The great Post Office strike of 1971

Submitted by AWL on 23 February, 2021 - 9:25 Author: Dave Chapple
Photo shows marchers with a Union of Post Office Workers banner

UPW Bristol Branch strike march, February 1971: leading the march were striking day telephonists with Branch Officers Reg Dixon, Harry Varcoe and Monty Banks. Pic: DC


This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Great Post Office Strike of 1971. This article surveys the background to the strike, how it was organised, and discusses the reasons for its defeat. Its author, Dave Chapple, is not a member of Workers' Liberty, but the article is published here with his permission, and with thanks. The Union of Post Office Workers, UPW, is the predecessor of today's Communication Workers Union (CWU).


15 February 1971 was United Kingdom Decimalisation Day: no longer were there 12 pennies to a shilling, half-crowns, or 240 pennies to the pound. That day, 50 years ago, was also just over half-way through the greatest strike this country had seen since the General Strike of 1926: the 44-day national strike of 200,000 Post Office workers.

Telegraphists, telephonists, Post Office counter clerks, cleaners, postmen (170,000 of them!), and Postmen Higher Grade (PHGs), members of the Union of Post Office Workers (UPW), struck for their claim of 15%, or £3 a week for lower-paid grades such as cleaners. They picketed, they lobbied, they marched, but after six and a half weeks they went back to work defeated: why was that? This article attempts to find an answer.

In October 1969 the Post Office Corporation was created, carved out of an iconic part of the British Civil Service. Profits and budgets were increasingly emphasised at the expense of public service obligations, while Civil Service collective bargaining was side lined. When Ted Heath’s Tory Government was elected in 1970, many right-wing Tory MPs like Christopher Chataway, the new Posts Minister, openly argued for the part-privatisation of the vastly profitable telecommunications part of the Post Office.

On 24 November 1970, just after the UPW submitted its claim for 15%, the Tories sacked Lord Hall, the Labour Government-appointed Post Office Chairman. Result: spontaneous UPW walkouts in many large sorting offices! Bill Ryland, his replacement, was a Post Office career man with a mission to "modernise". That meant maximising telecoms profits, mechanising sorting offices, and replacing straight wage rises with productivity schemes.

Inflation was rampant, and the UPW claim for 15% would mean, at least, a real rather than an apparent pay rise. The Post Office offered 7%, then raised it to 8%. The UPW Executive Council, with Tom Jackson as General Secretary, saw this as an insult, and, under UPW Rules, without a ballot, called an all-out national strike from Wednesday 20 January.

Militant day telephonists at the Bristol UPW Rally in the Colston Hall, January 1971. Pic: Bristol Evening Post

From the Shetland Islands to Penzance, from Anglesey to Yarmouth, Post Office workers struck. The UPW produced a poster to accompany the claim: “Albert Edmondson, postman, works a 43 hour, six-day week, for this he takes home less than £16; Jenny Merritt, a telephonist, works a 41-hour, six-day week. For this she takes home £10.15s. Ian Moyes, a counter clerk, works a 42-hour six-day week and takes home £14 10s, even with five hours overtime.”

On Sunday 24 January, 20,000 UPW members took their first strike march down the “Ho Chi Minh Trail” used by the anti-Vietnam war protesters, and rallied in Hyde Park. Rallies were held every Thursday thereafter. For most of the six weeks, these were loud, confident, working-class celebrations of struggle, and Tom Jackson, left-wing Labour with handle-bar moustache, was, to start with, a popular leader. Strike rallies took place in all of the UK’s cities, with some, as in Bristol, led by militant young telephonists.

During the intermittent talks held during the strike, Ryland, an ambitious hard-liner who may even have acted without day-to-day orders from Tory Home Secretary Robert Carr, upped the pay offer to 9%, but only if the UPW agreed to a massive increase in part-time labour into the postman grade, which was a “closed shop”, i.e., 100% trade union, and nearly 100% male. The UPW refused this "offer", and the strike carried on, a war of attrition that affected every city, town, and village in the country.

The last Bristol strike rally at Queen’s Square was snowbound: speaking is deputy branch secretary Monty Banks. Strikers carried a black coffin, borrowed from the Cardiff Outdoor UPW Branch, on which was painted: “Here lies the body of Postman Sid: he could not exist on fourteen quid!” Pic: DC

If the postmen, PHGs, and telegraphists were solidly behind the UPW, the strike did have its weaknesses. Some Post Office Crown Offices were open, and, at the start, staffed by UPW striking volunteers on pension and social security days, until strikers refused to work alongside scabs. Telephonists were the weak link: only a minority of night full-time male telephonists were in any union, and many were in the non-TUC National Guild of Telephonists; many female day telephonists were UPW, but others were non-union.

Not surprisingly, it was outside the main city telephone exchanges that angry mass picketing took place. Police were often called out, as scabs alleged harassment, and pickets complained of liquids being poured on them from the exchange’s upper floors. Many telephonists came away in tears from claiming their last pre-strike wage, £8, paid in arrears, when managers withheld a five-pound note and told them: “You will get this only if you stay in work now!”

The telephonists grade apart, the strike was solid from beginning to end: there was no drift back to work at all. This applied to rural areas as well as cities. In Ilfracombe, North Devon, Mike Creek, for decades now the Ilfracombe TUC Secretary, recalls that only one PHG UPW member scabbed, out of a branch of 53. Mike says this PHG was given a hard time for years afterwards.

In Bridgwater, Somerset, postman Eric Payne remembers shouting out “The wages of sin are death!” to a solitary scab who gave a religious excuse for crossing the picket line. The only scab in the Bridgwater Crown Post Office Counter was a Tory Borough Councillor, Trevor Donaldson. The Middlezoy village postman Leggatt scabbed, delivering letters from one part of this Sedgemoor village to another, but then, as Bridgwater striking postmen pointed out angrily, he had his own market garden business!

The UPW only had £330,000 in its strike fund on 16 January, which did not go far, with 200,000 strikers! Public support was impressive: one survey claimed 47% sympathy, which was unprecedented for a trade union dispute. A postman’s wife in Totton, Southampton had her strike collection of £15 confiscated by the police!

It was generally agreed that the union had the better of the strike publicity: why then, did Tom Jackson and the UPW Executive Council call off the strike, suddenly and without any warning to the members, after six weeks, with nothing but a state-sponsored Inquiry to compensate for the abandonment of its 15% claim?

The "official" UPW reason given was a simple one: the union had run out of money and was close to bankruptcy. Of course, the hardship fund was running out, but this explanation cannot, surely, be accepted by historians now, without investigating alternative strategies that had been, and were available to WIN the dispute.

What were they? First and perhaps foremost, the UPW could have asked the other Post Office unions to show real solidarity and strike with them till they won. The UPW could even have called out its own “Ship to Shore” radio operators, such as its members at Portishead Radio Station in Somerset: only a few hundred UPW members nationally, yet crucial to the whole operation of the UK merchant fleet; the UPW could also have appealed to members of the Association of Scientific, Technical, and Managerial Staffs (ASTMS, "left-winger" Clive Jenkins' union) who staffed the Telex Service to strike in sympathy. The Post Office Management Staff Association (POMSA) had many members who wanted to walk out with their UPW colleagues, but they were never asked. George Massey, the Communist POMSA Secretary for Bristol, remembered secretly collecting money for the UPW strike fund from about 20% of his supervisor members at the Small Street Head Post Office.

Most important, of all these sister Post Office unions, the UPW should have appealed to the powerful skilled Post Office Engineering Union (POEU), whose telephone engineers, despite automatic STD/Subscriber Trunk Dialling, could have put major pressure on industry and commerce. Despite a one-day POEU strike in solidarity with the UPW towards the end of February, this was too little and far too late. If their General Secretary, a member of the House of Lords, might have been less than keen, what about the POEU branches and members?

Second, the TUC, and especially the key TUC unions, including those "left-wing"-led such as ASTMS, the AEU, and the TGWU, need not have failed the UPW. When they failed the UPW, failing with either substantial hardship donations or supportive strike action, they should have been challenged and publicly shamed. After all, even from a "reformist" parliamentary-socialist outlook, it was surely in the interests of their own members to ensure the UPW was not defeated!

The National Union of Railwaymen (NUR), 600,000 strong, had a pay claim lodged at the same time as the UPW. Even if they had struck for their own aims, Robert Carr and Ted Heath would have been forced to settle both NUR and UPW claims to the full. Yet right-wing NUR General Secretary Sidney Greene was incapable, or unwilling, to see this opportunity to strike alongside the UPW, probably defeat the Tory Government, and advance his own members standard of living.

The Tory Industrial Relations Bill, sponsored by Home Office Minister Robert Carr, was being opposed by the TUC, somewhat inconsistently at first, but one TUC-sponsored London Rally during the UPW strike, on 23 February, had called over 100,000 trades unionists out. At that Hyde Park Rally, Tom Jackson was the most popular speaker, while the forked tongue of TUC General Secretary Vic Feather "gave his full support." When Feather failed to deliver on this TUC promise, and others, Tom Jackson kept silent, and when the strike collapsed, allowed his members’ anger to be concentrated upon himself.

The trade union movement in the UK in 1970 was, in numbers of members, number of shop stewards, number of closed shop agreements, and numbers of disputes, extremely strong. Strong enough to force the TUC to call a one-day general strike against the Industrial Relations Bill: so why not a general strike to support the UPW? Such a strike would not even have been illegal, as it would have been by 1984!

The TUC General Council also promised workplace collections that came to nothing. While some unions gave substantial donations, others made double-edged loans to the UPW: the NUR loaned £100,000; the TGWU, the AEU, and the Furniture Trade Union £50,000 each. Yet, it was just these loans, or the UPW’s inability to re-pay, which, after four or five weeks, caused the UPW’s bankers to threaten the confiscation of the union’s Clapham HQ.

Trains and lorries carried vast numbers of parcels throughout the strike, which, despite donations to the UPW, the NUR and TGWU did little or nothing to prevent. Local Government and Civil Service union members were allowed by their leaders to deliver mail between their departments.

All in all, if the strategic thinking of the UPW leadership was non-existent, and its tactics both timid and over-confident, it was the TUC and the trade union movement that deserves most of the blame, they clearly deserted the UPW in 1971, its unique time of great need.

With creditors pressing, the UPW Executive lost its confidence, as suddenly as the strike had been called. Feelers were put out; the Post Office, sensing UPW surrender, "chivalrously" agreed a binding Court of Inquiry into the dispute, and so, on 3 March 1971, the UPW Executive, led by Jackson, put the union’s bureaucracy and bricks and mortar before its membership, and decided by 27 votes to 4 to call an immediate branch ballot for a return to work.

These meetings were held within five days, amid some accusations of undue haste: for example, Mount Pleasant meetings were always held on Sundays, yet many members awoke on that Sunday to find their branch meeting had already been called on the Saturday! Moreover, if a branch of 2,000 members had voted to call the strike off by 1,100 votes to 900, under UPW Rules, all 2,000 votes were cast for ending the strike. The final vote, translated into actual membership figures, was 190,614 to 10,427.

Bristol UPW Branch Organiser Reg Dixon, Bristol POMSA Secretary (and Communist) George Massey, and UPW Deputy General Secretary Norman Stagg, before the Colston Hall Rally. Pic: Bristol Evening Post

Six and a half weeks out, and with the strike still solid, UPW members went back to work, defeated, as suddenly and as loyally as they came out. Only Liverpool Amalgamated, Edinburgh Outdoor, and London South East Branches voted to stay out. Liverpool went back last, a few days after the national return, while there was "trouble at West Bromwich."

Even without TUC support, could the UPW militants, including the young women telephonists who had become radicalised, have saved the day, and kept the strike going? The answer must be, as a single isolated alternative, no. If there had been unofficial UPW movements in the lead up to the strikes of 1964 and 1969, they had not developed any permanent rank-and-file organisation. Unlike the strikes and disputes of the 1990s, the best UPW branches had no tradition or practice to combine unofficially to pressurise the UPW Executive. UPW members were exceptionally loyal to their local and nationally-elected leaders, and, consequently, exceptionally bitter when left leaderless.

The Communists on the UPW Executive were, at best, a loyal opposition, and all four, according to Paul Foot, including their leader, Maurice Styles the Assistant General Secretary, voted for the surrender. I am not aware of any CPGB articles, let alone pamphlets, on the dispute, so it would be interesting now to be able to read any internal CPGB discussions.

Paul Foot wrote a pamphlet on behalf of the International Socialists [the forerunner of today's Socialist Workers Party], John Weal on behalf of the International Marxist Group [the predecessor of Socialist Resistance and Socialist Action], but although some good points were made, these suffered from being accounts by outsiders. Only Joe Jacobs, ex-Communist turned anarcho-syndicalist, and a Cable Street veteran, who also wrote a critical account of 1971, was a UPW member, but his influence must have been minimal.

The Sir Henry Hardman Inquiry was the fig-leaf that ended the strike, covering up the surrender. Despite Tom Jackson’s eloquence, and the impressive personal testimony of UPW members from the different grades, the Inquiry ordered a binding settlement of 9%, the acceleration of mechanisation into Post Offices, productivity schemes to pay for the extra 1%, and the new idea of extra money for postmen in areas where recruitment had been difficult. John Hughes, the Principal of Ruskin College, issued a Minority Report in which he criticised the 9% offer and its rationale, the requirements of a "national interest", when other sections of workers were getting 15% and sometimes 25%.

The UPW as a whole, and the postmen/PHG Grades in particular, which had been 98% solid, were bitter and resentful for the next decade and a half. Bitter at the Government that had stood by, and almost certainly connived, at William Ryland’s tough stance. Bitter also at Tom Jackson their leader. For the rest of his career Jackson may have been popular with the tabloids, even acceptable to, and in control of, his UPW Executive and UPW annual conferences, but repeated denials of defeat lacked conviction, and he never regained his popularity with his members.

As a loyal right-wing stalwart of the TUC General Council, Tom Jackson was, throughout the 1970s, seen as the acceptable face of trades unionism. This was his reward for not "telling his members all" in 1971 - i.e., how the key unions, and the TUC, had allowed the UPW to suffer its defeat.

Many strike veterans were especially bitter at any newcomers who showed signs of militancy. When I, a young militant socialist, joined the Post Office in Clevedon in 1978, I was told time and time again by the 1971 veterans: “Don’t even mention a strike, David: we went through 1971, so never again!” Doug Pond, a Bridgwater postman, kept a 1971 social security receipt for 6d in his wallet until he retired after 49 years’ service!

Yet the basic union organisation, especially in the sorting and delivery offices, remained solid. The Tories, until the 1980s, were unable to remove the closed shop in this Royal Mail section of the Post Office. By 1982, even in Clevedon, successful unofficial strikes had taken place. Later in the 1980’s there were major disputes in cities like Leeds and Liverpool. In 1987 there was a national dispute for a shorter working week.

Finally, in the 1988 "Difficult Reruitment Areas Supplements" (DRAS) dispute, the bitter ghost of 1971 was laid to rest, when unofficial strike action took place all over the UK, in solidarity with suspended Post Office drivers. The issue? The Post Office’s belated attempt to introduce localised pay based on unemployment rates, DRAS, that they had insisted should start after 1971!

With mail volumes showing a massive increase in the late 1980s/early 1990s, the stage was set for a remarkable trade union renaissance: the massive and prolonged militancy of Royal Mail workers, which, for the last 30 years, has been, without doubt, the best organised section of the British working-class.

As a UCW/CWU Bridgwater Delivery Office Rep, and Bristol Branch Officer, I am proud to have played my own small part in this: at Bridgwater Delivery Office between 1993 and December 2016, when I retired, we held 20-odd strike ballots, walked out unofficially ten times, held eight official strikes, all without a single significant defeat. That total would be significantly increased if, during those years, you took the Bristol Branch Royal Mail offices as a whole. Even during Covid, Bridgwater Delivery Office Royal Mail CWU members have held three successful wildcat strikes!

• Dave Chapple was a Somerset Post Office/Royal Mail delivery postman for 38 years, and is, in retirement, Secretary of Bridgwater and District TUC. Dave is also the author of Grasshopper, Stonkers and Straight Eights: George Massey and Bristol Post Office Workers, 1930 to 1976, Henry Suss and the Jewish Working-Class of Manchester and Salford, "Idris and Phyllis Rose, Trowbridge Communist Councillors” (in Wiltshire Industrial History, Working-Class Episodes), and Class Conflict in a Somerset Town-Bridgwater 1924 to 1927, second-hand copies of which are still available on line. He can be contacted here

Comments

Submitted by David (not verified) on Tue, 09/02/2021 - 12:59

Thanks to Dave Chapple for this article which is an important contribution to the history of trade unionism in the UK Post Office. However as a CWU activist of 25 years standing I would like to add some additional comments.

I joined Royal Mail in the 1980s and like Dave my older colleagues sometimes talked about '71, indeed the key branch officials had all taken part in the strike. As I became more active in the union one interesting theory I heard was that Tom Jackson was actually playing a game of internal politics within the UPW whereby he was happy to end the strike because he wanted to see militancy and indeed the influence of the Communist Party curbed. The CPGB was a force in the trade union movement at the time and in the UPW Maurice Styles a party member was the Outdoor Secretary the national officer represented the majority of uniform grades. One of his colleagues Dickie Lawlor was also in post at the time. Communists also hold key positions in the powerful London Region.

In the 1980s and 90s a new breed of younger postal workers took militancy to a new level. As a representative I took part in three national strikes and led numerous local ones both official and unofficial. Unfortunately the lack of a rank and file organisation that Dave mentions persisted. This resulted in a new leadership elected on a left platform taking the union in a direction of capitulation and partnership. The national strike in 2007 was a key event where similar to 1971 several days of action ended with acceptance of managements terms. Like me Dave fought against that but as so often happens the bureaucracy won the day.

Privatisation has made things worse but the tremendous militancy of the membership remains as can be evidenced by result national industrial action ballot results. Unfortunately the 2013 deal signed after privatisation had become inevitable is effectively a no strike deal. The result has been a gradual erosion of terms and conditions including a greatly inferior pension scheme. Membership is falling, the activist base shrinking and the Deputy General Secretary Postal a right winger supported by a weak executive. With finances increasingly tight Unite are circling looking to make another addition to their empire.  

It could all of been very different. As with all unions postal workers need a grassroots movement based on genuine worker democracy to transform their union. Without that the future is bleak.

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