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1971 Postal & Telecommunications Members’ Struggle & Strike

By Sean Ryan, CWU Retired Member

Our union’s history is rich and varied. However, as with most things in life, the tides of time tend to erase the memories and potentially diminish the sacrifice and courage of our members in years gone by. None more so than the historic struggles of members who took part in the first Post Office official national strike in 1971.

In 2021 we celebrate the 50th anniversary of this titanic battle, waged as it was, at the time, against a Government who hated the concept of public ownership of the postal and telecommunications sector, (sound familiar?) and was determined to drive down pay and conditions of its workforce, which at that time numbered almost 230,000.

From my perspective, and in talking to heroes involved in that campaign, I believe that one of the major failings of both the then UPW executive, (and some prominent activists) and the Government was that they all simply failed to read the signs of increasing resentment of in-work poverty, and long, long hours that members of all grades were expected to perform, in return for employment in the Post Office and to attain a living wage.

The situation was untenable. Members and their families had heard enough, worked enough, suffered poverty pay for long enough. It was time to stand up and fight for a fair share and they were in the mood to fight long and hard to achieve it. And so, at the spring conference in 1970, delegates mandated the union to achieve several pay-related “no strings” attached awards, including a 15 per cent straight pay increase.

In talking to heroes of that time, I am reminded that many hard-line activists felt they were not being taken seriously, and that they were simply paid lip service. I cannot of course, substantiate that – others involved, upon reading this, may or may not, confirm this – but it may account for what some believed, was a strike at the wrong time, without proper planning, and without the financial support in place that strikers would require in a dispute that was inevitably going to be lengthy.

The reader may also wish to reflect on the fact that this strike became, at that time, the longest, and the best supported (nearly 90 per cent of UPW balloted membership initially took strike action) and the most widespread UK strike since 1926.

Additionally, whilst members were understandably unhappy (to put it mildly) with the eventual outcome of the strike, it needs to be remembered that, as a consequence, what followed were above-inflation pay increases in the ensuing years and a major climb down by the Tory Government on anti-trade union laws. primarily attacking at that time the concept of the “closed shop.” This, coupled with a board of inquiry into pay and conditions of Post Office staff was seen as a positive step forward.

This, of course, was given scant regard by many members who saw any “gains” as minimal and were, for many years after, in unforgiving mood.

This, however, should not overshadow the efforts of so many members and activists whose individual and collective sacrifices enabled the UPW, and subsequently the UCW and present day CWU, to be feared and respected in equal measure by both the employer and governments of the day.

Whilst it can be reasoned that the 1971 strike fell on some of its initial aims, the legacy it created became the cornerstone of the principle of recognition that the union represents not only the views and aspirations of the membership, but that it demands from employers and governments levels of consultation and agreements that are unquestionably the envy of every trade union big or small in the UK.

This could only have been achieved, and built upon, because of the selflessness of activists whose personal sacrifices during that strike, should, and must be always remembered.

One such hero of that time was a late friend of mine, Ron Brown – I relate for the reader his recall of the strike – and who, in later years became a mentor, and long-time comrade of mine.

Ron was someone who sought no personal attention, save supporting and encouraging those who wished to serve the union more fully.

A very reserved man, Ron had firm principles, but did not, despite his demeanour, suffer fools gladly. Having a wicked and dry turn of phrase, he had no time for those who chose the union path for self-advancement, referring to them as “chancers and gobshites”. It was only recently during conversations about what we always termed “the strike” that he told me of what he termed “duty” during and after the 1971 strike.

He was an extremely shy man, the opposite of the public perception of a union official, married with three very young children when the strike commenced, he volunteered to do picket duty. Typically Ron, as a lay member at the time, spoke to the committee and it was agreed that he would act as “picket master” and try to formulise picket attendance where possible.

An added difficulty was that he had recently moved and this involved close to two hours of travel subject to the travel contingencies of the time. Additionally, cost was a factor, he could ill afford the daily commute and so, typically declining an offer from the committee to meet some of the travel cost, he approached the landlord of the Penny Black public house (as all good post persons would!), who agreed to let the committee have use of a phone and a room upstairs (which I, and others used as strike HQ for many years after).

The landlord provided blankets for him to sleep on the floor and sandwiches every morning, and Ron stayed there for the entire duration of the strike including weekends. Sometimes, as he remarks, it became a challenge trying to man two or three gates at a time, but he said he “just got on with it.”

He then became the focal point for information to members seeking updates on the strike. He attended with others, the weekly meetings at either Hyde Park or Friends House Meeting Hall in the Euston Road, walking as he did, to either venue, in all weathers.

Ron told of how his wife, Joyce, contacted him in a state of panic, as constant hand delivered letters from the bank were arriving at the door. The manager had summoned him to a meeting, expressing concern that several mortgage payments had not been met, despite several reminders.

He chose to ignore these, not through spite or arrogance – he was just frightened to be faced with being told to return to work or lose the family home. The following week (Week Five of the strike) was when his worst fears were realised. The bank wrote to say it was foreclosing on the property and that Ron had incurred bank charges running into several hundred pounds.

Ron met the bank manager and, although sympathetic, the manager informed him that steps would be taken to foreclose on the property and that before this took place, the bank was required to inform him of this formally and in writing by registered post for which he would be required to sign for.

By a delicious irony, Ron did not receive that letter because of the strike and, in a second stroke of good fortune, the strike was called off at the very point that the bank had lost patience and was about to revert to the courts for recovery.

I asked Ron recently what he would have done had things gone the other way. He said his wife would have supported him no matter what, and that he would have hoped to have had the courage to have stayed out, regardless of the threat.

I wonder how many of us would have had the courage to arrive at the same conclusion.

He rarely mentioned his role in the strike, simply saying, like others I have spoken too, that they were led by those wiser voices, both from other offices nationally, and of course in the London area, at the London District Council meetings and felt a certain pride that they had stood and once sat amongst them.

There was a deep sadness as I wrote of this courageous and unassuming man, when I received a call from his son John to say Ron had become victim to Covid and had passed away last December. I am deeply sorry. He was a special comrade and a kind human being. His family had requested that I record his activities and his efforts during the strike and I am proud to do so, but even prouder to record his achievements and sacrifice that epitomised that of thousands of postal workers during that dispute and since.

These former members and activists and the ever-smaller number who are still active in the union today epitomise the spirit of the time. The bravery of men and women like them deserve to be mentioned as heroes because heroes they were, and are.

We can only hope to emulate them in the struggles to come.

Finally, I leave you with the following words from Tom Jackson who, regardless of your view of him, led this union on members’ instruction, through what was at that time, the longest-running national strike since 1926.

I hope that in time, we may judge him more fairly than in the past, I fully understand the hardship and bitterness that the 1971 strike caused – God knows, like every branch secretary after that time, I was reminded of that dispute as soon as I wanted to “deliver” something other than the mail for many years after!

So, in ending, let Tom Jackson have the final word – this, his address, laced with bitterness to the TUC General Congress at the conclusion of the dispute.

“This brings me to the worst feature of British trade unionism. I have no doubt that it will be possible to weld together an army of the weak. But will the industrially strong sink their identity into such an alliance? Or will the prosecution of power-backed, sectional, self-interest be more attractive? The TUC is no stronger than the unions allow it to be. We must learn the lesson that, without a united movement, only a few of us can make advances. Some of us have learned this the hard way.”


Sean Ryan,

Retired Member

Proud to have served in the finest, and one of the only, remaining trade unions, that dedicates itself to the defence of its members, and to the service of citizens in the UK, not merely by words or deeds, but when necessary, by individual and collective action, regardless of the sacrifice, regardless of the task, and regardless of the forces reigned against us. SR

The Great Post Office Strike of 1971

By Dave Chapple

“Here lies the body of Postman Sid: he could not exist on fourteen quid!”

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

The 15th 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 PHGs (Postmen Higher Grade), members of the Union of Post Office Workers, 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 November 24th 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 January 20th!

Militant day telephonists at the Bristol UPW Rally in the Colston Hall, January 1971. Image: 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 24th 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, 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”, ie. 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!”  Image: Dave Chapple

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 January 16th, 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 ASTMS members (‘Left-winger’ Clive Jenkins union) who staffed the Telex Service to strike in sympathy. POMSA, the Post Office Management Staff Association, 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, 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, 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 23rd 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 March 3rd 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 5 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. Image: 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, John Weal on behalf of the International Marxist Group, 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 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 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 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, “Difficult Recruitment Area Supplements,” 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 at