Below Paul Garraway explains the background to the recent strike. Paul is the political officer of the CWU’s South Central No 1 branch. He writes in a personal capacity.
Workers at the Oxford mail centre were last week provoked into seven days of unofficial strike action, but Royal Mail’s attempt to break the union failed
“Suspension should only occur when it is necessary to prevent the risk of further breaches of conduct, to protect employees, property or mail, or to protect Royal Mail’s good image and standing in the community.” The Royal Mail Conduct Code
On Monday 16 July Royal Mail suspended Steve Gill, the area processing rep for Oxford mail centre and escorted him off the premises. He had been interviewed and asked only two questions – “Were you working on the 7 July?” and, “Were you doing your collection in Watlington?”
No charges were presented, yet Steve was immediately suspended. It was later to emerge that the interview was a response to a complaint from a sub-post office manager, whose small workforce had worked through the national dispute.
The suspension was looking very much like a stitch up. If these charges were so serious, why had it taken managers nine days to act on them?
Royal Mail had broken the agreed conduct code when they removed Steve from the mail centre – it was taking unofficial action! There was no reason why Steve could not continue with his duties while any charges, however spurious, were being investigated.
This was rightly seen as a direct attack on our CWU union. A meeting was quickly arranged in a car park and workers voted unanimously to walk out immediately.
In the run up to the first national strike on 29 June, Royal Mail had stopped all overtime in the Oxford mail centre.
They even started redirecting work elsewhere – something they continued to do up until the walk out. Workers were removed from their normal duties and made to work elsewhere, while an untrained manager did their work.
Royal Mail also brought in rules that were designed to humiliate workers, like having to hold your hand up if you want to go to the toilet.
Oxford CWU members showed incredible restraint and refused to be provoked during the period of national dispute. Our branch requested an official ballot for industrial action – following unanimous votes on every shift – in an effort to keep a lid on the growing anger.
However, Royal Mail was determined to drive the mail centre out on strike – and, by suspending one of our reps, it ensured that the dispute would be unofficial.
Managers then announced to the media that they had suspended two people. The second being a driver, who was still out on collections and therefore oblivious to what was happening.
He had not been interviewed, formally charged, or even told of his impending suspension, yet he was already “guilty”.
On his return to the mail centre, bosses attempted to interview and charge him but they would not allow him any union representation. So he refused to be interviewed and went out to join the picket line.
The next day workers from the mail centre voted to stay out until Thursday in the hope that Royal Mail would be reasonable and lift the suspensions. But when it had become obvious that this was not going to happen, they voted unanimously to stay out until the following Monday.
In response Royal Mail threatened to suspend Bob Cullen, the area processing rep, and Brian Jeffries, the area drivers’ rep, when they returned to work.
Three delivery reps were also given written warnings indicating that they would be next for suspension. When the national union sent an officer to help deal with the situation, Royal Mail remained intransigent and escorted him off the premises.
Over the weekend negotiations reached their highest level with Dave Ward, the CWU deputy general secretary, and Martin Collins, the assistant secretary, becoming involved.
It was becoming apparent that the “charges” against the suspended workers were as ludicrous as we had always been believed. Royal Mail agreed to a three-week timescale in which the investigation into the incidents would take place.
It was accepted that no one was to face charges for their actions during the strike, and that all threats to holiday and overtime agreements were to be withdrawn.
Management agreed that national officers of the CWU could defend the two suspended workers until the matter was concluded.
The branch committee therefore decided to recommend a return to work.
Workers had lost money but had made their point. And, although the two were to remain suspended, the branch felt that they would be proved innocent, and would be back at work within three weeks.
Dave Ward offered the workers at the mail centre an opt-out of the national action on 25 July so that they could recuperate some of their lost income. However, they flatly refused this. The Oxford mail centre remains defiant and voted to join the national dispute in solidarity with the rest of the country.