Solidarity spoke to Pete Keenlyside, CWU Executive (speaking in a personal capacity).
What impact has the action had so far?
On the industrial front the action of rolling strikes is having a significant effect. Management have had to admit in their own staff briefings that the action is hurting them and are pleading “these strikes can't continue”.
Is a rolling programme of partial strikes the right strategy? What would you say to the criticism that it divides the workforce and forces postal workers to cross each others picket lines?
In the main, the membership understand and are comfortable with what we’re doing and are happy to continue on the basis that they will only be asked to take one day a week of strike action.
There is a feeling, though, that if we upped it to two or more there would be some falling off of support. The downside of the action is that some members who are not on strike are required to cross the picket line of others who are. This was clearly understood from the outset and our advice was to maintain discipline and not allow the dispute to go unofficial.
This almost came apart in parts of Scotland and the North West last week with widespread unofficial action as members were either suspended or taken off pay for refusing to cross picket lines or work with strikebreaking managers. Whilst the instinct not to cross a picket line is praiseworthy and in almost every case correct, in this instance it was contrary to the tactic decided on by the Postal Executive and supported enthusiastically by the rest of the membership.
Sympathy for the motives of those taking part couldn’t blind us to the fact that they were threatening, albeit unwittingly, to undermine the campaign and play into management’s hands and so we took steps to bring the situation under control. Although there was a high degree of scepticism before the rolling strikes, events so far have proved that it was absolutely the correct strategy.
There are rumours of more negotiations, and of minor concessions from management.
As a result of the pressure put on them, management have had to retreat somewhat from their initial stance of refusing to conduct any further negotiations. The two meetings at ACAS got nowhere and were little more than slanging matches.
There is a document that has been brokered by the TUC which apparently sets a framework for further negotiations. The Postal Executive Committee have yet to see this and although it was due to be discussed today (8 August) it hasn’t turned up yet as there are still arguments going on over the contents. I can’t say what my view on it is until I have seen it but it’s unlikely to deal with any of the substantial issues themselves.
Management have made some concessions on start times but direct to the members, not to the union itself. Although these are significant, they fall far short of a possible solution to even this issue, never mind all the others. My view on the document will be determined by whether it leaves us in a stronger position compared to management or not.
The problem is that we have publicly stated that we would suspend the action if management were prepared to negotiate seriously and not implement any changes by executive action during those negotiations. You could argue with this position but that’s where we are and we have to take that into account.
For the moment, though, the dispute is still live and the programme of strike action continues.
What’s the best way for other trade unionists and labour movement activists to support the CWU?
We are continuing to ask for support from the rest of the labour movement. A national appeal has just been set up and the details will be circulated shortly. We are still encouraging the setting up of local support groups to give support on strike days, to raise money and to help local CWU branches in leafleting, petition signing and pressurising local MPs etc to make public their support.
We are pressing ahead with our demonstration in London on 21 August and are also planning events in both [Minister of State for Postal Affairs] Pat McFadden’s Wolverhampton constituency and in Barrow, which [Secretary of State for Business] John Hutton represents.
It would be of tremendous help if other unions brought forward any planned action to coincide with our own. In reality, though, I can’t see this happening, despite the noises made by some.
PCS General Secretary Mark Serwotka cancelled a planned visit to our Postal Executive this week and has told us that he can’t now come until the beginning of September, which hardly indicates any urgency. The TUC have declared their support for us, and if the dispute is still live when Congress meets we will probably stage a fundraising event there and move an emergency motion.
CWU is of course affiliated to the Labour Party, but as I understand it there has been no motion of support moved on the Labour NEC, and in fact Dave Ward has withdrawn from the committee.
My own view is that Dave Ward shouldn’t have stood down as NEC rep and that represents his own political weakness. It was precisely the wrong time to do it.
Wildcats sweep Scotland
On Monday 30 July, thirteen drivers from the St Rollox mail centre in Glasgow were suspended after they refused to cross an official picket line at Edinburgh Airport. (Airports are one of the functional grades which the CWU has decided to call out separately from sorting offices and delivery staff.) The 20 or so other delivery staff at St Rollox walked out in solidarity, taking the rest of the mail centre with them.
When managers took the work to Glasgow’s delivery offices, what they ended up transporting and spreading was not letters, but the strike. By the middle of Tuesday, with the mail centres now out on scheduled, official strike, most delivery offices were on unofficial strike.
The strikes spread to Motherwell when their drivers were suspended for refusing to cross a Glasgow picket line, and then to Edinburgh mail centre because of letters from Glasgow being redirected there. It is now being reported that wildcat strikes have spread to Aberdeen and English towns including Newcastle, Liverpool (where postal workers held a mass sit-in) and Chester.
While Workers’ Liberty believes that the CWU’s strategy of a programme of rolling, partial strikes, causing maximum disruption per working hour lost, is currently the right one, it raises the question of what happens when postal workers from one section confront the picket lines of those from another. Pete Keenlyside argues in the interview about that members should maintain discipline in the dispute. But what kind of discipline? Working-class solidarity says that those who refuse to cross picket lines are 100% right, and that the union must give them their full support. Anything else allows management to stage provocations followed by victimisations of activists.
The events in Scotland and the North, even more dramatically than the unofficial strike in Oxford last month, show that Royal Mail managers are eager to up the ante by picking fights. Postal workers are right to strike back.