The promised Royal Mail strikes began yesterday and have already caused significant disruption.
The ongoing struggle between the Communications Workers Union (CWU) and Royal Mail management shows no sign of abating, with the intransigent managers seemingly resigned to further industrial action over their "modernisation" agenda.
At the heart of the acrimonious dispute are concerns about how the final phase of the 2007 Pay and Modernisation Agreement will affect job security. The CWU argues that Royal Mail has not been honest about specific details potential job losses and that it has in fact stopped talking to the union.
There is no doubt that modernisation is necessary. While Royal Mail is clearly a historical institution of which the country has been proud, it can not survive on nostalgia. Largely due to changes in the way we communicate, Royal Mail estimates that its business is in decline and that the amount of mail it delivers is falling by 10 per cent annually. It also has a £6.8 billion pensions deficit.
The Post Office Network is being affected by significant changes which will not be reversed. What is needed therefore are imaginative and creative ideas as to how Royal Mail can evolve to meet these challenges - call it "modernisation" if you like. What is not needed, however, are acrimonious splits between unions and management, an inflexible management position and unnecessary strikes that could further damage the business.
The problems affecting Royal Mail are not unique to our own postal service. The US Postal Service ended its third quarter with a net loss of $2.4billion. Latvian Post claims that mail volume has fallen by 41 per cent and as a result has introduced urgent measures to revise employees' salaries so that they are more performance-related. Even Deutsche Post has been suffering, and has announced that it is to close all Post Offices it operates without a retail partner - this in practice means about 500 post office closures.
The reason I highlight this is to demonstrate the global nature of the problem. Postal administrations across the world are having to take action to ensure the future of their mail services. Royal Mail, in contrast to the above, actually made a significant profit in the last financial year, with the main letters and packages unit making £58million. This gives Royal Mail an advantage in putting into place a genuinely modern programme which will create a fit-for-purpose Post Office network, involves its employees to a greater degree in facilitating change and provides a valuable service to local communities.
As I've stated in previous posts, I strongly believe that key means of tackling some of Royal Mail's problems would be for communities to be empowered and assisted to take control of their Post Offices, reform of the Post Office structure and the provision of a wider range of services. Unfortunately, the narrow debate between the CWU and Royal Mail managers means that constructive political ideas are struggling to be heard.