Today Royal Mail postal workers are striking. For many people strikes are about as popular as shit’n’chips.

But strikes are the tool of last resort for the organised worker.

It is only through strikes that workers can assert some power over employers and the way we are governed by them and their whims at the altar of capital.

The reputation of strikes, however, is not one of worker power in the face of exploitation or unjust management but, thanks to the media coverage of a series of stoppages in the 1970’s, it is a despicable act denying customers of their products and services. How dare they!

And that reputation has never recovered despite this perspective being wrong. Fuelled by the right-wing and the media the attitude towards striking that prevails today is, as Mark Steel put it…

Strikes, everyone agreed, were bad. The question was never whether they should be supported or opposed, but always how they should be opposed.

If someone on TV has said ‘well, I support the strikes’, it would have sounded as odd as if there was a discussion about how to deal with a fire, and some had said ‘I support the fire, and hope it spreads to the basement.’

This particular strike action is further fuelled by some irrational affront by being denied our junk mail. Most of the important correspondence I’ve needed to conduct has been via e-mail or landline telephone or that rarer breed: face-to-face human interaction.  But this does not mean the postal service holds no value for me. I recognise that for many people, mail and post offices can be their only window on the world. So it is for me to understand the demands and choose to support the workers or oppose them.

The media present union concerns in the modern keep it simples for the people shorthand, defining the demands as i) resistance to modernisation and ii) un-realistic petitions on pensions.

On the latter, I have heard that last year Royal Mail made its biggest profit in 20 years – £320 million, but at the same time the pension deficit is so crippling a burden it can only be solved by savage cuts at best, and part or full privatisation at worst.  Management value the deficit at £10 billion. With such a deficit it is strange then that they took for themselves a ten years pension holiday while the workers continued to pay their way. I wonder how many hundreds of millions of that money refers to directors and executive pension? And, finally, how come we can bail out bankers but not the social welfare of workers? This is truly appalling when we are already hearing that upon the return to ‘normal business’ from their self-made economic disaster sees bonus culture already creeping back in. Switch some of these ludicrous bonuses to the national pension deficit, after all, it was probably those same financiers who gambled away the value of private pensions on the stock market in the first place.

As for the former, the mass media presents the misconception that postal workers oppose modernisation.  Yet their union, the CWU, agreed to and, indeed, helped implement the 2007 pay and modernisation agreement.  This included mechanisation AND more work for the same pay.

The action also seems to have beckoned the charge that the CWU does not put customers first. The supposition implied here is that they ought to, but this denies the very essence and point of a Trades Union which is to look after its members – the workers – not customers. Businesses are the ones charged with customer care, not unions. And businesses that really care about customers need to learn that you don’t achieve good customer service through ill treatment of one’s most important resource: your workers. Systems Thinking shows us that the most efficient business reduce waste by empowering workers, not setting targets and building the back office.

To me, another part missing in the news coverage and wider debate is that, fundamentally the problem with Royal Mail isn’t modernisation and pensions at all. It is the opening-up of the market which has revealed the lack of brutal competitiveness required to exist in the modern economy.  This is the elephant in the room.

Services like mail and post office are not ordinary businesses and neither is the pension earned by workers. While we can’t really class Royal Mail as an essential PUBLIC service (as we might with health, law enforcement or welfare), it does exist within a long-established public sector framework and does offer social gains the likes of which private carriers like TNT have no interest in or conception of. Only by halting privatisation plans and closing down competition in this sector will Royal Mail truly return to deliver value-for-money services in a framework where postal workers can enjoy employment justice and the recognition they deserve. Right now Royal Mail is fighting a losing battle trying to exist as a public service in a free market environment where social and worker welfare ride second to profit.

And be warned: what happens now with Royal Mail is a roadmap to what might happen with other public services, especially health, already overburdened with business consultants and targets, where the customer has moved from the patient to the Secretary of the Department of Health.

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