Wildcat post strikes spread

John Keys reports about the unofficial strikes by postal workers that have broken out all over London and nearby areas

Unofficial strikes by postal workers have broken out all over London and nearby areas - and in pockets throughout the rest of Britain. The Communication Workers Union has estimated that, such is the degree of bitterness felt towards the Royal Mail bosses, 20,000 postal staff are currently involved in unofficial action.

Since the first 24-hour official London weighting strike three weeks ago, workers who took part have been harassed by local managers. Attempts have been made to change contracts and overtime has been refused - attacks which were stepped up after the second 24-hour action a week later. The CWU insists that it was this sort of provocation which has led to the wave of unofficial industrial action over the last week. Deputy general secretary Dave Ward says strikes have taken place because “local managers had been attacking, humiliating and belittling union members”.

Managers have tried to renege on all manner of local agreements. In one office they attempted to impose a single delivery, even though this is still supposed to be subject to national negotiation. In another they unilaterally withdrew the right to apply for leave - announcing instead that in future all leave would be allocated, irrespective of workers’ preferences. In yet another office management tried to bring back the six-day week.

A union official in west London was suspended for allegedly being abusive to a manager, provoking a solidarity walkout in several offices. An agreement was reached whereby the rep would be reinstated, but transferred to another office while the alleged offence was investigated. However, management then tried to impose new conditions, leading to further walkouts. On Friday October 24 an all-London meeting of union reps agreed to urge all offices in the capital to strike indefinitely in solidarity. Things could now escalate, with the possibility of nationwide unofficial action.

So far discussions between Royal Mail and the CWU have failed to resolve the dispute, although Royal Mail has now reversed its original refusal to take it to Acas. Previously management was maintaining a completely intransigent position, insisting that there was nothing to discuss and no need for Acas. It was simply a question of the CWU agreeing to Royal Mail demands. Since the unofficial stoppages they have backtracked on both counts. However, it is clear that we can have no faith in the government’s ‘arbitration and conciliation service’. It was industrial action that forced Royal Mail to give way and it is industrial action that can force further retreats.

Non-executive chairman Allan Leighton spoke to hundreds of postal workers in Greenford in Essex. In a desperate attempt to persuade them to abandon industrial action, he came over as Mr Nice. But Leighton was soon to discover that his powers of persuasion were to no avail. He was forced to beat a hasty retreat with his proverbial tail between his legs. This is the man who sent a threatening letter to all employees prior to the ballot on industrial action over the national pay claim. In the event of a strike he said that Royal Mail was prepared to lose £20 million a day and stick it out until Christmas and beyond. So what does he do as the unofficial action is only just kicking off? He panics! What would he have been like if he had to face a full-scale official strike? This turn of events should provide us with the evidence we need that the employers’ assault can be halted and reversed.

It should be obvious by now that Leighton and co are planning to break up the national monopoly of the postal service so that its various component parts can be chopped up and sold off to the private sector - that is, sold off in the same ‘modernising’ way as British Rail.

One of the many threats issued from chairman Leighton’s pen was the ominous warning that in the event of strike action the “future of Royal Mail is at stake”. This is patent nonsense. The future of Royal Mail, like all the other national postal monopolies in Europe, has been at stake since 1998, when the European Commission attempted to steamroll reforms through the EU parliament. The commission calls this the “liberalisation of the postal services”. Such “liberalisation” has already led to 45,000 redundancies in Deutsche Post alone, but allowing shareholders and company directors to gobble up the spoils.

“Liberalisation” will not improve the postal service. On the contrary it makes things worse for the ordinary customer - again, as we have seen with the railways.

But we can fight this … and win. The excellent lead shown by London union reps must be replicated on a national basis. What we need is a national CWU rank and file movement. We should also join forces with our fellow postal workers across Europe in order to fend off attacks on our conditions and on the postal service itself. Something like a CWU of the European Union would serve us as a powerful weapon.