Today, postal workers start the first day of national strikes since 2009.

There’s a long history of industrial action in the postal service, with workers undertaking strike action to negotiate for better working conditions and pay. We’ve rounded up a brief history of the most impactful national postal strikes in the UK.


1890 – the fight against split duties

Long hours and harsh conditions led postal workers to protest in 1890. Hundreds marched on Post Office headquarters at St Martin’s-le-Grand demanding better pay and conditions. These were early days for the labour movement in Britain and 450 workers that marched on the headquarters were sacked and the strike was put down.¹ This action however prompted the Government to investigate the struggles of workers and their conditions.

In 1895 the Tweedmouth Committee, an inter-departmental committee headed by Lord Tweedmouth, heard evidence on the hardships of postal workers. Doctors testified that the death rate in this occupation was higher than others.

“The result is that the postman wears out fast…The effect was generally to produce premature old age; in other words shortening the life of the worker.” Sir W.B. Richardson

A black and white illustration showing men seated at a table.

The Tweedmouth Committee at work, pictured on the cover of the Postman’s Gazette, 14 March 1896.

When the Tweedmouth Committee issued its report, postal workers were dismayed to find that no concessions were made on split duties. Split duties are a schedule where working periods are split up by non-paid and non-working periods. This could mean starting at 6am and finishing after 10pm, with periods of unpaid time throughout the day.

Despite the poor result, this was the first of a series of major parliamentary enquiries around 1900 that slowly improved conditions for the lowest paid. This eventually led to the establishment of Joint Industrial Councils or Whitley Councils.

You can find out more about the working conditions of Edwardian and Victorian postal workers through our Addressing Health project.


1964 – striking for better pay

A black and white photo of six men carrying plaques with 'Blame Nevins not us' on them.

Allan Cash Picture Library / Alamy Stock Photo. 1964 strikers walking through central London.

Postal workers took industrial action from 16-24 July in 1964. The Union of Post Office Workers (UPW) demanded a substantial wage increase for “Postmen and Postmen Higher Grade (PHG)” in December 1963. In response the Post Office offered a 4% increase from 1 January 1964.

The UPW rejected this, feeling that a much larger increase was due. Circumstances in the employment market changed in 1963-64 and the Post Office had growing difficulty recruiting and retaining staff in the face of falling unemployment and better paid work elsewhere.

‘…negotiation is not a matter of a statistical exercise, but requires common sense and goodwill by both parties’. (POST 115/506) 11 July 1964, p.439

 

There was a one-day strike on Thursday 16 July and a complete overtime ban from Friday 17 July onwards.

The union’s Executive Council met on 22 July to review the situation. They decided unanimously to call their members to withdraw their labour from midnight on Saturday 25 July 1964 until further notice. The following day the Union’s negotiators were called to an urgent meeting with the Chancellor of the Exchequer. This led to the talks with the Postmaster General on 24 July. The proposed strike from 25 July was called off and negotiations started.

Shortly before midnight on 24 July a 6.5% interim increase in pay for Postmen and PHGs was agreed. It was accepted, but the union felt it was still not in keeping with worker’s responsibilities.

The UPW had also negotiated an agreement for a new basis for Pay Research, which they’d been fighting for since 1957. They saw this as a first stage but wanted a long term pay agreement.

‘We must now turn from the streets and the picket lines into the negotiating chamber. But the same qualities of resolution, patience and skill will be required.’ (POST 115/506, 15 August 1964, p.461).


1971 – The Great Strike

UPW Bristol Branch strike march, February 1971 © Dave Chapple

On 20 January 1971 members of the UPW again went on strike over pay. This is often called the first national postal strike in Great Britain, because of the range of jobs that it covered, from delivery to phone services. The strike continued until 8 March 1971, making it the longest strike since the General Strike of 1926.

The Post Office initially offered a pay rise of 7%, later increased to 8%. This was rejected by the UPW who demanded a package of measures including a pay rise of 15% or £3 weekly, whichever was greater, and a shortening of the age-based pay scales which restricted how much younger staff could earn. The Post Office argued that it could not afford a larger pay rise and that increased postal charges would be needed to cover increased costs. A significant rise in postage rates was already planned for February 1971.

The Post Office took steps to minimise the impact of the strike. One of these was the temporary lifting of the monopoly on delivery of letters. This allowed private operators to carry and deliver letters without breaking the law.

The strike ended at 09:00am on 8 March 1971 without any agreement on pay. Strikers had been slowly returning to work over the previous weeks and voted 14 to 1 to end the strike. A Committee of Enquiry on pay was appointed and reported in May 1971 recommending an overall pay increase of 9% backdated to 1 January 1971.

Read more about the 1971 strike in this blog from our Archivist Helen.


1988 – Incentive Schemes and Crown Post Office Closures

In 1980, the Union of Post Office Workers had become the Union of Communication Workers (UCW). On 31 August 1988, postal workers took strike action for 14 days. The strikes were the culmination of ongoing negotiation in the 1980s around incentive schemes to recruit new workers in London and the South East and proposed closures of Crown Post Offices. These are large post offices in central or city locations directly managed by the Post Office.

In this Union of Communications Workers video from 1988, Ernie Dudley claimed that over five years the union had cooperated with savings demands and saved the Post Office £125 million. He claimed these savings were being invested in other parts of the network, instead of efficiencies at Crown Post Offices.

By 5 September 1988, no post was moving in the UK except in Northern Ireland, causing huge backlogs across the country.

The New York Times reported that an agreement was reached over the weekend of 10-11 September 1988, with strike action to end on Tuesday 13 September 1988. An agreement was made to start negotiations to replace the contested incentive scheme.

However, in a motion tabled to Parliament on 30 March 1994, it was noted that 650 Crown Post Office branches had been closed since 1988.²


2007 – Postal Modernisation Plans

A coloured photo showing workers at a picket line outside a Royal Mail building. On display there is a large red banner saying the words: 'Union of Communication Workers.'

The Picket Line at Mount Pleasant, October, London, 2007

In 2007, there were ongoing conversations between the Communication Workers Union (CWU) and Royal Mail. The UCW changed its name in 1995 to the CWU after merging with National Communications Union.

These conversations focused on a 2.5% pay rise and ‘modernisation’ plans which the union claimed put 40,000 jobs at risk. Royal Mail’s position was the modernisaion plans, particularly automation, were necessary for the business to survive. Since 2006 it no longer had a monopoly on letters and was competing with private delivery services. ³

‘We are losing business because we have failed to change and modernise… If we don’t modernise, then the future for everyone in the company will start to look bleak.’ Chief Executive of Royal Mail, Adam Crozier ⁴

 

There were several strikes in 2007, though the most impactful business-wide strikes were two 48-hour strikes held on 4 to 5 October and 8 to 9 October with 130,000 participants.⁵ Although the majority of workers returned to work by late October, so called ‘wildcat strikes’ continued to cause disruption to services in London and Liverpool.⁶

An agreement was reached around pay and modernisation but this did not last long with further action in 2009.

An anti-strike poster with the headline: 'How can we compete to win? This year 20% of all our letters will be handled by the competition. But we want to bring in more and more business. We have a plan to grow new revenue - new products and services that help our customers. But we need to compete on cost as well as quality. So we can't afford more than the basic pay increase on offer. It's time to choose. Lose/lose or Win/win.'

Internal Royal Mail Poster, 2007


2009 – Job Security and Modernisation

A squeezy 'stress toy' pillar box and a fridge magnet branded by the CWU, 2009

A squeezy ‘stress toy’ pillar box and a fridge magnet branded by the CWU, 2009

Dissatisfaction over modernisation continued into more industrial action in 2009. There were four national 1-day strikes in October, following several strikes through the year over changes to employment terms and conditions. The CWU said these were done without proper negotiation and agreement. Royal Mail claimed all changes were within the the pay and modernisation agreement reached after the 2007 strikes.

After these four 24-hour stoppages took place, an interim agreement was reached which meant that no more strikes could happen while a longer-term deal was negotiated for modernisation roll outs in 2010 onwards.

The then Business Secretary Lord Mandelson said, after the interim agreement was reached, that it was:

‘…important that both sides now keep talking about the next phase of modernisation which is vital for the company’s future. Strikes do nothing to help Royal Mail, its business, its future prospects and of course the jobs and livelihoods of those who work in Royal Mail’. ⁷


2022 – Inflation and Pay

Through the summer of 2022, the UK has had strike action across sectors. Postal strikes could be the biggest strikes of the year to date. Over 115,000 CWU members are set to strike on four dates in August and September, following a ballot for strike action that saw 97.6% of CWU members vote for in favour, with a 77% turnout on the vote.

On 18 August 2022, CWU members voted for further action over working conditions with 99% of members voting in favour of action, with a 72% turnout.

Royal Mail have said they offered a 5.5% pay rise for CWU workers. The CWU contested this and rejected this offer. At the time of writing, inflation is at a 40-year high. It remains to be seen what the outcome of strike action will be!


Look out for more on our blog over the next two weeks on the history of postal strikes in the UK.

 

Notes

  1. Page 81, The history of the British post office 
  2. Parliamentary Records
  3. BBC News 
  4. https://www.eurofound.europa.eu/publications/article/2007/royal-mail-hit-by-first-national-strikes-in-a-decade
  5. Article by James Arrowsmith, University of Warwick 
  6. BBC News
  7. Article by Mark Hall, University of Warwick