Leading article: A strange form of modernisation

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The Independent Online

Words can mean whatever you want them to. Modernisation is crucial to the future success of Royal Mail, a union leader said yesterday, but change must bring with it modern pay and conditions. Postal workers deserve to be rewarded for change. And that meant a new job security agreement, he said, urging Britain's 120,000 postmen and women to vote today in a ballot for nationwide industrial action.

It is difficult to determine what party of modernity these union militants have in their sights. Look around the modern world and you do not see much job security, nor better working conditions. Postal union leaders seem to be dreaming of some bygone era of full employment, reduced working hours and improved pay. For the past few weeks, different parts of the country have been plagued with a series of 24-hour walk-outs by postal workers. In some places mail has been delayed by up to a fortnight. A backlog of 20 million letters and parcels is waiting to be cleared after strikes by some 20,000 Royal Mail employees – around a sixth of the workforce. Now they are voting on the possibility of a national strike.

All this has cost the recession-hit economy some £300m. And it is damaging the Royal Mail itself. A marketing survey yesterday showed that its brand reputation fell to a low of minus 14 last week when consumers were asked whether they felt positive or negative about the business. Its corporate brand index fell to eight, from a high of 17 six months ago.

All this is happening within a firm whose trade is falling by 10 per cent year-on-year as business customers desert Royal Mail for more efficient rivals. With European Union rules forcing Britain to open up the postal system to more private competition, unions and the management should be working together in this highly-competitive business world to reverse that trend – not to accelerate it.

Royal Mail has long been dogged by both maladroit management and antediluvian unions. But even by their standards the lack of imagination and co-operation being demonstrated in this Seventies-style stand-off is breath- taking. It looks something close a death wish.