Thursday 9 February 2006


As you may have noticed, an unofficial strike is crippling Northern Ireland's postal service at the moment. Apparently, a manager took some notes while in the presence of one of his staff. Yes, I know: shocking. This "intimidation" has triggered the strike. The postal "workers" are objecting to the very possibility of disciplinary measures being used against them.

Now, I've worked for the Royal Mail twice in my time, so let me just say something about the appropriateness of disciplinary measures: they're needed, badly. Not for all postmen, obviously, but for a significant minority. The Royal Mail contains a sizable number of employees who steal mail, deliberately destroy mail, take mail home with them because they can't be bothered delivering it, think that the correct street is as accurate as they need to be, open birthday cards to look for money, are rude to customers, and sometimes even assault customers. Some of the Royal Mail's managers try to do something about these bastards. Others don't — mainly, I suspect, out of fear of one of Britain's most militant unions. After all, if you just put up with a few rotten employees, all you get is a load of complaints from customers. Try to discipline them and you bring an entire province's mail to its knees. Who wants to be the guy who made that decision?

In Belfast's main sorting office, the centre of the strike, a network of closed walkways with darkened windows is built into the ceiling. These were built so that security guards can keep an eye on the workers without being seen themselves. They weren't cheap to build, and the security guards aren't cheap to hire. No company invests in something like that unless they need it. Enough of Belfast's postmen were criminals that the investment made sense. Some of these guys clearly need the occasional bit of discipline.

But, regardless of the merits of the strike, the strikers are idiots. If London's Tube drivers go on strike, people switch to buses and cars for the duration, but then come gratefully back to the trains when the strike finishes. Driving through London simply isn't a reasonable alternative. If an airline's workers strike, again, customers flood back to the planes when the strike's over. What you going to do — go to Florida by boat? Workers like these are in a position of power over their customers. Whether their strikes are reasonable or not, they at least make sense tactically. But, when the Royal Mail have a strike, customers switch to email. And, as the Royal Mail's own research shows, a sizable portion never switch back. Every one of these strikes reduces the Royal Mail's custom permanently. That's why so much of their advertising these days focuses on things like greetings cards, real-world objects that have to be sent physically — think of their "I saw this and thought of you" campaign. They're not trying to expand their existing customer base. They're trying to create a new customer base because a big chunk of their existing one is gone and they know it's not coming back.

If you worked for the Royal Mail, would you take action that you knew was going to decrease the number of Royal Mail employees?

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