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12 October 2007

Careful about criticising postal workers

Paul Donovan examines the issues behind the postal strike and warns if the railways are anything to

By Paul Donovan

Does anyone remember postman Roger Annies, who rose to fame when he was suspended by Royal Mail for telling his customers how to avoid having junk mail delivered to their homes.

There was a great outcry in support of Annies, especially from some of those same newspapers who now condemn the Communication Workers Union for its refusal in the present dispute to accept worse terms and conditions for its members.

Parroting Royal Mail management they accuse the CWU of restrictive practices and standing in the way of progress toward more flexible working. This is ironic given that at the time of the Annies case, the CWU was busily pushing ahead, promoting the delivery of junk mail. It defended Annies against oppressive management methods but all the same argued the business case in the workplace for delivering junk mail.

The Annies/junk mail case illustrates how the union – in one of the few remaining nationalised industries – has been forced to not just defend its members’ interests but also to promote the business in its present publically owned form.

RM management under Chairman Allan Leighton has effectively been stripping down the business over the past few years ready for private provision of the public service. The former ASDA chief’s supine attitude toward liberalisation, offering very little resistance to the opening up by government regulator Postcom of the UK market a full three years before any other European country, did not suggest an unyielding belief in the merit of the publically run service.

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The market was duly completely opened up in the UK at the start of 2006, encouraging new private sector companies to cherry pick the profitable business post while not picking up the universal service obligation – binding on RM – to deliver the loss making residential mail.

This further undermined the public service provider which previously had been able to subsidise the loss making residential side with the profits made on business mail. Leighton, Royal Mail Chief Executive Adam Crozier and the RM board have no interest in a publically owned, nationally run mail network.

The efforts of the board to introduce shares in Royal Mail for staff indicate that they would far rather the company were in the private sector.

The contradictions so obvious in the RM case crop up across the public sector where the unions are organised around nationally owned public sector industries. Public sector union Unison has been amongst the most vociferous defenders of the NHS as a publically owned and run service.

This contradictory position that the unions find themselves in can cause real problems in terms of their own organisation. As the major public services are privatised what do they do? Do they cling to the remnants of the public giant as it is destroyed in a death of a thousand cuts or do they accept the reality and recruit members in the new companies?

In the case of mail services, the unions face a dilemma as to how much energy they put into RM and how much they seek recognition with new competitors in the market like DHL, Business Post or TNT.

Another part of the communications sector provides a salutary lesson. When BT was nationalised back in the 1980s the unions put most of their efforts into securing the position with the major player in the market.

As a result the unions now have a good relationship with BT and workers there get representation and a better deal than most in the industry. However, in market terms BT has been dwarfed by other global telecoms operators like Vodafone.

This left the unions charged with taking their eye off the ball for putting less effort into organising in the new workplaces. The unions are now gradually catching up in this area but it has been a painful lesson. Essentially, the unions are stuck between a rock and a hard place.

They must represent members but are also wedded, due to practical and ideological factors, to the nationally owned publically run services. This at times forces them into a poacher turned gamekeeper role.

Unless there is a sudden turn around and return to the industrial relations architecture of the 1970s then unions will have to change their methods of approach. There will have to be a twin strategy. This will involve a more federal approach, seeking to get a foothold in as many different companies as possible operating in their sector while at the same time not giving up on the fruits offered by a declining monolithic public sector employer.

As for the present dispute, those amongst the public tempted to criticise the union’s position would do well to remember it is one of the few voices left defending the tenents of a publically run accountable mail service.

If government gets its way the mail service will head down the same path as the railways with tax payers eventually being forced to cough up for private companies to run a worse more costly service – all in the name of neo-liberal dogma. A more progressive attitude toward the mail and other public services might be if it ain’t broke don’t fix it.

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