Around thirty postal workers huddled outside the Royal Mail office in Whitechapel, east London. They’d been there for three hours already, wearing bright pink beanie hats stitched with the logo of their union, the Communication Workers Union (CWU). The sound of Christmas music mingled with supportive honks from cars on Whitechapel Road. A bus driver raised her fist in solidarity as she inched through the traffic.
Down the road was the spot where Wat Tyler, leader of the Peasants’ Revolt, petitioned Richard II in 1381 to end serfdom and ban monopolies in the marketplace. The king agreed to the demands, but his men later killed Tyler and he reneged on his promises. Today Whitechapel has a large Bangladeshi population and one of the few train stations in the country where signs are written in another language – Bengali – alongside the English.
The strikers’ representatives have been in talks with Royal Mail for seven months in a dispute over pay and conditions. This, 14 December, was the third strike day of the month.
Dave Ward, general secretary of the CWU, was there to address the small crowd at the picket line across the road from the Tube station. “This is a fight about the very future of our members’ jobs,” Ward said. “This is a fight about the future of Royal Mail – one of the greatest companies in the UK is being actively destroyed by a handful of people at the top. We have got to keep going here. Whatever it takes to try and get this resolution in the way that you deserve, but also what customers deserve.”
Ward was trying to bolster morale to ready his members for a long dispute. At the back of the crowd one of them told me that the situation was getting “pretty ugly”. Lee became a postman when he was 16. Now 56, with a grey-flecked beard and bright eyes, he had worked in Whitechapel all his life. “We’re out for two days this week,” he said. “That’s going to cost us quite a big chunk out of our money. It’s not easy. We find it really hard. But if we don’t fight this, it’s going to be like this all the time.”
In the back of Ward’s battle bus – a swish black van parked nearby – he told me the dispute was about much more than pay. “We could probably settle on pay around 9 per cent,” he said. The Royal Mail claims to have offered a deal of up to 9 per cent over 18 months, but the union argues this is disingenuous, as the terms make the offer far less generous in reality. But members’ jobs and the future of Royal Mail are also at stake.
“There’s no other way of putting this: Royal Mail want to bring in a new workforce if they were being honest about their plans for the future. They don’t want these people anymore,” he said, gesturing to the picket outside. “This is not about us opposing modernisation. What we’re opposing is Royal Mail becoming just another parcel courier.”
He argues that Royal Mail should take full advantage of its unique role delivering letters and packages to 32 million addresses six days a week – the so-called universal service. That’s “something which we believe Amazon would give their right arm for”, Ward said. “Royal Mail want to just smash all that up because they’re not interested in doing the universal service any more.” Royal Mail is talking to the government about reducing the service to five days a week.
Ward suspects the government is interfering in the negotiations between the company and the union. He said that the similarity between offers made to the CWU and the Rail, Maritime and Transport union (RMT) suggested the government was coordinating the strike negotiations. “My honest view? When I look at the proposals that the RMT are facing – and I’ve seen them – and I look at what we’re facing, they are strikingly similar, down to even the language of how they’re drawn up. And I think there’s a common denominator there and that is the government. We shouldn’t underestimate the reality that there’s an agenda here to smash an organised group of workers.” Royal Mail, a private company, denied that the government had been involved in the negotiations.
The CWU is officially affiliated with the Labour Party and has a representative on its National Executive Committee. What does Ward think of Labour’s stance on the strikes? “They’re not doing well, are they? They’re in a position where they’re sitting on the fence at best, in terms of the leadership of the Labour Party,” he said.
“The challenge for Labour is to be more than a party that wants power – a party that can actually change things. Labour should be setting out really, really strong proposals to rebalance the world of work. They know what they should be doing if they want to gain the support of working people in this country.”
But Ward does not want to focus on Labour. He said his members were his priority and he was committed to strike action until Royal Mail change what they’ve said is their final offer. “We are going to go for as long as it takes. We don’t want to burn our members out. We’re very aware of that. But what we know is that Royal Mail cannot be successful if it’s got the workforce against it.”
Postal workers are striking at the same time as nurses, border force officers, paramedics, rail workers and airport baggage handlers. Mick Lynch, the general secretary of the RMT, has presented the strikes as key to changing the underlying structure of the economy. He told me over the summer that “something has got to be done – otherwise we’re all going to be skint”.
Ward thinks unions could be working more closely together. “We also believe it’s time for workers to stand together, myself and Mick are strong advocates of that because we recognise the structural imbalance in the world of work today, also in how the economy operates, and the inequalities that have grown in society,” he said.
“We’re at a very serious point. And I don’t see us backing away in this dispute, and I certainly don’t see us backing away from trying to get solidarity across all workers in the UK.” His team started to get ready to drive over to another picket line in Romford. “You’re going to see prolonged disputes – what we’ve got to do is harness that into a wider fight for a new deal for working people.”
[See also: Nurses don’t strike lightly]