The impending mail strike makes it clear how near-monopoly services seem to breed dinosaur unions. The ability to shut down a service ups the ante for the unions. In services where there is a competitive market, customers can turn to other suppliers. Lord Mandelson rightly points out that a mail strike now will turn customers to alternative communications technologies, customers who will probably not return.
Some will turn to other mail deliverers, rather than other technologies, but the problem here is that the Royal Mail does the end delivery, the so-called ‘last mile.’ Other firms such as the Dutch-owned TNT, use Royal Mail postmen and women for the final delivery through letterboxes. This means that the Communication Workers Union (CWU) has the power to shut down the service totally, giving it a massive industrial muscle it has shown itself quite prepared to use.
One reason why this state of affairs has continued is that the Post Office is uniquely exempt from paying VAT on its services, as its would-be competitors have to. This means that a rival has to be 15 percent (and soon 20 percent) more efficient to compete effectively. Most markets are won or lost on much smaller percentage margins than that. TNT has a case pending before the European Court protesting the unfairness and calling for a level playing field. Until then, though, it is effectively priced out.
The strike is about modernization, as postal services have to streamline to take on the challenge of electronic communication. The government and management know that more efficient and automated practices must come if mail delivery is to survive.
It would be a good move now for the VAT rule to be changed, putting a level playing field into place for postal services. This would give firms like TNT the chance to set up end delivery and keep the mail services running despite the CWU shutdown. This would give the customers an alternative to the service which has been constantly interrupted by unofficial action, and which now threatens them with a total stoppage.
The CWU has been intransigent and antiquated because it has the power to be so. If alternative delivery systems were in place for customers to turn to, the union would soon change its behaviour. The time has come for government to rescue its citizens from the grip of an over-mighty union by opening up the field to firms which can compete on an equal basis.
Published on Telegraph.co.uk here.