The Belfast postal strike
22 February 2006
With the end of the Belfast postal strike, it is worth looking at the background to the strike and the issues involved. While tribute is due to the fighting spirit of the posties, the strike has also brought into focus issues facing the entire public sector in the north. And, with the possibility of the CWU calling a national strike ballot, Belfast will be a useful dry run that will have been carefully watched by postal workers in Britain, not to mention An Post workers in the south as management attempt to beat down the workforce ahead of privatisation.
The specific roots of the strike are still unclear, and postal workers are unwilling to go into too much detail on the record. It appears that the dispute was sparked off by a complaint of heavy-handed management in north Belfast. The initial spark is clear enough. After a long period of constant harassment, a trade unionist had begun to keep a log of bullying incidents. The worker's work area was raided, the notebook log seized, and the contents used as the basis of disciplinary action against the worker. The action spread throughout the Tombe St. depot because a generalised culture of bullying that had victimised many workers. The action spread through the central sorting office at Tomb Street and then to around half the workforce at Mallusk. Most postal workers have their own long-standing grievances and were more than willing to take the opportunity to hit back at Royal Mail management.
In fact bullying was endemic at all levels of management throughout the strike. An initial letter to individual strikers threatened to use the industrial relations to surcharge individuals with for the strike. A second letter was sent later in the strike and the Post Office selected whom they would talk to - refusing to negotiate with local trade union officials. After the strike ended they brought in contract workers to ensure that the strikers would not make up lost wages with overtime, changed shift rotas and tore up the no victimisation clause of the return agreement
There is a long history of bullying in the post office generally and a series of strikes in England at local level sparked off by victimisation of workers
There are strong motives within management to drive forward bullying. Privatisation was a key factor. Even though the strike wasn’t explicitly directed against privatisation, many workers mentioned it as a background issue, and it is clear that a tightening of discipline is directly linked to the pressure of privatisation. As Royal Mail’s monopoly on letter post was abolished from 1st January this year, allowing the private sector to cherrypick the profitable bits of the business, we can expect this pressure to continue building. Even though the labour intensive nature of the business and the fact that it has to meet a social need prevent full-scale privatisation, deregulation and speedup become the norm and the possibility of the workers protesting has to be beaten down.
The fact is that the union bureaucracy long ago accepted the logic of privatisation and agreed to co-operate with government and bosses on the grounds that, if they were advisors, the very worst conditions would be avoided.
It was clear right from the beginning of the Belfast postal dispute that the national CWU was working to break the strike. It was argued by many CWU members that their union’s repudiation of the strike was just a formality to get around the anti-union laws, and they had a nod and a wink from local CWU officialdom. Even if this is true, it shows a union caught between the needs of its members and the demands placed on it by the law. Royal Mail were even threatening legal action against shop stewards who they thought weren’t energetic enough in encouraging their members to return to work, which is a strange concept of trade unionism. In any case, trade unionists willing to put up a serious fight should be prepared not only to break the law, but for the likelihood that they would have to fight their own officials.
Trade unionists must put the battle against privatisation at the centre of their activities. We have already had the bad example of the Water Service, where unions took very limited action on pensions and working conditions, but argued that it was against the law to strike against privatisation. Postal workers shouldn’t let that argument put them off. The battle for democratic unions under rank and file control is central to the whole battle.
On many levels the strike was impressive. Over 800 workers stayed out for 18 days, in a completely unofficial and illegal action, against the advice of their own union and gaining wide sympathy from other trade unionists, particularly in the hard-hit public sector. The strike effectively stopped deliveries in north, south and west Belfast as well as the city centre, and led to a backlog of seven million items that Royal Mail estimate could take up to a month to clear. Morale remained high throughout. The Posties reputation for militancy has been reinforced yet again.
If the strike had a weakness, and any weakness is far outweighed by the strength shown by the workers, it was that it erupted spontaneously, and on the basis of a justified “them and us” feeling rather than a straightforward demand. This sometimes made it difficult to see what the workers wanted – even though the far left raised the slogan “Victory to the posties”, it was far from clear what that meant. So at last week’s City Hall rally we were treated to various trade union figures defending the right to strike, attacking the anti-union laws and talking about the plight of public sector workers – all absolutely correct in themselves – without raising any demands.
The issues have not been resolved. The strikers are back and facing harassment, with the Post office tearing up the deal and postal workers calling on the union to take official action.
What is needed now is for trade union militants to begin discussing the main issues facing them in their workplaces, in the first instance the Blair-Hain assault on the public sector in the north. Working conditions in the postal service are not a separate issue from the recent 0.2% pay award to civil servants, or other attacks on public sector workers. We urgently need a network of rank-and-file militants who can develop strategies for the working class to fight the agenda of the British government and roll it back.