Kieran’s Our City, Our Town Article,
Cork Independent, 21 February 2019
Tales from 1919: A Postal Service in Debate
Before the advent of the First World War 250,000 people were employed in the British Postal Service. At the end of the 1917, 75,000 employees were released by the Postal Service for war service. By February 1919 despite the war being over rebuilding the employee base of the postal service was difficult. One hundred years ago, on Sunday afternoon 16 February 1919, a mass meeting of the Irish various associations representing Post Office employees was held in the Council Chamber in Cork City Hall. The Chamber was thronged with people.
The meeting aimed to articulate claims for increased wages and better working conditions, which were being put forward by the various executives. It was the first occasion of which the several federations in the service made conjoined demands. The details of the debate were published in the Cork Examiner in the days that followed. Concerns about temporary contracts, the minimum wage, equal pay for men and women and child labour all came up for discussion. There were several resolutions passed, the content of which, would take several more years and decades to come to fruition.
Opening the debate, the Chairman, Mr E Cussen expressed regret that representatives of some of the associations were anxious to be present and speak at the meeting but were laid up with influenza. He then asked the crowd, “If there is to be reconstruction in the Post Office, did they wish to have things rebuilt in the old order of things, or did they not desire something new and something more perfect?”. He outlined the various social, political, and economic changes taking place as a result of the war and dwelt on the effect of these changes on what he called the “democracy of the world”.
Mr Cussen emphasised the principle that “one class should not grow rich on the exploited labour of the other, and that the meeting claimed self-determination not in a political sense, but in the right to determine the conditions in which they gave their labour”. He continued that as employers of a great public service the employer should continue to take their place by the side of the general workers in the matter of improvement of wages and general conditions. Those present at the meeting, he highlighted, had no desire to go beyond the claims of the general workers, but they were not going to lag behind.
Mr J D Donovan of the Irish Association of Post Office Clerks (AIPOC) proposed a resolution about a wage increase; “That this mass meeting of Post Office employees demands an immediate general increase of permanent wages of not less than 150 per cent over pre-war rate, with an absolute minimum adult wage of 50s per week, and equal pay for men and women”. He pointed out that despite the complexity and work placed on all members of the services, the conditions, relatively speaking, were not much improved from those obtaining in pre-war days. The resolution was seconded and unanimously adopted.
Mr Whelan of the Postmen’s Federation moved a motion to reduce the varying long working hour week; “That this mass meeting of Post Office employees urges the various staff associations to press for shorter working hours generally in all branches, of the service, and the abolition of split duties except, for the usual mid-day meal interval”. He quoted instances to prove that instead of 43 hours a week, in some branches of the service, noticeably some postmen, had a working week of 72 hours. Mr J McGann of the AIPOC seconded the resolution and outlined the conditions of child labour in the Post Office – as long as 50 hours a week being demanded in addition to four hours in school attendance.
On the proposition of a Mr Britt, a resolution was adopted urging the executives of the various associations to press their demand for the adoption by the Department of the “principles of joint control”, recommended by the Whitley Committee. In 1917, to make sure that worker and industrial relations were kept positive during the war, the Deputy Speaker of the House of Commons John Henry Whitley chaired a committee that produced a report on the Relations of Employers and Employees. He proposed a system of regular formal consultative meetings, which became known as the Whitley Councils. The Councils were created due to the establishment of the Shop Stewards Movement. The Councils aimed to put in place effective arbitration mechanisms.
Mr D Kennefick of the Engineering and Stores Association, in seconding Mr Britt’s resolution, stated that at a conference of Post Office engineering staffs a resolution to press for the adoption of the Whitley Report had been carried by 10,000 to 200 votes, illustrating the strong support of Post Office employees in relation to the report and Whitley Councils.
Mr John McAuley (Supervising Officers’ Association) detailed the hardships suffered by men who had given long and faithful service, and who would now have to struggle to make ends meet on a pension of half their pre-war value with a purchasing value of less than a quarter of their wages on retirement. He also demanded that any adjustment of pensions should be retrospective over the war period. Overall, the City Hall meeting lasted several hours with more questions than answers emerging.
Missed a column last year, check out the indices at Kieran’s heritage website, www.corkheritage.ie
Kieran is also showcasing some of the older column series on the River Lee on his heritage facebook page at the moment, Cork Our City, Our Town.
985a. GPO Cork, c. 1910 from K McCarthy & Dan Breen’s Cork City Through Time (2012)
985b. Present day GPO, Oliver Plunkett Street, Cork (picture: Kieran McCarthy)