Around 1,500 postal workers in Northampton have won a tremendous victory which points the way for others to fight back.
A five-day unofficial strike saw management cave in on Monday night, just hours before the action threatened to spread to a crucial distribution centre.
A series of changes designed to curb earnings and make workers do even more work have now been withdrawn.
Northampton CWU union branch secretary Lee Barron said, “The solidarity of the members involved is something to be proud of.
“All the proposals to worsen our conditions have gone, and mangement say they now want a fresh start.”
The strike has prevented management weakening or even breaking the strength of the union in the offices affected.
“This began as a struggle over our conditions at work and over issues like overtime, but very soon everything was at stake,” CWU area processing rep Gareth Eales told Socialist Worker.
“The result is a tribute to the way people stuck together and refused to accept anything less than the justice they deserved.”
The walkout began during the late shift on Thursday of last week.
As part of the national plan to implement 4 percent cost cuts in every office, management had informed the union that they were now restricting overtime, limiting jobs and cutting hours.
Morning delivery staff would be expected to do extra sorting work, reducing hours on the nightshift.
In addition bosses would now claim the right to divert mail away from Northampton to other offices without consultation.
This would reduce earnings.
Workers were not prepared to accept such diktats and spontaneously walked out. “Management are just so arrogant — they think we have no rights and are not to be treated as human beings,” said a worker who took part in the first phase of the strike.
“When it came to it there wasn’t a lot of doubt that people would walk out. You look round and everyone’s nodding and starting to move to the exit.”
Over the next 24 hours the other shifts came out. By the weekend Northampton’s two delivery offices and mail centre, and the Wellingborough office were out.
Now came the real assault from management. They said that any return to work would have to be on the understanding that all local agreements were swept away. Overtime, holidays, bonuses and everything else would be up for grabs.
“They were effectively abolishing the union and what it has achieved,” Mike, a CWU member, said.
On Monday workers gathered for a mass meeting.
After waiting for several hours the strikers heard their national negotiators say that no acceptable deal was possible. Management were sticking to their demands for extra sorting work by deliveries, and wanted to punish the union for the unofficial walkout.
“They’re trying to divide us, we’re not having this,” one woman worker shouted out, to general agreement.
Bosses had moved 12 trailers of Northampton mail to the Crick national distribution centre, but had not ordered that it be touched. This was because they feared it would spark a wider struggle.
Crick is an absolutely crucial office. It can handle up to 47 million items a day and if it stops the national network is disrupted.
Northampton CWU branch has run a sustained campaign to build the union in the office. It has run a series of recruitment drives and ensured that there are reps in every area.
“This was a new workforce which management hoped would be immune from union influence,” says a Northampton CWU official. “But we made sure it became our fortress. There is a very good mix of reps, not just older white men but black and Asian people — the union reflects the workforce.”
This work meant that this week Crick was ready to come out and support Northampton, whether or not they were told to touch strike-hit mail.
To add to the bosses’ worried, the latest Harry Potter book was about to go into the post network, a huge distribution job which a strike would have threatened.
At first management took a very hard line. But this changed when it became obvious that the Northampton strikers were not going to break and new forces were coming to join them.
“They were all very hard, and then on Monday night the same negotiators suddenly changed their tune. They were in retreat,” says one CWU member involved in the talks.
The events around this strike uncannily echo a major dispute in October and November 2003 when management carried out a similar strategy of demanding total surrender by the union after strikes in west London and Dartford. In that case too, spreading the action to other offices threw back the attacks and defended the union.
Northampton’s CWU members and officials have done a great service to every postal worker.
This victory is a big boost for the union’s rank and file strength in the run-up to the fight over privatisation which is coming.
With share-based privatisation schemes on the immediate agenda of the government and Royal Mail, it is vital that every postal worker learns the lessons from Northampton.
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