How “slow burn” worked for the CWU

Submitted by Matthew on 15 November, 2017 - 12:32 Author: Gregor Gall
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The Communication Workers’ Union (CWU) in the Royal Mail ballot has set the gold standard for all other major unions in the UK. It was the first nationwide strike ballot since the Trade Union Act 2016, which came fully into force in March 2017, and dictates that lawful strike action now requires a 50% turnout to vote.

CWU gained a 89% vote to go ahead on a 74% turnout. The CWU began the mobilisation to gain a strike mandate well over six months ago. It put together a “Four Pillars of Security” campaign, calling for: decent pensions; a shorter working week; extended legal protections, and a proper pricing policy for the cost of sending mail. The campaign focused on ensuring members’ terms and conditions of employment were not driven down, amid fears they would be in order to help the now private company retain its market share and boost profitability.

Lesson one is to pick an issue – or set of issues – that really matter to members. Asking members to strike for, say, a little more than a 1% pay rise might not provide much motivation when the cost of striking could wipe away the benefits of such a small rise and their pay has fallen by up to 10% over the last decade (as has been the case in the public sector).

Lesson two involves gradually upping the ante among members. CWU initially ran a petition among members to build support and meetings of workplace reps. Then there were countless bulletins to members and umpteen video messages. All before the ballot. Then followed ″the largest online union meeting in recent times″ and hundreds of workplace gate meetings where members gathered en masse outside their delivery and sorting offices. So it was a slow burn strategy, rather than a quick flash in the pan campaign. It was patient, methodical and well planned. Other unions cannot expect to pass the new thresholds unless they act similarly.

These lessons are vital following this year’s TUC congress where a number of unions, including PCS, signalled they want to hold a joint national strike to beat the public sector pay cap. Indeed, PCS seems to be taking the same course as the CWU in its slow, patient pre-ballot mobilisation of members across the country, highlighting the issue over the summer.

Whether the other big unions (like GMB, Unison and Unite) will do the same remains to be seen.

* Gregor Gall is a professor of Industrial Relations at the University of Bradford. Abridged from here

Comment by Gemma Short

I think Gregor′s explanation of the ″slow burn″ strategy in the CWU Royal Mail ballot is interesting, and probably correct. However I think it is wrong to suggest there is a similar ″slow burn″ strategy in other unions, particularly the PCS.

There is two types of ″slow burn″, the one clearly leading members somewhere, and the one without a plan. Whilst the PCS adopted some of the strategies of the CWU in its recent consultative ballot on pay, such as gate-line photos and use of social media, which no doubt contributed to achieving 49% turnout, they cannot completely compensate for other missing factors.

The PCS pay target of 5% is not really much above the 1% cap, and has stayed the same for a while. Reps have been told they won’t be given a breakdown of the turnout so they can work on weaker areas. PCS has not announced (and apparently the leadership are opposed to) an immediate statutory ballot. So where is this going?

Energy mobilised around an indicative ballot may be left to dissipate, with members confused if they are eventually balloted thinking they have already voted and/or wondering what happened after the last vote. Whilst the two approaches can look similar from social media output, I think they are likely to be very different in reality.

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