CWU postal workers' rally in Parliament Square, December 2022. Photo: Rob Williams
CWU postal workers' rally in Parliament Square, December 2022. Photo: Rob Williams

Socialist Party members in CWU

Communication Workers Union (CWU) members meet at national conferences from 21 April, for the first time in two years. But what a two years!

The 2022 conference effectively launched the disputes in Royal Mail and BT – the first national one in Royal Mail since 2009 and in BT since 1987. These, along with the strikes in the Post Office, took place amid the biggest strike wave in the UK for over three decades, with well over a million workers taking action.

The CWU conferences due last year were initially postponed and then cancelled. This decision was taken by the union’s leadership and National Executive Committee (NEC), on the basis of being in the middle of the disputes.

The normal national general conference will take place later this year. It is replaced in April by a rules revision conference, alongside the regular industrial postal, telecoms and financial services conferences.

Bringing the rules revision and industrial conferences together in one week is an opportunity for reps and activists to draw a balance sheet of where the CWU is after the disputes, and to debate where it goes from here.

Defend lay democracy

The rules revision changes proposed by the NEC are clearly linked to the immediate outcome of those struggles, but also follow the ‘Redesign’ review under general secretary Dave Ward.

Taken together, these moves appear to be about retrenchment, in light of falling membership, to shore up the union’s finances in an attempt to retain the CWU as an independent union.

We are not opposed to such a review and are totally in favour of maintaining the CWU as an independent union, rather than pursuing a desperate merger from a position of weakness.

But the CWU has a proud record of militancy, and it is this record that can and must be built on for its future direction. Many reps in Royal Mail, BT and the Post Office will be feeling bruised after the battles. The fight to maintain the union at shopfloor level is on. This is what will determine the future of the CWU.

Socialist Party members in the CWU aren’t opposed to temporary organisational steps that allow the union’s forces to be marshalled in order to move forward. But they can’t be at the expense of reducing members’ democratic rights and involvement.

This is why we oppose moving away from an annual conference to one every two years. It will weaken our lay democracy and would risk undermining the building up of our activist base. The conference is the union’s parliament, and is where industrial and political programmes must be debated.

Industrial and political strategy

There must be a sober analysis of the union’s industrial and political direction, and particularly the disputes of the last two years.

Many workers have drawn the lesson that striking works, getting you more than if you hadn’t taken action. This was reflected in the CWU disputes, with management forced back, although a layer of members believed that more could have been won.

In Royal Mail, senior management tried to smash the CWU, with the backing of the Tories. At one stage, about 400 reps and members were sacked or suspended. But the resistance of the union and its members prevented their plans to crush the union. Nineteen days of strike action were taken and a mass protest saw 20,000 postal members fill Parliament Square and march to Buckingham Palace! Most of the 400 have been reinstated.

However, there are serious lessons to be learned. Was the union’s leadership fully prepared for the scale of the dispute, given the attack from management? Did the pause in action allow momentum to slip away?


The threat by the bosses to put Royal Mail into administration, which would have threatened workers’ jobs and pensions, should have been countered by demanding that it be nationalised. Especially as a Labour-affiliated union, the CWU leadership should have publicly called on Keir Starmer to commit to the nationalisation policy that was passed at Labour Party conference in 2022. This would have given an alternative to management’s threats and given confidence to members.

We now see an Ofcom review of Royal Mail’s Universal Service Obligation (USO). This has been on the radar for the last few years, with bosses saying that it is not economically viable due to the drop in letter traffic. We have all seen this – but also a big increase in parcels. As trade unionists, we would say it is not viable under the push for profits that comes with privatisation! The proposal to reduce the service will also be an attack on jobs.

We are there to provide a public service not feed the corporate shareholders, and our starting point should be that Royal Mail should be brought back into public ownership. Postal workers are a crucial part of communities and that daily door-to-door service could be developed.

Similarly, the question of renationalisation is a vital demand in BT and shows the necessity of marrying a pro-worker political programme with a militant industrial approach.

Political alternative

But members look at Starmer’s policy retreats, his craven tail-ending of the Tories over Gaza and his refusal to back strikes, and instinctively know that we need something else.

The CWU, along with the RMT transport union, launched ‘Enough is Enough’ (EiE) during the strike wave. Up to 500,000 people signed up and thousands attended rallies and protests. EiE showed two things: firstly, there is massive support in working-class communities that can be mobilised to sustain strikes, and secondly, there is potential for a political alternative for workers. This opportunity wasn’t grasped by the CWU leadership.

Potential for CWU to grow

But the response to EiE and the scale of the strike wave also show the potential for growth of CWU. This starts with maintaining and improving the density of membership in Royal Mail and BT, especially among new starters. The union must show these workers that being part of a union staved off major attacks in the last two years.

This then needs to be built upon in other communications companies – fields the CWU has traditionally organised. The unionisation campaign by, for example, the GMB in Amazon, shows that new and young workers can be won to the unions, especially with their increased authority since the strike wave.

This is a critical moment for the CWU. It can maintain itself and grow, provided it develops not reduces lay democracy, and bases itself on a militant industrial and political strategy.