Hundreds of thousands of leaflets for the fascist British National Party (BNP) went undelivered during the recent elections after many postal workers used a 'conscience clause' agreement with Royal Mail and refused to handle them.
Many in the Communications Workers Union (CWU) believe that more workers would have boycotted the material if they were more confident to face down management and had stronger support from the union leadership.
In a serious and sometimes emotional session, last week’s CWU national conference debated this question a day after the announcement of the election of two BNP members to the European parliament.
A motion from Bristol called on the executive to publicise the clause 'more openly and aggressively, with aim of persuading whole units to refuse to handle these items'.
Controversially, the motion insisted the campaign should be conducted 'regardless of legal advice or threats from the BNP'.
Everyone who spoke in the debate was passionately against the BNP but some feared the union could be dragged into counter-productive legal battles if the motion was passed.
Due to the nature of the discussion, we cannot print names or branches of those that spoke.
A delegate from the north west of England told the conference how shocked he was that BNP had won a seat in his area.
'Six years ago these people started a race riot in my town. I’m damned if I’m going to help them by delivering their racist filth.'
Supporting the motion, a delegate from Wales said, 'Our union has a fine record of fighting fascism. But I was worried about the recent advice from the national union on the use of the conscience clause.
'It makes too much of the use of the clause being an individual decision – in fact the word ‘individual’ was written in bold.
'When management saw that, they started using our own union briefings against us and started intimidating people into delivering the stuff. That’s why we’ve got to have a collective response – even if it’s against the law.'
A delegate from the south of England said that some workers from his office, who were pressured into delivering the leaflets, felt so guilty afterwards that they spent hours of their own time taking anti-fascist leaflets to the same houses.
A branch secretary from the east of England agreed that the union needed to take a stronger stance, saying, 'Our union has got to do more to back people like these who are refusing to do the BNP’s dirty work.
'In my office those who refused include a former soldier who says that he’s seen the terrible effects of racism while on a tour in Bosnia, and is not prepared to see it grow here.
'Another is a gay man who says that the BNP would outlaw his relationship. Another is an Asian worker who knows that the BNP want an ‘all-white Britain’.'
A speaker against the motion talked about how the union had won the conscience clause after a series of hard battles to stop the distribution of BNP leaflets during the 1990s.
'Yes, Royal Mail will put real pressure on our people to deliver the leaflets. But it’s our job as reps to make sure that the members know they have the backing of the union if they refuse.'
But a delivery rep from Yorkshire showed problems with that approach.
Though his office is well organised and he is a confident rep, Royal Mail were still determined that the fascist material would be delivered. They had insisted that anyone refusing to deliver the BNP's material would have to find someone else to do the delivery.
A young delegate who works in a Royal Mail customer care centre told the conference about anguished calls he took from the public who had received the leaflets.
Addressing the fear that a more collective response could see the BNP taking the union to court, the delegate got a great cheer from the conference when he asked delegates, 'How many of you have led illegal wildcat strikes in your time? Hundreds of you have. And what’s more, you were right to do so.'
Concluding the debate, a delegate from the south west of England talked about the way many of his heroes, including Martin Luther King, had been forced to break the law in order win justice.
'By collectively refusing to handle BNP material we’ve got a chance to break a bad law – and break the British National Party,' he said.
Though the Bristol motion was narrowly defeated, the commitment of the CWU to fight against the BNP was clearly reaffirmed.