Socialist Worker

50,000 strike-Royal Mail, New Labour panic

Issue No. 1750

50,000 strike-Royal Mail, New Labour panic

By Charlie Kimber

FIFTY THOUSAND postal workers struck illegally last week and won a huge victory. They not only beat back a concerted attack from their bosses, they went on to force big concessions. Rank and file organisation was stronger than all the union laws, and pressure from bosses, government and union leaders.

It is one of the most important strikes of recent years because it points to the future. It shows what can happen when the simmering anger bursts out in other industries. The Post Office's demands for ever-faster working under worse conditions, and for privatisation, fuelled workers' resentment.

The message from the media, New Labour and most union leaders is that strikes, pickets and defiance of the anti-union laws are outdated and ineffective. They say we now live in an era of "partnership". Last week's strikes shattered those myths. It showed a brutal employer get a roasting from an illegal strike.

At the end nobody is in court, nobody was disciplined, nobody was sacked. The union is far stronger and activists feel ten feet tall. Direct action using militant tactics achieved far more than months or years of negotiations. Royal Mail planned and provoked the strike. When workers in Watford held a one-day official strike, management instructed workers in Liverpool, Stockport and elsewhere to reprogramme their sorting machines so that they could sort work for use in Watford. It was a deliberate challenge to the union rank and file's best organised sections.

It is very unlikely that the Post Office would launch such an offensive without consultation with people at the top of the government. Did some ministers hope to defeat a "rogue union" to prove their pro-business credentials? Certainly Royal Mail wanted to break the power of unofficial action that has frustrated many of the bosses' attacks over the last few years.

They wanted to clear the way for 4am starts, 12-hour shifts on a Saturday, having to ask before you stop work for a sip of water, casualisation, deregulation and privatisation. It all went horribly wrong for the bosses. Liverpool and Stockport struck solidly.

Instead of them being isolated and smashed, the unofficial network of union activists spread the strike to Preston, Bolton, Manchester, south west London, east London, north London, the central London offices at Paddington, Mount Pleasant and Rathbone Place, large parts of North Wales, Chester, Maidstone, Cardiff, Dartford, Newcastle, Watford (illegally this time) and elsewhere. By Wednesday of last week, essentially the whole of north west England and London were out.

Tens of millions of letters piled up. Every day Royal Mail workers handle 80 million items. When they stop, that network grinds to a halt. Just 50 big customers account for 40 percent of the post. Strikes hit these banks, mail order companies, utilities and government agencies very hard. They would like to see the union strength broken, but they can't stand a long strike. The government was also screaming for a settlement. Union leaders were summoned to meet officials at 10 Downing Street. It was made quite clear that the action had to end.

Had the strike continued, the general election timetable might have been in jeopardy because postal vote applications would have been held up. Imagine Blair having to announce on TV that a popular, illegal strike had derailed the timing of the most important event in official politics. The union's leaders were also terrified that they had completely lost control. The union's main negotiator with the Post Office, deputy general secretary John Keggie, was already reeling from the shock of losing the general secretary election to a candidate further to the left.

On Wednesday night last week management and the union leaders desperately tried to thrash out a deal. A union insider has told Socialist Worker, "They were negotiating with each other, but they both knew the real force was outside the room-the tens of thousands on strike.

"Whenever the CWU negotiators were in trouble they just said, 'We can't get this past the activists, you know,' and Royal Mail had to give ground." On Thursday morning a deal emerged. But new concessions had to be added to get the strikers' agreement. Even then Liverpool, Stockport and Cardiff stayed out longer than the rest and won further ground. Steve Higginson, the area processing rep for the Merseyside branch of the CWU union, told Socialist Worker:

"Even before the Tories' anti-union laws the question of handling mail from striking offices was regarded as non-negotiable by management. It was part of your job and you just had to do it, full stop. Now we have a local statement that, in the future, there will be notice and negotiation before mail is brought here from striking offices. That's unofficial as well as official strikes. So you have a ruthless management forced to concede that workers have a right to object to doing the work of people who are on illegal strike! That's a very important shift. This strike was a watershed."


"The Socialist Alliance was the only party which rushed out a statement supporting the strikes. We need a political challenge to New Labour, and we need to build the rank and file around Post Worker."

  • Fran Choules, CWU area distribution rep, Exeter (personal capacity) and Socialist Alliance candidate for Exeter

Prepare fight

ROYAL MAIL and the government will come back with new attacks. As one London manager put it, "After 8 June we'll be going for you again." Union activists need to step up their organisation. The rank and file paper Post Worker has a central role to play.

It produced a daily bulletin during the strike and acted as a link between strikers. To find out more, get involved or receive the latest issue (plus "souvenir" back issues) phone 07904 157 779.


Winning result

  • NATIONAL: Beat back attack on union. Bosses' offensive repulsed.
  • LIVERPOOL and STOCKPORT: Won review and right to talks over mail coming from strike-bound offices.
  • WATFORD: Reopened negotiations on new working practices.
  • LONDON: Royal Mail backed off from imposed changes to deliveries.

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Article information

News
Sat 2 Jun 2001, 00:00 BST
Issue No. 1750
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