Socialist Worker

Wapping warning for post workers

Issue No. 1757

Wapping warning for post workers

By Charlie Kimber

THE GUERRILLA battles that have been waged between postal workers and their bosses are moving towards all-out war. Postal workers account for half the strikes in Britain. Almost all of them are unofficial, and almost all of them win.

The Post Office and New Labour want to force through harder "flexible" working and privatisation. They want to stop the post strikes in case they inspire other groups to fight.

The government has a free market agenda where competition must be introduced virtually everywhere. Post Office bosses believe that to compete against private firms they must savage jobs and conditions.

The postal regulator is pushing just those attacks. When the battles come there is no reason why workers should lose. And if they win it will be a huge blow against New Labour's privatisation agenda. But there is one example from 15 years ago that stands as a terrible warning-the print workers at Wapping in east London.

Rupert Murdoch took on and beat the very powerful print workers' unions. He built a scab plant and then sacked over 5,000 printers, electricians and journalists who worked in Fleet Street. Sometimes bosses stumble into fights with workers. Sometimes they meticulously plan. Murdoch planned. Post Office bosses are planning now.


Their strategy

POST OFFICE management's problem is that whenever they try a sustained assault on the networks of rank and file activists, those same networks deliver a big punishing strike. This is what happened just before the election. Management are not sure how to respond to this situation. But their long term strategy is now focused on building a scab workforce that could possibly deliver the post in the event of a strike.

They are not, of course, concerned about the prompt arrival of your birthday card. They are worried about big business customers. Just 50 major companies and government agencies account for 40 percent of Royal Mail revenue. These banks, utilities and mail order firms are terrified when the post stops.

The government and the Post Office have two ways of creating a scab alternative to Royal Mail.

One is to put Post Office facilities under private management. This management would either ban unions at the plant or agree a sweetheart deal with a union like Sir Ken Jackson's AEEU.

Local bosses have confirmed to union reps a plan to allow the information technology firm Siemens to manage the new mail centre which is being built at Bromley-by-Bow, east London. The union is very well placed to smash this attack.

The response

THE EAST London Mail Centre staff, who are due to be redeployed to Bromley-by-Bow, sort and deliver mail for some of the most important capitalists in Britain.

These include City banks, financial institutions and the national media outlets at Canary Wharf. The east London staff could spearhead a national strike before a single worker is recruited at Bromley-by-Bow.

The second way to form a scab workforce is to license private operators. The postal regulator says he wants freight firms, milk firms and supermarkets to take over moving the mail.

Hays, a big private firm, has applied to run a national service for businesses. A company spokesperson told Socialist Worker recently that normally they would route this post through Royal Mail but, in the event of a strike, they would use "other means".

Hays has just built a massive unit right next to the Royal Mail centre in Edinburgh. It has very large premises near the proposed site of the new Bromley-by-Bow centre. Transport firm TNT has built new depots at Prestwick and Edinburgh airports.

The one at Edinburgh has 15 vehicle loading bays, far more than its present business justifies. But again this plan can easily be stopped if CWU leaders call a national strike as soon as Hays or any other firm is given a licence.

Rank and file

POSTAL WORKERS should recall the Wapping experience. Print workers were well organised. Sections of Fleet Street workers had repeatedly taken action to defend their own conditions, and in solidarity with other groups of workers. But Murdoch won because the chances to smash him were tossed aside by the union leaders.

Many rank and file activists knew their leaders were wrong, but they did not organise independently to win the action that was needed. Postal workers are in a stronger situation. There are in place the basic building blocks of a national network of activists, and a rank and file paper, Post Worker. And a sizeable section of activists have broken from the belief that it is fatal to challenge New Labour.

Wapping took place just after the defeat of the miners. Union leaders won the argument with many people that militant struggle risked Labour's chances of defeating the Tories.

Today postal workers know that it is the New Labour government which is pushing through privatisation and deregulation. The great danger is that the CWU union leaders, even left wing ones, will fight privatisation by their own methods-lobbying ministers, publicity campaigns, pressure inside the Labour Party, and only limited demonstrations and strikes. This will be too little and too slow.

Rank and file workers need to organise so that the anti-privatisation campaign is spearheaded by hard-hitting strike action, and is a political challenge to New Labour's policies. Otherwise the danger of Wapping hangs over postal workers.


Countdown to disaster

FROM THE beginning of 1985 Rupert Murdoch set out to defeat the print unions. As Socialist Worker wrote soon afterwards, "Far from keeping his intentions secret, as claimed by the press, Murdoch signalled his plans like a racecourse tic-tac man on speed."

He set up a new printing plant in Wapping, east London. He said it was to produce an evening paper, the London Post. In fact he established a scab plant. Then, in January 1986, he transferred production of the Sun, Times, Sunday Times and News of the World to the new plant.

Murdoch's good fortune was that his opponents were useless union leaders. They turned a blind eye to obvious signs of his intentions:

  • In early 1985 Murdoch appointed Christopher Pole-Carew, the most notorious union buster in the print industry, as "new technology adviser" for the fictitious London Post.
  • In July 1985 the EETPU electricians' union (now part of the AEEU) signed a no-strike deal in the print. The agreement was with Eddy Shah for his new paper Today.
  • In September 1985 Socialist Worker and then the national press revealed that the EETPU in Southampton was recruiting for Wapping.
  • The same month it was revealed that Murdoch had asked transport company TNT to research an "alternative distribution system" for his London Post-in Sunderland!

At any stage Murdoch could have been stopped. EETPU leader Eric Hammond played a disgusting role. The other unions involved, SOGAT (led by Brenda Dean) and the NGA (led by left winger Tony Dubbins), wanted to defend themselves against Murdoch. But they accepted what was called at the time "new realism".

This was the belief in the trade unions and the Labour Party that militancy and left wing policies were ineffective and wrong. Instead the movement had to be "moderate" in order to win elections and media support. If the printers had struck in the autumn of 1985, when Murdoch's intentions became clear, Wapping would have been busted.

Instead Dean and Dubbins begged Murdoch for more negotiations. They offered to sacrifice conditions, union rights and thousands of jobs. In the week before Murdoch started publishing parts of the Sunday Times at Wapping, union officials ordered members not to black advertising for it. They also told the process department to produce duplicate printing plates in Fleet Street for Wapping.

Even then Murdoch could have been stopped. British Telecom workers installing a telephone exchange pledged not to cross picket lines at Wapping. There were no pickets.

When the strike did start, union leaders insisted there should be just six pickets at the gate. This was never going to be enough to persuade the Fleet Street journalists from going in.

Six people were never going to stop the TNT lorries or challenge the new workforce that EETPU had helped Murdoch recruit. By the time the union did try to get mass pickets, it was too late. The result was disaster.


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Article information

News
Sat 14 Jul 2001, 00:00 BST
Issue No. 1757
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