Thanks to Dave Chapple for his article (in Solidarity 583), which is an important contribution to the history of trade unionism in the UK Post Office. As a CWU [Communication Workers’ Union] activist of 25 years standing I would like to add some additional comments.
I joined Royal Mail in the 1980s. Like Dave, I found that my older colleagues sometimes talked about 1971. Indeed, the key branch officials had all taken part in the strike.
As I became more active in the union, one interesting theory I heard was that Tom Jackson was actually playing a game of internal politics within the UPW [Union of Post Office Workers, forerunner of the CWU) whereby he was happy to end the strike because he wanted to see militancy and the influence of the Communist Party curbed.
The Communist Party was a force in the trade union movement at the time. In the UPW Maurice Styles, a party member, was the Outdoor Secretary, the national officer represented the majority of uniform grades. One of his colleagues, Dickie Lawlor, was also in post at the time. Communists held key positions in the powerful London Region.
In the 1980s and 90s a new breed of younger postal workers took militancy to a new level. As a representative I took part in three national strikes and led numerous local ones both official and unofficial. Unfortunately the lack of a rank and file organisation that Dave mentions persisted.
This resulted in a new leadership which had been elected on a left platform taking the union in a direction of capitulation and partnership. The national strike in 2007 was a key event. As in 1971, several days of action ended with acceptance of management’s terms. Like me Dave fought against that, but as so often happens the bureaucracy won the day.
Privatisation has made things worse. The tremendous militancy of the membership remains, as can be evidenced by result national industrial action ballot results. Unfortunately the 2013 deal, signed after privatisation had become inevitable, is effectively a no strike deal. The result has been a gradual erosion of terms and conditions, including a greatly inferior pension scheme. Membership is falling, the activist base shrinking, and now the Deputy General Secretary Postal a right winger supported by a weak executive. With CWU finances increasingly tight, Unite are circling looking to make another addition to their empire.
It could all have been very different. As with all unions, postal workers need a grassroots movement based on genuine worker democracy to transform their union. Without that the future is bleak.