Striking Exeter postal workers voted unanimously to return to work on Tuesday after forcing their bosses into a total retreat.
A six-day unofficial strike by 350 workers, backed by solidarity actions elsewhere, has defended crucial union rights and thrown back management’s efforts to punish workers for daring to stand up for justice.
The strike shows that action which was wholly outside the anti-union laws and which ignored all the regulations that are normally followed can still be very effective.
The strike began on Tuesday of last week when sections of workers at Exeter mail centre walked out over disciplinary moves against their local CWU union rep, Fran Choules.
Bosses had docked Fran’s pay and threatened him with disciplinary action because he had been off sick for three days.
Fran had originally asked for time off to attend two union meetings. All other union reps were released but Fran’s release was refused on the grounds that his job could not be covered.
Fran did not attend the meetings.
The next day Fran fell ill - he suffers from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and asthma.
During the time he was off, he followed all the correct procedures of informing management.
But while he was still off, and without any contact to discuss the matter, he received a letter saying that management did not believe that his sickness was genuine, that he would have to immediately attend a disciplinary hearing on his return, and that three days pay would be deducted.
This was completely against normal procedure. It was an attack on union rights and the CWU’s ability to organise in the workplace.
When they heard the news, some 30 workers in the drivers’ section where Fran works began a sit in, demanding his money was restored and the charges against him dropped.
They also wanted action against bullying and harassment by management.
Later the whole mail centre, some 350 workers, came out on strike. Their action halted 1.2 million letters and parcels a day.
Some postal workers whose place of work is Exeter airport picketed it and turned away mail.
Plymouth and Bristol offices then led the way by refusing to handle Exeter’s mail. Other mail centres across Britain also made clear they would not touch strike-bound post and sent messages of support and donations to Exeter.
Bosses panicked as they realised Exeter was not going to crack and that other postal workers might walk out in support.
They hurled themselves into a propaganda campaign, threatening the sack for anyone who walked out to support Exeter and pressuring union officials to disown the action.
They also moved to impose a punitive return to work agreement on Exeter strikers.
These included new restrictive regulations on scheduled attendance (pre-arranged overtime), new curbs on workers’ ability to swap shifts and, most significant of all, “aligning work to functions”. Local CWU union officials said this would mean 30 jobs going out of the drivers’ section with just five created elsewhere.
As they have attempted in other disputes, bosses were trying to spread a regime of intimidation and fear around those who walk out on strike - officially or unofficially.
They want everyone to think that it’s too risky to stand up for justice in the workplace or to take action.
But Exeter workers were not giving in. They maintained their strike and spread the message by, for example, hanging banners over motorways calling for support.
As a last desperate throw, managers said they would lift all the sanctions against Fran, but would press ahead with the punishment clauses in the return to work deal.
This cynical exercise to divide the opposition failed.
Finally, on Tuesday, they offered a deal which lifted the threats to Fran, removed the changes to overtime and jobs, and agreed that shift-swap arrangements should follow the national framework - which Exeter is already operating.
The only worrying aspect is that management have signalled their readiness to press on with disciplinary cases against those they regard as guilty of bullying and harassment.
But workers say there are no such instances, and are ready to take further action if unjustified disciplinary moves go ahead.
Fran Choules told Socialist Worker, “I am grateful for all the support for my case and for the way workers stood up for their union.
“I believe we are now stronger that we were a week ago.” Exeter postal workers should be proud of their stand, and those branches that supported them should also be congratulated.
Postal workers are facing a series of battles over many issues nationally.
These include the threats of privatisation, new walk sequencing technology, increases in the number of advertising “junk” mail deliveries and changes to the regulations over sickness and absence.
They need a strong union to fight over these. That is why the Exeter victory was so important. It has reaffirmed that workers can fight over crucial issues and beat back punishment clauses imposed for walking out.
CWU members have accepted the “shaping our future” deal. The vote was 53,289 for the offer and 9,264 against. Important outstanding issues remain over door to door, walk sequencing, moves towards team working and privatisation.