Postal tipping point

Tick tock tick tock. Time is moving on. Change is about to catch up with the Royal Mail. What worries me about the postal strike is that the men and women striking now are so poorly led (I might say ‘misled’). Their doctrinaire and backward leadership is taking them up a blind alley.

Postal workers are dangerously underestimating the damage the strike is doing – to their own cause and to their own industry. Maybe it’s understandable. We all lack perspective when looking at our own lives, our own circumstances. But this is why I’m so disappointed in the Communications Unions‘ leadership during the dispute.

Their job is to provide that perspective, to use their not inconsiderable resources to keep the membership informed, to explain to them what’s happening in business, in communications, in the world. Postmen and women go to work in a 200 year-old business with a venerable and apparently solid infrastructure. They work hard, many in ways essentially unchanged in 50 or more years. They’re to be forgiven if they simply don’t see their vulnerability to change.

Every day, though, dozens, hundreds, thousands of businesses and households are deliberately if reluctantly scaling back their reliance on the mail. The office I’m sitting in now is highly dependent on inbound and outbound movement of goods and information. As I write, people around me in the office are planning to move more of the company’s shipping to alternate platforms – permanently.

Much is made these days of ‘tipping points’. There’s a reasonable chance that this strike will turn out (when looking back from a suitable vantage point in the future) to have been the Royal Mail’s tipping point, the moment after which nothing can be done to stop the decline turning into a collapse. And if I’m right it will be the fault of the postal workers’ blinkered leadership.

Unions don’t have to be backward and obstructive. There’s nothing to stop them recreating the radicalism and progressiveness of their early years in the modern context. Absolutely nothing stopping the Communications Union really living up to its modernised name (it used to be the Union of Postal Workers) and producing a coherent response to change that promotes members’ interests while at the same time acknowledging the world outside.

Meanwhile, a Twitter friend says: “I like the postal strike. No bills. No statements. No junk. No conspicuous absence of fun personal letters” and Marketing Week just emailed me this week’s issue as a handy, searchable PDF. Remind me why I get that dopey paper thing every week…


  1. You assume that the long term interests of Royal Mail and those of its employees are the same. This may not be the case. Individual postal workers, who are low paid and work anti-social shifts, are unlikely to be feel like making altruistic sacrifices on behalf of the next generation. Redundancy is unlikely to be the end of their world, that is to say, it is not as big a stick as you might think. Individual self-interest almost certainly lies in delaying modernisation for as long as possible.

    Consequently, you fail to recognise that the union is less militant than its members and is holding them back from an all-out strike.

    You also conveniently forget to mention that Adam Crozier, Royal Mail’s chief executive, will attend negotiations for the very first time today. That is, he has made the most feeble attempts to sell modernisation to his workforce.

    The idea that a trade union should work to help management impose reforms without any kind of consultation or negotiation is rather silly. The idea that the union should dedicate resources to educating postal workers so that they happily and altruistically accept reduced pension rights, even more so.

    To bastardise a Tory phrase, perhaps Crozier should be looking at ways to share the benefits of modernisation as well as the costs.

  2. And meanwhile the Royal Mail enters its terminal phase. I know and understand your language. I’ve used it myself often enough – it was currency in our house thirty-five years ago when both of my parents were postal workers and trade unionists. But do you seriously think that trench warfare in the run up to Xmas can do anything but accelerate RM’s decline? Three or five years ago a week without mail was a major inconvenience but one you had to put up with. Now it’s just an incentive to seek an alternative from a growing menu of competing platforms and providers. By now every single mail order/ecommerce business has a Xmas contingency plan in place that bypasses RM all together. It’s really heartbreaking and – more or less militant than their membership – the current leadership has utterly refused the opportunity to even discuss change. Search the union’s web site for a mention of the Internet, email, ecommerce, neighbourhood drop services, green logistics, anything even vaguely 21st Century and you’ll find nothing at all. It’s timid and sad.

  3. My point was that the long term interests of the workforce and those of the business may not coincide.

    Past offers of voluntary redundancy have been oversubscribed; so many people are disappointed to learn they still have a job.

    Why should postal workers be all that bothered if the business is in decline?

  4. I see your point but that’s really a pretty hopeless, nihilistic position. I’d ask in return: why shouldn’t a trade union embrace a larger role than defending the status quo? Why not get out in front of the debate, set the agenda, pioneer a new model for value creation, social solidarity etc. The status quo is miserable and the unions have an opportunity to come back from the fringes to the centre of the debate and start to win the argument again.

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