A history of the 2003 UK postal workers' wildcat strike

A short history of the largely successful wildcat stoppage of thousands of postal workers in the UK, and the developments which led to the strike.

Submitted by Steven. on November 10, 2006

There had been restructuring of the national postal service - Royal Mail - in the previous 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. The commissioned new modern European sorting office near Heathrow, that was due to open in January 2002, faced long delays in being ready. In May 2003 it became known that the costs had already risen from the planned £180 million to £380 million. 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 46,391 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.

Shortly after the "lost" vote there were a few wildcat strikes in Oxford and official strikes for "London Weighting" (extra pay to make up for the high cost of living) 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 provocation.

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 sent 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 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 climbed 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...

On the ending of the strike, one worker made the following evaluation:
"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."

This article edited by libcom from a longer piece, Wildcats return with a roar, which contains further information.