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Review of "The Couriers are revolting"

A review of The Couriers are revolting! The Despatch Industry Workers Union, 1989-92 (Kate Sharpley Library, £1.50) from the Australian publication Rebel Worker Vol.19 No.5 (167) Oct.-Nov. 2000.

This pamphlet under review focuses upon an organising drive by anarcho-syndicalists associated with the British Solidarity Federation among courier workers in London. This was a genuine attempt at facilitating workers self activity rather than a vanguardist exploit to recruit for a sect or establish a Potemkin union" to provide fake credibility for overseas observers of such a sect.

Whilst the militants were unsuccessful in consolidating the base of an ongoing union in this sector, they did win some victories and improved workers conditions. Their experience chronicled in the pamphlet throws light on some problems of syndicalist industrial organising and strategy. One important organising issue touched upon relates to the appropriate levels of openness and the profile to be adopted in the initial stages of such a drive. The author states in the pamphlet that the militants in hindsight considered they were over cautious regarding approaches from workers and the advertising of meetings. As a result they delayed making contacts for their organising drive. Their shadowy profile however would have discouraged legal action and victimisation of militants. Well targeted legal action by the bosses and the union hierarchy assisted by deep infiltration by their stooges is likely to have had lethal consequences for the drive, particularly in its early vulnerable stage. The author goes on to mention a common hazard of organising drives at companies was the attendance by bosses and their stooges at union meetings which led to victimisation of militants.

The pamphlet throws light on some innovative industrial tactics such as picketing courier firm customers, rather than the firm itself during a dispute and blocking the radio frequencies of the firm.

According to the author as a result of the combined effects of a high turnover of employees in courier firms, an associated inability to consolidate DWIU branches at these firms, and Norwich Union's refusal to provide insurance to many couriers, the DWIU's organising drive was terminated and the DWIU was dissolved.

Whilst a major contribution to the organising activity of the militants was a boom in the courier industry in London, a key factor which is likely to have ensured rapid success and overcome various structural obstacles i.e. a high turn over of workers in the industry, for the drive would have been a high level of morale generally in the labour movement contributed by major victories won by workers in more strategic sectors. The background of massive militant action and industrial successes in the mining and transport industries by militant workers must be seen as a major contribution to the formation of a viable and industrially very successful anarcho-syndicalist oriented catering workers union which existed in London in the years immediately prior to WWI. (See Wilf McCartney's pamphlet Dare to be Daniel).

Should the DWIU's organising drive have been a success. What would have been the outlook? Unless this insurgent contagion spread to other industries particularly strategic ones or more likely converged with similar movements in them, the DWIU is mostly like to have faced a massive counter offensive later down the road due to encirling managements, union bureaucracies and the State. An alarming historical precedent is the fate which met the anarcho-syndicalist oriented NSW Builders Labourers Federation in the mid 1970's due to the failure of its militants to generalise a syndicalist insugency throughout the industry and into other industries. It was eventually crushed by a successful counterattack by management/state/union bureaucratic forces.