How should postal workers respond to strike ban?
By A CWU Rep
“I want to say a word about Royal Mail taking legal action against the will of their own staff, rather than negotiating with them and their union… look at what has happened since privatisation. The company has made £195 million in profits through the sale of assets and closed one in 10 delivery offices, running down and asset stripping the service.
They’ve paid out over £600 million in dividends to private shareholders – that’s £344 every minute since privatisation. And of course the public business was sold off on the cheap by the Lib Dem and Tory coalition.
That’s why we have committed to bringing Royal Mail into public ownership – run in the interest of the public, Royal Mail workers and service users.” Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn
You couldn’t have a clearer picture of class and power in Britain today. An unelected judge, Sir Michael Supperstone, educated at St Paul’s School and Lincoln College Oxford, getting by on just £200,000 a year, ruled the CWU postal union’s strike action planned for this week “unlawful”.
Royal Mail went to court for an injunction on 12 October, ignoring a massive 89% yes vote in a strike ballot by the 110,000 postal workers in the CWU, who earn a fraction of Sir Michael’s annual wedge and face a fundamental attack on their wages, pensions, shift patterns and jobs that would pitch them into poverty and insecurity. Indeed the
Last year the Hon. Mr Justice Supperstone stopped blacklisted construction workers from taking guilty employers to criminal courts, and barred the ASLEF train drivers’ union from striking. In that injunction, he said potential “disruption and inconvenience to the public significantly outweighs the suggested harm to the union”; this time he claimed that a strike’s potential damage to Royal Mail weighed heavier in the scales than not striking did to the union. Once again the class character of British Justice is revealed – for the bosses against the workers, for the few not the many.
Business as usual
Royal Mail’s cheek is unbelievable. They blanked the union through 18 months of talks, then, after forcing workers to ballot, they called for a no vote to “get the union back to negotiations”. Now they’ve turned round and claimed the legal provisions in the 2014 Agenda For Growth agreement, struck at the time of privatisation, binds the union to weeks of external mediation.
As Deputy General Secretary Postal Terry Pullinger pointed out to no avail in the court, "These talks have been going on for over 18 months. In fact, we have indeed used external mediation in these talks, which the business would have paid for as well."
Royal Mail’s claims, in official video briefings to customers, that it is “business as usual” in the Christmas period reveal their cynical motives. They aren’t interested in serious talks. This is about delaying strike action and tying the union up in negotiations, which, to quote Royal Mail, “we expect will take close to Christmas to be completed, and maybe longer”.
The pressure of the live ballot and possible Christmas strikes means that Royal Mail was “staring down the barrel of a gun,” said Pullinger, “If this is just an act on their part to try to delay it seven weeks, then so what, at the end of that seven weeks we go again and we give notice.”
Dave Ward chimed in even more bluntly: “Royal Mail are deluded if they think their courtroom politics is going to solve this dispute… Some people may view a court hearing as a setback, and that's at best what it is, what we've got intact is our ballot result. We can still take strike action if we need to.”
But what if Royal Mail seeks to get another injunction? In its original letter to the union, it claimed that the union hadn’t taken “all reasonable steps” to inform members about the ballot result. A ludicrous claim but one it could dust off for a second court attempt?
Logistics website Tamebay reckons “there is plenty of wiggle room for Royal Mail to delay proceedings” into 2018. Despite their best efforts to tick every legal box, including the use of mediators in the talks, the CWU leadership must have known the mediation clause in the 2014 Agenda For Growth agreement was a potential landmine, and surely they know that it might be followed by more legal attempts. Socialists in the union had pointed out at the time that the agreement had a “no strike” clause in it.
The only certainty is that this ruthlessly cynical management team are determined to stop strike action any way they can. And the misnamed Justices of the High Court can be relied on to help them in any way possible. We can’t let them use the courts to move the goalposts again and again, so the strike gets ever further away until the pressure on Royal Mail dissipates.
Time to get organised
There are worrying hints of further delays ahead from the leadership. Terry Pullinger outside the courts tried to massage workers’ expectations: “This strike was never just about Christmas, never just about the desire to take strike action, it’s about getting agreement, the right agreement... and whether that takes three months, six months or a year this union will keep going, keep fighting, because that's the type of union we are.”
Of course we need to fight till we win, and shutting down Royal Mail doesn’t have to happen at Christmas – in 2007 we shut down Royal Mail with a few strike days in the “low traffic” weeks of summer. But a lot of expectations have been built up around Christmas, and bowing before the courts is damaging.
Maximum pressure comes from striking and escalating quickly, not dragging it out for months. We must make sure further injunctions don’t stop us. Marching us to the top of the hill and then marching us down again, like the Grand Old Duke of York, doesn’t win any battles.
Organise the rank-and-file
Postal workers have a great tradition of taking unofficial action to deliver solidarity to victimised members or challenge nasty management tactics. Socialists believe that workers have the right to withdraw their labour when they have made a democratic decision to do so, whatever the judges say. As workers, the only power we have is to stop the flow of profits that comes from our labour. If we do this, especially at the time when they are looking to make their profits, we can put Royal Mail on the ropes, court or no court.
Many postal workers are angry at Royal Mail’s attempts to stop the strike, and may well walk out despite the injunction, especially if management resorts to dirty tricks while it is in operation. If so, we should be fully supported by the rest of union and the wider labour movement.
If there is no such response, it looks like a waiting game. After the court ruling CWU members are even angrier with Royal Mail, despite concerns about the injunction, and waiting for the union’s signal to go forward.
The CWU Four Pillars bulletin on 13 October rightly urged workers to “hold on to the anger and energy because industrial action could very well happen again”. We don’t have to wait around and see what comes out of secret mediation. Socialists, reps and activists can use the time not just to keep the strike sentiment solid but to deepen our campaign:
Regular meetings of local reps and members can link up across the different sections – delivery, distribution, processing etc.a national rank and file meeting could debate how to respond to injunctions and other Royal Mail tactics, and build a grassroots network for actionsolidarity meetings and high street stalls involving other unions and the Labour Party
That way we can keep up the pressure for action and prepare to deliver it from below, if the united front of Royal Mail, High Court Judges and the Tory government try to block us taking action legally, and the CWU leaders fail to act.
Last but not least we need the Labour Party – locally and nationally – to follow Jeremy Corbyn’s lead and get on our side, building solidarity to help sustain our struggle, until we’ve won all our demands.