Downloading PDF. Please wait... Issue 1877

Turning point in the unions

This article is over 18 years, 2 months old
The post workers' victorious unofficial strike is a major breakthrough. Martin Smith, a Socialist Workers Party national industrial organiser, spoke to Socialist Worker about what it means
Issue 1877

Why is the post strike’s victory so important?

IT IS the first time since the Fleet Street electricians’ strike in 1983 that unofficial action has spread so militantly and won a clear victory.

It is a turning point and opens up a huge potential across the working class movement. The day the post workers went back we had the start of the firefighters’ unofficial action.

I was on a post workers’ picket line in north London when seven firefighters came along, and every one of them said, ‘Why didn’t we copy the post workers’ action?

‘They’ve only been out for five days. We were out for 16 days and they achieved more in those days than we did spread out over five months.’

The firefighters’ wildcat action, which started last week, began in the weaker areas that voted to accept the terrible deal earlier this year.

The biggest pay rally for the PCS civil servants’ union for 20 years took place in London last week. Two key speakers, including general secretary Mark Serwotka, argued not for wildcat strikes as such but to have that kind of speed.

That means challenging the old ways of operating-the regional action, the one day here or a week there-for much harder, lightning strikes.

You are beginning to hear rumblings in other new and interesting places. Workers in a very big printing firm across two sites, one based in London and one in the north of England, have contacted us saying they want to set up a rank and file organisation to coordinate action across sites.

At Tesco activists are organising the warehouses across all five sites.

They are holding regular unofficial meetings to coordinate battles because they have won two strike ballots over the last two years and both times the union leadership has not acted on them.

People have glimpsed the idea that if you fight you can win. That lesson is being drawn by quite wide groups of workers and is the key to reinvigorating the movement.

What’s been the media’s response to the victory?

THE POST strike hit the headlines only two days before it won. Then there was a lot of coverage of the firefighters’ action.

But the media buried the scale of the post workers’ victory. One reason for this is the media don’t know what’s going on. There are very few industrial reporters any more.

Channel 4 News and the Financial Times attempted to analyse it. Both had a serious analysis of the return of wildcat strikes and how they could spread.

The Financial Times is trying to convince its readership, who are largely bosses and captains of industry, that they have to be aware of what is going on.

In the unions (eight million strong), we shouldn’t underestimate how quickly the lessons can permeate through.

The trade union movement has its own magazines and structures so that message can come down if the mainstream press don’t carry major articles. Union websites, unofficial papers and magazines are already crowing about the post workers.

I think the impact will sink deeper each week as more and more post workers speak at rallies and union meetings.

And they are doing just that. On one day in central London alone post workers were speaking at a TGWU London meeting, a GMB London meeting, a hospital meeting, and the civil servants’ rally.

How will the government respond?

IT UNDERSTANDS very well that that there is a resurgence taking place inside the unions.

Blair believes in the Thatcherite method. I’m convinced he has studied Thatcher and read what she did-you pick a group of workers and smash them if you can to curb wider militancy.

But he hasn’t got a thought-out plan like the Tories did in the 1980s when they smashed one group after another, culminating in the miners and printers.

Blair’s attempt to take on the unions was partly through interfering on the inside, which Socialist Worker revealed with proof New Labour was trying to undermine the election of left wing officials.

The interference continues, but is now limited.

When a battle begins the government takes a very hard stance. But over the last few years it has been forced to back off in a number of important disputes.

Partly this is because the government and boss class talk a hard fight but they have not been prepared to go through really fierce fights.

This year they began to get a bit more confident. Three things happened: the defeat of the firefighters’ dispute, the election defeat of Aslef leader Mick Rix and the disastrous national ballot in the post.

The government and bosses drew a number of wrong conclusions. They thought the recovery in the working class was limited to elections.

But those elections reflected a deep seated mood of bitterness, of, ‘We want leaders who will lead a fight, will take on the bosses.’ The post strike has proved that without a doubt.

The method the government used against the firefighters of putting pressure on the union leadership through the TUC did not work in the post workers’ dispute. The strike was not led by the top of the union. Some union officials (CWU deputy general secretary Dave Ward in particular) played a principled role. But it was the rank and file that exploded.

They put huge pressure on the trade union bureaucracy, who had to transmit this to Royal Mail management, who in turn had to relate it to the government. The pressure was all from the bottom up.

The government buckled and then Royal Mail management. The TUC was irrelevant. That’s the power of rank and file action. Now the government could be rocked from strike to strike.

Or it might decide to go on the offensive. What form that takes we don’t know. Will they use the law and try to smash a group of workers? It’s hard to say. They could equally back off and at some point come back. The point is our side is now building up steam to confront them.

What does this strike mean for the ‘awkward squad’ of left union leaders?

THEIR ELECTION has been a breath of fresh air for the unions.

Their politicisation of the movement and articulation of people’s frustrations with New Labour are a welcome asset.

But as a group they have failed the test on two key questions.

First over sticking with the Labour Party. Bob Crow and Mark Serwotka have nothing to do with that approach, but most of the rest do.

This has become a disaster. Sticking with Labour at all costs has created bitterness inside the working class.

When you fight a Labour government you are not talking to a friend. You are talking to the enemy.

They are the government of the day and they act in the interests of the government and the rich.

Did Andy Gilchrist’s ‘special relationship’ with Labour help the firefighters?

Not at all. It was used to beat the firefighters.

CWU union general secretary Billy Hayes’s link to Labour over years did not make the slightest difference.

The government came crawling because it was scared of industrial militancy.

There are also the weaknesses of the awkward squad on the industrial front. Of course it’s very important they all meet together and talk. But they didn’t put out a call for support, collections, or a lunchtime protest or rally for the post workers.

They supported the post workers. But they see everything in terms of the bureaucracy of the union. Deal with your union and don’t cross over the boundaries. We want to see their words put into action.

What is the influence of movements such as Stop the War on the industrial revival?

THE INDUSTRIAL revival is definitely a reaction to the political movements. Of course, the bitterness comes out of the Labour government attacking workers, but there is also confidence drawn from the anti-war and anti-capitalist movements. Many young workers are clearly excited by developments. A lot of union leaders understand these movements are radicalising their members and have an impact inside their unions.

In turn these workers can feed back on and influence these movements. We want mass movements on the streets, but the post shows just how powerful the working class is.

The term wildcat feeds into the anti-capitalist and anti-war movements. It’s another expression of the new mood of militancy.

Also the post workers’ dispute shows how quickly things can change. We are always made to think change comes about gradually, that movements gradually pick up or ideas gradually permeate the working class. Of course that process goes on all the time. But at certain points in any movement or struggle it explodes forward.

What do you think this means for activists in the unions?

WE HAVE to have a sense of urgency. If we think things can carry on in the same way as before we’ll miss out.

For example, in the past fear of the anti-union laws has been powerful. Today can anyone name anyone who has been charged by anti-union laws?

No one was disciplined for taking action over the war. When 30 to 40 thousand post workers were out, the law wasn’t used. Strikers shut down much of Heathrow for days and the law wasn’t used.

It is vital to draw the right conclusions from the post and implement them in other industries.

Every trade unionist should get post workers into workplaces so workers can hear first hand what victory means.

Trade unionists should conduct an argument inside their own union at every level to draw the lessons. This could be a network of activists coming together to discuss and produce a bulletin that goes through the arguments at work and raising political issues.

It also colours every issue at work-from focusing people’s bitterness over working conditions and pay to how we breathe life into official campaigns such as the teachers’ ballot over boycotting SATs tests and the ongoing fights over London weighting.

Now is the time to raise and agitate around issues and to make the links with other fights. If there is anger over pay, working hours or conditions, argue to put the claim in now. Socialist Worker has a crucial role to play.

This was the only paper on the left that really understood what was going on in the post workers’ strike.

The distribution and sale of the paper are a way of pulling together the best activists not just in the post but across the rest of industry. That was key to delivering solidarity for the post strikes.

If you sell Socialist Worker at work you can identify the best militants. If we can pull these people together we can create the force to really begin to change the unions, to make workplaces political.

That needs consistency in selling Socialist Worker every week.

There are many workers with grievances. The employers are not confident. If you going to have a fight, it’s better to get into the ring when someone’s already knocked your opponent out once.


THE RISE of the awkward squad of left wing trade union leaders has transformed the leadership of most trade unions in Britain.

In his new pamphlet, The Awkward Squad, New Labour and the Rank and File, Martin Smith charts this phenomenon. He asks what attitude socialists should have to union elections and discusses the limits of the awkward squad.

The sections on the history of rank and file movements and attempts to develop similar movements today is essential reading.

Copies at £1 each can be ordered from Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop. Phone 020 7637 1848 or buy online at


Sign up for our daily email update ‘Breakfast in Red’

Latest News

Make a donation to Socialist Worker

Help fund the resistance