Socialist Worker

How the strikes raised pressure on Royal Mail

Four months of action have exposed how workers are pitted against both the bosses and Gordon Brown’s government, writes Yuri Prasad

Issue No. 2073

The postal workers’ determined resistance to Royal Mail and Gordon Brown has inspired hundreds of thousands of other workers who are facing similar attacks over pay, pensions, and terms and conditions.

The powerful strike, which began in June, has rocked management.

The dispute has also made it clear that whenever workers fight back, you can expect the government to back your employer.

From behind the scenes Brown has played a crucial role in backing management, urging them to stand firm.

He has done so because he knows that if the postal workers’ CWU union is victorious, it will send a message to every other trade unionist in Britain that if you strike, you can win.

Brown’s public pronouncements have not been subtle.

When urged to encourage “meaningful negotiations” between Royal Mail and the union, he instead said, “All workers should look at pay settlements as a means by which we can conquer inflation over the next few months.”

On several occasions since, Brown has called for an end to the strike.

Standstill

Thankfully over 130,000 workers rejected his advice, and have taken part in six one and two day strikes that have brought Royal Mail to a complete standstill.

An aggressive company management that told its employees “the deal is the deal” and there was nothing further to discuss has been forced into negotiation.

The strikes prove that when unions resist they can win massive support from their membership and, in the process, create a new layer of leadership.

In many offices new reps, some elected in the heat of the struggle, have led their offices – even in unofficial action.

The action also proved that private sector mail firms – which boast about their ability to “steal work” – are completely unable to undercut action in Royal Mail.

They have no other means to deliver mail to people’s houses.

At the beginning of the strikes, managers had boasted that this fight would be the end of the union. But they were deluding themselves.

A whopping 77 percent of CWU members voted to strike. From 29 June, the first day of action, to today, the resolve of the membership has never been in doubt.

The second strike on 12 July was even stronger than the first.

Rounding up the situation across north London, union rep Mark announced, “Out of 22 offices, only one cluster reserve worker and four non-members have gone in. All CWU members are on strike.”

Royal Mail’s response was a widespread campaign of bullying and harassment.

Unofficial

After the second strike, postal workers in Oxford took seven days unofficial action in defence of a union rep.

It was the first of many unofficial strikes and was followed by action in Glasgow, Tyneside, Liverpool, Stockport and other offices.

Royal Mail was to punish Oxford by announcing the closure of the mail centre just weeks after the end of their unofficial strikes.

As the industrial battle intensified, the political needs of the strike also increased.

It became commonplace to hear pickets describing Gordon Brown and the government as their enemy on an equal footing with Royal Mail bosses.

The government, as the sole shareholder in the company, had the power to force management to make a better offer – instead it did the opposite.

Meanwhile the groundswell of support for joint action over pay saw some union leaders talking about the possibility of striking alongside the CWU. But this has not happened.

In part, in the early stages of the dispute, this was because the CWU leaders did not campaign for it.

Later, other union leaders decided it was not a practical possibility, forcing the postal workers to fight alone.

Fine words by union leaders at the TUC Congress in September amounted to little.

To raise the temperature, Royal Mail said it planned to force new start times on workers.

In response the union launched a work to rule campaign, called “do the job properly”, which created still more backlogged mail.

Tensions were high. Then, at the beginning of August, Royal Mail told the union they wanted to negotiate.


Workers’ fighting spirit may be needed again

In early August, activists were jubilant that they had forced management back to the table, and greeted talks as a sign of their strength. The dispute would now revolve around what kind of deal could be achieved.

But, as the union called off the next set of strikes, many worried that protracted talks could take the momentum out of the dispute.

They were right to worry. For much of August activists were starved of information about the talks. Anger over the failure to call a strike during Labour’s conference led to a stormy national CWU reps meeting at the beginning of September.

Many reps argued that the union’s political fund had not secured influence with the government and that funds should only go to those who support the union’s objectives.

The meeting coincided with the release of a Royal Mail document that detailed demands for “total flexibility” and “pensions reform”.

The company also wrote to employees to impose new start times. There was now a clamour for action at every level of the union.

The announcement of two 48-hour strikes in close succession sent a shudder through Royal Mail.

This raising of the stakes put the future of the union, Royal Mail management and Gordon Brown’s pay strategy in the balance.

There was the possibility of the strike continuing into an election period, generating a political crisis. There was also a feeling that the dispute was going to be “all or nothing”.

Amarjite Singh, secretary of a CWU branch in Cardiff, spoke for many when he told Socialist Worker, “It seems that the bosses are trying to break the union.”

For both unions and management, there are two possible reactions to such pressure – pile on further pressure or seek a deal.

After the second 48-hour strike last week management provoked workers. At a rank and file level, workers responded with unofficial strikes that began in east London and Merseyside. They soon spread to much of south and north London.

The mood on these strikes was militant and political. Gate meetings in east London were often hundreds-strong and debated the future of the strike and the union’s relationship with Labour.

At the Nine Elms mail centre in south west London, hundreds of workers walked out, and then brought out their delivery offices too.

Around 800 CWU members attended a mass meeting in Liverpool on Friday of last week in which no one voted to return to work, despite the pleading of the union’s national officials.

The expectation of more national strike action on Monday of this week was the only thing that kept many offices working. Yet on Friday afternoon there were two announcements.

The first was that the next official strikes had been ruled “illegal”. The second was that talks between the CWU and Royal Mail had produced a revised offer.

Over the weekend, union officials told meetings in Merseyside and London that the deal offered could not have been brokered without the efforts of their members.

But the question remains - will any deal live up to the expectations of those who have sacrificed their pay in the fight, and, in some cases, their futures in the industry?

If not, the fighting spirit that has been shown so far must be called on again.


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