From the moment I came down Cromwell Road and saw the ingeniously altered For Sale sign outside the office (it now read “NOT For Sale”) I knew we were in for a memorable day.
When I turned the corner from Cromwell Road into Wheatley Road, there were 20 or more postal workers lined up outside the gates, all of them in uniform, warming themselves on a brazier.
I’d bought the brazier the previous day. I’d rung up Julie Wassmer asking her if she knew where I could get one. She didn’t quite understand. “Brazier?” she said. “What do you want with Brazier?”
She thought I meant our MP, Julian Brazier.
“So we can warm ourselves on the picket line,” I said.
“With a fire,” I said.
She said the weird picture of Julian Brazier being set light to in order to keep striking postal workers warm only lasted a minute or so, but it was enough to leave a lasting impression.
The fact that the posties were in uniform was an event in itself. They’re a vain lot and have their own sense of style. They spend their whole days at work in uniform, all looking alike, so on their days off they want to assert their individuality. But today wasn’t a day off. It was a day of action, and they came properly kitted out for the cameras, just as I’d asked them to.
Terry Jeffs, one of our union reps, had his van parked near by and he was giving out teas and coffees. There was also a tin of chocolates which people were helping themselves to, provided by one of Terry’s customers for his Christmas tip this year.
Meanwhile, in the yard the managers were skulking around preparing to go out. The rumour is that they’d brought in 59 managers from around the country, the furthest being from Worthing, all on expenses, all having to work unpaid on their day off with a 4am start. It’s no wonder they were looking so bad tempered.
After that things started to move at a pace. Julie Wassmer turned the corner and greeted everyone. Then Wheely Groovy, the bicycle powered sound system, turned up. It is run by Doug Noble and Alex Quarn. What a rig! We used one of our posties bikes as part of the power system. Throughout the morning people were volunteering to get on the bikes to provide us with power.
After that Windy Corner store arrived and set up their teas and coffees stall over the road, using electricity kindly provided by Alma and Steve (who also opened up their doors for people to use their toilet).
At the same time Ritch Harnett set up a picket outside the callers office, where people go to collect their undelivered packages. He wasn’t trying to stop people going in, he just wanted to talk to them, that’s all.
“Imagine what it would be like if you had to go on a 16 mile round trip to collect this,” he said. Everyone got the point.
After that it was a roller coaster of events. Me, I was in front of the TV cameras a lot of the time, gibbering on aimlessly. It’s a weird thing. You go into a kind of bubble, where the end of the last sentence disappears from your memory, and the beginning of the next is nowhere in sight, and all you have are the words coming out of your mouth at that exact moment, which remain unconnected to anything in your brain, and the only way you can make any sense at all is by sheer force of will.
Both TV cameramen had asked that I take my glasses off as they are reactor light glasses which go dark in daylight, which, given the brightness of the day, had turned into sunglasses. So the resultant films have me looking slightly crazy, as my eyes roll around in my head searching for the next word from my disconnected brain, while my mouth is still spurting words from halfway through a sentence whose beginning I have entirely forgotten.
I’m sure that everyone will have their own high points of the day, but these are some of mine.
Julie Wassmer was magnificent as the MC, reading out greetings from around the country, and introducing the speakers, which included David Banbury, branch secretary of CWU Invicta, Margaret Sandiford, secretary of the Canterbury & District Pensioners’ Forum, Diane Langford, Jon Flaig, the Reverend Simon Tillotson and Chris Weller, who brought greetings from Unison Dover Council, Dover Trades Council and the wider Trade Union movement in Kent. Thanks for all your efforts, guys. It was great to hear so many different voices from so many divergent platforms, both political and non-political, all supporting our action.
Nigel Hobbins and the Dreamlanders played a great version of Tom Paine’s Bones, which I’d specifically asked for. That song always makes me cry. It’s in the spirit of old Tom Paine we were committing this action this day: “dancing in the oldest boots I own to the rhythm of Tom Paine’s bones!”
Also appearing were the Funky Pluckers Ukulele Band and Guerrilla Horns, especially formed for the march.
Pete Bingley’s Mexican Wave went off with hardly a hitch, which was surprising really as there had been no rehearsals. Even the apostrophes were in the right places.
The Mexican Wave consisting of 34 people with cards lined up on the pavement turning round – one person at a time, one word on each card, including the apostrophes and the exclamation mark – to reveal the slogan: “It’s Our Royal Mail And It’s Not For Sale!” After this we were chanting along with the slogan as Pete, like Mickey Mouse as the Sorcerer’s Apprentice in Disney’s Fantasia, was directing the action, getting people to raise and lower their cards, and creating undulating waves and shimmies along the line.
The slogan shows that our final target is much bigger than just the Whitstable delivery office. It’s the whole future of the Royal Mail we are concerned about, of which the closure of our one little delivery office is but a small part.
The funny thing here is that the TV coverage of the event shows an SWP placard racing along the back and then the person holding it leaping into place at the end of the reveal, making sure that the SWP get into the picture too.
“Never miss a photo opportunity!” It’s the SWP’s rallying cry to the downtrodden masses. Which is why we like them so much. It’s mine and Julie’s rallying cry too, both of us being shameless media tarts.
You lot think we were doing all this to save Whitstable delivery office don’t you? Ha! Fooled you. We were only doing it to get our faces on the telly.
But the highlight of the day has to be the stand off with the mail lorry which turned up about 10 o’clock. As it attempted to back into the yard Cliff Bartholomew approached and asked the driver not to cross the picket line. He was a young agency driver and he didn’t really know what to do. Meanwhile Julie and Kas had taken up position behind the lorry where there was a scuffle as one of the Royal Mail managers tried to push Kas out of the way. It was a tense moment, broken by Julie, who asked to be handed a placard to show that she was part of a peaceful public protest. It just so happened that it was an SWP placard that she took, all unaware, so for the next thirty minutes or so you could see her brandishing the SWP brand, looking every bit like one of the comrades.
“All Power to the Imagination!” as David Widgery, one of the founders of the SWP, once said. It is our slogan too.
Julie went to speak to the driver and a number of people stepped behind the lorry to take her place. That was another wonderful moment. It was a complete cross section of people there, of all ages and opinions, from the radical left, to the elderly and infirm, all standing together in support of our strike.
Meanwhile, by this time Julie had started a dialogue with the lorry driver, and they were soon on first name terms.
“Sam,” she said, “this is really important. These people want you to go back. This is your chance to be a hero.”
“I don’t want to be a hero,” said the slightly bemused Sam. You could see that nothing like this had ever happened to him before.
“But we want you to be a hero Sam,” said Julie.
In the end a compromise was reached, and Sam left the lorry parked in the road, while he got himself a cup of tea. Meanwhile, by this time all the white vans which the Royal Mail had hired in to break the strike were returning from their rounds. Only they couldn’t get in because Sam’s van was in the way. They were backed up along three roads, causing congestion in every direction.
Eventually management threatened to call the police. Julie thought maybe it would be a good idea to end the blockade at this point as she was worried someone might get arrested. “Let them call the police,” said our inimitable branch secretary, looking cool and inscrutable.
So they did. The police turned up about 15 minutes later, by which time we had already decided it was time to start the march. The police constable was in an altercation with the protesters, around the back of the lorry, trying to get them to move, when I turned up.
“It’s time for the march,” I said. “You can leave the lorry now.”
The protesters took this in before turning their attention back to the policeman. “We want to you to know that we are only leaving because he has asked us to, not because you told us to,” said one of the many people holding the blockade.
So after that we began the march. The posties in their high-viz jackets were meant to be the stewards, and I, as the march organiser and their CWU rep, was trying to issue commands.
We were all in a huddle at the front, like one of the huddles we have at work, where the managers call us up and issue instructions. Only it wasn’t a manager, it was me. And we weren’t trying to get out the mail, we were trying to stop the mail.
“Keep everyone to the left. Hold up the traffic at the traffic lights. March alongside the march.”
Do this, do that! I was shouting at them waving my arms about, while they all looked at me with looks of amusement on their faces.
In the end none of them did anything I told them, such are my charismatic powers of persuasion.
The march set off to the strains of the Postman Pat theme tune played by the Guerrilla Horns. Julie wore a special ‘campaign’ head dress that had been fashioned by Christine McKenzie, Nigel Hobbins’s partner. Originally inspired by Carmen Miranda, the flamboyant turban was a camp confection of fruit and feathers but also bore a toy train, as a nod to the Network Rail campaign, with a sealed envelope now added for the postie campaign.
We went down Cromwell Road, to Harbour Street, up Harbour Street and onto the High Street, then Oxford Street, and ended up at the library.
The best bit of this was when all the shopkeepers on Harbour Street came out to greet us, waving placards and shouting messages of support. It was at this point that we truly knew we were fighting for the whole community, and not just for ourselves.
Even the cars going the other way, whose path we were blocking, were winding down their windows to greet us and giving us the thumbs up.
Finally, at the library, Kate Adams of Kent Refugee Help, and Hugh Lanning of the PCS (Public and Commercial Services) union gave speeches.
Kent Refugee Help has a PO box at the delivery office. If the office moves to Canterbury, PO boxes users will have to travel over there to pick up their mail. This is one of the categories for which redelivery or delivery to a neighbour is not an option. Kent Refugee Help is a small and not very well-off organisation which can hardly afford the cost of the journeys, let alone the huge effort, to pick up the mail. This in turn will adversely affect its vulnerable clients.
These are the kinds of people who will be most affected by the move. The poor, the vulnerable, the old and the infirm. The disabled. People on benefits. People without transport. People who don’t own computers.
These are the people for whom we are fighting.
For anyone interested in joining our campaign, here is our facebook page: