Skip to main content

Remembering the great postal workers’ strike of 1971

On National Postal Workers’ Day, former postie DAVE CHAPPLE recalls a massive strike 50 years ago – and asks why, after six weeks of pickets and rallies, it was finally defeated

FEBRUARY 15 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 halfway 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 PHGs (postmen higher grade), members of the Union of Post Office Workers (UPW), struck for their claim of 15 per cent, 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? 

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 sidelined. 

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 November 24 1970, just after the UPW submitted its claim for 15 per cent, 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 per cent would mean, at least, a real rather than an apparent pay rise. 

The Post Office offered 7 per cent, then raised it to 8 per cent. 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 January 20.

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 January 24, 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 Britain’s cities, some, as in Bristol, led by militant young telephonists. 

During the intermittent talks held during the strike, Ryland, an ambitious hardliner who may even have acted without day-to-day orders from Tory home secretary Robert Carr, upped the pay offer to 9 per cent, but only if the UPW agreed to a massive increase in part-time labour into the postman grade, which was a “closed shop” — ie 100 per cent trade union, and nearly 100 per cent 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. 

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. 

The telephonists grade apart, there was no drift back to work at all. 

The UPW only had £330,000 in its strike fund on January 16, which did not go far, with 200,000 strikers. 

Public support was impressive: one survey claimed 47 per cent 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 the state-sponsored Hardman inquiry to compensate for the abandonment of its 15 per cent 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 British merchant fleet; the UPW could also have appealed to Association of Scientific, Technical and Managerial Staffs (ASTMS) members (“leftwinger” Clive Jenkins’s 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. 

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 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 its 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 that were “left-led” such as ASTMS, the Amalgamated Engineering Union and the Transport and General Workers Union, need not have failed the UPW. 

The trade union movement in Britain 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.

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 March 3 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 four to call an immediate branch ballot for a return to work (5 per cent were back at work by March 7).

The UPW as a whole, and the postmen and PHG grades in particular, which had been 98 per cent 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, Jackson was, throughout the 1970s, seen as the acceptable face of trade unionism. 

This was his reward for not “telling his members all” in 1971 — ie 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 1980s 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 DRAS dispute, the bitter ghost of 1971 was laid to rest, when unofficial strike action took place all over Britain, in solidarity with suspended Post Office drivers. 

The issue? The Post Office’s belated attempt to introduce localised pay based on unemployment rates, “difficult recruitment area supplements,” that they had insisted should start after 1971.

Dave Chapple was a Somerset Post Office/Royal Mail delivery postman for 38 years, and is, in retirement, secretary of Bridgwater and District TUC. 


We're a reader-owned co-operative, which means you can become part of the paper too by buying shares in the People’s Press Printing Society.

Become a supporter

Fighting fund

You've Raised:£ 6,340
We need:£ 11,660
20 Days remaining
Donate today