Wednesday 16 September 2009

Winter of discontent

The communications workers union, CWU, is balloting its members on calling for a full national postal strike. A few single days of strikes have led to between 10 and 20 million items stranded in the system. A full strike will strand many, many millions more, some for months and some will be lost forever as happened during the last strike in 2007.

The reasons for the dispute are many and varied and both sides claim the other won't 'modernise' Modernise is a good word for Lord Mandelson to discover. Its a euphemism for cuts.

Royal mail need to cut hours and staff and want postal workers to take up the slack of their axed comrades. In the private sector this is normal and happens all the time. In the Public sector it is a relatively new experience and is unwelcome.

In the last strike both sides managed to end up losers. RM observed migration of ever more of the profitable business post to royal Mail's rivals, while CWU did not manage to protect pensions for NEW memebers, cuts to hours or get a substantial pay rise.

Royal Mail are asking too much of their workers all in one go. As managers of change, facing one of the most intransigent unions around their methods leave a lot to be desired. And CWU are fighting to keep the impossible. End of salary final salary pension schemes, shorter working week, manageable workloads...?? yeah, right. We'd all like that.

A strike will further damage the business and will increase the damage to Royal Mail and its workers. RM should be doing everything in their power to avoid a strike, including government involvement. They aren't, as they do not believe CWU, after its failure to win any meaningful concessions from its last strike, can muster enough support outside of its militant mail centers for a national strike.
The government won't be drawn, having only just sighed with relief at putting their 'back of the envelope' unworkable, mail privatisation scheme into touch. The ballot, timed to coincide with the TUC conference was a reminder to the Labour Party of how much it needs the unions.
Well, the Labour Party have created the problem by deregulating the mail market five years in advance of the rest of Europe, not having a coherent strategy, incomprehensible policies {VAT advantages for Royal Mail but not other operators, but then insisting that RM deliver its rivals letters for them even at a loss,} lack of investment and insisting on unrealistic targets.
Labour have nothing to offer and do not want to get involved, despite being the only shareholder.
But they should do something. A strike that spreads to other Public sector unions will bring them down. But CWU should think long and hard about a strike. A Tory government, looking to make serious public spending cuts, and no friend of the unions could easily revive the dead privatisation plan and would likely have more than enough MPs to push through any version of it they want.

No winners in this dispute, but plenty of losers.


Old BE said...

I work for a small business and these random one day strikes are having a devastating effect on the likelihood of our ever choosing to use Royal Mail again.

As the former brick-maker said on Newsnight, they will go back to work to find there isn't any left.

Electro-Kevin said...

The Royal Mail don't really want full-time employees any more. They want casual workers and so they intend to make conditions so poor that people leave.

If I were a postie with - let's face it - nothing to lose, I'd be causing as much ruction as possible too.

BTW - did I really just get a fine for putting five sheets of A4 in an A4 envelope with a single first class stamp ?

Has my post REALLY been reduced to one delivery arriving at 13.00hrs each day ?

Have we REALLY been subject to having our local post offices closed down ?

Well actually yes.

RM directors are shit bags.

roym said...

NuLab have deliberately let the thing be run down to this shambles to make selling it off to deutch post or TNT appear to be some sort of knight in shining armour. adam crozier is on £1m+ for his efforts to boot

Bill Quango MP said...

BE. A strike is so counter productive. This is being portrayed within CWU as a 'last chance to save your union'
Its an old fashioned fight between union and management.

That fine £1 is ridiculous. The regulator should never have allowed RM to make post travel by Weight,size and THICKNESS and category. How does a pensioner know the correct size when even the PO counter clerks are required to check every single item through a size guide.

There is one delivery now. And as I understand it, final delivery time is more like 3.30pm

2500 Post Offices were closed compulsory between 2007-2008.
Maybe another 1000 have closed due to economic conditions. All the bad publicity and cuts to salaries means that now , when a Post Offices' owners wish to retire, they may be unable to find a buyer and the office closes.

Good debate on 5 live now. The best comment, from a small business user who was very clued up about both sides, told a Postman :- If you follow the union into a national strike you will end up like the miners.

Very good comparison.

Bill Quango MP said...

I don't think it was deliberate to sell it off, but the effect is just the same. Both government and opposition are desperately looking for nice assets to ebay off. Royal Mail will fetch a few quid.

Anonymous said...

"In the Public sector it is a relatively new experience and is unwelcome."

Really - so what has happened to the numbers of Postal Workers in recent years. Perhaps you should check the facts before making such broad brush statements.

Old BE said...

What's so sad is that not many years ago the Mail provided a good service at a reasonable price and made a profit. HMG took the profit rather than let it be reinvested in the business, screwed up the implementation of the EU policy and let people like Leighton and Crozier run the show. What is going on now is an inevitable result.

BUT the unions are their members' worst enemies because these strikes will be the death of the Mail as we know it.

Bill Quango MP said...

I assume you refer to RM's claim of 40,000 reduction in numbers, which I wouldn't dispute.

The point I was making is that in the Private sector a reduction in staff instantly means the workload is increased for those that remain and no extra money is given for it.
Probably a pay cut. Unions like members to be rewarded for extra work.

Postal workers have had cuts to numbers and increases to hours but only relatively recently.

The regulator said in 2001

"More than 120,000 jobs at the Royal Mail are under imminent threat unless changes are made"
{Actually the regulator said much more damming things that we won't repeat}

Bill Quango MP said...

BE: You are correct. But not just NuLab - all governments.
The same in the rest of Europe too.
In France the government has just approved a part-privatisation bill for La Poste which the French government say would fund modernisation allowing them to compete for full liberisation in 2011. La Poste has done well out of Euro mails integration since 2006. Where did that extra profit go?

French unions are going to fight it all the way.
Denmark and Sweden have merged their postal operators, Lithuania has had to fully privatise theirs.

In the USA, which has done the same profit taking, pension unfunding as here, they are seriously considering only a five day a week service to reduce the billions dollar deficit.

I think that's a good idea. Weekends mail volumes are much much lower than even just a few years ago.

Philipa said...

Excellent post, BQ.

I agree with Blue's point too.

A Tory government, looking to make serious public spending cuts, and no friend of the unions could easily revive the dead privatisation plan and would likely have more than enough MPs to push through any version of it they want. No winners in this dispute, but plenty of losers.

Chillingly prescient.

Old BE said...

"I agree with Blue's point too"

There has to be a first time for everything! ;-)

Philipa said...

I had to have a lie down.

James Higham said...

balloting its members on calling for a full national postal strike

Would it make any difference? It's so inefficient anyway.

Bill Quango MP said...

Thanks. + I saw your comments on Iain Dale.

James Higham.
It is inefficient but it does get 96% of 1st class mail delivered before 12pm next day.
Even allowing for a little fakery of the figures 90% would compete with any other mail carrier in the world.

A bit more imagination, a bit less regulation and a one off investment sum would go a long way to sorting their problems.

A point I was trying, {unsuccessfully it seems} to make earlier about private vs public is in attitude and expectation.

A postal worker finishes their route and then goes home. This has long been the practice. A cashier at Sainsburys cannot see nobody queuing and so go home. The supervisors will soon find some other work if no customers are present. This is standard practice.
Tesco expect a 4 hour shift to mean 4 hours of actual work.So do most employers.

RM are now trying to bring that attitude in. That is a hard change to make. Workers genuinely feel that they are now being asked to do more for less, rather than having been paid too much for too little in the past.

Thud said...

I'm decamping for my winter sojurn to California in a week or so...things here are about to get ugly.

Steven_L said...

A couple of years ago I worked on the phone in one of the big mobile phone companies, during the last big postal strike.

Customers would complain about not receiving their bills, I would point them in the direction of online billing and our boradband service, pointing out we unfortunately still had to deal with the BT monopoly over the last mile of copper leading to their house.

No one ever raised any questions of 'worker solidarity' or any other such nonsense on the issue, most of them agreed to go and look into online billing.

I've enjoyed watching the TUC on BBC Parliament, it's always good viewing and I admire their spirit, they seem to be the only lobby group with ND on clean coal too. But they don't half spend 75% of the time digging their own graves.

Nick Drew said...

only lobby group with ND on clean coal

I know what you mean Steven

(you'd think the potential clean coal power-generators could use all the friends they can get: comically, the sector is riven with rivalry between the different clean coal technologies ! but hey, competition, it's what capitalism is all about)

Philipa said...

You're very welcome, BQ. I thought Dale a little trite in his approach, although there were some good comments from contributors.