Strikes force bosses to climb down
By Charlie Kimber
BRITAIN WAS on the verge of a national postal workers’ strike last week, entirely driven by rank and file pressure, militancy and organisation against management’s attacks. But it did not happen because Royal Mail bosses made huge concessions and retreated in the key dispute in Cardiff, South Wales.
The crucial moment came on Tuesday of last week. Royal Mail had managed to get a big strike in Belfast, Northern Ireland, called off. It hoped it could now turn all its attention to an unofficial strike by 1,000 workers in Cardiff and perhaps break union strength at one of the best organised branches in Britain.
The key to Royal Mail’s plan was isolating the Cardiff strike. This meant moving the Cardiff mail to other offices. But management were then hit by three hammer blows-strikes at Oxford, Swindon and Bristol in solidarity with Cardiff. At Oxford the mail did not even arrive. Management raised with union reps the possibility that it might be on its way.
A union rep told Socialist Worker, “We regarded this as a provocation, especially as there were hints of disciplinary action to follow if we did not toe the line. A spontaneous walkout followed soon after at the main mail centre. When it comes to these issues there is a very simple choice which faces our members. You can get out the door and defend everything we have fought for over a number of years, or you can roll over and get stuffed from here to kingdom come. And don’t think you can avoid the question of the anti-union laws. If Royal Mail is trying to shaft Cardiff, it’s no good doing their work while you wait for a ballot to go through. By the time you get the result the whole issue will be settled. This is why it is so infuriating when politicians and union leaders tell us to stay inside the law.”
It was a similar story at Swindon, another major mail centre, which also walked out. At Bristol workers discovered that mail was arriving with the normal docket removed. This docket shows where it has been generated.
“When the bags were opened, the birds began to sing,” says a Bristol CWU member. “It was Cardiff mail, some of it mixed with usual work. We were not having it and stopped work.”
Far from isolating Cardiff, Royal Mail was now faced with over 3,500 workers on strike and the threat of it spreading very much further, very quickly. Workers in Exeter, Liverpool, the north east of England and East Anglia were on the verge of walking out. Suddenly the tone of negotiations in Cardiff changed. The strike had started over the use of casuals in the office. But this issue had been settled after just one day’s strike.
What had kept the strike going for a further five days was management’s insistence that it could discipline a union rep for allegedly inciting action. Now, with a national strike looming, the bosses made a humiliating reversal. The disciplinary action was taken off the table for the time being, and any future action dealing with this individual will involve a special procedure which includes national union officials.
A big majority of Cardiff workers accepted this at a mass meeting. The courage and defiance of the Cardiff strikers, for a whole week under intense pressure from their managers, had bought victory. Last week’s strikes have given a huge boost to postal workers across Britain. They have shown that it is possible to stand up to bullying bosses.
In every office the management feel a bit less certain about pushing people around and demanding extra work. Yet the national CWU union leaders backed none of the strikes. They ran away because they were illegal under the anti-union laws. Bigger challenges are coming for postal workers. The continuing threat of privatisation hangs over everything.
The militancy we saw last week can stop any such plans. It is up to union members to pressure their leaders to fight, but also to develop the rank and file organisation which can deliver strikes even when the national leaders fail the test.
A STRIKE at Blackpool was threatening to spread to thousands more workers as Socialist Worker went to press. Around 200 workers at two offices in Blackpool walked out on Thursday of last week over the Christmas arrangements forced through by their local bosses. “I could not believe the response from the management when the strike started,” a local CWU union official told Socialist Worker. “They simply would not negotiate at all. It was like Cardiff the week before, a sneering, vicious attack on workers and the union.”
A CWU member at the big Preston office told Socialist Worker, “There is a strong feeling on the floor that we are not going to abandon our colleagues at Blackpool.”
Westminster Bridge Road
COUNTERS WORKERS at 29 offices in south east London have voted by six to one for a strike against the privatisation of Westminster Bridge Road office. A 24-hour strike has been called for Monday. Westminster Bridge Road is the first office in London to be privatised under the New Labour government. The strike will involve all Crown offices in the areas SE1 to SE28 plus the Bromley and Dartford districts.
Fight for bonus
POST BOSSES used delays to the mail caused by the problems on the railways to withhold bonus money from workers in Bradford, West Yorkshire. This outrageous move sparked a two-day unofficial strike last week. Processing workers walked out on the night shift at the main mail centre after they heard that slow running trains meant they were deemed to have failed to reach their performance targets for a 100 bonus.
Drivers and other workers joined the action the next day. When management tried to move Bradford mail elsewhere, workers at Keighley stopped for an hour and a half and forced the mail away. The strike at Bradford ended after management agreed to further talks on the bonus issue, although some workers wanted to continue the strike until there was a definite promise to get the money. If the bonus is still held back, further action is possible.
The national union should be taking up this issue strongly and making sure that post workers are not penalised for the failures of rail privatisation.
‘Ten feet tall’
BRISTOL POSTAL workers’ threat of strikes has forced management to make big concessions over Christmas pay and leave arrangements. A one-day official strike was planned for this week, and further action over the Christmas period. Royal Mail locally had refused to carry out the terms of a national agreement about overtime payments and leave.
In an official ballot 85 percent of workers voted for strikes. Bosses still refused to move over the issue. But last weekend they cracked and gave in to the demands that the union had made from the start. “We feel ten feet tall because we have forced Royal Mail to backtrack,” a Bristol CWU union member told Socialist Worker. “They all look very strong and think they can boss you about, but when it comes to the crunch we are much more powerful than they are. It’s bloody awful working the extra shifts over Christmas and dealing with the additional work. But this year, whenever I get depressed, I will think of how we beat the management and allow myself a smile.”
By a counters worker
UNION ACTIVISTS who work on the counters section in London and the Home Counties are furious that their CWU union leaders have thrown away a chance to squeeze management over Christmas. Bosses of Post Office Network (the counters) had recruited 250 casual workers from the Blue Arrow agency to work during December. The immediate plan was to avoid paying overtime to full time permanent staff.
The long term plan is to increase the casualisation of the industry. Following an unofficial 24-hour strike in October by staff at 60 offices, counters workers voted by 796 to 196 for strikes over Christmas. These would have involved around 2,000 workers in 164 offices and would have been very effective if they had coincided with the last date for posting Christmas mail.
After the ballot results, an 80 percent yes vote, Post Office Network made some concessions. But these were not enough to satisfy the local union reps. Post Office Network was desperate to stop the action and threatened a legal challenge over some alleged minor discrepancies in the conduct of the ballot. Many reps wanted the strikes to go ahead. But CWU headquarters has decided there is a case to answer, and that a reballot will be necessary.
This fiasco means that a decisive opportunity has been lost, as strikes in 2001 will be less immediately damaging. Branches should protest to CWU headquarters about the decision and explain clearly to their members that the blame for the no-strike lies with the national leadership.
At the same time they must try to get another big yes vote to carry on the campaign in the new year.
Fight for pay
DELEGATES TO the CWU union national meeting on pay on Monday went away feeling that they had heard very little new. Royal Mail is now offering just a 2.9 percent rise. To make this even worse, managers are also insisting that they will deal with some former Royal Mail sections separately because they are now in new business units. John Keggie, the union’s deputy general secretary, reported on his 14 meetings with management, his visit to officials at 10 Downing Street and other matters. The union should be campaigning for strikes to win a decent pay rise and shorter hours.
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