SOME people are comparing the current postal dispute with the great miners’ strike of 1984/5 and there is one major similarity: both strikes were deliberately provoked in a careful and calculated way, with management fronting for a Government policy to drastically slash the whole industry into a mere shadow of its former self.
In both cases the union leaderships had no choice but to fight for the survival of their industry; the worst possible decision would have been to surrender and see the industry destroyed without putting up a fight.
The miners’ strike divided the country: the press and the rest of the media and many middle and working class people, influenced by the media, were opposed to the strike (remember, they had elected the Thatcher government). Nevertheless a large proportion of the working class did rally, attending meetings, rallies, marches and, crucially, making collections of food and money to support the striking miners and their families.
But to its everlasting shame the TUC and the leaderships of most of the major unions failed to rally to the support of the miners — and this was at a time when solidarity strike action was still legal. If they had rallied, the strike would probably have succeeded and the history of labour relations since then would have been very different.
We are now in a different era; most working people are a lot more sceptical about government and about the media; we have the internet and lies from those in authority are much more quickly found out; authority now has little awe.
Furthermore we have a divided ruling class, with a large section of the right-wing media opposed to the Government plan to reduce the Royal Mail to a minor appendage of a European Union-wide postal service. In the last couple of years papers like the Telegraph, the Daily Mail and the Daily Express have campaigned to save our post office services and the Royal Mail. They are actually giving some support to the strikers in a way that could not have happened in the 1980s.
Other unions are also being more supportive; the GMB has set up a hotline for people to report on agencies supplying scab labour to the Royal Mail to undermine the strike; the list of major unions expressing support is impressive; and the TUC is facilitating talks between Royal Mail management and the Communication Workers’ Union.
This is good but not enough.
Too many are still feeling cowed by the Thatcherite anti-union laws; there is a hidden sense that though the cause is noble it does not stand much chance because there are too many and increasing alternative ways of communicating and delivering mail.
But the London Evening Standard on Monday still reported that last week’s two-day strike had cost London businesses alone £500 million in delayed post. Even the most up-to-date businesses in the capital still depend a great deal on the old fashioned post. Most of the alternative private sector courier services are a lot more expensive and only used for priority documents.
The fight is winnable but it will take a lot of courage and determination and some defiance of the anti-union laws. It would not be a precedent; it was solidarity walkouts that brought a swift and successful end to the dispute at the Lindsey oil refinery earlier this year. The unions did not organise this; workers at construction sites around the country heard the word and immediately understood that this was their fight too and walked out; the union leaderships caught up later and to their credit they supported their members. It certainly brought the bosses round the table very quickly.
The Royal Mail dispute, like so many others, is following a dialectical process, with the bosses acting more and more dirtily in response to industrial action and the militancy of the workers rising in response to every dirty bosses’ act.
And what a boost it would be to the morale all workers to see their potential power demonstrated again in a successful strike! Young workers who have grown up in an era that shuns trade union and political activity and know little about it would have a swift education. Trade union recruitment in general would rise and the balance of power between bosses and workers in this country would improve no end.