Posties, tippex and ballots: the 1996 postal strikes

As Subversion #20 was produced, postal workers in Britain were in the middle of a long running dispute with the state. This article helped analyse the sell-out in preparation by the union. From Subversion #20 (1996)

Submitted by Juan Conatz on February 3, 2010

When will Royal Mail be crushed like a snail
Under the foot of a postie on a crisp Autumn morn?
And is our dream of transcending the Unions entirely forlorn?

We've had 8 one day strikes in Royal Mail now and it has apparently cost them £100 million. A one day strike costs a postie, after deductions, about £25. A lot of posties are disappointed when there isn't a strike day in the week as they are getting used to a five day week, people make arrangements to go out with their families and whenever a strike day has been cancelled there has been a lot of discontent with the Union for messing about with our social plans! While in one respect this could be seen as a positive attitude towards work in general (i.e. anti-work), the way the strikes have been organised has meant that we have had little real participation and the Union has retained almost full control of events and information - this, of course, has made the union bosses very happy. More militant posties are, in fact, very unhappy about the way the strike seems to have been conducted over our heads, without even any explanation of the reasons for the particular tactics used by the Communications Workers Union. A lot of posties think a work to rule would be more effective, while this might well lead to an all out strike (management would probably force us out on some provocation) it would give posties a chance to seize some autonomy from the CWU manipulators.

In Scotland, however, there has been a concerted attempt to defy the "anti-trade union" laws and workers have tried to gain some control of events for themselves. Flying pickets have been really successful, especially when you consider how difficult it is to organise this on single strike days. Since secondary picketting is illegal Royal Mail threatened to sue the Union if it was allowed to continue, this, of course, gave the Union the excuse it needed to attempt a crackdown on such subversive activity. However, because the strikes have only been one-dayers in the main this has not come to a head. Certainly the CWU bosses do not like it when posties take their own initiative, various leaflets from them have threatened all sorts of dire consequences if we do not do exactly as they tell us to. Most "anti-trade union" laws are, in fact, anti-worker laws, this becomes evident the more you see the unions using them to control their memberships. Flying picketting is - as the bosses, government, and union bosses realise only too well - essential to workers' effectiveness in industrial action. Not only can it spread the struggle, but it is important for the mutual morale boosting of strikers and the exchange of information amongst workers. There really is a need for the culture of flying picketting to return and the only way for this to happen is for striking workers to get out and do it! What does it matter to us if the union is fined, will posties really be affected if the CWU has to sell the posh hotel it owns? The unions are taking the piss out of us.

Strikers in the big strike in Scotland last November were ready to send pickets down to offices in England but the Union convinced them that although they had got away with flying picketting in Scotland, English laws would somehow not be so tolerant and the whole thing would be impossible. Union bosses, of course, did not approve of the unnofficial mass strike in Scotland and were very nervous about it spreading south, so it was lucky for them that "common sense" won the day.


This is complicated! It has transpired through a leak to the press that some strange shenanigans have been going on in the higher reaches of the CWU bureaucracy. Namely that the first strike ballot that the Union held has been found to be invalid and that the second strike ballot we are due to have soon is to correct this error. We have been told that the second ballot has been called partly to appease calls from Royal Mail, the government, the Labour Party, the media, and every other anti-working class bastard to ballot on Royal Mails (unchanged!) proposals, and partly to see if support for the strike is still strong (which is totally mad since the numbers of strikers proves this to be the case anyway!). However, it seems that the original notification of the strike ballot results which were sent to Royal Mail had had the number of spoilt papers tippexed out. This makes the original ballot invalid.

If the tippex story is true then a couple of questions arise. Why has Royal Mail sat on this information for so long? And will the union be fined? The story is that Alan Johnson, our glorious General Secretary, got an agreement from Royal Mail that they will not pursue the matter, but the threat is that if the tippex story gets out (which it now has!) then private firms may take the CWU to the cleaners for lost revenue. Now, Alan Johnson, who was never in favour of the strike, has wanted to re-ballot the members for a while now on the (crap!) deal so far, but the Postal Executive has refused his wish, since, rightly, nothing fundamental has changed in Royal Mail's proposals. Uncannily, this tippex saga has enabled Alan Johnson to get his way with the Postal Executive, whom he swore to secrecy about the whole thing, since they do not want to let the Union end up in court. Johnson and Royal Mail now hope that the new ballot will go against continuing the industrial action, but even if the ballot proves for continuing it is likely that the majority for will be reduced (those who didn't vote before may now vote for an end to action, for example) and this will strengthen Johnson's hand against the Executive and those of us who don't want teamworking or a crap pay deal.

This also shows that democracy is crap and breeds apathy amongst those it is designed to control - we need working class action not democratic ballots! Real life, not politics!

Anyway, due to Johnson's "lack of enthusiasm" for the industrial action he has had his job of writing the union leaflets to the members taken away from him, and Scotland No. 2 branch, so far at this time, has passed a resolution of no confidence in him. They have also passed resolutions on linking the reinstatement of strikers involved in picket-line discipline cases to any final deal on teamworking and pay restructuring in the APC's.

There are quite a few other actions going on around the country, but the union likes to keep these things quiet, after all posties might start winning things if we brought other offices out in support of workers involved in separate office disputes. What the bosses try in one office they will always try to spread if they get away with it.

Finally, despite heroic efforts by many posties the union has, by and large maintained control of this industrial action and there has been virtually no propaganda produced by the posties themselves. Obviously there is plenty that we should be communicating to each other. Important industries like the Post (that is, important to the class struggle) need to have as many troublemaking, revolutionary types in it as possible. Personally, I feel that many radical supporters of a working class revolution don't actually put themselves in a position where they are of much use. Of course, I understand that radical types as much as anyone want an easy life with a well-paid and cushy job, but we could certainly do with more people in crucial industries.

[big thanks to Petey O. for info and sharp analysis]