Today the High Court granted Royal Mail an injunction to prevent postal workers taking strike action after Royal Mail broke agreements over jobs, hours and conditions of work. Members of the Communication Workers Union (CWU) were balloted in September for strike action and 97.1% of members voted “yes” on an impressive 76% turnout.
At the High Court hearing, Royal Mail alleged the CWU pressured members into voting and that staff opened their ballots at work rather than the privacy of their own homes. The CWU has exposed just how biased the judgement is, saying, “not one single person out of 110,000 who were balloted complained that their right to vote was interfered with. Not one single person out of 110,000 complained to independent scrutineers that their right to vote was interfered with.”
The only right that has been interfered with is the right to strike. That the court upheld the injunction has sent shockwaves through the trade union movement: if it is illegal to campaign effectively for a legal strike then is strike action now effectively illegal?
Britain’s anti-union laws
Britain already has the most restrictive anti-union laws in Europe. For a strike to be legal, 50% of members must vote and in some industries 40% of the union membership must vote yes. Online and telephone voting are illegal, with the expectation that union members will be less likely to vote if it must be done by post. Secondary picketing, solidarity strikes and political strikes are illegal in all circumstances.
The anti-union laws are designed to stop strikes happening. Up against a well-organised and determined CWU campaign, the existing law failed. The strike was set to be politically damaging in the general election and commercially damaging to Royal Mail, so a posh, unelected judge has made a new law – they made it illegal for unions to campaign and organise for a “yes” vote. As Terry said, “Courts of justice are here to defend millionaires and the establishment.”
Since the 50% threshold was introduced by David Cameron’s government in 2011, few unions have managed to successfully ballot for action. The CWU, as one of the strongest and most militant unions, convincingly smashed that threshold and were set to deliver a powerful campaign of industrial action against a viciously anti-union employer out to remodel Royal Mail as a minimum-wage, zero-hours company like DPD or Hermes. The campaign is, as the CWU puts it, “in defence of over 100,000 jobs and the very future of a UK postal service”.
Rank and file action
The CWU has called this dispute “the fight of our lives” and that’s no exaggeration. Royal Mail intends to impoverish their employees to enrich their shareholders.
Postal workers have stood up to the bosses’ courts before. When a similar injunction was granted in 2007, Liverpool posties walked out unofficially. We’ve already seen wildcat strikes in this dispute – in Bootle and nearby offices over racism. In the coming days we are very likely to see more. The higher stakes of this dispute require a stronger response from the union and its members than ever before. Some members are saying we should just “work to rule” or do an overtime ban; but this is also “unofficial action” and just as difficult to organise, but less effective than walking out, especially given the huge attack we face.
Postal workers can make Royal Mail bosses eat their court victory if they walk out, but this time the wildcat strike action should spread to every office. To do this, we need a rank and file organisation that organises within and between offices and mail centres. Based on strike committees elected by the membership we can organise to go out, stay out and defeat both Royal Mail and the High Court injunction.
The time to fight is now
The official line from the CWU is, “we will be doing everything in our power to oppose the company’s industry-destroying plans and this decision, including appealing against the judgement once we have taken guidance from our lawyers, re-balloting and launching a huge leverage campaign with major shareholders against the company’s actions.”
The most powerful thing the union could say is for workers to walk out – it would get a huge response – and support any action that does take place, rather than put its faith in an appeal. Even if an appeal is successful, it will have bought Royal Mail more time – there is next to zero chance of an official strike in November, hitting Black Friday sales.
Every postal worker knows that the best time to strike is the run-up to Christmas. It is when Royal Mail makes the most profit and when its workers are most powerful. Of course the union can re-ballot, but on its own, it means almost certainly no strike action before Christmas – and it means having to conduct a new ballot under the new anti-campaigning rules created by this injunction. Of course, Terry has vowed to continue the dispute until we win, and that’s right, but we are at our greatest strength now – and there is always some infraction that can be dreamed up to justify another injunction.
At a crossroads
If the CWU comes out in support of unofficial action there could of course be consequences and we would be foolish to ignore them. The union’s funds could be seized by the courts and the union’s leaders could face criminal charges. This would be unprecedented in Britain and in the middle of an election would cause a shockwave that could severely damage the Tories, if the whole trade union and Labour movement stand up for the CWU, along with the anti-union laws. We must demand the Labour Party makes support for the CWU and postal workers a part of its election campaign. In all circumstances, whether action is official or otherwise, Labour must give its total support and commit to repealing all the anti-union laws – Thatcher’s as well as Cameron’s. If this is indeed “the fight of our lives” we need to do everything necessary to win.
Postal workers in every office will be discussing the way forward. Anger and determination has to win out over simply waiting for the appeal and a re-ballot to start things moving again. As one of the strongest workplace industrial unions in Britain, postal workers have the power to defeat their bosses. If they don’t wait, if they take determined action and spread it across the country and call on the labour movement’s solidarity and aid, they can win.