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(en) postal strike article... for the next issue of wildcat (www.wildcat-www.de)

From Worker <a-infos-en@ainfos.ca>
Date Sat, 22 Nov 2003 19:07:46 +0100 (CET)

A - I N F O S N E W S S E R V I C E
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will be online on www.prol-position.net - Keep warm for the winter!
“Wildcats return with a roar” – On the post strike and other wild actions in the UK
We could have borrowed this headline of last weeks English
Anarchist publications, but we actually nicked it from the
Financial Times of the 6 November. The wildcat strikes are back,
after the work stoppages at Heathrow airport, there have been
wild actions by the postal workers and the fire fighters in the last
two weeks. How can this be? The financial times sways between
panic and mechanic. Panic: “Wildcats breed wildcats, unofficial
action by postal workers spread across the country like wildfire, as
the 24-hour news media fanned the flames”. Mechanic: The old
labour legislation of the Tories is to blame. If the union strikes
did not have to give four weeks notice, then there would not be
any need for these unofficial actions. The labour legislations need
reworking. There are a few impressions from events, newspaper
articles, an early morning visit to a picket line and a talk with a
friend who is a postman himself.


There has been restructuring of the national postal service in the
last few years with permanent to-ing and fro-ing between
negotiations and agreements, between unions and management on
a national level and conflicts and adjustment problems in the
actual daily postal work. Amongst other issues in the centre of
these conflicts are various ‘rationalisation’ measures:

* The daily deliveries will be cut from two, to once a day,
cutting the workforce by about 30,000
* The closure of 3,000 to 9,000 post offices
* The workers should be able to cover various jobs, or
‘demarcation’, e.g. the drivers should deliver letters, if
there is not enough driving work.
* Workers should stay longer or leave earlier according to
the amount of work coming in.
* The union should be focused on co-operation and the shop
stewards and other reps would have less paid time off for
union work.

At the same time the management are trying to undermine local
autonomy with new technologies, which looks pretty bad so far.
The commissioned new modern European sorting office near
Heathrow, that was due to open in January 2002, faces even
longer delays in being ready. In May 2003 it became known that
the costs have already risen from the planned 180 million pounds,
380 million pounds. This new sorting office would replace nine
other sorting offices, which have all been problematic centres of
workers power.

In August 2003 the CWU (Communication Workers Union) called
for a national strike for higher wages. A month of internal
repression from the management and a media campaign against
‘post chaos’, meant that by September, the vote was 48,038
against the strike and only 46391 for it. But we can see that this
vote against a national strike, which was only ever going to be a
nicely timed union token, is not necessarily a sign of the
desperation of the postal workers. As it turns out they would
rather trust their own unmediated strength and organisation, as
some calculated symbolic action.

Shortly after the ‘lost’ vote there were a few wildcat strikes in
Oxford and official strikes for ‘London Weighting’ in London. In
this situation the management thought it was in a strong position
due to the vote against a national strike and therefore the isolation
of the workers and it tried to worsen the conditions at the local
level. The post offices in London play a doubly important role
here: firstly because such a large part of the national post goes
through London and secondly because the largest concentration of
recalcitrant workers. After the official strikes in London the
management in the various offices pushed through the so-called
‘back to work’ agreements. New contracts that for example
included overtime plans to clear the backlog of work, but also
broadened out the tasks of individual workers. It was clearly a


The wildcat strike began at the end of October 2003 in, at the
same time and independently, at Greenford mail centre, which
was a knock on from a dispute at the nearby delivery office at
Southall and at an office in Dartford, London, after a driver
refused to deliver the letters that were building up due to the
official strike, to another office with other workers. He was
sacked for this and his 400 colleagues reacted immediately with a
spontaneous work stoppage. The management ensured the spread
of the strike by attempting to take the post to other offices. The
management knew it was a provocation, but reckoned without
such decisive action. Within eleven days 20,000 to 25,000
workers were out, mostly from London and the South East. More
than 16 million letters per day were piling up and after a few days
10,000 post boxes across London were sealed off. A few
companies were complaining such as a camera film developers
whose factories were not receiving the films to process, and the
supermarket Tesco threatened to give their business to a private
firm. But this was a part of the propaganda war as it was only one
minor contract to deliver books and it turned out not to be a
definite cancellation anyway.
There were emergency meetings between the post service
management, the government, union officials and employer
bodies. The management were publicly trying to reduce the issues
to London Weighting in order to isolate them from the rest of the
country. On the 29 October the CWU head office sent a standard
legal disclaimer as an open letter “How to solve the problem of
unofficial strikes”, in which they officially distance themselves
from the strikes and stated that management are holding them
responsible none the less. They called for immediate return to
work without repressions. “It was read out by the head manager
at our strike meeting to try and put us off - when the union guy
came he downplayed it as what 'they have to say and say every
unofficial strike'.”
The management did not respond, but instead send employees,
mostly managers who can also do some work, from other parts of
the country in as scabs into the conflict zone. They were
delivering special items if necessary – which they tried to
maintain during the strike -
the lucrative 'special' priority services, but by the end they had
abandoned it.

On the 1 November the Guardian published the internal memo
sent by the central office to the local post managers instructing
them how to deal with the strikers. Basically to use every kind of
spying technique going from the use of video cameras to cutting
in on strike meetings in order to take the ‘right steps’ against the
strikers. Workers told us that managers in post workers uniforms
were driving around London in post vans in order to give the
impression that the strike was not going so well. This action was
supported by the media, which went on about the ‘return to work’.
On the 3rd November, straight after the management climed down
and confirmed that there would be no repression, sackings or local
deals would not take place, the strike ended. One day later the
fire fighters in various parts of the country walked out on a
wildcat strike, because the pay rise they fought for in the last
strike has still not been paid…

Picket Line

On the 31 October we went to a picket line outside Mount
Pleasant, a large sorting office in Central London. It wasn’t a
picket line in the usual sense, but about 20 middle aged men
standing around outside the main entrance and chatting to each
other, while a few employees slipped more or less hastily into the
building. No leaflets, collection buckets or posters. A security
guy was standing in the entrance but didn’t really have hard job,
as there were no attempts to stop people going in. We talked with
one striker, probably a union rep. He pretty much told us what we
knew from the media, or what one would say to strangers in such
a situation: “We have tried not to have this strike, but the
management reacted with repression. Here in Mount Pleasant
99% of the workers are out. The strike is locally organised”. One
of the other there told us that management workers from
Birmingham have been ferried in to work there and are staying at
the holiday in round the corner. Also that the management have
been putting their internal police onto people, and for reasons of
‘postal security measures’ are not stopping at the private sphere.
The management were also opening side doors to let people in, so
they would not have to go through the main entrance. Many of
these people are ‘casuals’, i.e. temp workers or those with
temporary contracts. The whole atmosphere on the picket line
was rather steeped with paranoia than with closed-ness. Apart
from us there was a film team, a few posters from the SWP
dominated ‘postworker’ ({www.postworker.org.uk" }www.postworker.org.uk) demanding
solidarity. But no sign of solidarity from the fire station directly
across the street. Maybe it was still to early in the morning. The
pictures on the TV of picket lines were a bit different, with beer
and barbeques…

>From the inside

Not content with the offerings of the Media and let with questions
from our Strike-Hag experience, we visited a friend a few days
later, who has worked as a postman for the last few years. There
was leek and potato soup to go with the weather and his toddling
two-year-old daughter.

“The management seemed better prepared than the last unofficial
strike in 2001. This strike had a bit of a lockout character,
coming from management’s hope to enforce the national
agreements locally.
On the other hand there was less conflict between the union
leaders and the rank and file than last time because since then a
more ‘radical leadership’ was elected. It is the shop stewards who
are exchanging information between the striking centres. The
official union publication is worse than useless. Better is the
newsletter from the SWP orientated rank and file group
‘Postworker’. Where we work we got to know about the
beginning of the wildcat strikes from a union rep, our shop
steward. He called for a meeting to tell us what was going on.
(The meetings take place in the canteen, or in the car park). So,
everybody went to this meeting, and the first thing is the main
manager there, wanting to talk to us about what was going on,
tried to read out the disclaimer from the CWU, but we didn’t give
him a chance. The management were holding the union guy in
their offices, in line with the official instructions of what to do in
such situations. They later let him speak, but tried to catch him
out ‘inciting’ us to strike. He tried to get round this by simply
telling us what was going on with the strike and telling us that it
was up to us, how we wanted to react. When a bloke, who was
not in the union called for a strike, the union guy said “Well here
is a suggestion, let’s vote on it.” It was then just a formality
where everyone raised their hands and voted for a strike. There
may well have been a few there who would have wanted to not
strike right away, but just refused the work from the striking
centres, or scab work. Sooner or later we would be asked to deal
with work coming from the mail centre that was already on strike
and thus this work would have been handled by managers to get it
to us, and at that point we would have refused and walked out.
The choice before us then was to wait till we were actually asked
to deal with some work that was 'scab work' or to more pro-
actively say 'they've suspended people at the mail centre', they are
out, lets go out in support. It was this more aggressive and
immediate response that the non-union rep proposed and the
union rep took as the suggestion for us to vote on.

For most of the people being on strike meant staying at home.
There was no need for a real picket line, because it was clear that
everyone would strike anyway. For 170 workers there were at
most 20 to 30 people on the picket line. There are also casuals
working with us, but they didn't cross the picket line. (Casuals
come from agencies and are called up as and when needed. There
is definitely a division between them and us. There are also post-
workers on limited contracts, but they work alongside us and are
treated by the workers and managers the same as the permanent
staff. Most do get permanent contracts eventually).

The only ones who ignored the picket line are the manager and
cleaning workers, who we don’t have a good connection with
anyway. The atmosphere goes between a barbeque evening, to
‘we’ll show them’ to fear that the strike could go on too long.”

After the end of the strike on the 4 November

“After the negotiations the CWU and the management called for a
return to work as they had a settlement. Because the next
morning we still didn’t know anything about the content of this
agreement, we carried on striking. One day later it became clear
that there would be no repression of the strikers and no local
‘back to work contracts’, which were not voted on. The main
feeling was ‘we won’. The basis for the strikes was an attempt to
undermine the union and push through changes that had not been
voted on. Now it is clear that they ‘have to talk to us’. If the
management would have managed to break the strike things
would be worse now. It was a defensive, but successful strike.
The issue is we broke the anti strike legislation. In this case even
the headquarters union official were not trying very hard to
enforce the law and the local union reps were actively working
against the law.We broke through the unions officials ‘anti-strike’
politics again, and we were successful when we did.

Whether it is the promised general return to the wildcats and
whether it lies in an increase of consciousness of the workers or
an incremental ineffectiveness of the given legal framework, is
hard to say. We will see what the winter brings. Amongst other
things there is announced actions by the London Tube workers,
the teachers and in the a nuclear power station, and apart from
that the successful element of surprise (again…)

London, November 2003.

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