people standing together, even under difficult circumstances. I’m proud of the rank and file of the CWU for doing just that.”