Socialist Worker

Post workers strike unites the Falls and Shankill

Simon Basketter talked to striking post workers, who held a historic march last week in Belfast

Issue No. 1988

On the picket line in Belfast (Pic: Duncan Brown)

On the picket line in Belfast (Pic: Duncan Brown)


Postal workers across Northern Ireland have given a marvellous glimpse of how to stand up to the bosses and defeat bigotry. Protestants and Catholics have struck together, marched together and stood united against attempts to divide them along religious lines.

On Tuesday of last week, over 500 post workers marched from the Protestant Shankill Road to the Catholic Falls Road – roads that symbolise the sectarian division of Belfast – into the city centre. They marched through a gate at Lanark Way, passing through the “peace line” – the segregation between working class Protestant and Catholic estates.

Segregation

One worker described the scene: “Families came out of their houses in support and local workers stopped work to see the march. People in cars beeped their horns in support.

“Chants and whistles rang out along the route. Hundreds of post workers blew whistles and chanted ‘we’re blowing the whistle on Royal Mail bullying’,” he said.

The mood throughout was one of good humoured defiance. According to one of the workers, Sean, “The march was a huge moral boost. It was historic. I’ve never even been up the Shankill before. It’s over 70 years since workers have marched united on both roads. It shows the depth of feeling about the dispute.”

The strike began two weeks ago Tuesday when managers told a worker in the BT13 office that covers the Shankill area, that he had been found guilty of harassment.

Gary, the worker concerned, told Socialist Worker, “In the office there is constant harassment over doing overtime and the like. It got so bad that I started taking notes in a diary.

“Management stole my diary. When I complained they put me on a harassment charge and I was given a letter of dismissal.

“We want to work. I’ve got kids at school. I wouldn’t send them to school knowing they were going to be bullied. Yet every day people go to work in the post and have to put up with bullying.

“We’re sick and tired of being pushed around. The intimidation in this dispute is coming from Royal Mail. Royal Mail is a cesspit – and it isn’t because of the workers.”

Another Shankill worker, Tony, said, “I even had a manger following me when I picked up my kids from school. Managers tell lies all the time about staff. It is no surprise they are lying to the media about workers to try to divide us.”

Mark, a union rep in the office, said, “I have 24 years in the post. When you get letters threatening dismissal, it is time to take action. I was accused of being slow and showing a lack of diligent work, which is a charge that doesn’t even exist.

In response to all this the workers walked out.

According to a Communications Workers’ Union (CWU) spokesperson, “When people from the Falls heard that the Shankill office was out, they came out in support and then the rest followed. Management then unveiled a package of nasty demands before we would be allowed to return to work.

“That has just strengthened everyone’s resolve. They are staying out until the Royal Mail concedes to what is a reasonable request for an independent employee and industrial relations review,” he said.

Management responded by delivering letters late at night to four CWU unions reps.

One of them, Frank, said, “Late at night Royal Mail called to the house and delivered a letter saying I am liable financially for the strike. I could lose my job and my house for doing nothing wrong. If that’s not bullying, what is?

“Together we have nothing to be afraid of. Management want us to be afraid – that is what every bully does.”

At the Mallusk mail centre workers blocked the road into the centre to stop imported scabs working, despite intimidation from management and the police.

Unity across the sectarian divide has been central to the dispute. The day after the march, post workers stood in lines in the middle of every major road into Belfast city centre.

Royal Mail management has responded with a vicious and dangerous attempt to stir up sectarian division. On Monday of last week, they started briefing the press that the dispute was about the union covering up sectarian harassment.

Harassment

The following day reports in the media claimed that the diary management had stolen contained the car number plates of managers.

They suggested that the book was being used to target people for sectarian attacks. Using the word “sinister”, a coded reference to the troubles, management implied that those at the heart of the dispute were paramilitaries.

A Royal Mail spokesperson even claimed to the press that a non-striker in Belfast had received a threatening phone call at home. Yet no investigation has been launched by the police.

It is all lies. Management is playing a dangerous game.

In 2002 a Loyalist death squad gunned post worker Danny McColgan down as he arrived for work at his delivery office in north Belfast.

Loyalist paramilitaries then issued death threats against all Catholic postal workers.

They withdrew the threat after a week of united strike action by post workers and a 20,000-strong rally in the city centre.

According to one worker, “Managers were trying to demonise the postal workers in a bid to turn public opinion against them. The media have been involved in a scurrilous attack of the sort that put people’s lives at risk.”

One worker told Socialist Worker, “Royal Mail has been spreading allegations about us, but we are united on this. There were allegations of death threats, but I’m telling you that is rubbish.

“The ordinary workers have had enough. In 20 years at Royal Mail I have never seen things this bad from the bosses. But I have never seen people so united in doing something about it.” he said.

Dave, another post worker, asked, “Why are they so afraid of us? I’m a Catholic from the Falls Road, but when we marched down the Shankill, people cheered us – Catholics and Protestants together.

“We’re at the end of our tether but this strike is uniting people from across the divide. The march was an emotional experience and the response from people has been brilliant.”

According to Paul from Mallusk, “Workers always take the lead against bigotry, not the politicians. We’re on the frontline of attacks and abuse, while the politicians can hide away in their swish offices.

“This is working class people from all communities saying we’ve had enough of intimidation at work, we’re not going to take intimidation from the media.

“In reality sectarianism creates divisions among workers, and those divisions give the bosses and the politicians a free hand to push ahead with attacks on us.”

Another worker from the same office, said, “In our communities, in our sectarian ghettos, we feel isolated and powerless. But by taking action we are demonstrating something different.

“We are showing our power as workers – Protestant workers standing alongside Catholic workers, men alongside women.

“Now we face a fight because things don’t stay still. The confidence and solidarity we achieved from the march will spur us on to take action to defend our livelihoods.”


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