Wednesday, 21 October 2009

UK Postal strike - can the workers win?

More on the UK postal dispute, which I mentioned on October 8. Today the UK's Communication Workers Union (CWU) announced that planned national strikes by postal staff will go ahead on Thursday and Friday, with further strike dates to be announced on Thursday. The strike will be split over two days with mail centre staff and drivers striking on Thursday, while delivery and collection staff will strike on Friday. Postal workers in the UK have already been holding localised strikes for several months. The CWU's members are striking over the 2007 Pay and Modernisation Agreement, signed following a round of strikes, in which the union agreed that modernisation would be necessary, but that Royal Mail would consult with them over modernisation which would replace workers. The union claims that Royal Mail has failed to do this, leading to a bitter dispute by modern British standards.

The present dispute is probably the worst industrial dispute in the postal industry since that of 20 January - 8 March 1971. In 1971 200,000 postal workers spent seven weeks flat out on strike. The strike completely paralysed the system, with post offices, then part of Royal Mail, also mostly closed. Postal workers went without wages throughout the strike, many being supported by 'hardship payments' from the union. Like many industrial disputes of the 1970s the dispute centred around pay rather than allegedly poor management decisions and the threat of redundancy. While inflation in 1970 ran at 6.4%, rising to 9% in 1971, in January 1971 the Royal Mail offered workers an 8% rise. The union had asked in late 1970 for a somewhat inflatory £3 a week, or 15-20% rise, which not surprisingly, management refused as it would cost the firm an extra £50m a year. As the strike wore on the union reduced its demand to a still somewhat high 13%, while management increased their offer to 9%, but mostly stood their ground despite the lack of postal deliveries, and £25m's worth of lost revenue. By early March the union was running out of funds and encouraged workers to return to work, without even the 8% rise originally offered, making General Secretary Tom Jackson unpopular among the membership. Instead the union was forced by the Department of Employment to accept an independent enquiry into efficiency in the post office which would then set a pay award.

While today's postal workers are not striking for the entire week, it remains to be seen how long their resolve will hold as they still stand to lose one day a week's pay from the strike. With Royal Mail again looking unlikely to climb down, the CWU might do well to consider the humiliating climb-down forced upon their predecessors. Strikes in the modern era rarely do workers much good in the long run, with the employer affected often loosing business and being weakened financially. If people are forced to find alternatives to Royal Mail for the time being, they may just find they prefer them even when the service returns to normal.

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About Me

London, United Kingdom
I'm Lecturer in Management at The York Management School, at The University of York, UK. I teach strategic management to undergraduate and masters students, as well as running the masters dissertation module. My research focuses on business and management history.