Lessons from the post strikes

Submitted by martin on 6 November, 2003 - 12:02

Solidarity works. Solidarity can win. That is the big lesson from the two and a half weeks of unofficial strikes by postal workers which ended on 4 November.
Royal Mail bosses are under pressure from the New Labour government, as it drives towards opening the postal service up to capitalist competition and ultimately privatising it.

Last month they thought they had the union on the run, after its members, in a ballot, rejected a recommendation from the leadership to take action for better pay.
On 16 October London postal workers struck for one day, demanding increased London weighting. When they got back to work, local bosses went on the offensive.
They singled out particular offices, particular groups, and particular union reps, and started trying to change work conditions and take away union reps' rights.
If postal workers had responded within the letter of the anti-union laws introduced by the Tories and maintained by New Labour, those bosses' diktats would still be in operation today. Hundreds of postal workers who objected would have been sacked. Union reps would not be able to do their job.
Within the letter of the law, postal workers had only two options. They could get their union to call an official ballot - which takes time - and then give seven days' notice of strike action. By then the imposed conditions would already have been in operation for some time, and the victimised workers would be out of the offices.
Or they could go to industrial tribunals claiming unfair dismissal. That would take months, and even if the workers won their cases, Royal Mail would only have to pay compensation, not give them their jobs back.
Postal workers acted on the law of working-class solidarity - an injury to one is an injury to all - rather than the law of Thatcher and Tebbit and Blair.
Where changed conditions were imposed on groups of workers, or individual workers were victimised, whole offices walked out. When the bosses moved work from those offices to other sites, workers at those other sites walked out too.
Royal Mail chiefs instructed local bosses to take photos of picket lines and watch who union reps spoke to, so that they could draw up a list for victimisation if they won the dispute. They threatened to use laws which allow them to take the union to court and make it pay ruinous damages if the judge reckons that union leaders have not tried sufficiently to stop the strikes.
Tens of thousands of postal workers lost many days' pay - from wages which are low at the best of times - and risked losing their jobs, out of solidarity with other workers whom they didn't know personally, whom they had never met.
Solidarity brought them victory. On 3 November, the Royal Mail bosses finally backed down.
The postal workers were in a stronger position then many other groups of workers, because their strikes have a large and rapid economic impact. Royal Mail says it has lost £50 to £100 million through the strikes. Other companies will have lost money through delayed mailings, and payments delayed in the post, and will have been putting pressure on Royal Mail to settle.
Local government workers, for example, who also struck on 16 October for increased London weighting, cannot make the same sharp, speedy economic impact by striking. Still less can health workers, teachers, and many others.
That is why solidarity is vital not only between different groups of workers in the same industry, but also between workers in different industries. Before the Tories broke the miners' industrial strength in 1984-5, for example, the miners on several occasions struck not for any cause connected with the coal industry, but purely in solidarity with health workers.
Unity is strength! By the nature of their jobs, many groups of workers are never going to have much industrial clout unless and until they are helped by a wider network of working-class solidarity which includes workers well-placed to hit profits hard and rapidly.
Even the strongest groups of workers need solidarity. Because they are the strongest, one day or another the bosses are going to come after them, prepared to slug it out. If the Royal Mail bosses had proved more hard-faced in this recent dispute - and it might have happened, for example if the government standing behind them felt more confident about its public support - then postal workers would have needd solidarity from other trade unionists.
The miners who had so often given solidarity to others needed solidarity from the whole trade-union movement when the Tory government decided in 1984 that it would confront the miners, and take whatever economic losses were necessary in order to defeat them. Because the TUC leaders failed to offer more than words in solidarity, the miners were defeated.
And it is because solidarity is so vital that the anti-union laws specifically ban it. Even after a ballot, and even after the required notice to the employer, strikes are illegal unless they are about an immediate pay-and-conditions dispute with your particular employer. According to Thatcher and according to Blair, no worker should be allowed to take industrial action in support of another worker who is in another industry or under another employer.
Some stronger groups of workers have been able to defy the anti-union laws. The postal workers have just successfully defied them. In the back-to-work agreement, Royal Mail specifically agrees not to take any legal action against the union.
The Tube workers and others who took limited industrial action over safety, in solidarity with the firefighters, got away with it.
Workers who struck on the outbreak of the Iraq war got away with it, buoyed up as they were by the mass popular opposition to the war.
But only some groups of workers are strongly placed, or able to ride on the tide of a big popular protest movement. So long as the trade union movement deals with these unjust anti-union laws by punching holes in them here and there, workers will be vulnerable. Less well-placed groups of workers will not be able to take effective industrial action. More strongly-placed groups of workers will be vulnerable to being picked off.
The trade union movement should build on the postal workers' victory in two ways. Industrially, by spreading the message that solidarity works, and encouraging every other group of workers confident enough to use it.
And politically, by launching a full-scale public campaign for the repeal of the anti-union laws and their replacement by a Workers' Charter guaranteeing the right to strike, to picket, and to take solidarity.
All the major unions have policy for the repeal of the anti-union laws. This year's TUC congress made repeal the official policy of the whole trade union movement.
But there is still little active campaign for it. No demonstrations. No speaking tours. No protest strikes. (Would the government dare to use the law against an official TUC protest strike demanding the repeal of the anti-union laws? They would not).
There has not even been a drive by the trade unions to use their representatives in the Labour Party structures to push motions for the repeal of the anti-union laws through those structures. The unions have enough voting strength in Labour Party conference, and (with sympathetic constituency representatives) at the National Executive Committee, to push through such motions.
Doubtless the Blair machine would refuse to respect them. A serious battle on the issue might well end with the unions breaking away from Blair and forming a new trade-union-based workers' party to pursue their campaign. But that would be a step forward; and in the meantime the votes would have put the unions in a strong position to exert pressure on Blair and rouse workers to protest action. If the union leaders do not even take the first step of making their nominees in the Labour structure fight uncompromisingly for union rights, then they are not campaigning seriously.
Tens of thousands of rank and file postal workers have just shown them how to take solidarity seriously. Now let's force the leaders to catch up with the rank and file!

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