Sunday 16 March 2008

Burslem Posties Against Victimisation

It's not very often Stoke becomes the scene of a key industrial dispute, but between September last year and this January, it was just that. In a short space of time Burslem postal depot went from an obscure and little known corner of Royal Mail to one of the most important struggles to have taken place over the last 12 months. In Burslem Postal Workers' Struggle Against Victimisation, the new pamphlet by Andy Bentley and published by Stoke Socialist Party, looks at the course of the dispute, its results and what lessons socialists and trade unionists can draw from the experience.

The roots of what took place go back to December 2006. In that month 700 postal workers across North Staffordshire went out on strike over management's attempt to foist part time working hours on full time staff. Royal Mail were forced to back down in the face of the resistance, but they were determined to extract a blood price for their humiliation. Dave Condliffe, a 62 year old postie with 13 years exemplary service at Burslem depot was singled out. The bosses accused him of "behaving aggressively" toward a couple of managers while out on his rounds. It was a baseless charge. Two members of the public who witnessed the incident said nothing had happened. And the managers themselves, people supposedly traumatised by his attitude, were seen laughing and joking back at the depot afterwards. Management didn't care for the facts and 'Big Dave' was sacked. Burslem workers came out unofficially for four days upon hearing the news, and this was backed by official strike days in March last year. Unfortunately the CWU did not ballot for wider action, presumably because the leadership were taken up with the complex and increasingly non-productive talks with Royal Mail over pay, changes to working practices and pensions.

In May management declared its "full and final offer" - a below inflation pay "rise", flexible working and more modernisation (i.e. more neoliberalisation) of the post office. The CWU balloted its members and went into its first nationwide confrontation with Royal Mail for 11 years, backed by a 77% vote in favour of strike action. From day one the strike was solid, which is all the more remarkable when you consider the lengthy recess for more talks between the first and second block of days. By October the CWU negotiated a deal that was a real disservice to the determination shown by postal workers. Unfortunately the bulk of the workforce accepted the leadership's strong recommendation and the posties went back to work, with little in the way of real improvement.

On September 11th Burslem management removed 12 workers from the shop floor. They were accused of harrassment and bullying and were suspended on the spot. The office walked out straight away and only went back once the CWU agreed to hold an official ballot. The accusations were just a flimsy cover. It was a calculated attempt by the bosses to neuter one of the most militant union branches in the country. "Coincidentally" the Burslem 12 comprised all the CWU reps and many of the depot's key activists. A few workers were caught up in the dragnet to give it a bona fide appearance.

Stoke SP were out on the picket lines from the very beginning. We had been supporting local postal workers and making their case on the streets. This also included the campaign against the closure of Hanley post office, where we worked with North Staffs Pensioners' Convention. With the 12 we began solidarity work immediately. We held a couple of public meetings and with the local CWU branch, we built a 100-strong march from Burslem depot to the middle of Hanley.

The pressure from below persuaded the union bureaucracy to announce a ballot on the dismissals. But unfortunately it was a full three months from the suspensions to eventual strike action. Nevertheless the strike was absolutely solid. As it progressed the mood, if anything, became more militant. Workers who were previously quiet found their voice and became increasing confident at the weekly meetings. More and more came out to picket - at one point there were 70 workers on the line! It even became something of a local cause celebre. The local Labour MP, Joan Whalley, was a regular sight on the picket line. Rob Flello went on deliveries in Longton to show his solidarity and Mark Meredith, that most New Labour of New Labour mayors graced Burslem with his presence. The strike culminated on the 19th January in a magnificent national demo through the streets of Stoke, followed by a powerful solidarity rally for the 12 at Hanley museum.

On 23rd January the weekly Burslem meeting was presented with a deal negotiated by Dave Ward, CWU deputy general secretary for post. This settlement represented a partial victory - management took back its threat to reduce the annual leave entitlement of the strikers, agreed not to victimise any of the strikers, conceded an independent review of workplace relations and recognised the need for the National Appeals Panel to have an independent element. Management also pledged to deal with the 12's cases very quickly. This deal was presented to the members as the best Dave Ward could do under the present circumstances. Furthermore it was endorsed by all the 12 (though some were later to change their minds). Burslem voted 63 to 23 to return to work, which they did in the early hours of the 24th.

The pamphlet puts a lot of flesh on the bones of this thumbnail sketch. Not only does it cover the key stages of the struggle and the actions of the workers, the role of our branch is examined in encouraging and supporting the strikers, as well as the parts played by the CWU bureaucracy, Labour and the SWP. There are useful lessons in it for every socialist and trade unionist.

However Burslem Postal Workers is very much an unfinished pamphlet. As I write more local disputes are flaring up and the spectre of a national strike is haunting Royal Mail. The writing was on the wall from the moment the deal had been signed - the senior manager responsible for negotiating it was sacked. And now management has once again gone on the offensive. Bosses at Longton depot have targeted six workers and are investigating harassment "complaints". Last week Royal Mail announced its intention to close Stoke postal depot and move some of its work to Wolverhampton. This has sparked a rolling series of zero-notice unofficial sit-ins. And very significantly, six of the Burslem 12 have been sacked at what can only be described as a mockery of a hearing. Their cases now go to the National Appeals Panel and will be heard at the end of April. Shortly before then Big Dave will also learn of his fate, 15 months after his sacking! Nationally, the closure of the final salary pension scheme on April 1st has caused the CWU to organise a consultative ballot over action. Leaving aside the wisdom of such a move (why not just a straight ballot?) another nationwide strike is surely inevitable.

The final chapter is very far from being written.

Messages and donations can be sent to CWU Midland No.7 Branch, Lindsay Street, Stoke-on-Trent. ST1 4EP. Cheques are payable to CWU Midland No.7 Branch. Solidarity messages can be emailed to with copies to (remove the NOSPAMs).

Copies of Burslem Postal Workers' Struggle Against Victimisation cost £2.00. More details and ordering information can be found here.


Leftwing Criminologist said...

hi comrade, sounds like quite an interesting pamphlet

Anonymous said...

bought the pamphlet and have to say it is excellent


Frank Partisan said...

They seem well organized. One can read your post, and feel their rage.