110 Royal Mail workers at Bridgwater Delivery Office in Somerset are currently in dispute with their local management over issues including management bullying and breaking agreements.
The official dispute has already involved several strikes lasting five days.
A national conference of CWU postal workers reps also voted to call a national ballot for strikes against the privatisation of Royal Mail, no later than September 2013.<
Dave Chapple is the Communication Workers Union (CWU) shop steward in Bridgwater, Branch Chair of Bristol and District CWU, and an editor of Trade Union Solidarity magazine.
Dave spoke to Solidarity to give his personal views on the local and national disputes.
Royal Mail is digging in locally. We had a dozen scabs being picked up at a secret rendezvous and bussed in through picket lines in the back of a blacked-out transit van: pathetic! For the bosses, the dispute is now quite clearly about breaking the CWU in Bridgwater. That’s why financial support is crucial.
We’re upping the ante too: we’ve asked for 10 further strike days, which is a doubling of the length of action we’ve taken previously. We’ll strike from Saturday 10 to Monday 12 August, then Saturday 17 to Monday 19 August, then six days in September starting Monday 2nd. It’s the longest local official CWU dispute in many years.
Fundraising has had a huge impact on morale. We’ve raised £23,000 in two weeks, including £15,000 from our own branch, Bristol and District Amalgamated. There was a great bucket collection of £1,400 at the union’s two-day reps’ conference on 31 July and 1 August.
Every Bridgwater striker has had a payout of £100, and it’s a huge boost to morale to see the notice board at work plastered with messages of support: please keep them coming, the managers hate that notice board!
Our last pub meeting on Sunday 4 August has 75 workers attending. We voted for the next 10 days of strikes, with only one opposing, so we are still very strong.
In terms of the issues, our main manager was found doing something that, had it happened with a CWU member, they’d have been suspended in a flash. The issue of the reduction of full-time posts during the summer is in the background a bit, because that period is coming to an end now, but we’ll be looking for a full restoration of those posts in September and a guarantee that it won’t be done again. We’re also owed £800 in back pay from savings made over previous years.
Bullying and harassment by just about all our Bridgwater managers continues to be a massive issue and one that connects our dispute with so many other workplaces within and without Royal Mail. We feel we are taking a lead and making a stand.
Right now it’s hard to see the dispute ending without a complete victory for one or the other side: I’ve been predicting an attack on the CWU at Bridgwater for dispute on this scale in Bridgwater for 20 years. We have been such a pain in the neck for them.
It’s becoming symbolic for the situation nationally, because Bridgwater is the workplace leading the fightback against the issues that are faced across the country. It’s spreading in the west of England – there are strikes due at our branch delivery offices in Fishponds and Weston-super-Mare on Saturday 10 and Saturday 17 August, with seven workplaces in and around Plymouth also balloting for strikes, as well as the whole of Cornwall, which has historically been a weaker area.
The disputes are about filling in the gaps between a political struggle against Royal Mail privatisation and struggles at workplace level on issues like management bullying and harassment, which will inevitably increase if privatisation goes through.
The union leadership is pushing a national strike, probably for mid-September, and the reps’ conference unanimously endorsed that ideas. Building and spreading local disputes is a key part of the build up to that, and the stewards, officers, and activists involved in those disputes need to organise together to provide the backbone for a national strike.
Most national disputes we’ve had over the past 30 years have ended, in my personal opinion, in sell outs or shoddy and unnecessary compromises, so that coordination of militant branches, and militant stewards from weaker branches might be an essential counterweight to the national leaders in any national strike. Places like Bridgwater have to take the lead in that, because traditional centres of strength like London have been severely weakened: the huge West End Delivery Office office at Rathbone Place has closed, and Mount Pleasant is the only sorting office left in London.
The campaign against privatisation has to have a working-class focus. The idea of working with Tories, the Countryside Alliance or Ukip is mistaken. There is, however, a real “countryside factor”, in that middle-class people in villages can be won round to supporting even unofficial industrial action out of sympathy for what Royal Mail represents for them, but those alliances have to be formed around a national strike, not by linking up with Tory councillors or Ukip.
The union is in my view neglecting some basic groundwork for the campaign in the labour movement. I’m the Bridgwater Trades Union Council secretary, and we’ve not received a single leaflet or piece of correspondence from the CWU nationally promoting the campaign.
The political culture in the union is at a very low level: this is partly because political education and political committees solely concern themselves with Labour Party matters. Nationally, tiny concessions from the Labour Party are hailed as triumphs. There’s no political education, and the union leadership effectively has a monopoly on politics within the union. They command a level of trust and confidence that they don’t deserve.
There’s a lot to play for right now! Bridgwater is very much leading the way at the moment. Our strike, and other local struggles, can be built on and connected to galvanise the national dispute.
As well as the basics of sending messages of support and donations, other labour movement activists could go down to their local mail centre, delivery office or distribution centre, ask to see the shop steward, and ask them about the strikes in Bridgwater and elsewhere in the south west. What do they think?
• Financial solidarity with the Bridgwater strike is vitally important. Please make cheques out to: “Bridgwater Trades Union Council” and send to:
Dave Chapple, 1 Blake Place, Bridgwater, Somerset, TA6 5AU
To contact Dave directly with messages of support, ring 0777 6304 276 or email email@example.com.