Troubles at the Mail

Troubles within the Royal Mail roll on, with a national postal strike likely in the near future. This adds to the disruption still being felt after recent industrial action, which has lead to serious delivery problems across the country; millions of items of mail have yet to be delivered.

Unions are unhappy about the Royal Mail’s modernisation plans. Redundancies have already taken place, and plans for greater mechanisation of sorting – for instance – will likely lead to more, but more than anything they feel Royal Mail management has handled the process badly. Royal Mail’s bosses retort that these are the only way the post office can remain a sustainable business, in light of the falling volumes of post.

What is to be gained from initiating a national strike? The Union’s view it as a means to begin resolving the dispute over pay, pensions and working practices. But a strike carries the risk that major Royal Mail customers will begin to seek alternative delivery methods; newspapers report today that Amazon has already begun looking for alternative methods of sending items over 500g, a contract apparently worth over £25 million. Union members should be weighing up whether striking is the best course of action, not only as the run up to the busy Christmas period begins, but also because it could continue to drive away the custom from small businesses and larger companies that keeps postmen in work.

Postmen’s minds though, appear to be made up. Even before formal union action has been agreed, some Royal Mail postmen have decided to save themselves the hassle of carrying parcels on their delivery routes, deciding instead that recipients make the journey to the post office themselves. The Telegraph reported yesterday that some postmen have taken to delivering ‘sorry, you were out’ cards instead of the parcel itself. Intended recipients, needless to say, were very much at home. No doubt this low-level protest by postmen reflects their concerns over new plans to extend the daily delivery times, up to 3 hours for the average on-foot postman, but it's still pretty appalling – and self-defeating – behaviour. The public pay to send post, and they expect it to be delivered (or at least attempted to be delivered).  If the postmen are looking for public support, this isn’t the way to go about it.

But then postman probably aren’t looking for public support at this point. They're locked in a battle with their management, and the public are just collateral damage. Would such dysfunction happen if Royal Mail were a well run company? Probably not. Would it happen if Royal Mail wasn't still dominated by a fairly militant union? Probably not. Elsewhere, where countries have gone through the pain of privatising their post offices (which EU rules effectively demand), such behaviour by postmen would be stamped down on hard. Their systems rely on delivering excellent service, and a greater number of checks and restraints – to both motivate and regulate workers – are in place. Royal Mail remains caught in a limbo between nationalisation and privatisation, a situation that is leading to ill management, staff disgruntlement and an increasingly deplorable service for customers.

The government must, at some point soon, take the plans off the shelf and carry privatisation through. Mail might actually get to its destination then.

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