Michael Gove: Postal workers are delivering a bleak future for themselves

The drift away from traditional postal services has been gathering pace

SHORT of a grassroots campaign among the turkey community calling for all our Christmases to come early it's hard to think of a more wilfully self-destructive act than the decision by postal workers to go on strike and thus ensure that all our presents actually come sometime in February.

I wonder if the guys at the Royal Mail even begin to realise just how fragile their position is. Because if they did they'd no more go on strike than a pensioner diagnosed with pneumonia would think the answer was 40 Capstan Full Strength before bed.

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The sad truth is that the Royal Mail is on the critical list. And its workforce seem to be resisting every step which might get it back to health.

For years now the drift away from traditional postal services has been gathering pace. Commercial organisations offering faster and more secure delivery, faxes, e-mails, pdfs, texts and Twitter have all combined to give the customer more and more flexible ways to communicate, speedily and safely, with friends, family, clients and customers. And while the competition has grown fiercer, Royal Mail has got flabbier.

Apart from crinoline dresses, three-volume novels and cholera, it's not easy to think of anything the Victorians did better than us. But the mail was one of them.

In the late 19th century there were between six and 12 deliveries of mail every day. In 2004 the Royal Mail reduced that to just one. The change was presented as the abolition of the "second" or afternoon post. In truth, it was the early morning delivery which was axed. Post now gets delivered by the Royal Mail long after any working adult has left home for the factory or office.

Unless, of course, it's a parcel. In which case you will get a little red card informing you that your cherished delivery is being held ransom in a sorting office on the other side of town, which you can visit for a few snatched hours, normally at times you will almost certainly be working, when it may be released into your care, if you can be certain to call on certain specific days, and remember to bring the appropriate documentation. It's easier to find a rosary at Ibrox than get a parcel delivered to your door in modern Britain.

And while the service has deteriorated over the years, with the pricing structure of postage becoming more complicated in 2006, and Sunday collections abolished in 2007, the unions have responded by escalating industrial action. In 2007 the service was disrupted by an official strike, for the first time in 11 years. Since then there have been a series of localised strikes and walkouts, culminating in the national vote this week for a co-ordinated campaign of disruption in the run-up to Christmas.

By what sort of logic do the union bosses imagine we'll be more inclined to trust the Royal Mail if it becomes even less dependable? The Post Office isn't like Pete Doherty, all the more lovable for being unreliable, nor is it like good skiing weather in the Cairngorms, a pleasure we know comes only fleetingly, but is all the more welcome for that.

The Post Office is meant to be like the Today programme, like mass at St Andrew's Cathedral, like The Broons and Oor Wullie – a clockwork-regular feature of all our lives on which we can rely while everything else is in flux. Turn the Royal Mail into a service which makes putting a message in a bottle seem a safer bet than putting a letter in the pillar box and all you do is accelerate the already precipitate flight away from the Post Office.

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By voting for strike action the unions have voted to reduce demand for their members' service, voted to drive custom away, voted to tell industry to make alternative arrangements, voted to frustrate the public and voted for ever-diminishing revenues in years to come. This strike is in no-one's interests, but the people who suffer most are those workers in an industry in which the rest of Britain may just lose interest. The longer this dispute goes on, the more certain it will be that those who still use the Royal Mail will go elsewhere.

The history of industrial relations in this country shows that no-one, but no-one, is indispensable. The National Union of Mineworkers thought the country couldn't do without its members, but their willingness to use the strike weapon over many years led industry to switch its energy buying from coal to gas. Rather than have production held ransom by an unreliable source of supply, business opted out of its coal contracts; and thus weakened forever the position of the miners. Over-energetic use of industrial muscle can actually lead to a weakening of negotiating strength.

I know that the Communications Workers Union has been driven to distraction by the Royal Mail management. Join the club boys – so have we all. But if you channel your frustration into industrial action, then we will all be the losers. Industry will place more and more of its delivery contracts elsewhere, communications will increasingly bypass the Royal Mail and the financial position of the Post Office will worsen.

I sympathise with many of the frustrations postal workers face at the hands of their management, but workers across the private sector who have been through lay-offs, pay-freezes and enforced part-time working may be less sympathetic this year than ever before to strike action in a still-nationalised industry. Given the financial mess all of us find ourselves in, now is not the time for industrial action. And if we want the Royal Mail to survive in good health that message has to get through.