Abstract: Mechanizing the Mail: Technological Change and Industrial Relations in the Post-War British Post Office

Peter Sutton

Abstract

After the Second World War the British Post Office initiated a long-term project aimed at replacing manual sorting with a mechanized system based on sorting machines and postcodes. This culminated in the "Letter Post Plan," drawn up in 1969, which proposed a radical reshaping of the postal network around a new breed of mechanized sorting offices. The implementation of the plan was severely disrupted following a national postal strike in 1971 and the subsequent withdrawal of union cooperation, and has been strongly criticised as a result. However, new evidence suggests that such criticisms mischaracterize the Post Office's record of managing technological change. In this paper some of the key developments of the British effort to mechanize the mail are summarized, and special emphasis is placed on the political dimensions of research and development and how industrial relations considerations influenced the Post Office's planning process. The paper concludes that the planning was characterized by a corporate approach that led to technically accomplished and politically constructive outcomes, and that the highly publicized disputes over the new technology were due more to external socioeconomic forces than to internal mismanagement.