Socialist Worker

Posties: 'We struck, we spread it-and we won'

Postal workers tell Charlie Kimber how they beat management union-busting

Issue No. 1876

A SURGING wave of solidarity brought victory to the postal workers and turned the management's hopes to ashes.

Rank and file organisation hurled back the bosses' offensive. It has also shaken New Labour. Sean Ellis, the unit delivery rep at Dartford, told Socialist Worker early on Monday morning, 'We have taken everything Royal Mail could throw at us-and we have beaten them back. It was because people held the line and stuck together. The union was at stake, and we have defended it in the best possible way by showing our commitment to it. We are going back with our heads held high. Whatever negotiations there are to come now, we are in a much stronger position than before. We were out for nearly three weeks. That's been hard at times. But people did not waver. Nobody at Dartford flinched.As Sean spoke, another picket said, We took that bloody management document and shoved it up their arse.'

Strikes began at two offices two and a half weeks ago. They would have been isolated and hammered were it not for the solidarity and decisive action of other postal workers. That support and the original strikes were illegal and unofficial. They were also extremely effective.

The strikes first spread across most of London, then large parts of Essex and Kent. But the real test was yet to come.

Management had planned this offensive and had a strategy to get other offices to do strikers' work. They hoped this would demoralise the strikers and crack the union nationally.

The bosses' plan-detailed in the Guardian after it was discovered by an ordinary postal worker-included harassing, following, spying on and photographing union reps.

But very quickly other offices showed they would not scab on their colleagues. Out came Slough, Oxford, Stansted and Milton Keynes.

Soon afterwards it was Portsmouth, Swindon, Cambridge, Warrington, Hatfield, Gravesend, Coventry and Stoke.

A brief walkout at the Wishaw office near Glasgow also shocked Royal Mail. Some stopped because they were asked to do London work-others through simple solidarity. Management had relied on divisions in the union and the lie that the dispute was about London weighting. Now they found they were uniting the workforce in a militant fightback.

Royal Mail's chief executive, Adam Crozier, who had arrogantly sent only underlings to meet the union, was suddenly pitched into the talks over the strike.

Management were on the rack. Tens of millions, perhaps as many as 180 million letters, were stockpiled in offices around the country.

Businesses were screaming that their bills were not going out and that they could not get payments in.

The special delivery service had to be suspended in most of London because there were not enough managers to cope.

Newspapers such as the Financial Times were demanding that the union be dragged before the courts.

This seemed likely to cause a national strike and a major confrontation with the anti-union laws where the outcome was far from certain.

'The strike is making us look stupid,' said Royal Mail chairman Allan Leighton. Trade and industry secretary Patricia Hewitt attacked the unofficial strikes. But the strikes rattled the government and she said management should move away from 'megaphone diplomacy'.

Bosses began to offer concessions in talks.

But there was still another twist to come. Management bent over backwards NOT to force working offices to do London work or to give reps any excuse to lead their members out.

In one major office a rep walked round selling the rank and file paper Post Worker while being paid overtime-and the manager did nothing.

In another mail centre a manager was suspended for harassing a rep-just as it was revealed that Royal Mail had a national policy of harassing reps!

It was a different attempt to isolate the striking offices.

For a few hours it seemed to be having some success. But then came news that Edinburgh and Glasgow were preparing to walk out. Other major centres were ready to go.

Pickets planned to go out from London on Monday afternoon if necessary to campaign up and down the country and put their case.

It was enough to tip the balance. Fearing an even more powerful strike, Leighton and Crozier got the nod from their political masters to make the deal, even at the bitter cost of retreat.

Leighton then intervened personally in the talks to get agreement. The postal workers would have lost without the tremendous courage and defiance of the rank and file and the union reps.

They put their livelihoods on the line, gave up hundreds of pounds in wages and suffered long hours on the picket lines.

What made it effective were the networks of the rank and file, many around the paper Post Worker.

They coordinated a response to management provocation, gave encouragement at difficult moments, and made sure the strike did not lose momentum.

Royal Mail may try to get their way by other methods. There are still important negotiations to come. The postal workers have made a massive contribution to reviving working class struggle in Britain.

They must build on the networks they have already achieved, strengthen their organisation and prepare for the next time.


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Features
Sat 8 Nov 2003, 00:00 GMT
Issue No. 1876
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