A crucial battle is taking place in Royal Mail. It will determine both the future of the postal industry and the role of the CWU union within it.
Postal workers from all over Britain could join striking colleagues in London and elsewhere after the CWU last week announced a ballot for national strike action.
The declaration is not a moment too soon. Indeed, many activists are rightly angry that the union has taken so long to announce it.
Royal Mail managers are on the rampage across Britain—tearing up terms and conditions, bullying and sacking union reps, and preparing the ground for massive job losses.
Workers have met the attacks with a swathe of local disputes that have included the capital, Bristol and parts of the south west of England, Edinburgh and the east of Scotland, some parts of the Midlands and much of East Anglia.
Solid strike action by 25,000 postal workers in these areas last week showed the strength of feeling and the potential power of a national dispute.
It has helped to force the national union leadership to call a national strike ballot.
The union says that voting will start on 9 September and end on 23 September with action likely by early October, and that until then activists must “discipline” their members and ensure there are no unofficial walkouts.
It has also said that any new requests for local ballots will be rejected from now on.
This is a dangerous strategy. It is probable that managers will attempt to seize the initiative and force through as much change as possible, knowing that the union is instructing its members to “keep their powder dry”.
Already there have been serious attacks on union reps in east London and Bicester.
Offices around the country report almost daily provocation, with one area processing rep in the east of England reporting “horrendous bullying” and attendance warnings issued to workers who are off sick.
There are signs of preparation for a serious scabbing operation at the national distribution centre in Crick, Northamptionshire.
The union must respond to these attacks or risk allowing a climate of fear to develop in the run up to the national ballot. The local strikes must not only continue—they must spread.
As Chris Webb, CWU divisional rep from Wales, said, “I am worried that the policy to cut off all local ballots could lose support and have a negative effect on the national vote.
“Last week I received over 30 executive action notices [management changes pushed through without union consultation] and most of these units have requested ballots.
“We are telling members that they cannot respond for almost eight weeks at least!”
Already the London division of the union has announced that it intends to take further strike action this week.
Postal workers across Britain should follow this example.
It is also vital to keep up the argument that management attacks should be met with unofficial action that can hit back immediately.
Everyone knows that the best way to defend a rep who is suspended or workers whose jobs are “deleted” is for there to be an immediate walkout and for other offices to show solidarity by refusing to handle work.
Other groups of workers have taken unofficial action, whether it be the walkouts at the Lindsey Oil Refinery or occupations at Visteon and Vestas. They have shown that militant action is the way to win.
The strength of the CWU has been built over the years by exactly that kind of response, and it is that tradition of militancy that Royal Mail are so determined to smash.
They know that an effective union is one of the biggest barriers to any revival of the plan to privatise the service.
Unfortunately, the union’s leadership is doing its best to prevent such militant action. It has instructed branches that are not part of a local dispute to work normally, whatever the provocation.
This is a dangerous precedent and activists must challenge it.
At a local level the union must draw a line in the sand and ensure that bosses do not cross it.
This is the key not only to preventing a barrage of attacks between now and the autumn, but is also key to winning the national ballot.