Britain - Postal strike: a fighting potential squandered by the union leadership

Nov/Dec 2003

At 3.30 am on Monday 3 November, the leaders of the Communication Workers' Union (CWU) stitched up a deal with Royal Mail bosses, which effectively stabbed in the back the 25,000 or so postal workers who had been staging an unofficial strike, in some cases for over two weeks.

There is, indeed, virtually nothing for the strikers in this "joint statement/resolution to unofficial action." The guarantee that "no conduct cases will be progressed" against strikers depends mainly on the local balance of forces with management bullies. And the promise of further negotiations over the attacks on working conditions which triggered the strike, only means that these attacks remain on the agenda and will be implemented, with the cooperation of the CWU leadership, unless postal workers stand up once again to throw the spanner in the works.

In fact, this deal will only benefit Royal Mail - assuming, which seems now likely, it does bring the strike to an end - and the CWU leadership, since it includes a commitment by Royal Mail to refrain from trying to bypass the CWU machinery in order to implement its cost cutting agenda.

The CWU leaders, therefore, have won the right to re-establish their past cosy partnership with Royal Mail - although this may well prove a pyrrhic "victory" as, once the bosses no longer fear the mobilisation of the workforce, there will be nothing to stop them from reneging on their promises, if they choose to do so.

At the time of writing, it is still difficult to gauge the impact of the CWU leaders' stitch up on the strike. Within hours of the deal, some CWU activists were already instructing strikers back to work at the start of the morning shift. However there were also reports that the strike was continuing in some offices. In any case it will probably take another 24 to 48h for all the strikers to even realise what has been happening, given the absence of regular strikers' meetings to keep them informed of developments. And only then will it be really possible to assess the situation.

Probably not that many strikers will have been surprised by the CWU leaders' dodgy deal - after all, they have a long record of making such deals behind their members' backs. Rather than looking to the CWU leaders, it is to the local union reps that most strikers looked for leadership, particularly to those who had been instrumental in initiating the walk-outs in the first place. The attitude of these reps towards the deal is, therefore, bound to be decisive.

However after sending the strikers home, often without even trying to get them involved in manning picket lines, let alone in taking part in other activities, these local reps remained more or less the only active elements in the strike. While the CWU machinery refrained from organising gatherings which might have allowed the strikers to measure their strength and discuss the objectives of the strike, it kept in close contact with the local reps through regular meetings organised at area or district level. The odds are therefore, that under the pressure of the CWU machinery and in the absence of a counter-pressure from local structures involving the strikers in an active way, even the reps who might have wanted to take the strike further feel too isolated to act in opposition to the union leadership.

And yet this strike did have a real potential. Just before the deal was signed, over two-thirds of postal workers in London together with a number of Mail Centres and delivery offices around the country had joined the strike - and it was still spreading. In fact, it had reached the point of becoming a major political issue.

And so it should have, because, for the first time in many years, thousands of workers were taking simultaneous unofficial action against the government's turn of the screw on public service workers. This was all the more important as Royal Mail is one of the few areas in which Blair has been unable so far to advance his cost and job cutting agenda, mainly due to postal workers' resistance at local level.

This could have been an important strike in many other ways, too. In particular because of the postal workers' numbers and physical presence across the country and because of the natural sympathy they enjoy among the working class as a whole. Their strike was bound to be immediately visible to hundreds of thousands of workers up and down Britain. Should they have been successful, this could have marked the beginning of important changes for the working class, by boosting its confidence in its ability to defend its collective interests using the methods of the class struggle - something it has lost through two decades marked by unemployment, the rise of casualisation and repeated attacks from all governments.

However, for this to happen, as was demonstrated by the CWU's stitch up, the postal strikers needed to find within their own ranks a leadership which would not allow itself to be paralysed, neither by the anti-strike laws of the bosses nor by fear of losing a cosy relationship with Royal Mail management. They needed to turn from an un-coordinated defensive reaction to Royal Mail's attacks to a democratically organised, coordinated offensive behind common objectives, to win better pay and conditions and secure jobs. And they needed the determination to make the best of the relationship of forces in order to force the maximum concessions from the enemy. Such were the pre-conditions for success.

Privatisation - the engine of the dispute

The present situation in Royal Mail, where workers are facing the threat of radical cuts in their jobs and changes in their conditions, arises directly out of Blair's commercialisation and privatisation policy - which is being implemented by the government's appointees on the Royal Mail Board of Directors. It is this policy which requires a significant worsening of postal workers' conditions, since the precondition for "commercialisation" is the cutting of the wage bill. At the same time, this policy has already led to a deterioration in the postal service for most of the population. Ordinary letters take more and more time to reach their destinations. And, in the medium term, this policy can only lead to a multi-tiered postal system, tailor-made for the needs of business and for those who can pay more.

It will mean that yet another public service, and in this case, the country's oldest, will have been handed over to the profit sharks with the usual destructive consequences for working people.

Since the passing of the Postal Services Act 2000 the British postal service has been transformed into a public limited company. However, the government has remained Royal Mail's only shareholder, with the Department of Trade and Industry minister, Patricia Hewitt, nominally holding this share. But this has not prevented Blair and Hewitt from hiding behind Royal Mail's so-called "commercial" status to claim that its management's decisions have nothing to do with them - a transparent lie, of course!

The Postal Services Act also created the regulator, Postcomm, whose job it is to open the postal service to competition, by granting licences to private companies to collect, process, or deliver mail. At the same time Postcomm oversees Royal Mail's Universal Service Obligation, defining efficiency targets and imposing fines on Royal Mail if these are not met. By 2000, RM's national monopoly of mail had already been cut to only those items weighing under 350g and costing £1 or less to deliver. Companies such as Hays, TNT, Deutsche Post, and even Express Dairies have so far been granted licences. There is meant to be a phased withdrawal of RM's remaining monopoly over the next 4 years so that by 2007, the "postal market" will be fully deregulated.

Over the past three years, Royal Mail has managed to accrue highly-publicised alleged losses, which are being used to justify its "vital" need to cut its wage bill in order to "turn the business around". However these so-called losses, which came after three years of record profits, have nothing to do with labour costs. The truth is that Royal Mail embarked on a spending spree, no doubt to make itself more attractive to future buyers, which went badly wrong. A host of small mail businesses were bought at great cost in Denmark, France, Germany, Holland and Singapore. In addition a long series of misconceived modernisation projects turned into financial black holes. For instance the Pathway computerisation of sub-post offices, based on a PFI deal with ICL, had to be scrapped with a £571m loss. And the Heathrow Worldwide Distribution Centre at Langley, whose cost has shot up from an original estimate of £150m to £420m, has become RM's very own "Scottish Parliament", with so many delays, that 22 months after its latest planned opening, in January 2002, it is still not fully operational. Rumour has it that the project could even be scrapped since British Airports Authority has put in an offer for its land.

In any case, whether Royal Mail makes losses or not is irrelevant. This is a red herring, as is the government's alleged "obligation" to introduce competition into the postal service.

Even if it was the case that RM was running at a loss, so what? What is wrong with a public service running at a loss if that is the only way to provide an efficient and cheap service for the population? Has Blair ever required the House of Commons to turn a profit, even though its usefulness is doubtful and its cost huge?

As to the opening up of the postal market to competition, which is supposed to be required by Brussels, this government has so far managed to keep Britain out of the euro and to reduce European legislation on working hours to a caricature - on the backs of working people. Yet it claims that it is unable to opt out of European legislation on postal competition? What a joke!

The way backward on working conditions

Having prepared the postal service in all other aspects for the private sharks to plunge in tear out chunks of it, the one aspect left to be addressed was that of getting the workforce into the required shape - all the more so, since this service is so labour intensive. And as with other privatisations carried out so far, given the aim of maximising profit-making potential for the sharks, labour costs had

first to be driven down. In the postal service, these costs amount to up to 70% of total expenditure, so the privatisation process in Royal Mail depends almost entirely on cutting the numbers of postal workers, while increasing the workload of those workers who remain, as well as introducing as much casualisation as possible.

However, this is not too straightforward a task. The 160,000 postal workers employed by Royal Mail are already among the lowest paid public sector employees in the land, so that they often work massive overtime to make ends meet. And this already tends to keep the total number of employees at the lower limit of requirements.

Indeed, the appalling wages and conditions of postal workers and the constant attempts to undermine these further, goes some way towards explaining why postal workers have been the one section of workers who, during the slump in industrial action throughout the 1990s were still going out on strike - and very often on unofficial strike.

In fact the scene for the final turn of the screw on the workforce prior to the start of commercialisation, was set by a wide-ranging agreement between the CWU and Royal Mail, known as "The Way Forward", eventually put to ballot of the workforce in February 2000 with the leadership's recommendation. At the time, in a premonition of things to come, this was accepted by only a 500 vote margin. Among other things, the agreement was meant to impose, under a new single grade of postal worker, increased "flexibility" of working and efficiencies by way of locally agreed performance bonus schemes. In effect, it actually cut the incomes of many postal workers, by removing Saturday premiums as well as other allowances and limiting the ways in which these could be made up via overtime working.

However, management's attempts to implement "the Way Forward" hit the obstacle of local resistance, sparking numerous unofficial strikes up and down the country. As a result, the agreement was never fully implemented everywhere. However this "unruly behaviour" on the part of postal workers led to the conscription of "Lord" Sawyer, an ex-Labour party chairman and former union official, to investigate the dire state of postal "industrial relations".

While Lord Sawyer's report resulted in a no-strike agreement (which was renewable) with the CWU during 2001, and the recommendation that "real partnership" be tried, Royal Mail decided to up the stakes. In December that year, it announced that it was cutting 30,000 jobs and ending the second daily postal delivery. It then outlined its plans for "major change" which involved a total restructuring of its logistics (distribution) network under the so-called "Transport Review" and a scheme of closures and amalgamations of sorting offices with new, more "efficient" methods of mail sorting.

King shark and his CWU pilot fish

It was at this point that the government appointed Allan Leighton, as Chairman of Royal Mail's Board, with the task of kicking the changes through against workforce resistance, in order to make the "business" as attractive as possible to private sharks. And he was well placed to do so since he belonged to the "jaws club" himself and had been much feted for bringing the supermarket chain Asda into the big profits league by turning the screw on its workforce.

Leighton surrounded himself on the RM board with highly-paid look-a-likes, such as Adam Crozier, who, like him, had started out in the Mars confectionary business. Crozier was put in charge of implementing "major change" in Royal Mail. The job was now to resolve the problem of how to exploit further an already over-exploited workforce - when postal workers' low pay was already becoming a bit of a national scandal.

However, by this time, as a result of the CWU leadership's endorsement of the "Way Forward" agreement, many rank-and-file postal workers were in a state of disillusionment with the union. This was compounded by the leadership's failure to push forward the claim tabled in 2001 for a minimum basic wage of £300 per week, when they used the excuse of the announcement of job cuts, RM's stated "losses" and warnings of impending competition, to cancel a strike ballot. The union leaders were no doubt now determined to be seen as "responsible" partners by RM management.

So Leighton tried to tap this disillusionment by taking to addressing workers directly, over the heads of the CWU, and sending them personal letters in which he purported to "understand their concerns". However whether the "drinking mate" style of his letters struck a chord among workers is questionable. Most found Leighton's new style of management patronising, and his letters plain rude.

After the union's capitulation over pay in 2001, there were a number of further fiascos which could only further undermine workers' confidence in the union's determination to fight for their interests. In 2002, when RM declared that it was privatising RoMEC (cleaning, engineering and construction division) a national ballot for industrial action was held against this. The result was never even made public (it was in fact lost), while RM compromised and part-privatised it instead, giving Balfour Beatty a 7-year contract to run it. However, this also meant that the "victory" which the CWU proclaimed for having retained, by agreement with Balfour Beatty, RoMEC workers' terms and conditions, was actually only valid for these 7 years.

Cash Handling and Distribution, was also meant to be sold off late that year - to Securicor, the preferred bidder. The union stopped short of a national ballot against this and instead just balloted the CH&D workers themselves. However the workers concerned had already taken unofficial strike action at this point, across seven cities, and anyway, the referral of Securicor's bid to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission led Securicor to withdraw. In the end, RM decided not to outsource any part of CH&D but got the CWU to cooperate in cutting it down to size.

Over the following 12 months, up until the extenuated drama over this year's "pay deal" the CWU leadership confined itself to endorsing Leighton's "commercial" agenda for Royal Mail and echoing his complaints without reservation. For a while it followed Leighton's war of words against Postcomm's refusal to allow Royal Mail to increase stamp prices by 1p. Then, when Leighton demanded the repayment of capital lent by RM to the Treasury, the CWU followed suit, before echoing Leighton once again in demanding the postponement of postal deregulation and the sacking of Postcomm's chief executive. In short, the CWU acted as if the interests of the workforce coincided with those of Royal Mail's board of directors!

As to the CWU's "partnership" with the RM board, it eventually decided to suspend it officially, not because of efficiencies, single delivery, or jobs cuts - these were all agreed in principle - but because Leighton failed to consult them first before he made a "share offer" to the workforce - in fact only the promise of a special bonus if and when RM returned to profitability. Not that this "suspension of partnership" prevented the CWU from giving RM bosses the green light to conduct pilot schemes connected with Mail Centre efficiencies and the Transport Review, or continuing discussion on other aspects of "major change", not least the final draft agreement on single delivery (Tailored Delivery System). This was put to the CWU's annual conference last May and minimally amended, even though it entailed 12,000 job cuts and longer walks with heavier sacks for each outdoor delivery postman.

How not to win a ballot

It was therefore with some cynicism that many postal workers viewed the prospect of the vote on "industrial action" proposed by the union leadership against the September pay deal.

If there was ever a rotten "offer", however, this was certainly it! Leighton had incorporated into this deal all of the major changes he wanted to implement - single delivery, transport restructuring, Mail Centre "efficiencies" - that is productivity targets which amounted to blatant job cuts. In exchange, he offered a 4.5% increase by April 2004, plus further variable increases conditional on "achieving" job cuts over the 18 months of the deal - which, he claimed, could amount to a further 10% for most workers. But there was no guarantee that it would, nor was this all "new money".

The CWU leaders' response to this deal was, to put it mildly, ambiguous. Dave Ward (the CWU deputy general secretary in charge of the postal section) described it as having "more strings than a philharmonic orchestra." But at the same time, the leadership claimed that these strings were not really the problem - it was only the way in which RM wanted to implement them which was unacceptable. And Ward stressed: "We are not opposed to major change - but we insist that at the end of it our members have a reasonable daily workload and the public has the quality public service they expect". This was either naive or just plain dishonest, since Ward knew better than most, having personally helped table the TDS agreement on single delivery with its 12,000 job cuts, that "major change" was actually synonymous with increasing workers' daily workload and cutting the postal service to the "public"!

In the end, all the CWU leadership had to oppose to Royal Mail's deal before the talks broke down, was the demand for an 8% "up front" increase without strings, while announcing in advance their willingness to bargain over the phasing in of increased productivity, on the basis of local agreements with union officials, in return for more money. This amounted to leaving local offices open to the pressures of management bullies while implicitly endorsing the job cuts which were being prepared.

To all intents and purposes, the distance between the CWU leadership and RM was minimal: a further 3.5% on pay before strings could be attached, and a guarantee that no job cuts or changes in working practices would be enforced over the heads of its officials. It seemed that the CWU leaders were primarily concerned with ensuring that Leighton, in his drive for change, would not get carried away and by-pass them!

Nevertheless, the CWU leaders did not get the little they wanted. When the talks broke down, they resolved to hold a ballot for industrial action on the issue. However, even at that stage, there was no indication that they were determined to wage the kind of fight necessary to win, let alone turn the tables on Royal Mail for the decent pay and decent conditions which had been withheld from the workforce for so long. Quite the contrary.

Well in advance of the ballot result, the CWU leaders had already explained that the mandate they wanted for industrial action was to be used as a bargaining chip. They made clear that, if the vote was positive, a strike would be the "last resort" after renewed mediation at ACAS. And they told the media that the plan was to have lightning or "rolling strikes" selecting particular offices one at a time or on a follow-on basis - although there was never any discussion with the membership about this "plan".

Postal workers' past experience of official action against "the Way Forward" three years before - a series of useless one-day strikes - had already caused sufficient disillusionment with the union to lead to cancellation of membership by some individuals and bitterness among many others. Everyone knew full well that it was only unofficial rearguard action which had stopped the implementation of some of the "Way Forward"'s worst aspects to date. Besides the CWU made no real effort to explain what was really at stake behind this deal and many workers were unclear about its implications.

In the event, when the results of the national ballot for industrial action came out on the 17th September, it was lost by a narrow margin of just 1,647 votes (1.8%) with a poor 61% turnout.

The only plan "B" that the CWU leadership had in reserve was the parallel ballot they conducted amongst London workers over an increase in London Weighting to £4,000. They were right in thinking that this ballot would be won - by 4 to 1 in favour, as it turned out - allowing them to call out the London membership and perhaps have a final bargaining chip in front of Royal Mail management. In any event, this was the very most these one-day strikes could amount to and no-one had any illusions that such token action could win the demand.

This did not mean that all postal workers were prepared to accept the result of the national ballot lying down. Already on the 19th September, Oxford Mail Centre, Headington and East Oxford delivery offices had walked out against the intimation that RM now had a green light to implement all the changes over the union representatives' heads. There followed a further walkout within days, when drivers from the Mail Centre were suspended. Eventually management agreed to reinstate them and Oxford workers went back to work - temporarily as it turned out.

Indeed, in the meantime, Royal Mail wasted no time in beginning to implement its changes by imposing new working conditions wherever it could - starting with single deliveries. Using the backlog of un-sorted and undelivered mail in London after the first official one-day London Weighting strike on 1 October as the "excuse", single delivery was imposed at Tooting - leading in this case to the local officials calling for a ballot to be conducted for industrial action against the new TDS system in the whole of south-west London. However, this was soon to be superseded by the events following the next official one-day London strike on 16 October.

The spark that lit the fuse

On the day following this one-day strike, in west London's Southall delivery office, drivers were asked to "volunteer" to stop off and deliver mail on foot, due to the backlog caused by the strike. They refused, since this was not part of their normal duty. There followed a series of disciplinary measures - suspensions - against these drivers and a union rep in a neighbouring office - to which workers in the whole area's delivery offices responded by walking out. In fact, similar provocations in other offices led to unofficial action breaking out all over London, Kent, Essex and beyond - and walk-outs began to spread like wildfire.

Each unofficial strike in one office led to another - as managers literally spread the action themselves by attempting to get workers to sort or deliver mail from offices which were out on strike. When they insisted, or tried tricking the workers into doing it by re-labelling sacks, they were faced with yet another walk-out.

By 27 October, many offices had been on strike for 10 days already and others were still walking out. Indeed, over two thirds of London's workforce and half of its 202 delivery offices were out on unofficial strike by Tuesday 28th - when Mount Pleasant, the largest sorting office in the country employing around 4,000 workers, joined the action - after managers tried to get EC deliveries' night shift to sort mail from Nine Elms and Willesden - which were out on strike.

By the weekend of the 31st October, the strikes had stopped mail in 15 of the country's 73 mail districts. Oxford (again), Slough, Gravesend, Maidstone, Milton Keynes, Coventry, Portsmouth, Warrington, Rugby, Stansted, Chelmsford, Colchester, Southend were all out. Postal workers in Cambridge, Swindon and Stoke -on-Trent also walked out on Friday 31st. The same day, in Filton in Bristol, a one-hour lunchtime stoppage was held. In Leeds and in offices in Scotland, workers also staged walkouts.

In fact this was the first time in over a decade that "illegal" strikes were occurring on such a scale. What added fuel to the spreading bush fire of action, was that in some of the offices - like Dartford and those in West London - as a condition for lifting disciplinary action against workers, management insisted they first signed up to a ready-made list of "new" terms and conditions in the form of a "return-to work agreement".

Many of these conditions were in fact some of the previously unimplemented changes dating back to the 2000 "Way Forward", which was only a reflection of RM management's own persistent failure to impose its changes on the workforce, despite the "agreements" signed by CWU leaders.

Of course, Royal Mail bosses had managed to engineer the present show-down, whether they intended to do so or not - and the odds are that they expected the workforce to submit passively to their methods, having taken the national ballot result at face value.

The result, however, was that, by that time, there was the potential for this wave of strikes to turn into the determined fight which had not been on the cards in September. It was a "second chance" - but this time it had been placed on the agenda by the workers themselves, who had decided to act. As a result of this radical change in just a matter of weeks after the failed ballot, it became possible for workers to see how they could confront Royal Mail's attacks, not through cosy negotiations behind closed doors over which they had no control, but through the strength of their numbers and by imposing their demands themselves.

The uncommunicative union... and red herrings

However, right from the start, there was a glaring problem. Because the actions being sparked all over London and then beyond London, were all unofficial, the union leadership was unwilling to publicise what was going on. Meetings of representatives were held in London, during the previous week, to discuss the issues, but most of the workforce was still kept in the dark due to the coyness of union officials. There was a reluctance on their part, even when the action was spreading hour by hour, to be seen endorsing "illegal action" - so even distributing a leaflet explaining in clear terms what was going on all over London, was, it seems, considered to be "too risky".

So for instance in Mount Pleasant, which is still the backbone of Royal Mail's international mail network - and the main hub for the City's mail - when union reps finally decided that there was sufficient management provocation to justify their calling out the whole workforce, many workers were still in the dark as to what it was all about. The previous day, an official CWU "industrial relations update" had been distributed explaining that there had been disputes in a number of offices and reproducing the "return to work agreement" which had been presented to Dartford workers. However many workers did not see the leaflet, and anyway, this notice certainly did not spell out any of the issues, leaving it to the members to read between the lines.

When the local union reps at Mount Pleasant distributed their own leaflet on the day of the walkout, entitled "CWU calling, the union is under attack!" it posed the main problem as the attempt by management "to destroy the union's influence in the workplace." The leaflet, obviously produced in a hurry, and in inadequate numbers, did rightly point out that this was no longer a "London" fight but had to be a national fight - however, not the fight to confront "major change", TDS and the job cuts, but one to fight "for the union's future existence in the workplace". In the context of a rather discredited union in the eyes of many workers, this was probably not the best choice of emphasis to inspire support for the strike.

It is true that the "return to work terms" for Dartford, included the following: "CWU prescheduled facilities time will be withdrawn for a period of 28 days. Facilities time will be reviewed at the end of this period. In the interim, all paid release will be on an ad-hoc basis in line with the Industrial Relations framework."

Of course, this was another way for management to target union reps who had been active in the walkouts. And by imposing TDS management was certainly bypassing the negotiating framework of the CWU - for the time being. But even the present rude crew sitting on RM's board of directors was not foolish enough to bypass what amounts to an indispensable instrument for controlling the large and still highly unionised workforce - that is the CWU machinery. And given that on-going function, it was not in RM's interests either for the union to be seen as too discredited in the eyes of its membership.

Adam Crozier himself said in an interview with the Guardian on 9 August (albeit before the pay ballot), while acknowledging that the CWU did not share his view that the pay deal was good offer: "But that doesn't mean we've fallen out as the union is joined up with us on all the other issues such as getting the right access charge for our rivals and getting the business fit for competition".

And in a letter to branches dated 27 October, after already having repudiated the unofficial actions the previous week on behalf of the CWU leadership, Dave Ward wrote that, despite the unofficial actions taking place, involving at that point 7,000 CWU members in Greenford, Southall, Dartford, PRDC, West London and elsewhere, the CWU and Royal Mail "had been jointly looking for a process that would allow for the resumption of national negotiations on all outstanding issues". And that RM had confirmed it was willing to resume the negotiations under the auspices of ACAS, "alongside a joint statement to end the current unofficial industrial action." He added: "Royal Mail's changing position on the resumption of national talks is a sign that they are at last beginning to realise we can only realistically move the Industry forward with an acceptable national deal."

Ward's resolution vs postal worker's solution

Of course, Ward had one language for Royal Mail and another for the union membership. So he accused the management of deliberately orchestrating the unofficial action (it couldn't have been "his" members who sought to have the fight he had not wanted to have himself!) and wanting to undermine the role of the CWU in the company. He tried to have it both ways, by repudiating his members' actions and also repudiating Royal Mail's provocations, no doubt hoping that members would think that he was really endorsing their action but just could not say so because of the anti-union laws.

Unfortunately, this was not just a matter of semantics. Indeed, in this same submission, entitled "How to resolve unofficial strikes" dated 29 October, he spelt out precisely what could be expected from the union leadership if it was left to do exactly that. His proposal was merely that the pre-unofficial strike status quo should be resumed, suspended workers and reps reinstated without further victimisation of anyone who participated in the strikes. The implementation of TDS and all other changes would then be resolved through a resumption of the behind-closed-doors national negotiations under the auspices of ACAS, with full recognition of the union's negotiating rights. What is more, while these negotiations were being pursued, he proposed that no new dates should be set for industrial action until 14 November (the date when the mandate for industrial action over London Weighting expires) while asking Royal Mail to freeze any changes until this date as well.

In other words, the union's official position was to allow no gain whatsoever to come out of the unofficial action. Despite Royal Mail's declaration of war against those offices who had taken action, its imposition of TDS, its threats and bullying, all the while, the CWU leadership had been "talking" with Royal Mail management in an attempt to come to a compromise over the way of implementing the national pay deal. For the CWU leaders, the unofficial strike was somewhat embarrassing because of the rather unruly way in which it seemed to spread and certainly they were keen to bring it to an end in order to resume their "normal" relationship with Royal Mail. But this relationship could only be resumed if Royal Mail felt under pressure to get the CWU leadership on its side and, to that extent, the strike was also a useful bargaining chip.

In any case, the content of the CWU leaders' final stitch-up - what they were prepared to sign up to - was already spelled out in what they were saying on 29 October, long before the final talks with Leighton on 2-3 November.

However, there was nothing inevitable in what happened. These unofficial strikes could have laid the ground for everything to change on the basis of a new and favourable balance of forces - provided the opportunity was seized! But this could only have happened if, instead of remaining defensive, these strikes had been united and welded into one large offensive for common objectives.

Returning to the pre-strike conditions, even with the lifting of all sanctions as the CWU leaders planned (and finally signed up to), was a scandalous waste of the potential strength of the strike. While union leaders were discussing with Leighton in posh London hotels, terrified at the idea that their union funds might be sequestrated for condoning an "illegal" strike, there was nothing that stopped the strikers from organising themselves. For instance, from establishing proper links between striking offices, convincing those who were not yet on strike to join in and beginning to build at local level the embryo of a fighting leadership with all those who were determined to see to it that, this time, this strike turned into a winner. If this had happened, the postal strikers could have made a real difference, based on the confidence that they were in control of their strike, rather than leaving it to an uncontrollable CWU leadership which was pursuing its own objectives.

This did not happen. Nevertheless, the postal strike has revived the long-forgotten idea that large numbers of workers can use their collective strength in the class struggle despite the anti-union laws. This will have to be remembered. Just as the lessons of this strike will have to be remembered - that to make the best of their fighting capacity, workers need to take control of their own struggles.