(en) Postal workers & Liverpool dockers

Platformist Anarchism (platform@geocities.com)
Mon, 13 Oct 1997 16:33:28 +0000

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Date: Sun, 12 Oct 1997 15:13:56 +0100 (BST) From: LabourNet <chrisbailey@gn.apc.org> Subject: Postal workers and the Liverpool dockers picket line Originator: union-d@wolfnet.com

Postal workers and the Liverpool dockers picket line

LabourNet interview

Steve Higginson is the Assistant Indoor Secretary for the Communications Workers Union (CWU) at the Royal Mail Copperas Hill site in Liverpool. The indoor membership consists of over 800 postal men and women, part time and full time, plus catering staff and other allied grades on site. In June, Royal Mail revealed plans to shut Copperas Hill. Postal workers are refusing to cross the dockers picket lines. Steve spoke to Greg Dropkin for LabourNet on behalf of the Merseyside Amalgamated branch of the CWU, on 10 October.

Steve: There is a 3 month moratorium on our closure, agreed at a national level. Royal Mail have been instructed to supply to the union all relevant research and documentation which has led them to the decision to close Copperas Hill and to transfer partly to Warrington, partly to Deeside. We have until the 24th of December to present our alternatives, and Royal Mail will then reply by January 9th. I will be in London next week as part of a delegation meeting our National Negotiating team, because this moratorium was announced over 4 weeks ago and we've had nil information.

LN: So the discussion of the docks is happening in the context of a threat of closure?

Steve: That's right, but primarily we feel it's just not good enough to turn up at the dockers and talk about your own dispute, when they've been out for 2 years and the labour movement locally has failed to deliver tangible solidarity action. So the opinion of the branch is that while there are a whole load of disputes going on within the city, and nationally, those disputes will not be resolved until the Merseyside dockers are back in their rightful place, working on the docks.

LN: What is the state of play between Mersey Docks and Royal Mail?

Steve: Mersey Docks are a large customer of Royal Mail for the delivery and collection of mail. Our longstanding branch policy, is that we never ever cross picket lines. One of the reasons behind that is that postal workers, not just on Merseyside but wherever there is a dispute, live in those communities. A lot of them feel uneasy about being told to cross the picket line. There is also the aspect of health and safety. Once the disputes are over, they still have to continue delivering mail when those on strike are back at work. So we have always argued, successfully as well, that there should be no pressure applied to postal workers to cross picket lines. It's based on a policy that was developed at Spillers a couple of years ago, where a postal driver was suspended for a period of time. And of course it's part of Employment legislation, that trade unions cannot be forced or put under pressure where they feel threatened, health and safety wise or whatever, they still cannot be forced even by their own manager, so they are covered that way.

LN: So CWU members are refusing to cross the picket line?

Steve: They turn up at the picket line, they feel uncomfortable, they feel threatened to a degree, and they then take the mail back to the office delivery point. It would then be collected some time later on, presumably by a representative of the Dock Company. We have been told the last fortnight that they are far from happy concerning the situation. Like most Royal Mail customers they'd expect their mail at a particular time during the day. There was definitely approaches made last week. The assumption would be that a complaint has been lodged. Our attitude is, our members have spoken of their unease concerning their own health and safety, so that is paramount to us and therefore that is the way the position will stay.

LN: Are some of the postal workers going through the lines?

Steve: There is, to a degree, mail being collected from the Mersey Dock and Harbour Company, of an afternoon specifically. The bulk of the vans that go out to deliver mail are not crossing the picket line.

LN: Has Royal Mail management tried to put any pressure on the union over the Liverpool Docks situation?

Steve: As far as we are led to believe, we haven't had any complaints from postal workers to say that they are being instructed and if they don't they will be disciplined or whatever. What tends to happen is that if the postman, the postwoman say that they feel under threat, managers can go out in a van, themselves, just to see what the situation is.

LN: What about Parcelforce?

Steve: Parcelforce also have a depot up in Seaforth. They are under threat of closure as well. Their traffic which is due to go to Belfast from Liverpool now goes from Holyhead, it does not come through the Dock at all. That changed during the dispute. They're in a precarious situation. A contract was offered to Parcelforce which would entail drivers consistently having to cross the picket line in Seaforth. That contract was turned down by Parcelforce, round about the middle of the dispute. So there is currently no Irish trade, Parcelforce trade or letter trade coming through the dock. The mail to Ireland, Monday to Saturday goes by plane. Sunday it comes through Heysham. And that started from Day 4, the first Sunday of the dispute.

LN: Does the CWU organise any other workers involved with the Dock Company?

Steve: The union nationally has amalgamated with what was previously the National Communications Union, telecom and postal engineers. However, the Merseyside Amalgamated Branch of the CWU does not include engineers. The total amalgamation at local level has still not occured. So yes, the CWU nationally do represent all postal and British Telecom engineers and various other groupings.

LN: So the question of what might be going on locally on the Telecom side hasn't been explored?

Steve: It has been explored and it's still being explored at this present time.

LN: What other developments are taking place nationally within the CWU on the issue of Liverpool docks?

Steve: Various initiatives have just been put to the Port Shop Stewards from one of our Executive Council members. We are looking at various ways to develop a broad base to incorporate and encompass some kind of solidarity with the dockers. More will unfold over the next couple of weeks but it looks quite interesting. There are times when the labour movement tends to be rather unimaginative. I received this idea from the CAW sister Collette Hooson in Canada, who asked me about a campaign regarding pension funds. I know it was tried with South Africa as well, quite successfully. I'll be receiving information shortly giving us a breakdown of all the various shareholdings in the Mersey Docks and Harbour Company. British American Tobacco is the second largest. I went to our own Post Office Pension Scheme, the largest in Europe. The scheme has approximately A315 million invested in BAT. Last Monday, the Branch Central Committee unanimously carried the following motion: "This branch views with concern the amount of money that the Post Office Pension Fund has invested in British American Tobacco, which is the second largest shareholder in the Mersey Docks and Harbour Company. Therefore the following is agreed: "This branch writes to the CWU elected trustees of the Pension Scheme, to express our concern at the investment. Furthermore, this branch will contact all CWU branches within the country, calling on them to do the same. And this branch will support any trade union campaign which is based on the call for disinvestment from any company pension schemes which have links with the MDHC." Of course the possibility of millions of shares being sold in one particular company creates total pandemonium. Other trade unions seem to think that they would go for that as well. If they can become involved in this, again I think it might have some interesting consequences. As they say, money talks and you're looking at a lot of money.

LN: There are quite a few disputes in Britain and you're involved in your own fight. Why should postal workers or any other group take any risks over this dispute?

Steve: Well besides being involved with the closure of Copperas Hill, we have our own situation with the Critchley Labels people. Our argument now is that whether they work at Critchley Labels, Magnet, or any other dispute where they've been locked out, those disputes will not be resolved until the Liverpool dockworkers dispute is resolved. And that is because. as John Pilger called it, this is the most definitive dispute going on in this country, in Europe, and in fact across the globe. Because of what's occurred on the docks, the green light has been given to various other employers to steam in as well. Over the last 6 months in particular, with the announcement of the closure of Copperas Hill, the situation at Spillers, Premier Brands, Tulip and a whole host of other industries on Merseyside, would the employer have gone for those people if this dispute was over? Any sign of a trade union weakness and the employer steams in. They could easily say "well look, it's a city that have allowed their own dockworkers to be dismissed and stay dismissed for nearly two years without anything being done". And that is why it is of paramount importance that this dispute is brought to a head. And only then will the other disputes that have broken out throughout the country, only then will they be resolved.

LN: How widely is that view shared amongst the CWU membership?

Steve: Very widely, which is why a member of our Executive Council and an ex-Chair of our own branch, a well known labour movement figure on Merseyside, Pat O'Hara, came to speak to the Port Shop stewards today. Out of all the speeches a week last Saturday, Jimmy Davies gave the defining one when he said "it's about time for Liverpool workers to put their heads above the parapet and say 'Enough is Enough - this has got to be brought to a halt' ". As I've said, from the discussions that we've had this afternoon with the Port Shop Stewards, there could be a development concerning what the labour movement in Liverpool could be doing shortly.

LN: Could you just outline briefly what other sectors of workers have any relation with the Port of Liverpool and might be asked to have a view on it?

Steve: Well I would say that our own trade union is one of the few within the TUC who are consistently calling for scrapping of all trade union legislation. Not bits, the lot has got to go. But, we're nothing special, our argument would be that the position that we've taken concerning the picket lines, there's no reason why that could not be taken up by other groups of workers.

LN: Such as?

Steve: Anyone who crosses that picket line, from whatever industry, for instance British Telecom or other services, gas, electricity, whatever, and indeed the Freightliner traffic transported by rail.

LN: From time to time people have argued that the dockers concentrating on international issues has been a diversion from the sort of thing we've been talking about this afternoon. Do you see it that way?

Steve: Anyone who thinks it's a diversion is talking total abject nonsense. The globe is one big picket line, especially in this day and age. You could argue in the past that the British labour movement have tended to end up on trips abroad, junkets, stuff like that. That's not what it's all about. What the Liverpool dockers have done, I find it beyond words, absolutely incredible what they've developed, and it shows that internationalism, and international solidarity amongst workers across the world is alive and kicking, and it is an example to all sections of workers in this country, that the horizons can be broadened. It's going to take a lot of doing, and I do understand the problems that occur especially in relation to international secretariats. I've been active within my own branch, concerning our own international secretariat, the Postal and Telecommunication International. This is like a hardy perennial that goes to our annual conference every year, asking for certain questions to be answered. There's a whole host of union activists within the CWU who are concerned for instance that, just as an example, Cuban postal workers in exile in Miami are still funded by the PTTI, while the postal workers in Cuba are not recognised. It's the same in Nicaragua, and in El Salvador, that the legitimate trade union grouping of telecommunication workers are not recognised by the PTTI, but other groups are. Now there are reasons for that, including links to other organisations that I do not believe that a trade union should have links with, that seem to be another arm of US government foreign policy.

LN: But when members of your branch are considering whether or not to cross the the picket line, is it a factor to them to know what's going on in Oakland, or Vancouver, or around the world?

Steve: When the issue is raised, especially when you show the September 8th Dockers Charter, there is a sense of guilt and shame that comes over people, that you have a situation like that going on through major ports across the globe, yet here in Liverpool and in this country the level of industrial support has been totally negligible, with a few honourable exceptions.

LN: But does it make people want to do something?

Steve: Yes, hence why I'm here now. It's not the sole reason, but as you become more and more involved in it, it's that feeling of - they've been out for two years and what have we done? And there is a feeling of shame and guilt, it makes you double your efforts to get something resolved. What's happened in the past has happened. What we're trying to do now is say "right, it's a new day, it's a new week, how can we rectify it and how can we bring it to a head and get those people back to their rightful places of work". As more and more people realise just what happens and the incredible amount of solidarity that is being shown internationally, in some cases under appalling threats and intimidation, I just think it's a magnificent testament to what they've done. So we've got to try and equal that, and put the two together, and we can go somewhere.

LabourNet Report


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