On 1 February postal delivery personnel at Royal Mail's main sorting office in Tomb Street, Belfast went on unofficial strike, claiming one of their colleagues had been accused of bullying and that procedures not provided for in the agreed disciplinary guide lines were being used by management and these amounted to bullying.
A counter-claim of harassment and bullying was immediately made by management but the strikers' demand for an independent inquiry was aggressively refused with the usual strike-breaking formula that there could be no talks until the strikers returned to work.
Whatever the facts behind the conflicting claims, Post Office management immediately launched a bellicose broadside against the postal delivery staff, obviously confident that the threat of legal action would bring the workers to heel. However, there is a growing sense of frustration among many workers at Tory and Labour Party laws aimed at crippling traditional defensive strategies and, in this case there is no doubt that threats and managerial tough talk promoted an insignificant incident that should have been solved in-house into a serious dispute now, as we write, entering its third week and bristling with angry exchanges.
In a move that is certainly not calculated to promote a peaceful settlement of the dispute Post Office management have announced that they are bringing in fifty managerial strike breakers from England. The intent of that threat might be judged by the total inadequacy of fifty such heroes to substitute for some three hundred staff familiar with the territory. Again, management pulled out of a meeting with union officials on 12 February when they learnt that local union officials would be part of the union delegation. Negotiations have now moved to London and since it is an unofficial strike that means that local staff will not be represented.
Post Office Management's tactics seem a classical example of how not to resolve an industrial dispute; indeed, its entire strategy most raise considerations of a wider hidden agenda.
One striker interviewed by a Belfast Telegraph reporter in the second week of the strike said he had already had to borrow money from his brother to meet the needs of himself and his family. 'It's starting to bite for us', he said, 'we didn't go into this lightly. It's the coldest time of year, why would we choose to do this unless it was the last resort? We are determined to stick it out because there are people's jobs at stake here.'
The so-called 'business community' rail about their potential loss unmindful of the more intense poverty being endured by the strikers and their families, but are now forced to a realisation of the importance of the postmen and women to their business. But support among the general public is strong.
To their very great credit the postal workers have risen above the rotten sectarian values that the political bigots stitch into all kinds of activities in Northern Ireland. The strike started when postal staff from north, west and south Belfast walked out reportedly after an incident involving a worker from the Shankill Road district. Because postal workers have been murdered by sectarian killers and, in the nature of their job are vulnerable to sectarian attacks, it is customary for Catholics to operate in areas identified as 'Catholic' and Protestants to work 'Protestant' areas. Nowhere would this evil necessity be more pointed than in the 'Catholic' Falls district and the 'Protestant' Shankill areas. On the Tuesday following the start of the dispute the strikers marched together on both the Falls Road and the Shankill Road uniquely demonstrating that the class war can transcend the squalid sectarian war and the people in these hard-line areas cheered them.
Anywhere else a few hundred strikers marching up and down the road would have little significance; in Belfast, and especially in the areas in which they choose to march, it probably did more to advance real peace and understanding than all the current vaporising of the politicians.