It’s just before six in the morning and around 50 striking postal workers have gathered for a gate meeting outside their delivery office in Loughton – the heart of the Essex stockbroker belt of outer east London.
Many houses in this area cost close to £1 million, forcing a lot of the workers to commute miles to a job that starts before dawn. Nevertheless almost the entire office has turned up early to be at the meeting.
The picture is the same across east London and Essex. Ryan Ward and Mick Paul, area safety reps for the Romford branch of the CWU union, invited Socialist Worker to join them on the first full day of their 48-hour strike for a tour of picket lines in the area.
All the branch’s delivery offices struck solidly, with not a single scab in any of the offices we visited in South Woodford, Loughton, Ilford, Barking or Dagenham.
In Loughton, the strikers are gathered in small groups, illuminated by the street lamps, their breath turning to steam as they joke and chat excitedly in the unusually cold morning.
As area delivery rep Alan Glover starts his speech, the chat stops and people gather in close to hear him outline how the national talks between the union and Royal Mail are going nowhere – and what Royal Mail’s demand for “total flexibility” from the workforce amounts to.
“Annualised hours mean that in the summer, when mail volumes are low, we might only put in five or six hours a day,” he says. “But in the run up to Christmas, when we would normally earn some decent overtime, we might be told to work a 13 hour day for no extra pay.”
Many of the huddled strikers mutter angrily under their breath. “If you don’t do overtime, maybe you think that this isn’t going to affect you,” says Alan. “But you probably don’t do it because you want to spend time with family, or you have other commitments.
“Under the proposed new arrangements, however, your managers can instruct you to start work up to two hours early, or stay two hours late. And with seven days’ notice they can permanently change your start and end times. Apparently this is Royal Mail’s idea of a ‘family friendly’ policy.”
Alan discussed how the union’s battle must be stepped up – in particular why it is necessary to implement the CWU’s “do the job properly” campaign.
“To win this fight we’ve got to get the mail backed up. The offices must be completely stuffed with it. There’s no point us going on strike for four days, then coming in and using our cars to speed deliveries, not taking our breaks, and taking out over-heavy bags.
“That just undermines the strike. As far as I’m concerned, anyone who uses their own car to do their delivery round is the moral equivalent of a scab.”
The strikers appear to be in agreement. From the back of the crowd, one shouts out, “And no one should be doing any bloody overtime either.”
As the meeting breaks into a question and answer session, someone asks why the union continues to back the Labour Party, despite the government’s backing for the employers.
Alan responds, saying, “If you don’t want to pay into the political levy, you don’t have to. Personally, I think it’s a waste of money.”
Geoff, the Loughton office’s union rep, chips in that most people working in the delivery office have already stopped paying the levy.
One young striker asks whether the union will protect casual workers who have decided to join the strike.
“I’ve been working at this office for eight weeks and I only joined the union the other day so I could come out with all the rest of you,” he says. “What happens if the gaffer threatens to sack me for going on strike?”
The rest of the strikers offer reassurance, and then Geoff speaks for them all when he says the union welcomes casual workers and will protect them.
“If anyone gives you any stick, you let me know and the union will deal with it. We’re not going to let anyone get picked off, not in this office.”
Another striker asks why the media coverage of the strike has been so biased against the union.
He is answered by another, who says, “It’s because the media is owned and controlled by people like Allan Leighton and Adam Crozier [Royal Mail’s top directors]. Media is big business – and it’s always going to be against the unions.”
As the meeting ends, two postal workers who between them have decades of experience in the Loughton office tell Socialist Worker about their impressions of the meeting.
Both think the strike is a life or death matter for the union – and that it is educating a new layer of younger workers about the traditions and importance of union organisation.
“People have got to realise how serious this battle is,” they say. “The meeting has really helped do that. Royal Mail wants to get rid of everything that makes this job worth doing and we can’t let them get away with it.”