*This article was first published on the Socialist Review
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.
Councillor Lee Waker
CWU East London Delivery Office and Labour councillor for Village Ward