Britain Post Strike: Report from Whitechapel

First there were three, the sun having not yet shown its face, in the pitch black darkness of the autumn morning it was only the neon of the street lights that reflected off the red high visibility jackets of the picketing Royal Mail workers. Eddie Kacar reports on the mood at EDO in Whitechapel in the heart of the East End of London

As the reluctant sun began to appear through the gaps in the buildings so did the workmates of the original three. They greeted each other with boisterous humour and comradely appreciation. Before you knew it, they were twenty men, a small boy and two dogs. Their enthusiasm and determination was just as warming as the newly born sun and the almost constant flow of tea. These men were on strike!

The second day of the postal workers national strike was underway. Despite the media misinformation, or shall we call it the media onslaught against the strike, describing the postal workers and the CWU as “greedy” and “inconsiderate at a time of mass unemployment”, the picketers seemed very cheerful and confident. We were given a brief salute and blow on the horn by almost all the bus drivers and white van men as they passed along the Whitechapel road in support. As it approached midmorning the pedestrian flow brought with it not a few well wishers. One older man stopped and said; “what you boys are doing is right, but you must stay together and convince others to join you to win!” they say wisdom comes with age. This showed to me, to an extent, that the media offensive had not been very potent. One particular article in the Sun claimed the action of the postal workers would mean “our boys in Afghanistan would not get their Christmas presents delivered to them”. When I told one of the picketing workers about this disgusting attempt to create antipathy towards them, he humorously replied “the logical solution to that would be to bring our boys home”. It appears postal workers have more sense than our government.

The action, not just over pay and conditions but also the prospect of huge job cuts within the framework of the “modernisation” plan, was called following a series of one day strikes across the country. The less disruptive one day stoppages were not enough to convince management to start negotiations, who the workers blame for breaching the 2007 phase four pay and modernisation agreement.

The strike took place amid the backdrop of 30,000 casual and agency workers being recruited to “help clear up the backlog”. In response, one worker who chose to stay anonymous said “the strikes need to be escalated… one or two day strikes are not enough, because its just not going have an effect with all those scabs brought in”. But in saying that he also recognised the adverse affect on the workforce of losing pay when out on strike. “But in order win we need to escalate, and I think most of the men are aware of that” he continued and all others who were engaged in conversation with us were in agreement. This particular worker was also dissatisfied with the soft demands of the union. According to him even if the strike was successful in achieving its objectives, it would only be a partial victory for the workers because the union accepts that some jobs would have to go.

The reason for, or shall we say excuse for these attacks on the workers is the alleged 10% decrease in mail volumes. Yet, at the same time, Royal Mail has to audacity to claim “our postmen and women have never delivered more packets and parcels”. Furthermore, in 2008 the service made a huge £58 million profit. This begs the question; is there really a need to cut due to lack of use or is there a different reason for these attacks?

All workers on the picket line were unanimous about one thing; no privatisation! They saw Lord Mandelson as the architect of their demise. The planed machinery, instead of reducing the workload and improving the conditions of the workers, is being brought in to increase exploitation. Management would get rid of a large portion of fulltime skilled workers and replace them with part time employees. This has a two fold effect – both benefiting the management of course. Firstly, they would make a huge saving on wages, this is the obvious effect, and would as a result increase profitability. Secondly, part time workers are not as easy to organise into a union, therefore, in the future much easier to manipulate and exploit with attacks on their conditions.

It seems obvious that Mandelson is pushing for these counter-reforms in order to make the Royal Mail more attractive to a prospective privateer. The only reason the service was not privatised earlier is because a buyer was not found who would pay what the government are asking for it. With this new “modernisation”, Royal Mail will seem like juicy prospect for any slick haired sharp suited privateer. And what might be the reason for privatisation? Well, one picketing worker summed it up very well; “it’s the massive black hole in the treasury, their solution to the crisis is to cut or in other words, cut our wages and conditions”.

Eddie Kacar