Striking out: The Post Office gamble

Will the workers' strike gamble pay off or miss altogether?

Workers of the Post Office are set to strike next week during what is surely one of its busiest times of the year ahead of Christmas.

This dispute over staff and branch cuts, as well as long-running pension disagreements, comes to a head as millions of people up and down the country worry about getting their Christmas cards and presents sent in time for the big day a week on Sunday, but whether or not this strike will be effective or not is unclear.

First of all, let’s set the panic aside for a bit.  Royal Mail, the company that deliver and collect mail across the country, and the Post Office, the company that runs shops around the country offering mailing support, are two separate things.  In 2012, as part of Royal Mail’s much-maligned privatisation by the Conservative Government, the two fixtures of British postal life were split apart forevermore – but that hasn’t really been relayed quite so well to the public as the reaction to this week’s new shows.

This means, crucially, that postal services will still run next week – so there’s no threat of presents or letters not arriving in time for Christmas if you’re not organised on time.  A Royal Mail strike back in October 2007 was banned by the High Court on account of its disruption back when the company was publically-owned, but it’s worth considering that something of that scale at this time of the year would suffer the same fate, so there’s no worry of any mass mail crisis at Christmas anytime soon.

The main point of contention in this year’s Post Office strike is that workers are using their right to strike in a critical time for the company’s operations.

Strikes are designed to be at times like these, as this is when the effects of a strike are most keenly felt by a company – and the fall in sales and profits attributed to the strike are meant to shake them into accepting a better deal for workers.  They also draw critical public and media attention to the issues being raised and allow for these pressures to snowball into a PR nightmare for the company.

The counter-argument to this, though, is that these strikes happen at a time when the most damage is done to a company – and this damage ends up with the company having even less means to deliver a settlement that gives workers more money or better working conditions.  It also stands to reason that the PR disaster strikes can often cause make customers shop elsewhere longer-term, meaning that the negative financial effects of a strike last far longer than the period spent on the picket lines.

Strikes are a catch-22 situation, one where nobody generally wins and any concessions garnered aren’t really satisfying to either parties other than to end the process.

However, what strikes me is how much more useful these actions can be in some situations than others, and how they can be utilised in an effective way by workers to get a result that benefits them and doesn’t damage their company so greatly as to poison the well they want access to.

Transport strikes are generally an example of where strikes work best.  When railway workers walk out it cuts central arteries of transport around the country and leaves people struggling to find alternative ways to commute.  It’s massively frustrating of course, but for many it adds to the appreciation of the work railway workers do in the country – as for many thousands of people there is no alternative to hopping on a train if they want to get to work.

As it happens, right now Southern Rail are in the middle of a 48-hour walkout over working conditions that workers as a whole feel are unacceptable.  The chaos that this is causing is immense, with over 300,000 people affected and the Government considering outlawing strikes as a response.  But what this shows is how important it is to have these services running, and those 300,000 people will very gladly pile back on to the carriages on Thursday when the trains roll back down the tracks.

This isn’t so for the Post Office though.  The separation from Royal Mail in 2012 broke up a great British institution, but it also meant that both lack the sympathetic, patriotic connection with consumers.  Post Office workers are no longer workers for a national service, but for another company with profit in mind.  And this means that alternatives to the Post Office – in supermarkets and potentially smaller shops too – are now just as likely to capture consumers for ease of convenience or for those looking to shop with a “conscience”.

This strike, so close to the time when thousands or millions of Christmas cards and presents are sent, doesn’t mean that people will go without their mail; it means that people will go in their droves to other outlets than the Post Office, many of whom will wonder why they didn’t just do that in the first place.

And the strike is also only estimated to affect 3% of the capacity of the Post Office as well, which will hardly make a dent in the issue among the company but will create immeasurably more impact as far more than 3% of customers will avoid the Post Office for fear of it being closed.

It’s this problem of strikes in a competitive capitalist industry that makes a traditional tactic so much less effective.  People on-the-whole may be supportive of Post Office workers’ right to strike and why they’re doing so, but they’ll vote with their feet by going elsewhere next week rather than risk losing out on precious services right when they need them.  This also creates the worry, or thought, in people’s heads for later down-the-line, where they wonder: “Will the Post Office be open, or will it be on strike?  Better just head to Tesco anyway just in case.”

I massively support the Post Office workers’ right to strike, but I feel that in doing so they will be missing such a lucrative time of year that it will come back to haunt them.  The sales over Christmas week would go a long way to alleviating issues with pensions and job cuts, and a similar week of action at the end of the tax year may well have been as sharply felt by the company but not by the public at large.

Time will tell with the Post Office’s strike gambit whether they pull off a home run and get what they like, but I fear that in this attempt they’ll be striking out.


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