Our Union – the Communications Workers’ Union (CWU) – is the product of various amalgamations and mergers over the years. The CWU can identify a strong lineage dating back from 1900
Agitation among postal staffs first began in the mid-nineteenth century. Attempts at organisation were repressed by mass dismissals and tough disciplinary measures against any suspected of being involved. Secret reporting added to the difficulties of those courageous enough to advance the workers’ cause. Nevertheless, five unions were established: the Fawcett Association, founded in 1890; United Kingdom Postal Clerks’ Association (1866); Post Office Clerks’ Association (1881), catering for clerical grades; and Postmen’s Federation (1891); and Amalgamated Engineering & Stores Association (1886), catering for manipulative and manual grades. All were active in Ireland, particularly the Postmen’s Federation.
The question of improving the onerous conditions and the Service’s military-style command structure, together with the fundamental task of improving the ‘sweated’ wages were dealt with by a series of Parliamentary Committees of Inquiry: Tweedmouth, 1897; Bradford, 1904; Hobhouse, 1907; and Holt, 1913. Postal unions presented direct evidence to these inquiries, displaying invention and well-researched argument, but also a certain deference to their employers. None of the unions had rules enabling strike action so, although the post office heard the increasingly loud barks of the workers’ dogs, they were secure in the knowledge that they would never bite! From 1905, the Postmaster General granted formal recognition to post office unions but the Department still maintained a distant, delaying and, sometimes, openly contemptuous attitude to the workers’ representations.
After the Tweedmouth Commission, the position of Dual Worker was created. They were trained, simultaneously, as Sorting Clerks and Telegraphists, and were introduced to overcome staff shortages. They quickly became an exploited group with promised transfer to permanent status never fulfilled. In Ireland, where exploitation seemed worse, the first Irish-based postal union was formed in November 1900 among Dublin Sorting Clerks & Telegraphists (SC&Ts) – the Dual Workers’ Association (DWA). It started with 100 members but had an ambition to become the ‘sole Home Association’. By their first conference, in Dublin in 1903, they had absorbed the Irish membership of the Fawcett Association and had a Cork branch. Their motive was not particularly nationalistic – they simply believed that conditions for Irish postal workers were worse than those in Britain and were best dealt with by an Irish-based organisation. From 1903, they produced a fine monthly journal, the Dual Workers’ Guardian. ‘Printed on Irish Paper’, the Guardian claimed it ‘guaranteed to have the largest circulation in Ireland of any Service Organ published in the United Kingdom’. It certainly impacted on other civil service unions and established a long-standing achievement of Irish postal trade unionism, its ability to lead and influence industrial and political opinion for all public servants.
The DWA assiduously gathered information regarding pay and conditions, and fearlessly put forward claims for improvements. They published their submissions, as in 1904, when a special Guardian, outlined the DWA’s demand for improvement in the scandalously low wages. This activity attracted new members and, in 1904, with sixteen branches in all major centres, the union changed its title to the Association of Irish Post Office Clerks (AIPOC). Their paper, the Irish Postal & Telegraph Guardian, now being printed not just on Irish paper but also with Irish ink!
The AIPOC developed close fraternal links with British unions, both within Ireland and across the channel, particularly the Postmen’s Federation. They gave direct evidence to Parliamentary Committees but relied on their British colleagues to represent their claims at the National Joint Committee. The AIPOC lobbied MPs, Dublin’s Lord Mayor and other well-known figures to address the crowds, such was the AIPOC’s success in persuading public opinion of its cause.
AIPOC pioneer figures were B.C. Bergin, George Hurley and John Normile, courageous men who risked their employment. All Officers and Executive members were unpaid and made huge personal sacrifices in running what was now a significant national body. Women were well represented – particularly in Dublin Telephones. Lucy Lawrenson addressed mass rallies in the Mansion House, pioneering public activity for women. The union sought ‘equal pay for equal work’ from 1910, a demand decades in advance of the battle for equal pay in the 1960s and 1970s.
AIPOC activity until 1914 was a slow round of memoranda to the Department, lobbying and organising, mundane but essential activity that built the union and developed the trade union consciousness. The Executive became more and more aware of the wastefulness of sectionalism, openly campaigning for an ‘All Grades’ Irish union. The dislocation of war and the continuous rise in the cost of living focused attention elsewhere. Energy was put into securing War Bonuses and preventing discriminatory application of these bonuses in Ireland.
The Easter Rising divided AIPOC members. Loyalty to the ‘Service’ and the fact that many post office employees had army backgrounds generated ambiguous attitudes. After 1916, however, a more national perspective emerged and, in April 1920, the first strike of Irish postal workers took place when the AIPOC supported the General Strike to demand the release of Republican hunger strikers in Mountjoy. The union also changed its title to the Irish Postal Union (IPU) and, with the exceptions of independence, openly invited those in British postal unions to join with them.
After 1922, the Union of Post Office Workers and Post Office Engineering Union withdrew but generously supported the creation of the Irish Postal Office Workers’ Union (IPWU) and Irish Post Office Engineering Union (IPOEU). In Belfast, IPU members declined to join a British union and created the Post Office Clerks’ Association (Northern Ireland) which continued in existence until the 1960s. When the Saorstát Éireann government cut post office worker’s wages, the IPU led a threatened strike. The government appointed the Douglas Commission to investigate matters, but when they declined to implement its interim findings a postal strike took place from 10-19 September, 1922, with the IPU in a lead role.
In December, the Douglas Commission recommended increases in pay, improved conditions and various other benefits. The three Irish postal unions – the IPU, IPOWU and IPOEU – had collaborated in drafting a joint submission, discovering that they had much in common and were stronger speaking with one voice.
At conferences held on the 7-8 June, 1923, the IPU, IPOWU and IPOEU amalgamated to form the Post Office Workers’ Union (POWU), a single union for Irish Post Office employees. It was not all plain sailing. The IPU Dublin Telephones Branch and IPOEU both backed out of the merger. The Telephone members quickly rejoined, but the IPOEU remained an independent body, albeit a small and ineffective one, from 1925, most engineering grades joined the POWU. The POWU journal An Díon maintained the tradition for high-quality journalism. In 1924, William Norton, a young man born in 1900, was appointed POWU General Secretary. A giant had stepped onto the Irish labour movement stage. The POWU grew into a significant union, nationally and internationally.
Thus, less than 25 years after a handful of Dublin SC&Ts established the DWA, Irish post office workers created a united, purposeful union. It affiliated to the Irish Trade Union Congress and had a clear socialist perspective in its opposition to the reactionary policies of Cumann na nGaedheal governments.
The lessons of organisation, member involvement and clarity of purpose and action serve as reminders to CWU members that in unity there is strength. Public sector cuts, threat to employment security and worsening of conditions face today’s members. Just as those in the past consciously stood together to change and make history, history calls today’s members to demonstrate the same commitment to change the future and make their own history. Hopefully our contribution will eventually be written about with the same pride and respect as recorded here.