Managers at the Royal Mail will find themselves on the horns of a dilemma this week, when they are balloted over strike action for the first time in more than 30 years (since the 1979 Winter of Discontent). On the one hand, senior management is apparently planning to make about 1,500 of them redundant, and the Unite union argues that they need to take a stand before things get even worse. On the other, Royal Mail points out that mail volumes have plummeted by 13m a day over the last five years; drastic action is clearly required, and a strike could actually strengthen the Government's argument for privatisation...
The ballot of 8,500 managers at Royal Mail, Post Office and Parcelforce head offices will be open for the next three weeks. If the overall vote is in favour, the strike will go ahead in early December – the busiest time of the year for Royal Mail. And even Royal Mail management (the faction that isn’t being balloted) admits that, if that ‘key layer of decision-making’ is removed by the strikes, things would, in all likelihood, grind to a halt - just in time for Christmas.
All this is taking place against a backdrop of the Postal Services Bill 2010, which was published by the Government a couple of weeks ago. Under the measures put forward by the Bill, 90% of Royal Mail would be sold off, while the remaining 10% will be given to workers under a sort of John Lewis-style arrangement. Business secretary Vince Cable has even gone as far as to suggest that (gasp) a foreign company could eventually become its new owner, saying ‘we’re not nationalists in this Government. We’re not going on a nationalist jihad against foreign companies’. Le Poste Royale, anyone?
Things aren’t going to be easy for Cable and the Coalition, though. The unions have already forced Peter Mandelson and co to give up on privatisation plans last year. And with Unite scare-mongering that if the Government starts making redundancies now, ‘it could keep coming back for more’ (which, let’s face it, is not impossible if it does get privatised), there’s little doubt that they’re going to make things as difficult as possible.
Then again, you could argue that if Unite succeeds, and the Christmas post is torpedoed, public support for its cause could plummet even further. And if anything, it's likely to accelerate the decline in mail volumes. So it all seems a bit self-defeating. Even if Cable does nothing, he could soon find himself with an even stronger hand.