POSTAL WORKERS in Oxford stopped work on Tuesday of last week and were still out as Socialist Worker went to press. They are taking action against a gang of bullies who are terrorising workers at the city's main mail depot. Around 450 workers are involved in the protest which has brought the mail centre to a halt.
Workers at the Headington delivery office also stopped work from Tuesday this week. Bob Cullen, the union's area processing rep and lead negotiator, told Socialist Worker, 'There is a group-a gang-who are making life hell for others. These people are visiting workers' homes, threatening to beat people up and targeting children in schools. 'Management simply have not taken it seriously and have allowed intimidation to continue unchecked.'
The gang has harassed black, white and Asian workers, and both men and women. The gang members were originally recruited as part time staff to do seven hours a week. But they have been showered with overtime and are doing 60 hours a week. They work together, take breaks together and travel together. One mail centre worker, a Rastafarian, says, 'I got into a dispute with this gang after they made a derogatory comment about my religion. I challenged one person about it, but then I was surrounded by about eight of them and a scuffle broke out.
'After that they said they would attack me and my family, which worried me as a parent. They came round to my house while I was dropping my boy off at school and afterwards they were standing outside the school. I can look after myself but when it comes to my 11 year old boy it's a different matter.'
An Asian CWU member told Socialist Worker, 'I had a run-in with this gang because they said I was listening too much to the union and should look after myself and listen to the managers. The gang are Asians themselves but that didn't stop them giving me a lot of threats. They started shouting at me-then they twisted my arm up my back and said that if I made a complaint they'd give me a good kicking and find out who my family were. It was terrifying but I'm not going to give in. It's only the union that is standing up for us. I'm more convinced than ever now about the union.'
A woman worker said, 'I know of at least three women who have left because of comments made by this gang. The women complained time and time again only to be told they should expect this kind of banter. The managers we are supposed to trust have totally failed to give the protection we have a right to expect.'
Another woman, a single mother, was threatened by the gang and when she reported it to the manager he asked what she expected as she was 'a good looking girl'. She has now resigned.
Royal Mail has reacted disgracefully to the work stoppage. Management and union are close to a deal which would see the gang taken out of the mail centre and moved to another office while an investigation takes place. But at the same time Royal Mail wants the right to take 'punitive' measures against those who have walked out. This could range from halting overtime to more serious disciplinary action.
Quite rightly the union is not prepared to accept this. 'We do not see this as a strike. It has been action to ensure a safe workplace. The employer should be congratulating us,' says Bob Cullen.
'Instead they want to punish us for standing up to bullying and harassment! 'The victims are being victimised while those responsible for the assaults have been allowed to get away with them. Management has abandoned its duties to create a safe workplace where everyone can feel comfortable about working.'
Other workers and the public have rallied round the Oxford CWU. Firefighters, civil servants and workers from the local Macmillan company are among those who have come to the picket line to offer their backing. Respect members held a collection and donated food and drink to the pickets.
'It's the first time I've put on weight during a dispute,' jokes Bob Cullen. 'I've never seen so much stuff donated!' The workers' action stands in stark contrast to management's attitude.
Royal Mail chairman Allan Leighton has made great play of making the post 'a great place to work'. Just four months ago he said, 'There's more bullying and harassment in Royal Mail than in any other company in the country. Staff are trapped in a macho culture surrounded by mental and physical assault, where workers suffer in a culture of bullying and harassment and where staff have been assaulted.'
He said this was largely workers' fault, not managers. The Oxford strike has shown that management's pretence to care is totally fake. Oxford workers were right to walk out. At the absolute minimum no other postal worker should touch Oxford's work. The best response would be for other offices to hold 'safety walkouts' in order to force Leighton to concede Oxford's demands.
Oxford has always given great support to other branches in struggle. It was central to the walkouts which saved the union last year. It's time to repay that solidarity.