Postal workers were in the forefront of the solidarity with Grunwick. Derek Walsh was one of the postal workers involved in the dispute.
“It was one of the most inspiring times in my life, a time when I was really proud to be in the union and to be a postal worker,” says Derek.
“People put their jobs, their livelihoods and their homes on the line for a group of workers who, when the battle began, were not even trade union members.
“Working people, most of them men and most of them white, stood shoulder to shoulder with immigrant workers, most of them Asian and most of them women.
“The first I heard about Grunwick was in the summer of 1976. At the time I was one of the elected officials of the London division of the Union of Post Office Workers (UPW).
“The Cricklewood office, which covered Grunwick, said they were refusing to cross picket lines to take the mail into the plant, and they were now looking for other branches to act.”
“We passed this up to union headquarters, but our general secretary Tom Jackson said that nobody else was doing anything so we couldn’t go it alone.”
On 23 September 1976, the UPW executive declined to back a general boycott of Grunwick’s mail, but did call for workers to refuse to cross picket lines. Cricklewood continued its policy of not delivering the mail. The company then sent management to the delivery office to pick up the mail.
This led the UPW executive to call for the “blacking” (refusal to handle) of all Grunwick mail.
“George Ward and his NAF allies went to the courts because they knew we had them in trouble,” says Derek. “Ward and NAF tried to use the laws against theft of the post and delaying the mail against us.”
The legal wrangling merged with a wider political struggle that postal workers took up – apartheid South Africa.
After the Soweto massacre of June 1976, unions across the world pushed for a week of action. The UPW said it would block all mail and phone calls, which were handled by the Post Office at that time, to South Africa.
This was far from unprecedented. Postal workers had taken similar action in 1973 in protest at French nuclear tests.
When mass pickets began at Grunwick, large numbers of postal workers were involved. On 14 June 1977, Derek and his fellow London official John Taylor went to visit the pickets.
“John was really the leading light,” says Derek. “We spoke to Mrs Desai and others and were determined to deliver some support. They had been sacked and then suffered vicious treatment from Ward, the press and the police.
“I saw what happened at the mass pickets, the way the police attacked people like my mate Bill Fry who was doing nothing wrong.
“Me and John sent out a letter calling for blacking. We hadn’t asked union HQ, and they went mad at us. We were told it was illegal and the union’s funds would be sequestered and we’d personally be liable for huge fines.
“It was a bit worrying, I suppose, but at the same time you knew it was the right thing to do.”
As mail piled up the union wrote to all its members saying the action was contrary to the rules of the union. But it continued in many offices. A cabinet committee demanded the end of the blacking. The inquiry under Lord Scarman was launched in an attempt to placate the unions.
Still the blacking continued.
The UPW executive called for normal working. On 5 July, 26 workers at the Cricklewood office were suspended, and 87 the next day. The office stopped entirely.
“Ward was desperate and sent his people into the office to take the mail and process it themselves,” says Derek. “This was the moment for all postal workers to get involved. But the UPW executive voted against wider action.”
Holding back the struggle at key moments meant it could not now be easily turned on again. Cricklewood held out until 29 July when, by a narrow majority, workers felt they had to return.
“The union held a disciplinary committee and seven of us who were London officials were fined a total of £1,400.
“Jack Dromey, then secretary of Brent trades council, put round an appeal supported by over 20 Labour MPs and we more than raised the money.”
When the issue of the fines was raised at the 1978 UPW conference, Cricklewood branch chair Colin Maloney told delegates, “We did what we believed to be right and no one can take that away from us. It’s no good going back to our branches and saying that Cricklewood was wrong or that they were against the rules.
“There were no rules for George Ward. He made his own rules.”
Derek says, “The Grunwick strike was about important trade union principles and it would have been a very important victory if we had won. It could and should have been different if the unions had pulled together to isolate Ward. I remain proud of what we did.
“Tom Jackson once said to us, ‘Who do you in London think you are, the conscience of the union?’ Well, in a way I suppose we were.”
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