Royal Mail workers’ vote for a national strike offers a lesson in how to organise effectively

Getting organised. Andrew Milligan/PA Archive/PA Images

Royal Mail workers have voted to go on strike in a dispute over pay, pensions and conditions. In so doing, the Communication Workers’ Union (CWU), which represents them, has set the gold standard for all other major unions in the UK.

It is the first nationwide strike ballot since tough new legal requirements for industrial action were introduced by the Conservatives. The Trade Union Act 2016, which came fully into force in March 2017, dictates that lawful strike action now requires a 50% turnout to vote. CWU gained a 89% vote to go ahead on a 74% turnout.

The new thresholds for turnouts and results has made a number of unions fearful of staging industrial action ballots among large groups of workers spread throughout the country. While they were confident of achieving a “yes” vote among those voting, they were not confident of securing the 50% minimum turnout.

Their fears were underpinned by the loss of some big and important ballots early on. London Underground workers, offshore workers and council workers in Scotland all fell foul of either the 50% turnout threshold or the requirement in vital public services that those voting for action equated to 40% of all those entitled to vote. But the successful CWU ballot, which brought together nearly three quarters of its 110,000 Royal Mail members, working in thousands of separate offices, shows that unions need not fear if they approach the ballot in the right way.

How to mobilise

The CWU began the mobilisation to gain a strike mandate well over six months ago. It put together a “Four Pillars of Security” campaign, calling for: decent pensions; a shorter working week; extended legal protections, and a proper pricing policy for the cost of sending mail. The campaign focused on ensuring members’ terms and conditions of employment were not driven down, amid fears they would be in order to help the now-private company retain its market share and boost profitability.

Lesson one is to pick an issue – or set of issues – that really matter to members. Asking members to strike for, say, a little more than a 1% pay rise might not provide much motivation when the cost of striking could wipe away the benefits of such a small rise and their pay has fallen by up to 10% over the last decade (as has been the case in the public sector). Being able to decide what is the right issue to run with can only be gained by doing the necessary groundwork by talking extensively to members to judge their mood.

Lesson two involves gradually upping the ante among members. So in the case of the CWU’s Royal Mail members, there was initially a petition among members to build support and meetings of workplace union representatives around the country. Then there were countless bulletins, which went out to members, and umpteen video messages like this one.

Upping the ante. Andrew Milligan/PA Archive/PA Images

All these were supplemented by campaign material in various formats. And, all this was before the ballot was even launched.

The ballot was then followed by what the CWU said was the largest online union meeting in recent times. There were also hundreds of workplace gate meetings where members gathered en masse outside their delivery and sorting offices. Although the members of the CWU postal union deliver snail mail, they did not shirk from extensively using social media to further drill home the message.

So it was a slow burn strategy, rather than a quick flash in the pan campaign. It was patient, methodical and well planned. Other unions cannot expect to pass the new thresholds unless they act similarly.

The lessons to be learnt from the CWU are vital following this year’s TUC congress where a number of unions including PCS, one of the main public sector unions, signalled they want to hold a joint national strike to beat the government’s public sector pay cap of 1%. Indeed, PCS seems to be taking the same course as the CWU in its slow, patient pre-ballot mobilisation of members across the country, highlighting the issue over the summer. Whether the other big unions (like GMB, Unison and Unite) will do the same remains to be seen.

But, of course, for Royal Mail workers and others, what comes next after winning the right to strike is equally important. Winning the ballot is necessary but not sufficient to see their demands met. The next big question is: can unions mount effective strike action to gain their bargaining objectives when the Trade Union Act also increases the period of notice they must give employers of the action and reduces the length of the lawful mandate for action? The first change means that any action could be less effective than before while the second means that the dispute must be won more quickly if the union is to avoid having to ballot again.