Rebuilding the Union Movement

Dave Ward

CWU leader Dave Ward on the lessons he learned from 40 years of trade unionism, and the bold approach the movement needs to adopt today to tackle its decline.

Interview by
Marcus Barnett

Dave Ward’s tenure as general secretary of the Communication Workers Union (CWU) couldn’t be described as quiet. No sooner was he elected in 2015 than he became one of the first union leaders to endorse Jeremy Corbyn, saying the Labour Party needed an antidote to the “Blairite virus” which had taken hold in recent decades.

But it hasn’t just been on the political side where the former postman has made an impact. The CWU under his watch have laid out plans for reform of the Trades Union Congress (TUC), launched a bold new communications strategy that has seen them take industrial issues to the airwaves, negotiated landmark agreements reducing the working week and made new technologies a major theme of their union conferences.

Born and raised in Lambeth in south west London, Ward has spent more than forty years in the union movement since taking up a job as messenger boy in the Tooting Delivery Office in 1976. Here, he speaks with Tribune associate editor Marcus Barnett about the lessons he learned during that time, the challenges facing the trade union movement today, and the bold political and industrial strategies needed to answer them.


Shall we start, perhaps, with a bit of your industrial background?


My industrial background is becoming a union rep around about 1980 and, really, just learning trade unionism as you go. I started work as a telegram boy. 

Even to this day, I’ve never been one of these people who read all the books. My trade unionism has come from my experiences in workplaces and a sense of never being in awe of people, which my parents instilled in me. I don’t think they deliberately did that, but just by the nature of how they lived their lives, it rubbed off me. They taught me never to be envious of people, that gives you a platform, I think, to see when something’s wrong, when something’s an injustice. I was always like that. 

I saw it first hand at Tooting when I started. When I moved from being a telegram boy to that office, I felt that fairly quickly. When you were 18, you had to make the choice whether you were going to carry on and be a delivery postman or not. I was a local rep there for 12 and a half years, and I never did any other union role, just representing members in Tooting. 

In the 1980s Margaret Thatcher famously opposed Royal Mail privatisation, saying she was “not prepared to have the Queen’s head privatised.”

It was a strong office. You had a lot of great characters in there—your dodgy characters who would do the overtime book, who could do the sums at the overtime more than any manager could. We had a northern guy from Burnley, Johnny Allen, who was your rules man. He was the chair of the branch. This was an office of 110 people, but every time we had an election, twenty people would be putting up themselves for the committee, so there was always an election. I worked my way through. There was a great set-up where all the reps in London would all come together and meet. 


Was it quite a militant union in London at that time?


It wasn’t. It changed around that period. But the union wasn’t militant in London. At the height of it was the Grunwick dispute in 1977. Believe it or not, the leadership of the union disciplined some of the people in London for refusing to touch the post.

The 1971 strike, for our union, was seen to be the moment, and everything else, including the period after Grunwick, was seen to be downtime. That prompted a lot of us in deliveries. London used to be dominated by the mail centres. What was interesting was when the likes of Mark Palfrey in Greenwich would get up and start talking about delivery offices at these big London meetings. 

That was a great learning curve. The whole meeting could be about mail centres. Then you would get people like me and Mark pop up against a well-organised centre who ran everything. We’d get up and say: ‘Well what about our problems? You never talk about our problems!’ 

That brought the deliveries back to the fore at that period—from about 1982, 1983, forwards. Then it did become very militant. Those meetings were great because you had so many people there, once a month, all paid for by the employer. We can still do it, but it’s harder now.


The era you’re describing is one characterised by this massive shop floor confidence—a confidence which isn’t something that my generation has experienced in general. Keeping that in mind, what do you think are the industrial challenges and pressures the union are currently facing?


We have to give confidence to people. Those of us who remember those times, we all love saying we’re a workplace union. The challenge is—how do we maintain that? 

In 1971 postal workers went on strike for two months over a pay dispute, causing an almost total cessation of postal services in Britain.

Having thought this through, my conclusion is that you have to build a wider understanding of what’s happening around us. Years ago, you could have got away with being strong and militant just industrially. In a world where public ownership is still there, where there was no question of whether the Post Office would be privatised, you could be militant industrially and not have to understand what was happening around you.

That can’t happen now. To bring reps through now, to maintain your industrial strength—not just because you may take an interest in politics and you want to create change—you have to be part of influencing the wider world of work. That’s the conclusion I’ve reached. It’s not a massive ‘moment’—everyone knows the reality of that. 

I think the issue for the trade union movement is to bridge that gap between political and industrial issues, but connecting it through the world of work. With everything we’re thinking about, we’re thinking about these points: one, to rebuild our industrial strength; two, to improve the fortunes of the trade union movement; three, to bring about political change. We have a very clear agenda on that, and we’re doing a lot of this with our current communications work.

What we’re trying to do now is bring that next generation of local representatives through with a broader understanding of things. Our strategy is to break down these barriers. We’ve brought new structures to the table as well. We have traditionally been a very centralised union, but we have to inject some power into the regions. We need a structure that can bring the best of our two industrial constituencies together, and to tell our telecoms and postal sections—you have to talk. We’ve got a big fight on here. And that plays into the New Deal for Workers stuff.


Last year you launched the New Deal for Workers initiative. How do you think the project has developed so far? 


We’re constantly talking about how we join the movement up, at a time when it’s never been more needed. We’re trying to do that now politically. We’re trying to bring that strength into the political world to get behind Jeremy and get behind change. The points we had were very simple, and they can achieve a lot if we can get them through. 

We need to deliver a common bargaining agenda. It ties in a little bit with sectoral bargaining, but we want to go further. We want the agenda to be set up within a sector. The TUC are doing good work, but we don’t want to wait for them. Let’s develop three or four bargaining points where we root out insecure employment, low wages, zero hours contracts, and so on.

We need to develop greater cooperation to organise workers—a new Bridlington arrangement. I’m up for debates on that. What’s the best route to organise workers? It’s not about what union it is. My daughter got a job at the emergency services. She came home, once she had done her training, it was a paramedic outfit, she’s working doing 999 calls for ambulances. She says to me, ‘What union should I join, Dad?’ I said, what do you mean what union? ‘I went to work today, and they told me I should join a union. But there are three of them.’ Three unions? How many workers are there? ‘138,’ she says. I ask, what are people saying? And she said, ‘from what I can work out, people are in all of them.’ I ask, what do they say about everything? She says ‘all the different unions just slag each other off.’ And that’s not trade unionism to me. We’ve got to solve this problem.

Under Dave Ward’s leadership the CWU has backed Jeremy Corbyn in both recent Labour leadership contests.

This soft image of trade unionism is not going to reverse the poor fortunes of the unions. It’s exactly the same parallel with Jeremy, isn’t it? You look at the reality and the scale of the problems in this country. Homelessness, the housing crisis, my kid’s life chances compared to mine. That tells me we’ve got to be ambitious. Your ambitiousness has to match the scale of your problems.  That’s why Jeremy is absolutely right to bring forward the sort of manifesto Labour are coming out with. We can’t, under any stakes, have the reincarnation of Blairism. And our role as a union is to ensure that. What Jeremy’s done, in saying there’s a new model of politics, we’ve got to do that in the trade union movement. We shouldn’t rely on Jeremy to do it, we’ve got to do it ourselves.

I am up for a debate about what the model of trade unionism is. If that means something between a federal structure for trade unions, or something even newer than that which might be something where unions don’t merge but have an interconnectedness so that you actually share the money, but organise from a position of strength on the back of it—I’m up for whatever. I’m willing to come to the table.


How do you see the Trades Union Congress (TUC) role in all this?


It has to change. It’s not about blaming people. It’s about recognising that the way things have developed in society, and that the forces against us are so strong, we have to do something different to stop them. It has to be based around collectivism. We should be able to publish a manifesto separate from Labour, and we should then fight for that manifesto. 

I’m a believer that you build things. I believe that if all the unions really put their backs into this and were willing to sit down and agree a manifesto they could all coalesce around, that was broad enough for people to understand very basic principles, but that was also good enough for unions to take their number one issue, and push it into that. My belief is that it will end up being the same issues.


In your general secretary’s speech, you mentioned how technology is being harnessed not to liberate workers, but to enable greater control over them, and allow employers to spy on employees with greater ease. It’s my impression that the CWU are grasping this problem in a way that other institutions are not. 


The traditional union approach to technology is that we should learn how they use it. But we’re moving into a different era. My only reason for learning about the bosses’ systems used to be to fuck them up! I wanted to know how to negotiate. 

At Royal Mail, we’ve always had decent agreements. But members are starting to feel pressurised every single day. We go, ‘bastard managers, bullies’. I don’t entirely agree with this. There’s always been bastards and bullies. I had a bloke shouting to me the first week I was at work. Mr Kingston-Lynch. He thought he could take a liberty because I was a young person. He shouted across to me as I did my delivery and was going up to the canteen, ‘Take your hands out of your pockets, Mr Ward, when you walk across my sorting office floor’. 

Artificial intelligence technologies like Isaak are being used to monitor tens of thousands of workers in Britain each week.

That was one of my awakening moments in trade unionism. I was going on my break ten minutes early because I’d done a decent day’s work, and he’s bellowing at me. So, I shouted to him, ‘who the fuck are you talking to?’ I started walking towards him, and as I was walking, I thought, ‘Oof. I’ve done a wrong’un here.’ I thought how I was going to be explaining to my mum and dad that I got sacked. But I was so annoyed—it was just an immediate reaction, that sense of injustice. I’d not been brought into there to be talked to like that. 

At that moment, the union rep came in, and he said ‘I heard that’. He was talking to the manager. He tore a strip off him. I remember myself thinking, ‘this is some strong stuff’. If I wasn’t in a workplace with a union, I would have been sacked, I probably would have had to shake my shoulders and say ‘well look, I did swear at the bloke’. As much as I could justify why I had done it. But the union’s strength was there for me to see.

We have these managers now. We’ve always had them. But what they’ve got now is technology which can control the lives of working people every minute of every day. We’ve got this campaign at BT Openreach where engineers are being told that as soon as they leave their front door, they’re working. Are we going to accept this? 

Lots of people are talking about the way the big companies and all the technologies are controlling our people. We know it—we’re not the first union to say any of this. We want to be the first union that says: ‘We know you’ve got the technology. We know you can watch us. We aren’t having it.’

I went to a meeting a few weeks back in my old branch, and one of the members, who’s still a rep to this day, great guy, he challenged me. He just said to me, ‘Dave, why don’t we tell them to fuck off? People are getting fed up of all this.’ It made me think—seriously made me think—that we have got the power to do that. I don’t think they’d know what to do. 

We could reach agreements by taking a very strong stance on the way technology is used. We can be the union that goes: ‘We’re not having it. No, we’re not going to let you plan our routes. You can plan them, but I’m going to only do 75% of the time you expect me to work at the pace you expect me to work and I don’t care whether you discipline me.’ If every worker said that… 

When we go knocking on doors talking to insecure workers in the postal sector, they’re going to join if they know we’ve taken on their problem—the work ‘til you drop mentality. You’re working harder, faster, for less. That’s what we’re against in a nutshell—keep it simple as that and you could change the nature of trade unionism. We’re not going to wait for the TUC. We’re not waiting for changing legislation or a Labour government. It’s what we exist for, we’re going to do it now. 


The CWU have been dabbling with alternative models of ownership. There was a statistic that you mentioned in your speech that £52 billion has been shed by British Telecom (BT) in recent years. I wondered if you had any ideas about what to do with BT and how you could envisage a change from this private body haemorrhaging losses into a decent company owned by the workers and run for the public?


You need a government that brings about common ownership and public ownership. I’m very much with Labour that we cannot afford this debate to be like it was years ago. Firstly, it was a myth. Public ownership then was full of deficiencies that were portrayed to be the fault of the workers. From my experience, the moment competition came in and the monopoly fell—the damage was done at that moment. You had regulators saying, ‘I’m going to measure your targets of quality, I’m going to measure efficiency.’ That will open the door to the cutting of wages and standards. You have to understand this development and its power, how it undermined our industry. 

Communications is changing through no fault of any politician. But we must understand the reality of competition and regulators being able to say to companies ‘you can come into our market’—it was European neoliberalism advanced by Blair way before it entered other parts of the European Union. We were like guinea pigs. 

I think we supported it at one point; we had some crazy idea that we were going to get commercial freedom and invest money without being privatised. It was complete and utter bollocks. Alan Johnson was one of the architects of that thinking. Alan—who had done a great job fighting privatisation in 1994—did this deal with Blair that we would have commercial freedom. Alan went off, became an MP, and we were liberalised.

In terms of models of ownership, it’s about changing the makeup of the board, and not pie-in-the-sky stuff about having a worker on the top board. It’s about the boards underneath—the top of the board is just rubberstamping. You need control of investment, pensions, operating boards. You need workers on there, in bulks. 

Then you can have a sensible debate about where investment should be going, with workers having a real input through their local knowledge of business. You need to let workers offer their expertise. Through their union, a worker would have a greater say in investing in new products, new services. How you then introduce those new products and services—that’s a negotiation with the union. But the principle of sharing on certain management structures like at Royal Mail, where there are different boards with different structures, that’s what we need to be controlling to change the balance of power.