Two CWU activists from North East London spoke to Ed Maltby.
EM: What’s your attitude to the 30,000 casuals Royal Mail bosses are hiring?
V: People are furious. Royal Mail can dress it up all they like, but we know they’re there to break the strike. We’re going to tolerate it; we’re going to take them on in the courts and we’re going to organise against this.
We are approaching a few casuals about joining the union. We are appealing to their conscience, but if this doesn’t work we’ll try different tactics.
K: Management have been hinting to us that the picketing has been working. For example, they are no longer letting us use the delivery office toilets on strike days, claiming that casuals feel intimidated by the idea of bumping into union members on a strike day, and some have been staying away. Even if it’s just a couple of them, that’s great news, and it’s got management rattled.
We need to talk about the tactics that we are using on this is issue nationally.
Don’t forget that we’re working with casuals on a day-to-day basis, not just on strike days. People give them the cold shoulder and don’t co-operate with them. We’ve made our feelings towards them clear. We’ve started to approach a few of them, but not as a branch or in an organised way. So far we’ve only got about a dozen casual staff in our office, but they are aware of how we view them.
Our members are just ordinary working-class people, who just want to get on with their day. They’re not quick to get angry about things. But people are furious about this, they’re approaching us and saying, "This is fucking wrong, something needs to be done". We tell them, yes, don’t do anything silly but do what you think needs to be done. We have a few plans of how to deal with the situation. Nothing dramatic, nothing violent, but there are a few ideas in the pipeline.
At the mail centres, which are big workplaces, people have started doing little things, to show their collective strength, like singing together on the mail room floor. Imagine 150 workers all singing - it’s little things like that along with the action are showing our strength. It’s all adding up.
EM: People have been talking about the need for rank-and-file control over the dispute. Apparently the London and Bristol Divisional Committees have been organising regional reps’ meetings, but these haven’t been well publicised. What’s your view?
V: I haven’t heard about these reps’ meetings. They may well have happened, but I haven’t heard about them. We have been discussing the need to organise emergency branch AGMs to discuss our response. This is a serious attack on the union and we need to get the tactics right.
The problem is that reps are very busy at the moment and it isn’t easy to call meetings.
EM: How have you been making links with the rest of the labour movement?
V: I spoke at NUT meetings in Poplar and Walthamstow this week, and got a very good response. We got the chance to explain the dispute - explain the issues like bullying and harrassment which are forcing our members to take action. The NUT are organising now to stage rallies and collections for us and join our picket lines. They’ll be rallying at train stations and places like Walthamstow market, leafleting people and getting out information.
EM: There used to be an attitude among certain sections of the CWU, in previous disputes, that reaching out to other groups of workers wasn’t so necessary, that you could win with your own industrial muscle alone. How much does that attitude persist?
V: Not so much. People see that we are under serious attack this time. This is a fight not just for the CWU but all trade unions. Mandleson has made this clear - they’re out to smash all unions and this fight is everyone’s cause now. We’ve been proactive in reaching out; we’ve been sending people to go to union meetings, and to trades councils. Again the difficulty is finding the time; all our activists are very busy at the moment!
EM: Looking at the demands that Dave Ward has set out in his "peace deal" letter to Royal Mail, they’re quite defensive - asking for all changes to be negotiated and for the CWU to be consulted on modernisation. Do you not think the union needs a more aggressive approach?
V: Before we call off strike action we want Royal Mail to reverse all the executive changes they’ve made. I think the speech Mandelson made in the House of Lords was a declaration of war. We should come out with our own declaration of war, get people out on the streets, make a noise, draw up a big strike plan. At the moment strikes are being announced on a week-by-week basis. We need a longer-term programme of action.
EM: What do you think of the question of rank-and-file control of a strike?
K: Emergency AGMs are a good idea. It would be quite difficult to organise them on a city-wide level, it makes more sense for the East London offices to meet and so on. Then branch secretaries could meet up and feed back afterwards. That would be easy - but this plan is still in its early stages, we need to bring it to our branch. It’s quite difficult to organise meetings right now - we actually had to cancel our last branch meeting because of all the work around the strike.
It would make sense to hold an emergency branch AGM on a strike day, when we wind up the picket line.
EM: How strong are the picket lines?
K: We’ve got about 45 people in our office and we have been getting 20 or so people there reliably. We had 28 at the last one and we’re hoping for more than 30 on the next strike day.
EM: Are workers getting ground down?
K: I don’t think so. The branch is getting stronger. Some people are coming along to meetings or speaking at other unions’ meetings. Some others are getting on the phone and going on radio talk-shows and phone-ins to explain the dispute, and it’s not easy to do that, as some of these shows are very hostile. These are just ordinary posties picking up the phone and going on the radio. A few months ago I would have never imagined they would do anything like that.
We want to come out of this dispute with a solid victory. A five day week would be a good start, and we want to preserve the service. The Post is a good job for a young person to go into and we want to keep it like that. Royal Mail want to casualise the whole thing and move everything part-time.
We don’t want to have to wait on a phone call and get four or five hours here or there. We want a 35 hour week. Dave Ward often talks about that demand, but not as much as I’d like. I expect Dave and the rest of them will be shown the door if we don’t come out of this dispute with something good.
As for negotiations, we’re not getting a great deal of information about how they’re going. I don’t agree with that, I’d prefer for negotiations to be put on the telly, but I suppose that’s just the way it’s done. For as long as I can remember, it’s been "so-and-so is locked in talks" and you don’t hear about how it’s going until they all come out.