Yesterday, I joined the CWU protest in Parliament Square. It was an astonishing sight. I’ve been on more things like it, for longer, than I care to remember. But this felt different. Off-the-cuff, I shared that feeling, with a photo (below), on Twitter. It’s been “liked” over 2,500 times. Of course, social media isn’t a reliable measure of public opinion and as my granddaughter likes to remind me, I’m hardly an “influencer”. However, this snapshot of support for the CWU could be a sign of something bigger.
A bit weirdly, some people, who weren’t there, have questioned both my interpretation of the experience and the authenticity of my photo. Perhaps that reflects a general lack of trust in social media and a pessimism about the potential for what happened yesterday to lead to anything more. I understand those feelings. But the photo is genuine and while I’m not, for one moment, suggesting this is a pre-revolutionary moment, I think it could be an important one.
The only comparison I could recall, of a single union mobilising on yesterday’s scale, was the NUM in 1984/85, but I don’t think it’s a useful one. The miners staged a magnificent fight, but it was an essentially defensive one, largely in isolation, led by someone who struggled to win wider public support, against an assertive employer, backed by a strong government. The contrasts with today are significant.
The tone of the CWU dispute is different. I’ve been on several of their picket lines before yesterday and although, at one level, they’re defending jobs, pay and conditions, the posties I’ve spoken to say it’s about more than that. They tell me they’re defending a public service and resisting it being consigned to the gig economy. Anyone who’s seen Ken Loach’s “Sorry We Missed You” will have an idea what that looks like for delivery workers. This is an issue that’s relevant for almost every sector. I recall hearing Mick Cash, a former leader of the RMT, saying “We will not accept the dehumanisation of our railways”. This is a vital point and makes the current CWU, RMT and other disputes about nothing less than the future of our society, not just an industry. For most people, including those not naturally sympathetic to the union movement, any sense that public services would be better provided by Amazon was eliminated by COVID.
The mood of optimism and determination in Parliament Square was brought by posties from all over the country. I saw banners from Cornwall, Wales, the north of Ireland and all points in-between. Someone told me they’d seen one from Shetland! This is a national dispute, in the true sense of the word and it’s impossible to believe the morale on display yesterday won’t be carried back. Dave Ward, CWU general secretary, clearly has the overwhelming support of union membership and one of his core messages is about giving the union back to its members. Again, this is important for any attempt to revitalise the movement and distance it from top-down, ossified, bureaucratic leadership, something Sharon Graham is also doing at Unite. Of equal importance – and something that was really powerful and moving at the demo – was its diversity. Of course, this reflects the composition of the workforce, but this hasn’t always been something our movement has been good at. Speaking at the rally, Mick Lynch emphasised the paramount importance of linking industrial action to wider questions of equality and social and environmental justice. Apart from everything else, yesterday was one of the best anti-racist demos I’ve been on.
Where we go from here is a question that can’t be detached from that of the Labour Party, an organisation that was literally and figuratively, virtually absent yesterday. It was very noticeable – and refreshing – that none of the platform speakers were politicians and that when the new TUC general secretary made an appeal for people to vote Labour, it was met with only muted applause. There was absolutely no sense that people are waiting for a Labour government to come to the rescue. Growing union militancy probably makes Starmer almost as uncomfortable as Sunak, but he must know his fence-sitting position is unsustainable. As I heard Mick Lynch (almost) say a couple of weeks ago: “I’m often asked when are we going to join the Labour Party? The real question is, when is the Labour Party going to join us?”.
Finally, yesterday felt distinctive because the CWU is fighting a wounded, discredited foe. The Royal Mail boss, Simon Thompson and Rishi Sunak are a pale imitation of Ian MacGregor and Margaret Thatcher during the miner’s strike. This is not to suggest the inevitably of victory. As impressive as the CWU’s campaign is, it probably can’t succeed alone. But it isn’t! With strike action coming from the RMT, UCU, PCS, sections of Unite, possibly the NEU and perhaps most significantly, the RCN and other NHS workers, Dave Ward is quite right when he says that we are approaching de facto general strike territory. If the confidence of the CWU spreads to other unions and workplaces, the defeats of the last forty years can be reversed and lead the way to a better future, or indeed, a future of any kind. There’s a world not just to win, but to save.