CWU - Communication Workers Union  •  Industrial

Where next for the Royal Mail strikes?

23 September 2022

Rank and File update by Workers Power CWU members

Postal workers are out on strike again this week, on Friday the 30 September and Saturday the 1 October. After a three-week lull and losing a strike day cancelled after the Queen’s death, CWU members are asking what happens next, and activists and reps are discussing what action we need to take to win.

Royal Mail is refusing to talk despite the strikes so far, but Christmas is coming when a strike will hit them hardest. We know we have to hit them harder, but energy bill rises will kick in in October hitting us in the pocket even without a strike. What is the best strategy to play to our strength and keep the strike solid?

Overtime ban?

There has always been a section of workers wondering why there is no overtime ban between strike days to maximise their effect, or even a work-to-rule that would mean no overtime (as well as banning all other extras) as an alternative to striking. So it is worth dealing with this, the least radical option, first.

Union officials point out it isn’t legally possible for us to do a work-to-rule or overtime ban because the union did not ballot members on ‘action short of a strike’ but just strike action. The argument here isn’t that we shouldn’t do stuff unofficially; many workers will rightly refuse to do overtime to make the strike hit harder. Everyone who can should do this, no favours for the bosses! But there are good practical reasons against an overtime ban on its own. It certainly is not an alternative to a strike in terms of its impact and would take just as much work to sustain it beyond a week or two.

Unlike a strike which a picket line polices for the strike days, it has to be policed 24/7 while people are at work, as managers go round staff undermining it week after week. Managers would just get agency in to do the overtime, already a common practice in Royal Mail since the pandemic. So far we have successfully appealed to agency workers to respect our strike days, because they can work other days, but this wouldn’t work in an overtime ban. That requires banning agency workers too. Of course we could all down tools in that case, but then we are back where we started, with a strike!

There are other overheads. The action is largely invisible to the public and other workers, so we can’t get our message out, build solidarity and support and coordinate with other workers, as we will do on the 1 October. It’s not a coincidence that Dave and Terry are on the TV and radio at peak times on strike days, when tens of thousands won’t see or honk at our picket lines. Worse, overtime bans are divisive. With up to a third of members part-time, they would be hit hardest by a work to rule, so some workers would earn more than others while other would suffer.

Because an overtime ban is not as strong a form of action and is divisive, it would not be sustainable except where strike days were close together and the action was escalating, as a way to intensify the strike’s impact, not an alternative to it. Striking is the only way to beat the bosses.

Escalate the action?

Union officials are coming under a lot of pressure from a section of the membership to escalate the strike. A common complaint you hear is that we went on strike for a day or two, deliver the mail over the next few days and then everything is back to normal. That is absolutely correct. Royal Mail can sit out that kind of action.

Every postie knows that the time when we can hit bosses where it really hurts is the next couple of months leading up to Christmas. Royal Mail makes a third of its revenue at this time Black Friday and Cyber Monday that fall within this timeframe are also juicy strike dates. But we need to build up to them with escalating action – 3 days out, 4 days out, all-out if necessary.

Arguments against this are that it hurts the members financially and many would say they couldn’t afford it. This is understandable; we all know that the CWU isn’t as big as Unite and can’t pay strike pay, especially with the Post Office and BT/Openreach also out. So even though we can’t afford NOT to strike, given the way Royal mail bosses want to gut our jobs, many won’t be able to afford a big escalation in strike days on their own, especially in a cost of living crisis. Or at least that’s what Royal Mail is banking on to limit the strike.

But we aren’t alone. A union is a collective organisation; we look after and help each other at work every day. The CWU should take its hardship fund seriously and fundraise for it. That way we could allay the fears of parents worried they can’t afford food for their kids, those with big energy bills or rents they can’t pay, or crippling debts. That isn’t an excuse not to strike, we will all have to make sacrifices and each office will have to self-help where it can, with workers passing the hat to help out those in need.

But in the final analysis, a union should be a fighting organisation and a strike fund is essential for that. Our message should be ‘do not cross a picket line, talk to your rep, talk to your branch, but no member in genuine need will be left behind.’ It’s solidarity, not charity. Given inflation, we won’t be able to avoid the question of a hardship fund whatever happens.

The fact is the CWU is one of the unions leading this strike movement, alongside the RMT, the whole movement is looking for us to win and to copy our tactics if we do. If we stepped up the action to show we were determined to win, it would make waves. We would get publicity and solidarity from other workers, from left Labour branches, and from the public itself.

The union could set up arms-length solidarity committees with the trades councils and other unions so that it could raise funds for all strikes that needed such support, not just ourselves. Even better it could organise Enough is Enough groups with the contacts from the big rallies and other union branches and community organisations. The key thing is to clear every obstacle to striking and winning. Without escalation, the strike won’t be the battering ram to smash through Royal Mail’s resistance.

Rolling strikes again?

Many in the union from officials to old hands are putting forward rolling strikes as an alternative form of escalation. In the 2007 and 2009 strikes the leadership used these to maximise the disruption to Royal Mail and minimise the hit to pay for members, with deliveries out one day, then the lorries, then sorting offices (deliveries, distribution, processing). There is no doubt that this has the most bang-for-buck but it comes with a massive, damaging overhead, however it requires workers to cross each others picketlines on the days they are not on strike.

That breaks with the principle that many of us adhere to, a long and positive tradition of the working class: never cross a picket line. The union leadership believes the benefits justify doing it, but they also realise that many in the union will not cross a picket line. This is a problem for them, because unofficial action could kick off, and they worry this means the strike getting hit by a court injunction. So they are trying to figure out how to convince workers to ‘be disciplined’ and cross picketlines, to avoid injunctions.

There are two problems with this approach. First it is part of the CWU’s strength that its members will not cross a picket line, a principle we should maintain. Secondly, it assumes that if we act the right way we can avoid an injunction – but we can’t assume this given our past history.

In 2007 managers victimised drivers in Glasgow who refused to cross picket lines and saw all the mail centres from Scotland to the North of England walk out, forcing them to their knees and into negotiations – they did not go for an injunction at this point however, because they feared that the walkout had already gone too far.

After two months of talks management dropped them, forcing us to strike again, and then they went for a court injunction to block the strike. CWU leaders accepted this, dropped the strike and negotiated a shabby deal.

Looking at this completely objectively, the mass unofficial walkout was a great boost to the strike, while the union leaders’ sticking to the law killed it. These laws are anti-worker and should be defied, just like racist and sexist laws deserve non-compliance.

Company bosses will be working hand in hand with the Tory government behind the scenes. Unaccountable, elite judges will grant them an injunction on the flimsiest of reasons. Two injunctions in 2019-2020 saw the union leaders drop strikes and reballot. Like in 2007 this was in the run-up to Christmas and cited the impact on the public, just as in 2007, so we will always be vulnerable to political judgements at this time of year.  Once again, with the strategy of rolling strikes, we end up where we started; they are not an alternative.

Neither are two days of strikes every couple of weeks won’t win our dispute – we know that now. We have to escalate, up to all-out or with a programme of rolling strikes. No matter how much we box clever, Royal Mail will run to the courts for an injunction, and they could well get one. That is what we need to prepare for.

The way forward

The only answer to these dilemmas is to build rank and file organisation so we are capable of controlling and continuing the strike in case of an injunction. We have been here before, in 2007 and 2019 ,and we will be again. So let’s get prepared, with strike committees in each workplace by the members, with delegates from these meeting at city-wide level, and building connections between the cities and regions. Judging by the past, CWU leaders won’t willingly break the law and defy an injunction.

But this is the fight of our lives; we have to force them to do that or be prepared to do it ourselves. If we get lucky and never get an injunction, it will hugely boost union organisation and power, and our victory

To enable this, reps and activists should insist that the union – and their local branch, without waiting – take steps to set up solidarity committees to support our strike, coordinate the disputes and help out those facing severe hardship. We should do the same with Enough is Enough and set up local EIE groups to build a mass movement against the cost of living crisis.

That would widen the solidarity and help us push back against media lies. It would allow the unions to mobilise the whole working class against falling wages and poverty, and provide an ideal launch pad for a campaign to save the USO and renationalise Royal Mail. By widening the fight to all fronts and escalating our action, we can strengthen our strike bolt and plate, and we can win.

Now Liz Truss has resurfaced her threat to force unions to maintain ‘minimum service levels’ on the CWU, RMT and other public sector unions ‘as soon as possible’. Staying within the anti-union laws has only seen the Tories pile on more restrictions to our democratic right to strike.  Workers should defy the law whenever it gets in the way of our action and, if Truss brings in new ones, call on the RMT, TUC and all other unions to launch a general strike to quash them.  Given the massive unpopularity of the government, this could well rally the rest of the working class out onto the streets as the Great Poll Tax movement did and topple them.

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