EXCLUSIVE: ‘The Anti-union Laws Won’t Be Stopped in Parliament, but on the Streets’ CWU’s Tony Kearns says

"We’re in the fight of our lives at Royal Mail"

Defend right to strike rally

Unions not getting stuck into fight against new anti-strike laws will see the Tories ‘come for them next’, a senior figure in the Communication Workers’ Union has told Left Foot Forward. 

In an interview at a rally organised by the Campaign for Trade Union Freedom in London, Tony Kearns also said he expects an ‘overwhelming majority’ for a new six-month mandate for strikes at Royal Mail, which has faced a string of walkouts over pay and conditions. 

“We’re in the fight of our lives at Royal Mail – they want to beat us into being a staff association,” he told LFF. 

Here’s our interview with the senior CWU figure, who has been in post since 2001 and is a key figure in the battle against the Minimum Service Levels legislation the Tories are currently trying to ram through Parliament.  

Josiah Mortimer: Where can you see the campaign against the anti-strikes bill going?

Tony Kearns, CWU: “I don’t think we should be all sitting back and thinking that this is going to be resolved by a very small group of annoyed MPs, or even a caucus of a mismatch of people in the House of Lords.

“They might make some small tweaks to it, but it’s not going to stop it. In any event, even if it did, this could come back again…So we are laying down the building blocks to build a much bigger campaign. And you always start with those who are on your side. We start with those we can rely on.”

Speakers at the event included Unite, NEU, POA, CWU and the TUC, among other backers like War on Want and StrikeMap. 

Who are the unions that are wavering a bit?…

“I don’t particularly want to single out unions, because both those unions you mentioned have had members on strike and won, by any measure, decent pay rises. So it’s not like they’re not prepared to take strike action. For the GMB, ambulance workers are going to be affected by this legislation. Unite workers are going to be affected by this legislation….

“I don’t think we win this campaign by pointing a finger at those people who are not here. Often you build an alliance of those that are here…

“There’s a campaign and movement that’s already building, already in place. We’re saying come and join us, come and add to this, grow this, work with this movement. I think that’s the real issue.”

Is the TUC doing enough, in your eyes, or do they need a bit of a push?

“…There’s always activists saying the TUC doesn’t do enough. But actually the TUC is the sum of its parts, so that’s up to the General Secretaries, including my own, Dave [Ward], and he understands this. 

“There’s a discussion with those who sit on the TUC’s executive, who guide the policy and the approach that they take…It’s up to all of them to recognise the enormity of the problem we face and what’s going to happen if we stand up to this and come together and plot a course through that. 

“I wouldn’t just sit back and go, ‘there’s going to be a general election at the back end of 2024, and the Labour Party said ‘we’re going to repeal it’, so let’s just wait’. I don’t believe that’s the right approach…

“I think the more you can get the Labour Party to say, ‘this piece of legislation isn’t going to last five minutes because we’re repealing it on day one’, the better…We saw that when Jeremy Corbyn was leader [with] the number of bills they opposed and the Tories withdrew. That is the right approach.” 

Are you confident the Tories will withdraw it or do you think it’s  destined to go through?

“Right now, the speed at which they’re trying to intervene makes me think they’re determined to do this. I think they’ve wrongly judged if they think they’re doing this. They think the public believe ‘they stood up to the bully boy trade unionists. They stood up to trade union barons for the good of the people.’

“That might have been a strategy that worked in the late 80s, but I don’t think it works now… I think they seriously misjudged this. Does that mean they’re going to back off? No, I think they’re almost at the point of being out of control. They know that they are numbered at the ballot box, and this is a complete land grab.

“One of the things that gets in the way of them being able to do that is the trade union movement. So they have to take the trade union movement out or render it null and void… And that’s what this is about. The stronger the message comes from all parties, including some of their own MPs [the better].”

You’re not affected by it at the CWU, are you?

“We’re not named in the sectors…But that’s an important point because I think there will be a temptation for some unions to go, ‘we’ve got enough on our plates, it doesn’t apply to me. Someone else has a problem.’ 

“All those that said that in 1988 [with the Employment Act] paid the price in 1992 [Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act], and all those that said that in 1992, paid the price in 2016 [with new ballot thresholds]. And the people who said it wouldn’t affect them in 2016 are paying the price now…

“There’s not this capitalist society where if you keep your head down, they’ll leave you alone. It’s not going to work…So those unions [who] would think, ‘it doesn’t apply to me, so I can keep my head down’..They’re coming for you next.” 

What’s the latest with the Royal Mail strikes? You’re pretty confident that the new ballot will come back with a strong mandate? 

“Ballot papers went out yesterday [23 January, for a renewed six month mandate]...We’re confident that we will get to the threshold and we’re confident that it will be an overwhelming majority.”

In a way, is that an upside of the legislation – you have to reach these high thresholds. You’re getting your more members active, aren’t you? 

“It does…You see it. Because we have factory gate meetings, real gate meetings…I’ve noticed it both in the postal dispute, and dare I say when we had the BT OpenReach dispute too: the number of younger people [getting involved].  

“We were switched on to this in our union, the number of younger people there. And they’re like ‘this is my future’..It used to be ‘go there, get a decent job, keep your nose clean, it’s a decent paid job for life, with a decent pension.’ 

“That’s been taken away. And people now want to fight for that. What’s impressive is the number of activists coming through, they’re joining, and you’re seeing good membership engagement.

“Now, the problem we face is, as a union, basically our members are in two major employers, both of whom, one way or another, are downsizing their organisations.”

Are you getting in and organising with Yodel or Evri and those kinds of delivery firms?

“As an aspiration, that would be a good thing to do. But we’re in the fight of our lives in Royal Mail. Everything is geared to that at this point in time. 

“The luxury, if you want to call it that, of being able to then say ‘we’re going to take our campaign and trade union model to other companies at this point in time’…finding time and resources to do that when actually you’re literally fighting for your lives…you couldn’t. Let’s do our day job first and then move on to that.” 

How toxic can we expect this to get? It’s already pretty toxic with Royal Mail, isn’t it? Have they talked about derecognition or anything like that?

“No. When they issued their first letter about what they wanted to do and how, they just imposed revisions without the normal industrial relations processes that we have in place…

“[When challenged] their response to that was ‘no, we don’t want to derecognise the union.’ But what they mean is they want to beat us into being a staff association. So you’re right in that regard. 

“I’m not sure how much more acrimonious it could get. But you know what? That song ‘Things Can Only Get Better?” Horse shit. My experience and all my adult life from when I started is that things can always get worse.” 

Josiah Mortimer is Chief Reporter for Byline Times, and he writes regularly on trade unions. Follow him on Twitter.

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