The recent outbreak of rolling one-day strike action by members of the Communications Workers Union is the latest episode in a long-running drama involving the Royal Mail that can be traced back to the early 2000s.
Each eruption of industrial conflict has ostensibly focused on different issues, such as a staggered pay offer in 2003 and accusations of bullying management in 2006.
However, underlying the poor industrial relations in the Royal Mail is the issue of potential privatisation, which surprisingly under the Conservative Governments of the 1980s and 1990s, was kept firmly on the political back-burner.
It was the return of 'New' Labour to office in 1997 which, paradoxically, put Royal Mail privatisation firmly back on to the political agenda.
Since the early 2000s, each time significant reform of working practices is discussed, the CWU tends to see the hidden hand of privatisation at play, making Royal Mail look more attractive to potential bidders of its existing services. There is little doubt that this is part of the longer-term strategy of senior management in Royal Mail.
Lord Mandelson is the latest Government minister to attempt a partial privatisation of Royal Mail and its chief executive, Adam Crozier, in a recent interview refused to rule-out eventual partial privatisation.
Reports have been commissioned examining the problems of Royal Mail over the years and the latest of these, the Hooper Report (2007), argued for three key initiatives:
1. Changing the Royal Mail's regulatory structure.
2. Government action to tackle the pensions deficit, which some estimate to be in the region of £10bn.
3. Encouraging private sector involvement in order to help modernise the postal service, create new revenue streams and inject capital into the organisation.
Following Hooper, a deal was agreed by Royal Mail management and the CWU (the pay and modernisation agreement 2007) which appeared to offer a basis for a more stable industrial relations, as well as facilitating widespread change.
The latest strikes signal a clear breakdown in this agreement.
The CWU argues that, at local level, management have ditched the spirit of the agreement and have started to unilaterally impose changes, while management argues union members have been too slow in implementing agreed changes.
What we have then in the Royal Mail is a dispute of principle revolving around the issue of privatisation and its pros and cons for both the service and the employees.
For the CWU, privatisation will herald an end to the universal nature of the postal service, the demise of those parts of the service that are simply not profitable, such as a postal service to rural areas, and a gradual erosion of the terms and conditions of Royal Mail employees (as well as greater job losses).
For senior management partial privatisation is seen as an essential part of any modernisation strategy.
While privatisation remains in the political background, industrial relations will continue along the current rocky road.
I believe the Government should kick into touch the privatisation agenda and then encourage senior management and the CWU to enter into a partnership agreement, giving the union a meaningful input into the modernisation process.
In turn, the CWU will need to agree to push for a faster pace of modernisation amongst its membership within Royal Mail.
Both management and unions should engage with each other constructively with a view to creating a high value added service, utilising sophisticated technology with high levels of staff training, creating higher levels of productivity, facilitating better pay for employees and a better service to its customers.
There's no particular reason why, on this basis, Royal Mail can't work its way through the current unrest and repay some of the investment the taxpayer has made.