MODERN trades unions have a split personality. If their members are in the private sector, they appear as meek as they can be. We hardly, if ever, hear of militants calling the membership out on strike. Business owners would call out their capital on strike as well and take it elsewhere, leaving the newly-redundant strikers to find another job, probably in a non-unionised business.
The reverse is the case in the state sector, which includes public transport. There, a cold war seems to operate, not the 1970s ‘flexible response’ but the 1960s ‘trip wire’, the triggering of which would lead to thermonuclear war. The battle lines are drawn and the unions hold the upper hand. As the monopoly suppliers of a workforce in effective monopolies, they know that a management and public with no ready alternatives in a time of stoppage always has to concede. In the transport sector, they are assisted by measures that make urban private vehicle use expensive and time-consuming.
Which all brings me to postal strikes, one of which is now threatened. While their apparent monopoly on letter post makes the Royal Mail appear to be in the state sector, they actually are battling for business in a highly competitive environment. Every time there is a major postal strike, they lose a few more customers which they never recover. In the late 1980s a strike led to businesses and individuals buying fax machines. The privatisation of British Telecom (BT) had liberalised the telecommunications market meaning that so long as a device passed certain standards, it could be plugged into a BT 6-way socket. Prior to this innovation, telephones were literally hard-wired into the BT system, and domestic users could rent telephones only from BT. The socket meant anyone could purchase a compliant device from Dixons or Tandy. Fax machines using thermal paper (laser printers were an expensive luxury and inkjet printers were still way off) meant thousands of businesses could ignore the strike and carry on adding value and creating wealth.
In the 1990s, another strike resulted in the growth of email. Anyone could buy a personal computer with a modem that plugged into the BT socket, sign up for an online dial-up Internet Service Provider such as Compuserve or AOL, and be sending emails by the end of the day. Again, take-up was rapid.
The postal market has been liberalised in the last two decades to almost the same level as telecommunications was previously. There are numerous carriers for parcels. Payment for goods can be made online rather than sending a cheque or postal order through the mail. Bills and bank statements have gone online as well. All a postal strike will do is to drive further business into the hands of the Royal Mail’s competitors. Sympathy strikes in these competitors are illegal, and have been so for decades, although Labour want to reverse this and numerous other laws that prevent trades union action from damaging businesses and inconveniencing the public.
Workers at the Corbyn-friendly Communication Workers Union (CWU) do not seem to have learnt the lessons of history. When strike-prone British Leyland (BL) workers turned out shoddy cars or failed to deliver on schedule in the 1970s, their exasperated customers went elsewhere. There were plenty of businesses at home and abroad more than willing to take their custom, leading to BL’s business shrinking, finally reaching nothingness in 2005. Print workers who extorted money from newspaper proprietors for years eventually lost their jobs as the ancient working practices they had preserved were replaced by labour-saving new technology. Few people except fellow-travellers had any sympathy for either workforce due to their public displays of militancy. They had dug their own graves under Wilson, Heath and Callaghan, and willingly jumped in and let themselves be buried by Thatcherism.
So let these postal dinosaurs go on strike. Let them destroy their employers’ business. Let the creative destruction of capitalism forge new methods for sending letters, just as it has done for the parcel post. Replace posties with drones. The word ‘Royal’ in the title of the business does not provide armour against the forces of inexorable progress. To mix metaphors, it seems that once again a trades union is about to shoot itself in the foot, making it a hat-trick for the hapless postal workers. Unions obtain their power in proportion to the number of members they have. The way they are going, the CWU will become as relevant to modern Britain as the National Union of Mineworkers is now. It really can’t come soon enough. Postal strikes actually stopped inconveniencing most people a couple of decades ago.