1970s >> 1971 >> no-800-april-1971

The Post Office strike

   A participant looks at the recent strike from a Socialist viewpoint

“Even strikes,” Engels wrote in 1892, “were now found out to be occasionally very useful, especially when provoked by the masters themselves, at their own time”. (Preface to the Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844).
We are not of course suggesting that the Post Office so bungled its labour relations as to deliberately provoke 200,000 of its employees organised in the Union of Post Office Workers (UPW) to strike for seven weeks but, as we shall see, the Post Office did gain something. Postmen, counter clerks, telephone and telegraph operators are not noted for their industrial militancy. Until October 1969 when the Post Office changed from a government department to a public corporation (or nationalised industry) its employees enjoyed civil service status. Their unions had no strike funds and civil service procedures (Whitley Councils) largely governed the scope of their trade union activity. But it was not this change in the status of the Post Office alone which produced a fighting spirit in its workers. Rather was this due to changes that had taken place generally which also necessitated a new set-up at the Post Office. On the one hand, once effective civil service procedures seem to have become too cumbersome for the task of transforming the Post Office to meet the future needs of capitalism. On the other hand, the fringe benefits going to petty civil servants had become largely irrelevant in times of relatively full employment and inflation. A secure job loses its attraction when there is plenty of better-paid work around. A pension is not worth much whilst inflation reduces its purchasing power. The only advantage, and a dubious one at that, is that for some there is plenty of overtime. The new Post Office set-up threatens the old security of employment with nothing to compensate for its loss.

The operative grades in the Post Office officially have only two unions to represent their interests, the UPW and POEU (Post Office Engineering Union). This contrasts with the motor industry where twenty or so unions are operating. Nevertheless, in the case of the UPW, the only thing that unites counter-clerks, postmen, cleaners, telephone and telegraph operators and various other grades is that they are members of the one union. The divisions among “colleagues” are well illustrated by the case of the telephone operators in the overseas exchanges in London. There are men and women, international and continental, English and French speaking operators. These differences may be permutated to produce numerous conflicts and no unity in the face of the one employer. The dayshift is operated by women and the nightshift by men. Some men felt this necessitated a separate organisation to look after their interests. For 40 years the National Guild of Telephonists (NGT) competed with the UPW for the loyalties of male telephone operators in Britain. Attempts were made to merge the two unions following the change of Post Office status. A substantial number of NGT members refused to follow the recommendation of their executive. The Post Office withdrew recognition from the NGT in September, and 10,000 or so bitter opponents of the UPW sought to keep their organisation alive with a new executive and new national officers. That the Post Office Board Member for Industrial Relations, Sir Richard Hayward, was a former UPW man and that the UPW made little effort to conceal the ambition to do away with its rival, gave NGT members some reason to suspect that, as they might put it, a deal had been cooked up between the two to the detriment of the male telephonist. In their view, the UPW exists to serve the interests of postmen alone; the UPW would thus sell out the telephonists who are only a minority in that union in exchange for agreements favourable to the postmen.

The NGT also argue that the Post Office could economise on the telephone service by having it operated by women only. There is some truth in this. Although theoretically there is equal pay for men and women, there are differential pay scales according to age and experience that make it cheaper in practice to employ women. A girl of 16 must wait until she has worked at the Post Office 12 years before earning the full rate as a telephone operator. Male operators, as night workers, must be 21 or over. A man or woman of 21 has seven years to wait before getting the full rate. Anyone starting at the age of 25 or over has three years to wait. The tendency has been for men to become telephonists late in their working lives (though this may be changing) whilst women take it up in their teens. NGT members’ worst fears were confirmed when last September they took strike action in an attempt to regain recognition. Women volunteers worked through the night with no UPW intervention by either male or female representatives to prevent this blatant strike breaking. This incidentally, is one reason why the NGT helped to break the recent UPW strike.

Another union was formed among overseas telegraph operators dissatisfied with the UPW. This was the TWU (Telecommunications Workers Union). Its founders aimed to set up one union to cover both technicians and operators in telecommunications, not only in the Post Office but outside as well. They reasoned that, as automation increased, more and more of the work done by Post Office operators would be handled by operators on the private switchboards of industrial and commercial concerns. At the same time the maintenance technicians would become more vital to the whole system. Hence all these workers should organise into one Union catering for their interests. This grand scheme came to an end during the recent strike.

On October 30, the UPW put in its pay-claim. Their journal The Post described it:

  The claim is in three parts. First, a 15 per cent increase. Secondly, a minimum increase of £3 for all our members who are at their maximum and, thirdly, substantial reductions in the incremental scale. (November 7)

and went on:

Our claim is just and fair and ought to be satisfied in negotiation during these next two months.

Two months went by and The Post of January 16 had these headlines: 7 per cent or 8 per cent — nowhere near enough. So much for fair and just claims.

 

On Wednesday January 20 the strike started. It ended on Monday March 8 with no advance on the 8 per cent, but a public enquiry into the working and finances of the Post Office.

 

This was a clear victory for the employer. If the whole business had been executed according to carefully laid down plans by the Post Office, it could not have gone better for them. The timing was right; the Christmas rush was over. The strike proved pretty lucrative to the Post Office in that the right people scabbed. For although the postmen were almost all on strike, this was not so with the telephonists. About half of the male and female operators continued working. The Times under the heading Postal Strike leads to large gains for Telephone and Telex wrote:

 

  The number of daytime calls being handled by the telephone services since the start of the postal strike has risen by up to 30 per cent, with a 50 per cent increase in the volume of traffic during the cheap rate period . . . International subscriber dialing to Europe was up by 20 per cent since the start of the strike and traffic to the United States had increased by 40 per cent . . . Telex, both nationally and internationally has been under very heavy pressure and with traffic increase running at 20 per cent . . . (10 February)

 

Later on, the benefit to the Post Office was to be confirmed by the Minister of Posts and Telecommunications. Loss on post was £500,000 rising to £700,000 per week. As for telephones, the following exchange took place in the House of Commons on February 15:

  Mr. Barnes — What is the additional level of dialed telephone calls as a result of the strike? What extra revenue was produced?
Mr. Chataway (The Minister) — The Post Office has made clear that there has been a substantial increase and there will have been a consequent increase of revenue . . . But with that there will have been increased costs, but there is no doubt on balance the Post Office has benefited.

 

No doubt cost-conscious executives must have got more ideas on streamlining the telephone service from the strike than they ever got from the enquiry made by outside efficiency experts. The telecomunications side has a bright, that is profitable, future. Not so the postal side. A postal strike is just the thing to show off the superiority of telephones and telex. It must be a Post Office accountant’s dream to see postal losses being turned into telecommunication profits. Lastly, it turned out well for the Post Office that the UPW ran into financial difficulties and ended the strike early enough to save the Giro system from an aggravation of its serious difficulties.

 

The strike altered nothing insofar as the employer/ employee relationship goes. The employer always has the upper hand, even if the workers gain their full demands. It is not enough to be loyal to a union; both the UPW and the NGT lost and the employer won. It is not enough to have grand schemes for organising workers as the TWU had; some of them struck and others scabbed and their schemes evaporated when put to the test. POEU members continued to work and the sub post offices stayed open. Whilst it is true that the employer divides and rules; the workers seem all too ready to be divided. What is now lacking is the knowledge amongst all trade unionists that as workers they have a common interest that overrides all their petty differences. The factor that now hinders the workers’ industrial struggles is also the major obstacle to their engaging in useful political activity. The day cannot come too soon when all workers see beyond the limitations of trade unionism and move on to engage in the political struggle for Socialism.

 

Operator