Bad for the post, bad for parliament

Hugh Burling 3 November 2009

The Communication Workers’ Union are holding out for a pay increase of 27%, a reduction of the working week by five hours, longer leave, and control over all future changes to Mail management.

It’s easy maths to see how lucrative the CWU’s demands will be for postal workers. The question is whether the Royal Mail – and the taxpayers who own it – can afford them, however much we would like to.

Royal Mail faces full competition from private deliverers. Its profits are down 86%: although individuals may still send a few letters and postcards, businesses have been gradually switching delivery providers for years. This most recent strike will reinforce the impression that the Royal Mail is the shaky public equivalent to its private cousins, and the 25% increase in volume of private companies since the strike began is testament to this.

Working out how sensible the CWU’s strike action is becomes a rather difficult business: the two sides provide the public with different statistics regarding Royal Mail profits, managerial bonuses and the company’s sustainability. Yet, given that Royal Mail would be taken to court for producing false reports, the even-handedness of differing CWU statistics seems questionable.

Their demands refer vaguely to staff bullying and call for an independent inquiry, casting the Royal Mail as villains in the public eye whatever its results.

The imposition of pay freezes throughout the Mail’s ranks is ignored.

The CWU effectively want Union control over modernisation plans, disguising their Luddite intentions behind the demand that the Royal Mail “will unequivocally agree planned 2010 change”. What does that mean? That Royal Mail will not introduce new time-saving sorting machines without Union say-so.

Yet there is more at stake here. Usually, public money would be used by a public service to negotiate this sort of strike by giving in to some demands to some degree and arriving at a compromise. Now, there isn’t any left – it’s not the fault of postmen, although postal strikes are a sure-fire way to slow an economic recovery. Many Keynesians, Socialists or just plain dreamers have focused on the postal strike as a fulcrum to try and fight impending public sector cuts.

This Government must reduce its deficit in order to attract the investment which it can then spend on public services, including, currently, the Royal Mail. It can cut it by cutting public spending and/or raising tax.

The situation is now bad enough that all three electable parties are committed to both raising taxes and cutting spending.

Now, it’s true that if you cut public spending some public sector jobs will be devalued or go altogether.  But the desire to save an individual’s, or an individual service’s, wages and jobs is not an argument against cuts per se.

Those who want to save one public service from cuts by striking and claim that this will save others down the line are trying to eat their cake and have it.

Alternatively – and this is the line taken by many “workers’ rights” activists – the current and the next Government should succumb to this strike, then others, and attempt to plug the deficit with massive taxes regardless of what voters appear to be willing to pay.

This argument is fundamentally undemocratic. It gives union members twice the voting power: a ballot in their union, and a vote for the party that will bend to strikes once elected.

Supporting a strike is not a simple choice between fat cats and “solidarity”, between slashing and spending. Real solidarity means supporting economic policies which will benefit all of us.

Hugh Burling