I am writing this looking out at a perfect autumn morning. The cathedral tower stands high amid a sky of grey and the trees are a mix of yellow and dull green, a change from their summer vibrancy. The party conferences are drawing to an end and the shops are mixing halloween wares with Christmas goods. Autumn is well and truly here, winter is on it’s way.
Are we heading into a winter of discontent as a Labour government past its sell by date limps towards the next election? I suspect we are. The problems in the economy are widespread and the effects of late / post-modernity are hitting home as companies have decide how to respond. People are dejected and one has to smile slightly re-reading the words of hope that Peter Mandelson and Roger Liddle wrote back in 1996 within The Blair Revolution Can New Labour Deliver?
“Modernisation is more than developing a package of attractive propositions that can win Labour power. It is about working through a credible strategy for successful government that avoids the failiures of the past." (pp vii-viii). The fact is that it is not the policies of the past which have caused many of the problems it has more to do with the way businesses, governments, unions and individuals all act in times of uncertainty and instability.
The postal workers strike sums this up well and illustrates why we will be entering a winter (or possible several winters) of discontent and why yet again the unions will be painted as the "baddies" to be attacked when they are actually seeking to protect jobs.
To set the scene for those outside the UK it goes something like this. Once upon a time we had a a communications service to be proud of. A nationalised industry with it's problems, yes, but the GPO was a good organisation on the whole. There were two postal deliveries a day and most people were well placed to be able to get to a post office which would sell stamps, distribute pensions and benefits and act as a hub of the community because everybody tended to use it regularly.
Then Mrs. Thatcher decided to sell of British Telecom to make a bit of money and get everybody hooked on the capitalist dream of ownership. Whilst ideologically I may disagree her thinking was sound in its own way – if you agree with Milton Friedman’s monetarist view of economics. She didn’t go for the Royal Mail though, like university tuition fees she thought that the people would think that was a step too far. In 1997 along came Blair and New Labour who decided to extend the Thatcherite agenda and did introduce tutition fees and introduce competition into the postal service. The Royal Mail lost its monopoly and what was intended to bring efficiency has, arguably, led to a butchering of an excellent postal system. Many sub-post offices have shut down and many local communities are dying as a result. There is now just one delivery a day in many places and ….well I could go on. To be fair the postal system would have had to change to reflect the technological changes which have occurred. We now live in a technological age when it is easier for one computer to transfer money to another computer and for you to use a card to turn it into cash, rather than taking a quaint ickle book into the post office to get it stamped. We also, more importantly, have an age of e-mail where letter writing is being replaced to some extent.
The combined effect of this is that the Royal Mail is in trouble and needs to sort itself out and modernise. It is the way to modernise and the effect on the workers that is the issue here.
The Communication Workers Union is describing the situation in this way:
“We need a national agreement which secures a fair deal on modernisation and reward for the efforts of postal workers in transforming the business. We want reassurances on job security, covering both redundancies and full-time part-time ratios.
“Crucial to an agreement is fair workloads with agreed standards of measurement. Constantly disciplining postal workers will not improve efficiencies but will drive an ever bigger wedge between workers and what they are told is modernisation.
“We’ve seen cuts and increased workloads and now we need an agreed roll-out of real modernisation. Aligning the interests of customers, employees and the company as a whole is a pre-requisite for the successful modernisation of Royal Mail.
“The Government must act now to resolve the pensions deficit which is crippling the Royal Mail’s finances and chances to modernise effectively.”
In reply the Royal Mail is labelling the unions action as unjustified and saying on their web site
““The changes include the introduction of more flexible working as we respond to the changing marketplace and ensuring people work the hours for which they are paid, using the tools for the job such as new automated sorting equipment and handheld tracking devices. Taken together, this means that over 85% of mail is now walk sorted with Royal Mail on track to complete its modernisation plans, of which these changes mark the latest phase.
“As always, the company will be focusing on delivering excellent customer service over the vitally important run-up to Christmas when letter numbers reach their seasonal peak. Royal Mail calls on the CWU to abandon its unjustified strikes and to help the business deliver the service our customers deserve.”
So what we have is a dispute about jobs and job security in a difficult business environment. The post-office wants to bring in more flexible working to reduce costs whilst the CWU wants to safeguard the jobs and working conditions of its members. Both are in some ways suffering from the effects of Thatcherite policies which New Labour accelerated.
As for the customer….well you and I will suffer whilst the big boys take their business elsewhere. Amazon has already taken away its contract and is using another provider, according to the Guardian. The horrible truth is that modernisation is required, but it has a human cost. This is true in the public sector as a whole. As a society we need to decide what our values are and how do we fight for them? Do we value cheap products or job security? Do we believe that some services are best provided by state owned institutions or should a market economy be totally embraced….with its philosophy of survival of the fittest? If we believe that a safety net is needed who should it be there to provide for and what conditions should be attached? What are our rights and responsiblilities to each other….do we have any?
As we limp towards the next election and seek to influence our politicians these are the questions we must be asking ourselves…..and coming to our own conclusions to these difficult questions. These then are the sorts of questions, without giving partisan answers, our churches should be helping us answer perhaps.