With postal workers taking to the picket lines last month, Mark Dolan, a prominent CWU activist, writes about strikes, rank and file organisation and 30 years working in the post office
I left school at 16 and became a telegram boy for Royal Mail. When I got the job it was regarded as a bit of a privilege as it was part of the civil service. I was probably one of the last to join as a telegram boy. I used to deliver them on a pedal bike, then on a scooter. The idea was that when you were 18 you progressed to sorting letters on the shop floor and going out on deliveries.
In 1983 I eventually got to the shop floor of the big NDO sorting office in north London. It employed about 2,000 people and was nothing like it is today. The workers were predominantly white, with only one woman working there. In the late 1970s and early 1980s the fascist National Front (NF) organised in Royal Mail. Just before I joined in 1979 the NF held most of the union positions and actually ran the local branch committee. Branch officials and lay members openly collected for the NF every week. They even supported NF candidates in local elections.
When I got to the shop floor, I just couldn't believe it when an old fella wearing an NF union jack badge came up to me and said, "Give us a couple of quid for the NF." I had already been pretty active politically and was a member of the Anti Nazi League. I told him I wouldn't give him a penny. This got me marched into one of the toilets and he threatened to flush my head down the toilet if I wouldn't give any money. I told him where to go and still refused to give him anything. At the time the NF regularly collected a lot of money from the sorting office shop floor.
At first they gave me a hard time but gradually the office became more multiracial and mixed, so myself and others were able to start changing the nature of the union branch. Eventually the NF were ousted from office. Today the branch committee is made up of black and white men and women.
We built up a good tradition of taking unofficial action in my office over many years. At first we didn't have Maggie Thatcher's anti-trade union laws. You didn't have to worry about the law if you downed tools and walked out. People saw that waiting for a ballot when your workmate got dismissed wasn't good enough. Our members found that unofficial action actually won.
So we saw wave after wave of unofficial militant strikes and walkouts through the late 1990s and early 2000s. Shop floor organisation was strengthened by industrial action, which was led by reps and local officials. One of the biggest disputes we had in the mid-1990s, which really knocked any BNP arguments, was over a young black guy who had been accused of not delivering some work. It was quite obvious that management were trying to pin a trumped-up charge on him. Everyone walked out - black and white, man and woman - and the member got his job back.
However, unofficial action has decreased over the past few years. One reason is that Royal Mail have changed their tactics. After unofficial action they invoke a punishment charter on the reps and withdraw union facility time, meaning our members lose their representation. The union has never challenged this. Also, when the union repudiates unofficial action people get nervous, and some reps and members hide behind that as well. The key to strong union organisation is a strong rank and file network in every office, confident that taking action can win.
In 1998 I stood for the position of Area Delivery Rep for North London. I thought long and hard about standing because I was worried about losing touch with the rank and file. I decided to stand as a member of the Socialist Workers Party and based on my reputation as a union rep I won the election. Since then I have kept the same hours as the members I represent. I start at 5am and make sure I visit at least six offices a day, every day. It is essential to have regular meetings with the rank and file in order to build a strong union. Without this pressure from below the union bureaucracy will always look for a compromise that will sell its members short.
The current national dispute started in Upper Edmonton in north London where management changed full time jobs to part time overnight. Workers there have been taking action since March and were 100 percent solid right up to the national strike.
We have never before faced the level of attacks we have seen under this Labour government. Thousands of post offices have closed, two daily deliveries have gone down to one and there is a continual pressure on people to work faster. No wonder 96 percent of CWU members in a recent London ballot voted to stop giving union money to Labour. We voted at our national conference that if we were privatised we would pull out of the political levy to Labour, but we should stop now. On every picket line people ask me two questions: when is the rest of the country coming out and when are we going to stop giving money to the Labour Party?
Britain was the first country in Europe to liberalise its post office. Although the government is a major shareholder we have already had back-door privatisation for a number of years. Private companies come in and collect the mail, sort it and pass it over to Royal Mail to deliver what we call "the final mile" at a reduced rate. Royal Mail has a universal service obligation to the public: every single address in the country is entitled to one delivery a day, six days a week. It's the responsibility of the government to make sure that continues. So private companies are cherry-picking the most profitable bits of the industry and only paying a pittance for us to do the deliveries.
In 2007 there was a national dispute. It had a massive yes vote - there can't be many unions who could deliver two massive yes votes in the space of two years - and we signed a pay and modernisation agreement which had four phases. Every office had its own negotiations and agreements, which were all audited and signed off at every level. At phase four, Royal Mail tore it up and threw it in the bin.
Management want to impose changes simply through executive action and without any benefits for our members. They have done this already in a number of offices, which is why some have already taken strike action for over four months. Management say it's about "modernisation" but it's really about the destruction of the service. There is the notion that public is bad and private is good, so the only way out of Royal Mail's problems is to privatise the industry.
One of Royal Mail's problems is the pensions deficit because it took a pensions "holiday" for 13 years. The rest of us paid in all that time yet we are being asked to pay for their mistakes. But they have a moral responsibility to make sure our pensions are protected. It's become a cliché, but if they can bail out the bankers then they can protect postal workers' pensions.
Royal Mail also claim that mail traffic is dropping off and that no one sends letters any more. On the one hand we are told "no one's going to notice if the posties go on strike", yet the next thing we hear is that if we go on strike it will mean the collapse of British industry and loads of firms will go out of business. We have a lot more power than we give ourselves credit for.
Are people sending fewer letters? We have asked for the figures to be independently audited. We don't accept any figures Royal Mail put out.
Of course the type of work we deliver has changed. People don't send letters as much as before because emails might have replaced them. But the notion that the internet will bring Royal Mail to its knees is just not true. When people go on the internet and order something it comes through the post. I challenge anyone to find a postal worker who says they are taking out less work, or that they're not working as hard as five years ago.
We have lost 65,000 jobs over the past five years. Even by Royal Mail's figures, which claim the mail traffic has dropped, this tells you we are working harder. Bullying and harassment in delivery offices has increased. The rounds that posties do are bigger and if they can't finish on time they get threatened with disciplinary action. One manager spat in a woman's face. There's a backlog of undelivered mail and the managers are under pressure from above to kick us, but now we're kicking back.
Royal Mail want to put the dispute on hold till Christmas and then finish us off. If Acas raises the white flag and the strikes get called off our members will be really angry. This is the best time to have strike action. Not only that, we went into a national dispute on the back of a backlog created by 18 weeks of action.
When the lecturers at Tower Hamlets College went on all-out strike we saw that if workers fight back they can win. Some are comparing our fight to the miners' strike, which I can understand though we haven't been on strike for a year. But there is the feeling that Royal Mail, the government and the whole state are against us. There's a lot of pressure but our members have been tremendous. The support and loyalty they have shown the union has been immense.
Our members chose their side. This is without a doubt the biggest battle we have ever faced. We are playing for the highest of stakes. I'm confident my members will fight but the question is whether the union leadership has the determination to see it through. This is not just about a single issue; it's about privatisation and the future of the industry.
This is driven by the government. They want to crush the union and the workforce's terms and conditions. Peter Mandelson is a class fighter for the ruling class and has done all he can to smash us. Ultimately, they want to show other groups of workers that if they dare fight back they will be crushed as well. That is why our dispute is so important, not just for postal workers but also for working class people in general.
Mark Dolan writes in a personal capacity