In 2016 the Tory government introduced new anti-trade union legislation. Among its range of attacks on our movement, new balloting thresholds were introduced meaning at least 50% of members had to participate in a strike ballot for it to be legal.
The irony that many MPs wouldn’t be sitting in parliament today if they applied the same logic to their own elections seemed lost on those rushing through this ideological attack on workers.
In the CWU we saw this as a watershed moment. We had campaigned against the Trade Union Act but once it was law we were not going to let it define us. Traditionally, our turnouts and results had been in excess of this new barrier but we didn’t want to sit back. In 2017 we held the first successful national ballot under the new law – achieving a turnout of over 73% and a yes vote of 89.1%.
This year we took our campaigning to another level. With only seven weeks’ notice from announcing the ballot to the result we delivered a 76% turnout and an unbelievable 97.1% yes vote.
We have been asked by several organisations how we achieved such a result. The answer is hard work, alongside both traditional tactics and innovation.
From the outset the language you use has to be right. Without being reckless you have to let members know their own strength. Big CEOs can often be seen as insurmountable opponents. Our union is quick to let members know that power is in their hands, not that of the employer.
For example, Royal Mail Group CEO Rico Back commutes to the UK from Switzerland. So on the eve of ballot papers landing across the UK we went to Zurich and projected a huge yes vote image followed by film of our members voting. Some would see this as a stunt – but it was designed to give our members confidence and embolden them at a critical juncture. It worked.
Leadership and good spokespeople are also vital during a dispute. Our union is lucky to have two of the very best in the movement in Dave Ward, our general secretary, and Terry Pullinger, our deputy general secretary for postal services. We held live Facebook Q&As with the leadership, putting ourselves out there to be shot at – but the result was a membership knowing their union had nothing to hide. In one session which we tagged as ‘The Biggest Union Meeting Ever’ we had over 60,000 members watching online.
We also used the voices and faces of our members in this campaign. Part-time workers urging part-time workers to vote yes. Postal worker speaking to postal workers. Across the whole union we increased our activist base in excess of ten-fold.
Holding and winning a national ballot of 110,000 members across 1,400 workplaces is not easy and we felt we had to look at ways of improving our engagement. Part of this was online – the hashtag #WeRiseAgain and our social media pages reached millions of people, our video received over 4 million views, 20,000 members signed up to our WhatsApp broadcasts. An additional 25,000 members were reached by a national phonebank.
But most crucially of all were our 1,250 workplace meetings. The explosive combination of the workplace meetings being posted on social media created a competitive feeling in our membership across the UK. 150 members lined up to post their ballots in Warrington, then this was beaten by 200 in Croydon. Dancing postal workers in Plymouth were pipped by spiderman posting his vote in Cumbria. Nobody wanted to be left out as members literally queued all over the nation to cast their vote.
Alongside all the serious activity we used humour both during and after the ballot to great effect. Members and reps competed against each other for the best memes or craziest videos. The CWU Twitter account reached 1.7million million people simply by tweeting ‘U Ok hun?’ at Royal Mail following the ballot result.
None of this has been easy. Alongside the fun, creativity and inspiration has been lots and lots of hard work. Late nights combatting the company’s messaging, weekends worrying if we’ve done enough and a relentless effort from the newest member to our executive and officers.
This campaign has been met with a huge swell of pride from across the trade union and labour movement, and has clearly shown that beating the Trade Union Act is possible. We now move to the next phase of our dispute – campaigning for public support while backing our elected officers to secure a settlement. Whatever happens we can be confident after this campaign that the glass ceiling built by the Tories has been well and truly smashed.