By Ken PenfoldLee WakerMartin SmithPaul Garraway
Downloading PDF. Please wait... Issue 280

The Wildcats are Back

This article is over 18 years, 8 months old
The victorious postal strike has put unofficial action back on the agenda, writes Martin Smith. Postal workers describe their success.
Issue 280

‘Your world has turned upside down, and if you strike it will turn upside down again.’ So warned Royal Mail chairman Allan Leighton, shortly after post workers narrowly rejected a national strike ballot over pay. The post workers’ world has not turned upside down – but Leighton’s surely has. An unofficial strike by over 35,000 workers has produced one of the biggest victories the British trade union movement has seen in over 20 years.

This comes on top of a wildcat strike in the summer by British Airways check-in staff at Heathrow Airport. In the autumn, lightning unofficial strikes at Oxford and Wolverhampton post offices forced management into humiliating climbdowns and train drivers on Heathrow Express won their recognition battle.

For the past 15 years bosses have relied on a number of factors to keep working class militancy in check. Most obvious were the defeats inflicted by Thatcher on the working class during the 1980s. Fear of the anti trade union laws has also played its part. The final factor is the trade union bureaucracy, which has been both fearful of a major confrontation with the employers and unwilling in most parts to confront the Labour government. The behaviour of the FBU leadership during the firefighters’ dispute is an obvious example of this.

But it is now clear that key sections of the working class are drawing lessons from the post workers’ victory. We are seeing the return of the wildcat strike. No sooner had the post strike finished than firefighters launched their own unofficial work to rule and Heathrow was hit by another one-day strike by baggage handlers and check-in staff. And at the time of writing we are seeing the first unofficial wildcat strikes in the civil service for 16 years! Workers can see for themselves that unofficial action works. Working class recovery does not take place at a uniform pace – at certain points it can take giant leaps forward. That is what is taking place now.

The key factor in the post victory was rank and file organisation. The post dispute was led from below. Local reps based around the London Divisional Committee organised the action. They determined the tactics and the pace of events – the CWU bureaucracy was forced to take its lead from the activists, not Royal Mail or the Labour Party. The rank and file organisation around Post Worker also played its part. It produced the ‘official-unofficial’ strike placards, collection sheets and daily strike bulletins. It helped provide a framework from which the action spread.

One-day and two-day strikes, regional and rolling programmes of action have been the general pattern of disputes in Britain in recent years. The post strike shows that fast and determined all-out action is far more effective. Imagine if the post workers had held an official strike ballot. It would have taken a minimum of five weeks to organise. During those five weeks management would have organised their scabbing operation – hired casuals and trained managers. Just as important, they would have launched a massive propaganda war to undermine the union’s arguments and would have used threats of dismissal to weaken the confidence of workers. This was exactly what happened during the national ballot and was so damaging in the weak areas.

More and more the anti trade union laws are looking like a sham. During the post strike editorials in the Financial Times admitted as much. Not one worker or trade union has been prosecuted. Now some trade union leaders are talking about flouting the law. Bob Crow, the leader of Britain’s biggest rail union, asked at one rally, ‘Why bother with ballots – where does it get us?’

Anger continues to grow on the shop floor. Primarily it is fuelled by low pay, long hours and bullying managers. The tightness in some sections of the labour market is also putting great pressure on the bosses.

Both the government and the bosses talk a tough fight. But time and time again they have backed down in the face of militant action. Blair is not Thatcher – when the Tories won the general election in 1979 they had a clear strategy to take on the trade union movement in Britain. Blair has no such strategy – of course he wants to discipline the trade union movement, but this is a government responding to events rather than shaping them.

Each time Blair and his cohorts attack another group of workers the bitterness with Labour grows. Only last month the Unison health committee voted to withdraw all money to Labour Party constituencies whose MPs voted for foundation hospitals. And Dave Ward, the CWU deputy general secretary, told a rally of striking post workers, ‘It’s a matter of democracy. If you asked our members how much they wanted to give to Labour at the moment I reckon from about 200,000 of them you’d get about £5. That’s not £5 each – its £5 between them. Let’s give the £5 to Labour and say here you are – if £5 is not enough then you can disaffiliate from us.’

Low pay, long hours, deep-seated bitterness with the Labour government, rising political movements and growing trade union militancy – how all this will unfold is unclear, but potentially the situation is explosive.

Paul Garraway, Oxford Delivery Office

Shortly after the national strike ballot was lost the mail centre went out spontaneously in response to Allan Leighton’s anti-union ultimatum. The following morning we had a meeting on our gates, had a vote – there were only two votes against – and came out in solidarity action. We kept it shut for the weekend and had a close decision on the Sunday to go back because management had agreed to talk to our reps. But on the Monday they kept our reps waiting all day to provoke another strike and started sacking drivers in the afternoon. And then the mail centre went again. That was really good because the picket lines were packed. There was a really good atmosphere.

The next day Heddington didn’t go because the rep was on holiday and I was on my day off – and I wasn’t allowed to go near it. So the following day we made sure we had another meeting on the gates. We rang round a few people and had them out early to stop people going in. The other two delivery offices came out as well.

One of the drivers had worked at various delivery offices, so people knew who he was, and they were angry about the way that he’d been treated. They sensed that the union was being attacked. The day the deal was done we had a meeting to go back but we had a massive vote to stay out indefinitely. It was an amazing feeling.

When we went back the bosses wouldn’t let us do any overtime – no extended deliveries – so we said, ‘You’re not going to clear the backlog then, are you?’ But after the wider wave of strikes we had a much better agreement going back – they were all being nice! We had the extended deliveries and overtime as an option and the difference was that it was national, and not just Oxford on its own.

It’s a great feeling that we’ve defended the union. If nobody had stood up Allan Leighton would’ve run roughshod over the whole lot. We’ve stopped him in his tracks. He went for the approach that ‘Oxford’s being uppity, so if we smash them, that’ll be a message for the rest of the union’. And we’ve stayed out until we got our sacked drivers reinstated.

One of the reasons I think we did go back then was because there was the legal strike over London weighting. But legal or not legal, Allan Leighton attacked it anyway. It doesn’t really make much odds to their side.

I went up to Manchester to speak at the ‘British Politics at the Crossroads’ meeting and the reception was great. And we had our trades council meeting recently and all the others just think you’re great. The main thing is that they go back and tell their members what’s possible.

Ken Penfold, CWU rep for Woodford Green Delivery Office

One of the most important things that came out of the strike was how many young faces have never been on strike before, have never done anything political in their life, were actually leading the strike. One guy in our office had only been there a day and a half – he wasn’t even in our union yet – but he knew it was important for us to make this decision when our six members were ‘off-pay’ at Romford.

It was more confident than I’ve ever known us to be. For weeks before the strike, management were clearly trying to push us out by giving us more and more work, then saying that if anyone starts going slow they’re going to take us off-pay (which is a new posh way for Royal Mail to say you’ve been sacked or suspended). That’s purely intimidation. They wanted to get individual offices out and make an example of them.

I’ve built up a readership of Post Worker at my office. It definitely had an influence. About a quarter of the workforce read it. The union branch is now paying for it, which means some of the older blokes – who were bloody good on the strike – will now get it.

I got a text message at two in the morning to say that these drivers had been suspended. Management took us upstairs for a meeting because they had a feeling that we were going to have an unofficial walkout and they wanted to foil our attempts. And they tried to say that the strike was caused by Oxford and was nothing to do with anybody else. I reminded them that six of our members had been dismissed and we have an obligation to support those workers. I also told them that the mail that was in the office was scabbed mail. Then I walked out. I told people that ‘I’m not handling that mail, I’m walking out’.

To be honest with you, I stood outside the main gates… and nothing happened. I was panicking a bit, thinking ‘My god, what’s going to happen?’ Then all of a sudden, two, three, four, then five, then another couple, then another couple… Then the manager decided to stand on the gate to intimidate people, but it didn’t make any difference. The guys still in the office saw that, and felt more confident that other people were doing it, and walked out.

Once we all got out – all bar about five who stayed in throughout the strike – it was very strong right the way through. About a hundred of us were out altogether. It was probably the closest we’ve ever been in our office since I’ve been there for 16 years. People were joining together (a) to save the Romford drivers and (b) to put some strength back into our trade union. The rank and file was leading the strike, not the CWU.

On the last day everybody else in the country went back to work but we stayed out, because we weren’t happy with the deal they put together that said it’s the manager’s decision to give you a fair and adjustable amount of mail for a day’s work. We know their decision at our office would be too heavy, so we stayed out one day longer than anybody else. Even though we were isolated we were adamant that we weren’t going back to work until we sorted it out. I spent a day in conference with senior management at Romford and it just so happened that Brian Nash, the biggest manager for the whole of the area, was there.

At the end of the day we got a good deal. Management have to consult with the CWU now, then we consult with the staff, and we come to a ‘happy medium’ over how much work there should be, rather than management just deciding themselves.

So we’ve got an incredible victory. Not only have we got the negotiations changed, we’ve got ‘The Way Forward’ scrapped, we’ve got negotiations around single deliveries rather than diktats, and we’re in a stronger position to improve the London weighting allowance. If we’d been on our normal, official strike one day a week or one day every other week, we could have been on strike for 20 years because Allan Leighton was not going to give in to that. Actually, by having one-day official strikes with ten days’ notice management got the service done for nothing – because Royal Mail employees didn’t get paid on that day but next day had to carry twice as much work in order to clear it. So unofficial strikes were definitely the way to go when they win so much.

Lee Waker, East London Delivery Office and Labour councillor

There was an unofficial union meeting called at my office. Because of the anti trade union laws the union reps couldn’t call one officially. But members heard that Bow processing office – the main one for east London – had come out that night. When I came in the next morning the lower ranking manager said to me that ‘You might as well keep your coat on, and you’re going to need it on for a long time’.

It was a declaration of war by managers on postal workers. They’d prepared for it, but they’d underestimated our support from our brothers and sisters elsewhere in the country. London and the surrounding areas weren’t going to be left alone, and when we heard it had spread up to Coventry, Warrington and Preston we knew we were getting the necessary support. Word got around, there was a canteen meeting, and we went from there. There was a democratic vote and everybody’s hand went up. We knew the consequences if we didn’t do something.

For a long time management’s wanted changes to the way we’ve worked. The last year or so they’ve wanted 30,000 redundancies, changes in structures to working and phasing in one delivery. They’ve also wanted to get rid of seniority – which gives you more choice over what jobs and shifts you do depending on length of service. Rather than getting people off the dole queue, they were trying to fill duties in with regular postal staff, taking them from one job to another without negotiation. This is what sparked the strikes.

For the first few days when Adam Crozier was coming on the TV, he was making out that it was about pay. There is a pay issue about London weighting, but this was about our working conditions. Unless you have some kind of duty structure, where you know when you’re working, in the end you’ll have no personal life.

The London weighting ballot went through, but the national vote didn’t. But a hell of a lot of people, myself included, didn’t get a ballot form. I phoned the union HQ repeatedly about it, but basically I was ignored. Dave Ward’s a fighter but I think he underestimated the bureaucracy in the union structure. The campaign for the ballot could have been a lot better – you need to see these things as an election campaign.

Once that ballot lost, management saw that as a weakness. They decided to pick out one or two places like Dartford and Greenford. They took the gamble that by the time we walked out on the Tuesday they’d already have been out a week and the work would be getting shifted. It’s a normal trade union rule that if someone’s on strike you don’t cross their picket line and you don’t touch their work. So when they shifted the work eventually this is what spread the strike.

Management thought that if they could limit the action to London and the south east they could grind us down. They maintained that it was about pay to make those in the Midlands and up north think it wasn’t to do with them. But it was an attack on conditions across the whole industry, and it backfired on them.

When you’re out it shows that the work that postal staff do is important to society. It is an essential service and we’re key workers and should be treated as such. People say we can communicate through computers, but in the last 20-odd years there’s been a 60 percent growth in the work. Most of us are still on a six-day week. We’re still getting up at half past four in the morning. The least we can expect is a bit of respect and a living wage.

We gave them a good slapping, but we’ve got to keep on our guard. They’ve taken the area reps and put them back on the floor to hamper them. But overall it was a victory.

Management has to know their place otherwise they start taking over. If we hadn’t stood together our lives wouldn’t be worth living. The union isn’t the hierarchy, or the photocopiers at union HQ – the union is the members and without the members standing together it wouldn’t be worth the paper it was written on.

  • 17 SeptemberCWU announces result of postal ballot: 48,038 accept pay offer, 46,391 reject. In London postal workers hold a separate ballot over their London weighting campaign. 11,417 reject offer, 4,306 accept.
  • 19 SeptemberOxford mail centre walks out because staff feel that management are treating the union with contempt.
  • 21 September
    Oxford workers vote to return to work after management give assurances that they will abide by joint agreements.
  • 22 September
    Oxford walks out again after management sack two drivers and demote a manager. Work is moved to five other mail centres. Workers at these centres refuse to handle Oxford’s work.
  • 24 September
    Oxford staff return to work victorious after the two drivers are reinstated.
  • 1 October
    25,000 post office staff take part in the official one-day London weighting strike. Management shocked by levels of support for the strike.
  • 10 October
    Wolverhampton mail centre walks out after management display racist answers to their staff questionnaire on a noticeboard.
  • 13 October
    Wolverhampton returns to work victorious after management apologise for actions, set up an inquiry into racism at the centre and pay all staff for loss of earnings including overtime and bonuses.
  • 16 October
    Second official one-day London weighting strike. Over 25,000 post workers join 50,000 council workers on strike.
  • 17 October
    Management provoke a dispute at Southall, west London. Staff walk out on all-out unofficial dispute.
  • 18 October
    Royal Mail moves scab work from Southall to Greenford mail centre. Staff immediately walk out. Management try to impose a back to work agreement which would rip up national agreements and in effect derecognise the union.
  • 21 October
    Staff in Dartford and west London walk out over unrelated issues. Once again management try to impose vicious back to work agreements.
  • 28 October
    Over 25,000 post workers across London, Oxford and Essex join the strike in solidarity with their workmates in Dartford and west London.
  • 29/30 October
    Post workers in Coventry, Hatfield, Warrington, Southend, Cambridge, Swindon and Milton Keynes all join the dispute.
  • 3 November
    Management surrender at 3am in the morning. All workers are reinstated, all previous agreements are restored, all outstanding issues to go to the Advisory Conciliation and Arbitration Service (Acas), a no victimisation clause is signed and management admit that the dispute was not the union’s fault.

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