by Gregor Gall
Have you noticed your post isn’t arriving as regularly as it usually does? Have you noticed there are many days when you expected to get post but didn’t get a thing?
For a strike involving tens of thousands of workers and affecting millions of householders and businesses, debate about the current postal dispute is worryingly absent from the political arena. Neither Royal Mail nor the government is keen to say anything, whether good, bad or indifferent, about it. There is a wall of almost impenetrable silence. Indeed, the Communication Workers Union (CWU) has accused the government of “going on strike” by refusing to do or say anything. The reason, the CWU alleges, is that the government is still smarting from having lost its battle to partially privatise Royal Mail earlier this year after a union-led rebellion.
Starting in mid-June and continuing on a weekly rolling basis, just about every part of the country has been affected by the strike. It is over jobs, pay and working conditions. The union estimates that more than 20m items of post are caught up in the backlog, so this will be where your expected items of mail that haven’t yet turned up are currently stranded.
So, when the postal service is supposed to guarantee by law service delivery all across and throughout Britain, why hasn’t the government intervened? Ordinarily, it would instruct the postal regulator to suspend Royal Mail’s monopoly so that other operators could provide the service. It would also pressure Royal Mail to negotiate with the union as a way to resolve the strikes, as in did in the last national strike in 2007 and on many occasions before that.
It may be that with the summer recess of parliament and the absence of an all-out national postal strike, the government feels it is under no pressure or obligation to ban union and employer heads together. The fact that the media has not run with the postal strike story to any great length and affected businesses have not made their voices loudly heard has probably added to this feeling.
But it is just as likely, as the union has hinted, that the government is both sulking but also playing a high-stakes game. Having had to drop its plans for part-privatisation because of fears of a backbench rebellion after saying it was the only way to ensure for the survival of the company, the government seems to be playing a long game even though its time in office is running out.
By allowing a breakdown in service provision to precipitate a political crisis, the government thinks this will be the opportunity to both crush union opposition, support the company’s slash-and-burn modernisation plans and return to the “there is no alternative” agenda of privatisation.
This supposition is supported by the strongly worded attacks on the union by the government. In July Peter Mandelson claimed the union had its head in the sand and was a dishonourable negotiating party. It is all the more supported by the rejection by Royal Mail and the government (as Royal Mail’s only stakeholder) of the union’s offer of a moratorium on strike action for serious talks on modernising the business.
Ironically, the only serious hope for a stable and lasting resolution to the current dispute is the prospect of a national all-out postal strike. This would use the autumn return to official parliamentary politics to put pressure on the government to tell Royal Mail management to negotiate an acceptable outcome. It looks like it’s going to be a case of going to war to bring about peace.