Socialist View, No. 15, Spring 2006
Trade Union struggles - Post Office and Nipsa
Belfast postal dispute - Militant strike defeats bosses
Developments in the trade union movement in Northern Ireland indicate a growing willingness to take action against attacks from the government and employers writes GARY MULCAHY
The postal workers' victorious strike, the close vote against all-out action by civil service workers, concessions made to firefighters on the question of pensions plus possible strike action by third-level lecturers, show that an increasing layer of workers are looking for a fighting alternative.
After spending almost three weeks on unofficial strike, postal workers in Belfast secured a stunning victory against Royal Mail management's bully tactics. The determination of the postal workers not to be treated like slaves led to a militant strike and has shown how the anti-union laws can be countered in future battles.
The strike, which involved up to 800 postal workers standing in solidarity against the unjust treatment of union activists in the Belfast BT13 section of Tomb Street sorting office, resulted from over two years of management harassment and intimidation. The unofficial walk-out on 31 January has seriously damaged Royal Mail's management. As well as forcing a hard-line management to back down, it will strengthen the resolve and confidence of postal workers across Northern Ireland and Britain as well as workers generally.
Last year, postal workers in Tomb Street held two walk outs in response to unfair disciplinary procedures taken against shop floor union representatives. At mass meetings during the strike, workers from Mallusk sorting office and other sections reported how management were also attempting to impose a regime of intimidation in their workplaces. It is clear that the disciplinary procedures taken against union reps, in Tomb Street in January was the straw that broke the proverbial camel's back.
This aggressive managerial approach must be put into the context of New Labour's plans to privatise Royal Mail and open up the market to "competition". In order to proceed with privatisation, Royal Mail bosses want to impose new working practices and procedures which will result in worse conditions for postal workers and a higher return for any future private company. To compete with rival companies, Royal Mail bosses claim that new practices are needed, part of the "modernisation" agenda hitting all public services.
The spark which ignited the strike followed disciplinary procedures taken against a Communication Workers' Union (CWU) rep in the Belfast BT13 section which delivers post to the Shankill Road area of West Belfast. The union rep had been keeping a record of incidents of managerial harassment against postal workers in a diary, as any decent trade unionist should. The local manager, who had been promoted from the workforce, searched a drawer containing the diary and other personal material, removed the diary, photocopied it and then accused the union rep of bullying and harassing other workers!
In response, the BT13 section walked off the job. As soon as workers covering North Belfast, South Belfast and West Belfast heard of the walk out, they immediately joined in solidarity. Postal workers in East Belfast however, who work in a separate depot with separate management, remained at work.
Two days later, the majority of workers at the Mallusk sorting office joined the strike. This was a key development that qualitatively shifted the balance of forces in favour of the striking workers. Mallusk sorting office sorts all mail within Northern Ireland as well as mail coming in and out of Northern Ireland. The strike had now paralysed the postal service, thereby seriously disrupting business and administration within Northern Ireland and beyond. Even the 50 managers who were flown in from England and put up in the luxurious Hilton Hotel to scab on the strike could not make any impact on the mountains of undelivered mail. The day after postal workers returned to work, Royal Mail announced that there was a backlog of seven million items.
The Federation of Small Business in Northern Ireland claimed that many businesses were at "breaking point". While this may be an exaggeration, the strike was having an impact on the economy. It showed the important role the postal service and postal workers play in the economy and the postal workers were able to use this to push their case for respect and dignity at work. The media and Royal Mail deliberately muddied the waters in order to confuse the issues behind the strike. In fact, attempts were made to inject sectarianism into the strike in order to divide the workers and reduce public support.
Workers' Unity not Sectarianism
Incredibly, the BBC came into possession of a General Municipal Boilermakers (GMB) union letter that was used to undermine the strike. The letter attacked the strike by claiming it was for "spurious reasons" and that the strike had become "deeply sinister". In Northern Ireland, the word "sinister" has become associated with paramilitary involvement. This allowed the media to suggest that the strike was not justified and allowed Royal Mail to argue that the union was guilty of intimidating workers.
The GMB and CWU have a frosty relationship in Royal Mail. The GMB have been accused of employing two ex-CWU organisers specifically to poach CWU members. This has led to a small split, with the GMB recruiting 20 workers at Mallusk. Nonetheless, the majority of workers at Mallusk remain in the CWU and joined the strike.
The Socialist Party has always argued that sectarian division can only be countered by workers taking united action to further their common class interests. It was obvious to postal workers that maximum unity must exist between Protestant and Catholic workers in order to win the strike. This was brilliantly demonstrated when nearly 400 postal workers marched from a mass meeting in Transport House in Belfast city centre up the Shankill Road, across the "peaceline" at Lanark Way and down the Falls Rd. The strikers appealed to the communities of the Shankill and Falls to come out and support their postal workers. All along the route, the march was applauded. The last time a march was held up the Shankill and the Falls was when the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) led striking firefighters through the "peaceline" in 2003, again with the support of both communities. It was another example of how workers taking action does more to bring working class communities together across the sectarian divide than years of failed negotiations between sectarian parties.
Unfortunately, politicians from the sectarian parties were invited to speak at a rally on Lanark Way. Councillors from Sinn Fein, the PUP, SDLP and DUP spoke about the damage the strike was causing to people and that both sides must "sit down together and sort it out". Not surprisingly, none of the politicians marched the entire route. The only political party banner on the march was that of the Socialist Party.
The anti-union legislation introduced by Thatcher was designed to make it as difficult as possible for workers to take strike action. An attack on a union rep. sometimes requires immediate action in order to force an employer to back off. This was the case in Tomb Street. As there was no official ballot, the CWU decided to "repudiate" the strike rather than confront the anti-trade union laws. The strikers were attacked by the media for taking "illegal action", yet it was clear, even without a ballot that the overwhelming majority of workers supported the strike, otherwise they'd be at work!
There is no doubt that the national leadership and officials of the CWU were desperate for an end to the strike. However, Royal Mail management refused to take part in negotiations as long as the workers remained on strike. At the same time, the postal workers refused to go back to work unless they got a clear commitment from management that disciplinary measures against union reps be withdrawn and also that they agree to an "independent" industrial relations review. Management then placed impossible conditions on workers returning to work, which broke past agreements and health and safety regulations. ICTU's intervention into the dispute was an offer to act as a mediator! Royal Mail rejected their offer of "assistance".
Because the strike was "unofficial" (and by law illegal), there was no official union hardship or strike fund. The Socialist Party raised with postal workers the need to raise cash in order to keep the picket line solid and prevent Royal Mail from starving workers back to work. Our members successfully campaigned within NIPSA for a £20,000 donation to the strike fund set up by the Belfast Trades Council. Our members in the FBU and CWU in Dublin also pledged financial support. By now it was clear to Royal Mail management that they had underestimated the workers' determination to win and would have to begin to make concessions.
Negotiations between the CWU, Royal Mail and the Labour Relations Agency began in London after Royal Mail made an offer to withdraw their previous conditions on a return to work. But they still included a 12 month no-strike clause and refused to agree to no victimisation of local union reps. After the postal workers rejected this nonsense, Royal Mail were forced to withdraw all pre-conditions on a return to work and made a 100% retreat.
Management also conceded to the workers' demand for an independent review of industrial relations. This "independent" review does not guarantee an end to Royal Mail's attempt to intimidate union organisers and harass postal workers. This magnificent strike has shown that militant action is the most effective way to deal with Royal Mail and the government's plans.
In recent years, many workers have not felt confident in taking industrial action. The victorious postal workers strike can help build confidence amongst other sections of workers and can represent a change in the situation. The postal workers have had to work in a climate of fear created by an aggressive management determined to prepare Royal Mail for privatisation and "market liberalisation". But they had enough and fought back to defend their conditions.
The draconian approach of Royal Mail management is not unique. Workers in all sectors, public and private, are facing similar attacks on wages, conditions, privatisation etc. This is a result of the inability of capitalism to provide decent jobs with decent pay and conditions. Neo-liberal globalisation has forced governments and companies to drive down the wages and conditions of workers in order to maintain profits. The postal workers' strike is only the beginning of an upswing in working class struggle that will develop across Northern Ireland and Britain in the next period in opposition to these attacks.
Civil Service:- Why the ballot was rejected
The narrow rejection in a ballot for all-out strike action by NIPSA's civil service members against the imposed 0.2% pay offer by Peter Hain is a warning to the government that a growing number of workers feel they have no choice but to fight against the government's attacks. It is significant that over 6,000 civil service workers voted for all-out strike action.
In a 64% turn out, 47% voted for all-out strike action and 53% against. The narrow majority against all-out action is not because civil service workers are happy with this derisory pay offer. There are many reasons for the "no" vote but an important factor is the lack of confidence in the right-wing of NIPSA to give effective leadership in such an important battle as an all out strike. Important sections of civil service members have been neglected by the right wing of NIPSA.
Right wing controlled branches failed to explain how the strike could have forced the government to back down and come up with a better pay offer. In reality, the right wing majority in the leadership of the civil service side of NIPSA failed to campaign for a "yes" vote.
It is now essential that a strong and dynamic fighting left alternative is built in NIPSA that can challenge the inaction and "sabotage" of the right wing and provide a leadership capable of defending the members' interests.
Socialist Party members in NIPSA are now discussing with other lefts about the possibility of building a united left campaigning organisation that sets itself the goal of transforming NIPSA into a democratic fighting trade union. The left in NIPSA needs to argue for the union to go on the offensive on issues such as pay, in particular the scandalously low levels of pay that thousands of civil and public servants receive.
A new united left
The Socialist Party believes that this new left formation needs to adopt a programme that would include demands to democratise the union - for the election of full time officials to be paid the average wage of the members they represent. Other key issues include the right of local branches to hold funds as well as NIPSA playing a leading role in the development of a working class political alternative in Northern Ireland. The unions need to play a political as well as industrial role. In Northern Ireland, there is an urgent need for a socialist alternative to the dead-end of sectarian politics. The unions, which unite Protestant and Catholic workers, together with genuine community groups can provide the basis for a new party of the working class which could challenge the right-wing sectarian parties and organise working class communities to fight against cuts, water charges, privatisations and so on.
In Britain, New Labour has continued the right-wing Thatcherite policies of the Tories. Labour has transformed from a party that once gave a, albeit imperfect, voice to the working class into a party of big business. Attempts to reclaim the Labour Party have failed repeatedly. The Socialist Party in England & Wales (our sister party) has initiated the Campaign for New Mass Workers' Party, which amongst other demands calls on the unions to break the link with New Labour. Unions should stop funding Blair's anti-working class policies and instead use these funds to establish a genuine new working class party that will defend and fight for working class people's rights. It is no coincidence that the unions who are not affiliated to New Labour have forced the government back from attacking their members' pensions. Unions with a left leadership who are not affiliated to New Labour, like the PCS and FBU, have been able to force concessions from the government on pensions.
The continuation of neo-liberal attacks on workers over the next period will result in more struggles like the postal strike. It is during these struggles that workers will not only take on the employers and the government but will also join the struggle to transform our unions and to build a new mass working class party committed to the ideas of socialism.