As news circulates of more than 115,000 postal workers being balloted to vote on industrial action, Archivist Helen looks back at the 1971 postal strike.

On 20 January 1971 members of the Union of Post Office Workers (UPW) went on strike over pay. This was the first national postal strike in Great Britain. The strike continued until 8 March 1971 making it the longest strike since the General Strike of 1926. What caused the strike and what was the impact on the public and businesses?

A black and white photograph of a group of people close together marching along a street. They are holding a banner with text ‘Union of Post Office Workers Bristol Branch’. To the right of the image are iron railings and in the background there is the sign for a shop called ‘Davenports’.

UPW Bristol Branch strike march, February 1971 © Dave Chapple

In January 1971, the Post Office had been a corporation for 15 months. This meant that the negotiations regarding the 1971 pay rise were the first to be conducted under Corporation status. The new status meant that the Post Office was expected to operate as a financially competitive business without Government support. It also limited the amount of direct control the Government could exert over the negotiations and resolution of the dispute.

Negotiations

The Post Office initially offered a pay rise of 7%, which later increased to 8%. This was rejected by the UPW who demanded a package of measures which included 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 asked the UPW to go to arbitration, but the UPW would not participate as they believed the process would not be impartial.

Rally of postal workers, 1971 © Dave Chapple

The Post Office argued that it could not afford a larger pay rise and that increased postal charges would be required to cover the increased costs. A significant rise in postage rates was already planned for February 1971, and a further rise could result in lost businesses which would damage the Post Office’s viability.

In response, the UPW situated their claim alongside pay awards in other sectors. The UPW argued that agricultural workers had received an increase of 16%, municipal workers had received increases ranging from 16% to 18% and miners had received 12% with a £3 a week minimum for lower paid workers.

A Post Office Press and Broadcast notice with red header and white text. The body of the notice sets out the Post Office offer of a 7% pay rise for over 230 00 workers. It discusses the UPW claim for 15% or £3 per week, whichever was greater and claims this would cost the Post Office over £50 million a year. The notice continues to discuss the case in more detail.

Post Office Press Notice about the offer to UPW, 8 January 1971 (POST 108/168)

At this time, the Post Office had control of most communication networks in the country. In addition to a monopoly on letter post, the Post Office controlled telecommunications and was responsible for the payment of benefits such as pensions and family allowance. In an age before mobile telephones, email, and social media, a strike of Post Office staff had far reaching implications.

Private postal services

The Post Office took steps to try 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. By 31 January 1971, the Sunday Telegraph was reporting that several private enterprise postal services were beginning to break down. Other provisions included allowing benefits to be collected from the nearest open post office (many sub post offices and some Crown post offices remained open) and ensuring the ongoing ability to call the emergency services on 999.

A white envelope with a label in the top right-hand corner. The label has a green winged horse standing on its back legs. Text reads ‘Pegasus. 30p. Postal Strike. 1971’. The envelope is addressed to ‘Messrs Lloyds Bank. Sloane Square. London. SW3’. It has been marked ‘Delivered 15 Feb 1971.

An example of mail sent using private postal services during the strike (SP03)

Both the Post Office and the UPW sought to ensure public support. The Post Office focussed on the ‘hardship for pensioners, widows, and mothers depending on family allowances’, and the efforts the Post Office would make to minimise the impact. Meanwhile, the UPW used personal stories to explain the pay and conditions of named postal staff.

An advert with headshots of three staff members: Albert Edmondson (postman), Jenny Merritt (telephonist), and Ian Moyes (counter clerk). The advert details their current pay and working hours and what the Post Office offer would mean for them. At the bottom of the advert text reads ‘This is not a strike against the general public’.

Advert placed by the UPW to gain public support for the strike, 1971 (POST 65/232)

New currency

To further complicate matters the strike was ongoing when decimal currency was introduced on 15 February 1971. The introduction of a new currency was a major challenge for the Post Office. New stamps and postal stationery were required (and higher postage rates were also introduced), coin boxes in telephone kiosks needed updating, and staff needed training. It was expected that sub postmasters and their staff could be trained, and Crown office staff had completed some training. However, the reopening of all post offices at the end of the strike was delayed to allow time for all required decimalisation training to be completed.

A Post Office Press and Broadcast notice with red header and white text. The body of the notice states that the Post Office will go over to decimal currency on 15 February 1971 despite the delay to the programme caused by the strike. It sets out provisions for the closure of post offices to prepare for the change over.

Post Office press notice about the Post Office’s commitment to decimalisation of 15 February 1971, dated 9 February 1971 (POST 108/168)

By 14 February 1971, it was clear that the strike was causing hardship not only to the public and the Post Office but to the strikers themselves. The UPW had received funding from several other unions but some of this was in the form of loans. A month into the strike the UPW was facing a difficult financial situation. At a meeting with the Post Office the General Secretary of the UPW, Tom Jackson, stated

‘It was common ground that the strike was causing inconvenience and hardship. It had now gone on for four weeks, and the Post Office should realise that the longer it lasted the more difficult it would be to achieve a settlement. The attitude of his membership was hardening and bitterness was increasing daily.’

 

The Post Office indicated its willingness to increase its offer but only if it was linked to a general productivity agreement. The UPW were not willing to accept that but adjusted their demand to 13%.

Black and white photograph of an older white male sat at a desk. The desk and person are at an angle to the camera. The man’s dark hair is receding, and he has a handlebar moustache. He is wearing a dark suit, white striped shirt, and a pale tie.

Tom Jackson, General Secretary of the UPW, 1982 (POST 118/14050)

Return to work

From mid-February 1971, the Post Office was planning for the end of the strike. It acknowledged that a period of a day or two would be required for staff to re-establish themselves. It was also clear that there should be no victimisation – either of strikers or non-strikers. The Post Office Board Emergency Committee on 19 February 1971 stated

‘firm but wise and humanitarian management was essential in the early days following a resumption.’

 

The letter monopoly was reinstated on the first day of return to work, as were collections and deliveries. There was a grace period for mail posted at the old tariff. It was clear that there would be backlogs, both of mail in the system when the strike began, and mail awaiting the end of the strike for posting, but the priority was to get back to normal service as soon as possible.

A typescript document reading ‘Agreement between the Post Office and the Union of Post Office Workers to terminate on 8 March 1971 industrial action taken by the UPW in the current Post Office dispute. The agreement consists of: Proposed terms of reference for a Court of Enquiry into the Post Office Dispute which are acceptable to both the Post Office and to the Union of Post Office Workers; a supplementary resumption agreement.

Return to work agreement between the Post Office and the Union of Post Office Workers, March 1971 (POST 65/200)

The strike ended at 09:00 on 8 March 1971 without any agreement on pay. Strikers had been slowly returning to work over the previous few 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. It also recommended: a reduction in the regular working of excessive overtime; drawing up a programme of productivity measures with the unions and reviewing means to link pay to productivity, and supported broad objectives of scale shortening and suggest they be reached over the next two years. The strike was estimated to have cost the Post Office £4 million and resulted in the loss of over 5 million working days.


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