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A battle that should have been won

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Issue 1706

Post union officials ram through awful deal to end London strike, but this was…

A battle that should have been won

By Charlie Kimber

POST OFFICE union reps right across London were waiting for a call to bring their members out on strike on Friday of last week. Half a dozen phone messages would have sparked a walkout by over 15,000 workers and paralysed the capital’s mail. But the calls were never made. Instead, national and regional leaders rammed though a dreadful deal at Islington’s NDO sorting office, ending a five-day strike at the site.

Union members were bitterly angry at the outcome. But there was also hope from the initiative and spirit shown by rank and file workers during the dispute. Workers at a mass meeting at NDO on Friday reacted with fury when they heard that the result of the vote was in favour of accepting the deal negotiated by officials. Many could not believe that a hand vote which had seemed to be against the deal was, in fact, in favour.

A typical response was, “It’s a total fix. We’ve been shafted. When the hands went up the officials were gutted. They were as amazed as us when the figures were announced.”

After the meeting groups of strikers gathered, angrily denouncing Royal Mail bosses, their union leaders and the media, which had lied about their dispute. Over 1,000 Communication Workers Union (CWU) members had walked out unofficially at NDO on Monday of last week. The strike was not about the sacking of alleged football hooligan Tom Doherty, although most of the press and the BBC peddled this lie right up to the end of the dispute.

This strike was over new working practices. A CWU member at the office told Socialist Worker, “Management had thrown lies and slanders at us the previous week when we struck over Royal Mail’s right to sack people on flimsy evidence. “They decided to go for us immediately afterwards in the hope that the mud had stuck and they could make a big inroad into a well organised office. They want to start putting into practice the Way Forward package of conditions, which was passed earlier this year but has not been fully implemented in lots of places because of hard resistance.”

Management wanted NDO to move from its present two deliveries a day to a single delivery. This would make it easier for Royal Mail to introduce more part time and casual workers. Workers were also expected to show total “flexibility”, and to be moved at management’s beck and call. These attacks were part of a national strategy to snuff out the wave of disputes over the Way Forward which has spread across Britain in the last three months. That was why so much was at stake at NDO.

The vast majority of the sub-offices in north and north west London joined the strike after NDO walked out. But nobody else came out. This had its effect at the mass meeting, where people were left feeling isolated. Royal Mail was allowed to achieve a settlement which will encourage further attacks. It allows single deliveries for a period and imposes new restrictions on overtime. It also forces workers to accept being directed from one part of the office to another as management dictates. This is a bad result. But the strike also saw brilliant examples of a new mood to fight from below and not to rely on the officials.

Plan for a new assault

A LEAKED document from Royal Mail shows it plans a huge new assault.

The June 2000 issue of the Business Plan, distributed to managers, pushes for precisely the sort of attacks unveiled at NDO last week. The document is marked “Internal, in commercial confidence”, and is introduced by managing director Mick Linsell.

It sets out the task for management as follows: “At the same time as gaining control and meeting quality, we must also focus on driving down costs.” The document demands a huge increase in productivity, rising from 77 percent “Effective Performance” this year to 93 percent within five years. Bosses also want a wholesale “change in traditional operational methods”. The document projects a big fall in staff. It says that at present the total hours worked in Royal Mail are the equivalent of 173,000 jobs, and wants this reduced to 161,000 by 2005.

  • CWU members who want a copy of this 16-page document should send 1.50 cheques payable to Socialist Worker c/o Charlie Kimber, PO Box 82, London E3 3LH.

Mood was there to spread action

THE NDO strike should have won-and it would have done if national union officials had backed it or regional officials had immediately called out the rest of London. It was scandalous for the union’s deputy general secretary, John Keggie, to spurn the strike. But London officials could have outflanked him and called for solidarity.

The mood was there to fight at other offices. A rep from the big East London Mail Centre at Whitechapel told a regional meeting, “Our problem is keeping people at work while NDO is on strike, not getting them out.” A rep from Mount Pleasant told Socialist Worker, “The Way Forward is massively unpopular here. A victory at NDO would be a terrific blow against the Way Forward. People were dying to get out the door.”

London officials have always proudly boasted that no big office would be left to fight alone for more than two days. Yet here they were left isolated for five days.

London officials set deadlines three times to call out workers across the capital if a settlement was not reached. But three times these were ditched in favour of more negotiations. Yet at each new round of talks Royal Mail revealed new attacks. London leaders have won a reputation for standing up for their members by backing some high profile strikes in the past and taking on national officials. Unfortunately last week they acted just like those national officials who they had previously slated.

Real hope seen in this glimpse of the future

AROUND 150 pickets gathered and held a meeting to discuss their next move on the fourth day of the NDO strike. They said they were “sick and tired of standing around, sick of being promised solidarity by the officials but not getting it”. They voted unanimously to set off to the giant Mount Pleasant site and campaign to get other people out in support. Despite torrential rain the strikers walked or drove to the office and gathered outside for an hour, leafleting workers. Their flying picket had a real impact. It started a big debate inside Mount Pleasant and increased the pressure on London union leaders.

A striker, on a picket line for the first time in his life, told Socialist Worker, “I’ve learnt in four days that you have to get involved-you have to do things for yourself. We should have done this from day one. We need to get organised.”

The pickets moved on to lobby a London region meeting of union reps. Strikers chanted, “Call London out,” gaining in confidence as they went on. “At first we were a bit timid, but why shouldn’t we tell these people what we think? We are the union. It should be defending us,” said a striker. The lobby won promises, but these were never fulfilled.

Such rank and file activity is the model for the future. It was not strong enough this time, but it can be built much further. There is still a tense mood inside the Post Office. CWU members showed their political feelings when their conference voted in June to break from Labour if the government privatises any part of the Post Office. They also refused to give additional money to Labour this year.

Combined with the highest level of strikes of any industry in Britain, this feeling of anger at New Labour’s policies of “flexibility” and working harder has created an explosive atmosphere. The battle is far from over.

Plymouth on strike

OVER 200 workers at the Post Office call centre in Plymouth struck officially for 24 hours on Monday in a dispute over Saturday premium payments. Plymouth workers voted overwhelmingly for a strike in a ballot. They say management is refusing to implement a previous agreement about money for Saturdays.

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