ONE FACTOR that helped the post workers win their recent strike was the existence of a network of rank and file activists grouped around the paper Post Worker.
Of course, contrary to the fantasies of the press, the strike was not the result of manipulation by 'scheming lefties'.
It reflected a very wide-ranging bitterness among tens of thousands of post workers against management and the government.
But a strike that begins as a semi-spontaneous surge of revolt requires direction and leadership on the ground if it is to be successful.
The Post Worker network is not yet a fully-fledged rank and file organisation. But it played an important role at key moments of the dispute, providing a focus for militants who wanted to coordinate and spread their action.
A rank and file network is controlled by ordinary members, not full time officials. It is centred on real struggle rather than union elections. Post Worker is a newspaper written by and for post workers. It is bought by individuals and a growing number of branches that order in bulk and then distribute it.
But it is more than a newspaper. Hundreds of core activists identify with it and swap information and ideas.
Regular national and regional Post Worker meetings have helped this process. Despite the lack of a post service at least 12,500 copies have been sold of the latest issue, a remarkable proportion of the 160,000 Royal Mail workers
Post Worker's website carried a daily bulletin updating activists on the strike and, most important of all, telling people which offices had come out.
'Everyone else-the media, the management, sections of the union national leadership-were all trying to minimise the scale of the strike,' says one activist at the Dartford office.
'Post Worker told us what was really happening. That's very important news at 3am on day nine of the strike when it's freezing cold and you're not sure if you're getting anywhere.'
Post Worker also produced the 'official unofficial' placard and collection sheet for the strike.
'The anti-union laws meant we weren't going to get anything printed by an official union body,' says a CWU member from west London. 'We needed placards for the picket lines and suddenly they appeared. Everyone was really pleased.' Most important of all, Post Worker supporters were prominent among those fighting to widen the strike.
Pressing for strikes meant activists risking the sack. They got confidence from knowing people elsewhere were doing the same.
Not all of those who read or distribute Post Worker were able to get their offices out. But the vast majority of them tried very hard to do so. One very testing moment came when Royal Mail shifted tactics and tried to isolate the strikers by not asking other offices to do work from strike-bound areas.
It was Post Worker that argued other areas had to come out simply on the basis of solidarity and not wait until they were asked to handle scab mail. As news of a deal to halt the action came through, offices rang Post Worker to ask, 'Are we going back now or should we wait?'
A core of offices then stayed on strike until details of the agreement had been examined. Only then did a full return to work take place.
Unofficial action will take place where there are no pre-established networks of activists-and it can be successful. The Heathrow check-in staff won without any such network.
But action will be far easier if the model of Post Worker spreads and develops. Another CWU activist says, 'There has been a remarkable turnaround in the union from the loss of the national pay ballot-when everyone was on the floor-to today when we feel ten feet tall.
'It was the rank and file, and the officials who are disciplined by the rank and file, that played the crucial role in that process. Post Worker is great, but it is only a beginning. Much bigger tests are still to come. Now we have to deepen its roots and strengthen the links between activists. We also need to tackle political questions like the use of the union's political fund, confronting racism, and the BNP.
'Post Worker has to rise to the challenge.'
Royal Mail is seeking to eliminate Post Worker. For this reason activists' names have been withheld.
Broad support for independent role
POST WORKER was launched some three years ago. A group of activists were keen to build links between post workers who had been involved in a series of unofficial disputes.
In the first place they wanted simply to get out news of the strikes. They also wanted to make the strikes more effective.
Some of the activists felt it was time to press for changes in the union leadership while others wanted to build rank and file structures and widen the political debate among postal workers.
Members of the Socialist Workers Party were important in getting the paper started.
But from the start it involved much broader forces.
Today its editorial board is made up of two people elected from each of the union's nine British divisions.
Politically they include members of the Scottish Socialist Party, Labour Party, the Welsh Socialist Alliance and the SWP as well as an anarchist and (the largest group) people who are in no organisation at all.
The vast majority of articles in the paper are signed contributions from rank and file militants. They don't all agree with one another.
There have been heated debates over, for example, the London weighting campaign and who to vote for in key union elections.
What unites them is an iron-hard determination to fight hard for rights at work and against Blair's assaults on workers.
Post Worker sometimes carries articles by the union's national leaders.
But it is not dependent on their blessing and fights for an independent organisation that can continue the struggle when the bureaucracy of the union hesitates.
Post Worker has always carried articles on subjects beyond the narrow industrial questions.
It has, for example, featured interviews with Tony Benn, and reports from anti-war demos and from visits to Palestine.
The post-strike issue of Post Worker will be published in the next few days. To order your copies phone 07904 157 779.