Tuesday, 13 October 2009

Are Royal Mail Workers Shooting Themselves in the Foot?

So Royal Mail workers have voted in favour of strike action in the lead up to Christmas for the second time in three years. The company says that the number of letters and parcels its core business delivers is falling by 10% each year, losing it £170m per annum, and that it must modernise in order to streamline and cope with the fall. This inevitably means job cuts, but the Communication Workers Union says it cannot agree on the scope of the cuts or on job and pay guarantees for those workers remaining employed. It’s a very difficult position, but surely from a PR viewpoint, strike action really is not the best option.

There are two main reasons for the fall in Royal Mail’s business: increased use of electronic forms of communication, and competition from other mail carriers. And it’s this second point that would seem to make industrial action both self-defeating and nonsensical. In PR terms, strike action under these circumstances is a total disaster. It will force both individuals and companies to look for alternatives and switch to other carriers. Which will surely mean less business and more job cuts. So why can’t those Royal Mail workers who voted in favour of a strike see that?

In the last couple of days, major organizations including John Lewis and Amazon have stated that they are now working with other suppliers to avoid disruption to their deliveries. But this is just the tip of the iceberg. There are hundreds if not thousands of UK businesses that simply cannot afford to have their postal delivery service disrupted by strike action and who will look to other suppliers. The question is, once they’ve changed, will they go back? Will trust have dissolved and will Royal Mail’s reputation have been tarnished for good?

The British Chambers of Commerce (BCC) has criticised the vote in favour of a strike, describing it as "akin to a death wish". “This strike announcement defies logic at a time when businesses and government are working hard to move the UK economy back to growth, said Dr Adam Marshall, director of policy at the BCC, adding: “Postal delays are already hurting small businesses and major companies across the country.” Postal Affairs Minister Lord Young said: "A national postal strike…will drive even more people away from using mail as a means of communication.”

Personally, I find the strike short-sighted and find it extremely difficult to have any sympathy for Royal Mail workers. It’s obviously a difficult situation to be in, but hurting the very consumers and businesses who are the lifeblood of the service would seem to me to be suicidal. It takes a long time to build a reputation, but a very short time to damage one.

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