As we were saying: lessons of the 1971 postal strike

Submitted by cathy n on 30 July, 2007 - 8:46

In 1977 postal workers struck over pay, conditions and mechanisation. Solidarity’s forerunner, Socialist Organiser, printed these articles about the lessons of the previous dispute in 1971.

How the job was changed

By Pete Keenlyside

IN 1971 members of the UCW (then called the UPW) [the postal side of today’s CWU] went on strike for seven weeks. They returned defeated, sold out by their own Executive.

After that, most postal workers said they’d strike again. Every time you got up to oppose some lousy pay deal or other, the cry went up “Remember 1971”.

The membership are now more willing to take strike action. What has changed? A lot of the ‘old ones’ have retired and young people have taken their place. But the main factor has probably been a reaction to the way the job has changed over the years.

In 1971 we worked as long hours as we do now. But we didn’t work as hard or under as much pressure.
On the letters side, which is all I can speak about, things were conducted at a more leisurely pace. On the walks you had time to talk to people, to pop in for the odd cup of tea and get to know your customers.

If you were inside sorting, although the work was boring, there were ways of breaking it up. Staff could go for a ‘smoke’, chat to their mates or use some excuse to wander round the office for a few minutes.

And heaven help the gaffer that tried to get you to do something that wasn’t on your duty. Once the duties were agreed with the union, that was that. You knew exactly what it was you should be doing every minute of your shift.
If it wasn’t written in the duty book, you didn’t do it. If the duty book said feed the horses (some had been around for a long time), then you disappeared for half an hour or so. In those days we were poor but happy!

Not anymore we’re not - happy that is.

Then the Post Office made a loss but served the public. These days it makes huge profits. And that’s been done in the time-honoured way — by making the workers work harder.

The first stage was mechanisation. Before 1971 everything was sorted by hand. Then the Post Office came to the union with a scheme for creating mechanised offices. In future, letters would be faced, segregated and sorted by machines. Instead of people, ALFS, SEGs and code sort machines would stalk the sorting office floor. So in they came, to be followed by ever newer and faster machines such as OCRs (Optical Character Recognition) which can read handwritten script.

Now fewer workers sort more letters at a pace dictated by the machines and ruthlessly enforced. Marx’s description of a worker being a mere extension of a machine is a living reality in the Post Office today. No wonder they have difficulty getting people to work the machines.

Stage two was the productivity deal. We used to have a scheme were everyone got a lump sum payment every now and again if by any chance some savings had been made. Now we’ve got IWM (Improved Working Methods). This is a compulsory scheme and it operates on the basis of individual offices or even parts of offices.

To qualify for payments either the same number of staff have to do more work or, more usually, fewer staff do the same work. This has led to staff selling off tea breaks for a few extra bob, and in many areas delivery staff can’t finish their walks on time even by running round. Even the management have recognised this has created problems.

But that hasn’t stopped them bringing in son of IWM — Revised Revision Procedure (RRP). This operates by using so-called industrial engineers. It caused a strike when first introduced in Leeds but is now being forced in throughout the country.

Next came the splitting of the businesses. The Post Office has been split into four — letters, parcels, counters and Giro. Each has its own highly-paid management structure and, believe it or not, they compete with each other.
This means, for instance, that when it comes to delivering parcels, drivers on the letters side have to compete with drivers on the parcels side for the contract. This has both the effect of worsening conditions and making the business ripe for privatisation.

And finally there is the use of discipline. With over three million on the dole, management are using the disciplinary procedure as a weapon against the workforce, and interpreting it as they see fit.

Once upon a time the only way you could get the sack was to be caught pinching or by hitting the gaffer. Now, if you’re a new entrant, four days off in the first year and out you go. In sorting offices people are being disciplined for going to the toilet too often and for talking on the floor.

What has made things worse is that all of this has come in either with very little opposition from our union leadership or with their active assistance. Mechanisation was supposed to be the means by which we got our shorter working week. The new machines were blacked for four years. Then in the end the leadership got us to accept them for a pittance and we’ve got nothing for all the newer machines, while the Post Office have got everything.

1971: centre of the class struggle

By Mick O’Sullivan

THE post workers have been centre stage in the class struggle before. Their strike in 1971 was one of the great battles between the working class and the Tory government elected in 1970, which was then making a first attempt at what is today called Thatcherism.
The Tories won that battle, as they had previously won a battle against the power workers. It was not until the miners humbled them in early 1972 that the Tories began to lose their confidence. But the post workers could have won in 1971. That defeat has lessons for today.

In October 1970 the union then called the UPW (Union of Post Office Workers) - lodged a claim for £3 or 15% wage increase, whichever was the greater. Militants wanted a £5 claim.

The Post Office offered 8%. Unofficial strikes took place.

The national strike began in January. It ended 44 days later with no real advances. The right wing UPW leaders believed they were in for a quick strike or more likely just the threat of a strike to bring the government to the negotiating table. They were unprepared for the Tories’ intransigence — and for the determination and combativity of the rank and file.

Time and again the strikers went beyond the constraints of the leadership. Strict instructions were issued that picketing be restricted to four people. There was no law restricting picketing. The union leaders just wanted to keep the strike quiet and respectable.

Yet where serious scabbing took place, at the telephone exchanges dealing with international calls, the number of pickets exceeded 100. (Telephones were then run by the Post Office, rather than being a separate business.)

Strike committees also organised regular report-back meetings.

Solidarity was also shown every Thursday at the weekly strike rallies in Hyde Park. Each week these got bigger and more militant in their outlook.

The rank and file were determined and willing to face hardship. But the union leaders were aghast at the drain on the union funds of a long strike. The UPW was running out of money, and its leaders had no concept of organising a broad campaign for financial support. They seized at the first chance to end the dispute through arbitration.

Many strikers were disgusted. But the experienced militant activists were few and scattered. At the start of the strike mass meetings people would enthusiastically cheer the union’s right-wing leader, Tom Jackson, with chants of ‘J-A-C-K-S-0-N, Jackson!’ Having decided to go for arbitration, Jackson was able to rush through a vote to return to work.

Strikes need militant and determined leadership. And if the official leaders are not militant and determined, then the best activists must get organised in a rank and file movement which can challenge those officials, explain the issues and map out a fighting strategy right from the start.

Comments

Submitted by Joseph Mason (not verified) on Sat, 24/08/2019 - 22:57

I was a postman from 1988 until 2009. I want to know why the workers demanded 15-20% when inflation was well under 5%?

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