For the second time in two years, a nationwide postal strike is looming. The Royal Mail management and the Communication Workers Union are on a collision course which seems destined to end in walkouts by postal workers across the country by the end of the month.
Both sides must accept their share of the blame for this breakdown in relations. The union is demanding guarantees on pay and conditions for staff which are far more generous than any that exist in the private sector. It is also resisting reforms – such as the part-privatisation recommended by last year's Hooper review – that are necessary to eradicate some of the Royal Mail's entrenched inefficiencies.
There are also serious questions over the performance of the company's management. Royal Mail bosses, it is true, have been forced to cope with the consequences of a botched deregulation of the postal market in 2006. But to be facing yet another national strike suggests incompetence.
For all the militant tendencies of the union, workers' representatives agreed two years ago, in principle, to job cuts and a modernisation programme. A skilful management would have been able to implement its reforms without provoking such a disastrous confrontation.
Yet wherever the greater share of the blame lies, the prospect of another national strike is deeply depressing for everyone that uses the Royal Mail, or cares about its long-term future. Both the union and the management claim to have the long-term interests of the company at heart. But to the outside world, this dispute resembles nothing so much as an exercise in self-harm.
The world of communications is in the throes of a revolution. The number of letters being sent has been falling steadily since the turn of the decade as people increasingly correspond through email and pay bills online rather than posting cheques. This does not mean that the Royal Mail has no future. But that future will increasingly lie in delivering the items that people are buying over the internet. While the volume of letters posted is sharply down, the delivery of parcels is booming.
Yet unlike in the private letters market, the Royal Mail will not enjoy a monopoly in parcel delivery. Private sector competition is already mushrooming. Eventually, the Royal Mail will be just one more service provider in a diverse marketplace. What will determine its success or failure will be its ability to provide an efficient service to its customers. What will matter, above all, will be reputation.
This latest spasm of industrial unrest is doing great damage to that reputation. And there are already signs that the patience of its customers is wearing thin. John Lewis announced this week that it will be working with other carriers in order to avoid disruption to its online deliveries. Amazon, the Royal Mail's second-largest customer, is reported to have awarded one of its contracts to Home Delivery Network. Neither can afford for deliveries to be delayed in the crucial pre-Christmas period.
While Royal Mail managers and workers squabble among themselves, the world of communication and logistics is moving on without them. Unless they get their act together and start pulling in the same direction, both the company's management and its workers risk finding that the new world has been established – and that they lack a place in it.