Workplace & Trade Unions

How can postal workers break the deadlock?

17 December 2022

By a CWU rep

ON 9 December nearly 20,000 angry postal workers descended on London by train, coach and in a few cases even plane (Northern Ireland and Scotland).

Parliament Square was filled to the brim with branch banners and handmade placards calling for CEO Simon Thompson to go. Thousands more staffed the picket lines outside offices to keep the strike solid.

The demo was not an alternative to striking but enabled by it, as posties flocked to London to make their voices heard. Parliament resounded to ‘We want Thompson out, say we want Thompson out!’

Workers came to London to protest against Thompson’s rotten mismanagement of Royal Mail (how can you go from £758 million profits to supposedly losing a million a day?) But we were also there to publicise the truth about our strike and the danger to the public service (Universal Service Obligation) as Royal Mail pushes to cut Saturday mail deliveries, all in the name of boosting profits, which will flow not into modernising Royal Mail but into shareholder bank accounts.

Striking unions speak

The CWU’s Chris Webb said that we were witnessing an attack on all workers and called for support for rail workers and nurses. New postal worker Amy Ash, who posted a moving video online that went viral, called out Royal Mail bosses:

‘We cannot afford to stand by and watch them destroy our terms and conditions and the service we provide’.

Andy Furey acting Postal leader for the CWU summarised the dispute and coming re-ballot, followed by several leaders from unions in dispute or balloting—the NEU teachers, UCU lecturers unions and Mick Lynch from the RMT who recounted his postie father’s participation in the 1971 strike and appealed to the memory of workers’ struggles of the 1970s.

New TUC leader Paul Novak started his contribution sounding militant enough—‘Fight for the right to strike in the courts, industrially, in parliament’—but ended with the less militant refrain that if we didn’t succeed in stopping the new legislation we could… vote Labour in 2024. How useless is that?

Lynch instead pointed to parliament, declaring they (Labour MPs) should be supporting striking workers and ‘come out of there, come out here, and come on our picket lines!’ No Labour MPs spoke, though Jeremy Corbyn, still a Labour member and an MP, was present. This may have been the CWU’s decision, not to embarrass Keir Starmer; if so, it was the wrong one.

In a stunt that got a laugh, Webb said Simon Thompson couldn’t come and had sent someone instead, rolling out a blank whiteboard. In a more pathetic stunt, the rally ended in a march to Buckingham Palace with a giant postcard to King Charles, ‘The nation’s posties need your support’. This toadying to the Royal Family has already cost us important strike dates. It has got to stop.

Workers need steps forward

Andy Furey started the rally announcing a new ballot (but not more action) in the second half of January, with ballot papers sent out 23 January, as required by the anti-union laws. He said the dispute would continue in 2023 after 13 days of strike action taken since August, with five more to come before Christmas.

Dave Ward finished it with a barnstorming speech, emphasising the shopfloor solidarity that he had experienced when first joining as a postie in Tooting, connecting to every postie there. After pointing to Thompson’s rotten record he asked ‘Why don’t we run the company, why don’t we have you on the board, you would care about the customers and provide the service, no matter what!’

Too right, Royal Mail should be renationalised, under workers’ and customers’ control, without a penny in compensation to the hedge funds and millionaire owners.

‘Are we going to do whatever it takes to win this dispute?’ Ward continued, ‘Are we winning a fight for your jobs? Are we winning a fight for the service that we provide? I think we’re going to get there, because I’ve never known such a feeling, seen so much… it’s overwhelming.’

However, the two CWU leaders gave a more sober appraisal in their video update to members the evening before, which ‘felt like one step forwards and two steps back’ and ‘frustrating’ in Furey’s words.

After three days of ACAS talks, management would not extend its offer of ‘no compulsory redundancies’ but instead would likely retain 15,000 agency workers to replace staff, with an ‘unlimited’ number of self-employed, second-class workers.

Chris Webb questioned the ‘genuineness of the talks’—not 45 minutes after leaving the room, Royal Mail had issued a press release attacking the union, stressing (again) their ‘best and final offer’, i.e. ultimatum, delivered before the talks.

Webb pointed out the spin, that offices are rammed with undelivered mail, and that Thompson’s claim of 11,000 workers going to work ignored the fact that 14,000 workers aren’t in the union (not all of whom are frontline workers anyway) compared to 115,000 CWU members. All the picketlines report the opposite—no or few staff going in, and even many agency replacements being turned away.

The strike is solid. Coordinated days of action—with the RMT rail workers and RCN nurses for example—and joint local demonstrations can help build it further. But postal workers need to see steps forward in the dispute now. That means pressure on the leaders to escalate the strike, while going forward at the grassroots.

Rank and file

So what’s the way to break the deadlock? Reps and activists should demand escalation for the January sales, with a proper strike fund and solidarity committees to support it.

Workers’ meetings to elect strike committees in the offices and local areas can bring rank and file pressure to bear, and fight for control of the strike. Key to this is the struggle against victimisations. No deal until the victimised are reinstated is a bottom line, but members should not feel they have to wait until then. They can walk out or, if that’s unachievable, demand that HQ gives them a strike ballot to defend their comrades and reps now.

Against the officials’ arguments about ‘showing discipline’, striking and spreading the action to other offices will bolster the strike, not weaken it. That is a way to organise the rank and file, taking the initiative and control of the strike, in order to accelerate the dispute towards victory. Momentum is everything; we have to keep escalating our response every time Royal Mail retaliates or we will start to go backwards.

The rally and picket lines on 9 December showed that there is a huge desire for unity, to build solidarity and coordination between the disputes, and the will to keep fighting. Twenty thousand postal workers left London more determined than ever after feeling our mass strength and potential power – that power is what we now need to unleash by organising at the grassroots to escalate and take control of the strike.

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