With Christmas approaching, sales will once again begin to rise and cards will be written. Mail services will be at their busiest as we post millions of cards and parcels every day. But, the question is: will they arrive? Workers in the supply chain at Royal Mail have voted to strike over pay.
Since the part privatisation of Royal Mail, many criticisms have emerged, ranging from the price at which shares were sold, the efficiency of the Royal Mail, suggestions of varying prices for delivery depending on location, and now over pay. As with any labour market, there is a demand and a supply of workers and the intersection of these curves creates our equilibrium wage. If the wage is forced up above the equilibrium wage by the actions of trade unions, then there is the potential for unemployment to be created.
The Communications Workers Union (CWU) feels that their pay is insufficient. Dave Ward, Deputy General Secretary of CWU said:
“Thanks entirely to the unreasonable attitude of Post Office management, a pre-Christmas national strike is looking inevitable…The workforce has made a major contribution to the company’s success and have every right to their fair share.”
However, the head of the supply chain at Royal Mail has responded to the threats of strike, referring to the 5% pay rise promised to its workers over the next three years, saying:
“We are undertaking the biggest modernisation programme in UK retail history to ensure we become commercially viable and reduce our reliance on public money…We urge the CWU to reconsider their unrealistic demands and discuss an affordable pay deal rather than call strike action which can only cost our people money.”
The row over pay is not the only way that job losses could emerge. A major criticism levelled at the Royal Mail is its lack of efficiency, especially in terms of cost reductions and work flexibility. The Royal Mail has become increasingly concerned by competition, especially as its low-cost competitors can choose to whom they deliver. Those living in built up areas receive mail, but for those living in more rural areas, some of Royal Mail’s competitors will not deliver there, because of the higher costs. Royal Mail does not have this luxury and hence must deliver to loss-making places. Royal Mail says that this is creating unfair pressure to its business and is calling for these competitors to be forced to deliver to rural areas and small businesses. However, one such company, Whistl, has said that the figures from Royal Mail suggest that ‘productivity is not a sufficiently high enough management priority.
If the strike does go ahead in the build up to Christmas, then the management priorities of Royal Mail will certainly be under scrutiny. The following articles consider the current situation.
- Exclusive: Ofcom to criticise Royal Mail efficiency
- Post Office facing pre-Christmas strike action
- DPD seeks to put Royal Mail under further pressure with hiring
- Royal Mail’s Moya Greene should stop whinging and start delivering
- CWU deem Post Office strike over Christmas ‘inevitable’
Independent, Mark Leftly (24/11/14)
BBC News (18/11/14)
Financial Times, Fill Plimmer (23/11/14)
The Telegraph, Jeremy Warner (22/11/14)
- If there is strike action in a labour market, what can we conclude about the market in question in terms of how competitive it is?
- Is strike action completely pointless?
- What actions could workers take, other than strike action, to achieve a resolution of their grievances? Discuss what employers could offer in an attempt to resolve the situation?
- What are the arguments for making Royal Mail’s competitors deliver to all places, just as the Royal Mail must do?
- The efficiency of the Royal Mail has been called into question. If efficiency improved, would this mean that pay rises were more or less feasible?
Getting around London is pretty easy to do. Transport, though often criticized, is very effective in and around London – at least when the Underground is running uninterrupted. However, since 9pm on Tuesday 4th February until the morning of 7th February, the underground will be operating well below full capacity, as strike action affects many workers.
Transport for London has plans to cut many jobs, in particular through the closure of ticket office at all stations. Modernisation to the network is said to be essential, not just to improve the existing system, but also as it is predicted to save £50 million per year. Data suggests that only 3% of transactions involve people using ticket offices and thus the argument is that having offices manned is a waste of money and these workers would be better allocated to manning stations. David Cameron said:
I unreservedly condemn this strike. There is absolutely no justification for a strike. We need a modernised tube line working for the millions of Londoners who use it every day.
Workers on London Underground are naturally concerned about the impact this will have, in particular on their jobs, despite assurances that there will be no compulsory redundancies.
The impact of these strikes on workers in London is clearly evident by any pictures you look at. Buses were over-crowded, despite more than 100 extra being provided, pavements were packed with pedestrians and the roads were full of cyclists. At least the strike action has led to a little more exercise for many people! The disruption to business in London is likely to be relatively large and the loss in revenue due to the action will also be high, estimated by Business leaders to be tens of millions of pounds. It is perhaps for this reason that there is discussion as to whether the underground should be declared an ‘essential service’ as a means of minimising future disruptions.
Discussions have been ongoing between both sides to try to prevent this action and talks are likely to continue in the future. Boris Johnson has declared the strikes as ‘completely pointless’ and both sides have argued that the other has been unwilling to negotiate and discuss the ticket office closures. Boris Johnson said:
A deal is there to be done. I am more than happy to talk to Bob Crow if he calls off the pointless and unnecessary strike.
The impact on London and the economy will only be fully known after the strike action is over, but there are plans for further strikes next week. The greater the disruption the bigger the calls for further strikes on key services, such as the tube, to be prevented. In particular, this may mean new powers to curtail the rights of unions in these types of areas, which will require a minimum service to be provided. The following articles consider the strike action on the London Underground.
- Tube strike: London Underground disrupts commuters
- Boris Johnson apologises for ‘pointless’ tube strike delays
- London hit by travel chaos as Tube staff goes on strike
- London Underground staff stage 48-hour strike
- Tube strike disrupts journeys for London commuters
- Tube strike 2014: Travel chaos as industrial action over ticket office closures hits underground services in London
- What’s the tube strike really about?
BBC News (5/2/14)
The Telegraph (5/2/14)
Reuters, Julia Fioretti (5/2/14)
Sky News (5/2/14)
The Guardian, Gwyn Topham (5/2/14)
Independent, Rob Williams (5/2/14)
BBC News, Tom Edwards (4/2/14)
- If there is strike action in a labour market, what can we conclude about the market in question in terms of how competitive it is?
- If only 3% of transactions take place via ticket offices, is it an efficient use of resources to maintain the presence of ticket offices at every station?
- Is industrial action ‘completely pointless’?
- What other solutions are there besides strike action to problems of industrial dispute?
- What is the role of ACAS in negotiations?
- What is the economic impact of the strike on the London Underground? Think about the impact on businesses, revenues, sales and both micro and macro consequences.
- Should the tube be seen as an essential service such that strike action by its workers would be restricted?
The most common demands for trade unions are for higher wages and better working conditions. However, pensions have become an increasingly important issue that many public-sector workers in particular have raised concerns over. While actions by trade unions have been less frequent and public in recent months, the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS) has voted to strike.
The labour market works like any other market – there is a demand for and supply of labour. The intersection of the demand and supply of labour give the equilibrium wage rate and equilibrium number of workers. Trade unions may aim to push up the wage rate above this equilibrium and the impact on the number of workers employed will depend on the type of labour market. If we have a competitive labour market, then the increase in wage will create an excess supply of labour: that is, unemployment. This is often a choice a trade union has to make. However, if the market is a monopsony, then it is possible for a trade union to force up wages and yet there may not be any fall in the number of workers employed.
Pay is just one of the issues being raised by the PCS. Public-sector pay was frozen for two years for those earning above £21,000. According to the Cabinet Office, this was necessary to ‘protect jobs in the public sector and support high quality public services.’ A 5% pay rise has been requested to counter an alleged 7% fall in earnings since 2008. 61% of those who voted in the ballot were in favour of strike action. Other concerns include job losses and pensions.
One concern of the PCS will be the low turn-out. Only 28% of the union’s members voted in this ballot and this is likely to weaken the union’s bargaining position. The government has monopsony power in employing civil servants and this is one of the reasons why a powerful trade union is likely to emerge: it acts to reduce the power of the monopsonist employer. Negotiations will typically take place between the employer and the trade union and with such a low turn-out, the power is certainly with the government. However, with the threat of strike action to occur around the time of the Budget, this does present something of a concern for the government, especially with growth remaining weak and the loss of the AAA rating.
Two separate pay offers have been made to 1.6 million public-sector workers, but Unison has suggested that members of PCS should reject them. If headway is not made in negotiations between PCS and the government, then strike action could be just around the corner. The following articles consider this looming industrial action.
- UK public workers’ union may strike after vote
- PCS Union votes for strike action after national ballot
- Union ballots over Budget strike action
- Civil servants vote in favour of strike
- Budget day threatened by civil service strike
- PCS strike vote: Results of national ballot due
- Department of Education workers vote in favour of strike action over cuts and job losses
Bloomberg, Gonzalo Vina (4/3/13)
BBC News (4/3/13)
The Guardian (4/3/13)
The Telegraph, Victoria Ward (4/3/13)
BBC News, John Moylan (4/3/13)
Independent, Richard Garner (18/2/13)
- Use a diagram to illustrate a competitive market for labour and show how a trade union will aim to push up the wage rate. Show why a trade-off exists between the higher wage and the number of workers employed.
- Illustrate a diagram showing a monopsony and explain why the MC curve exceeds the AC curve. Why is it possible for a trade union to force up wages without creating a decline in the equilibrium number of workers employed?
- What other actions, besides striking, are available for trade union members? What are the costs and benefits of each relative to striking?
- Which factors, besides a low turn-out in the ballot, will reduce the trade union’s negotiating power?
- Public-sector pay was frozen for two years. If the government accepted the trade union’s pay demands, what would be the impact on the budget deficit? Could the higher pay help boost economic growth by creating a multiplier effect?
Trade union action has been a feature of the British labour market over the past few years, as discussed in this first and second blog. With the government’s austerity measures still in place and ongoing issues over pension provision, there are many explosive issues that will undoubtedly be discussed at this year’s TUC Conference in Brighton.
We have already heard from numerous unions that strike action over the coming year is ‘inevitable’. With rising prices, static or even falling wages, reduced pension provision and increased contributions, the cost of living has become increasingly unaffordable for many members of the trade unions. Dave Prentis, the General Secretary of Unison said:
‘I think people have been pushed into a corner. They are moving into poverty … The threat is that if we can’t move forward in negotiations to find a way through it then we will move to industrial action. There is no doubt whatsoever that we can create disputes throughout next year.’
Although few would argue against the notion that the government’s finances are in a dire state and spending cuts together with tax rises are needed, the controversy seems to lie in exactly when these cuts should take place and how severe they should be. For many, cutting government spending and raising taxes whilst the economy is still in recession is asking for trouble. For others, it’s the right thing to do and everyone should play a part in helping to return government finances to a semblance of balance. The Labour government has traditionally supported trade unions, but even their leadership backed the government’s plan for pay restraint for public sector workers. This, together with the continuing debates over public sector pensions has clearly angered many public sector workers, thus creating this ‘inevitable’ industrial action over the coming year.
Unison and GMB have said that they will be working together in order to try to better pay and conditions for its members, by co-ordinating public-sector strikes around Spring next year. Co-ordinated strikes across a variety of sectors could create havoc for the economy. Not just disruption for the everyday person, but losses for businesses and the economy. A general strike has not taken place since 1926, but it is thought that TUC delegates will be voting on whether or not one should be planned. So, when faced with these inevitable strikes, should the government back down and cut back on austerity or stand up to them and suffer the disruption of a strike, whilst continuing on with bringing its budget back on track? The following articles look at the TUC Congress and the proposed strike action.
Public sector unions plan Spring strikes Guardian, Dan Milmo (9/9/12)
Trade union warns of further strikes Financial Times, Brian Groom (7/9/12)
Trade union officials gather for TUC Congress in Brighton BBC News, John Moylan (9/9/12)
Unite union leader warns of wave of public sector strikes Guardian, Dan Milmo (7/9/12)
Unison and GMB unions planning co-ordinated strikes over pay BBC News, Justin Parkinson (9/9/12)
TUC Conference 2012: a mixture of new and old Channel 4 News (9/9/12)
Government must stand up to these TUC bully tactics Express, Leo McKinstry (9/9/12)
- What is the purpose of a trade union?
- What is the difference between individual and collective bargaining? Why is collective bargaining likely to be more successful in achieving certain aims?
- If there is co-ordinated strike action, what are the likely costs for (a) the workers on strike (b) the non-striking workers (c) businesses and (d) the economy?
- What are the main issues being debated between unions and the government?
- Explain the economic reasoning behind Dave Prentis’ statement that people are being moved into poverty.
- Do you agree with strike action? Do you think it has any effect?
- When do you think is the right time to implement austerity measures? Has the government got it right? As always, make sure you explain your answer!!
The pensions crisis is one area of social policy that has been the focus of attention for some years. With an ageing population, more people entering higher education and a rather substantial deficit facing the government, pension reform has been high on the agenda and not just in the UK.
A number of factors have contributed towards the so-called pensions crisis: rising life expectancy; the ‘baby-boomers’ retiring; more people staying in education for longer; an ageing population. All of these have led to a dependency ratio that is becoming worse – fewer workers to support every pensioner. Over the past few years, strikes have taken place in protest to government pension plans, especially for public sector workers, who see the proposals as making them worse off once they retire. Doctors are the latest group to strike in protest over having to work longer before retiring and having to pay higher national insurance contributions.
So, are the doctors justified in their protests? They are currently on a final-salary pension scheme, which is a very generous scheme, although it is being phased out and replaced with a career average scheme, which will have big implications for doctors’ pensions. Furthermore, there was an overhaul of their pensions in 2008, thus the criticism that further changes are now being made to make them even worse off. Doctors do pay higher national insurance contributions than other occupations, such as teachers and they will naturally receive a higher pension than other NHS workers, such as nurses simply because they earn more. However, this does have big implications for their future.
Inequality is a big issue across the UK and this doesn’t only refer to income. Those earning higher salaries are more likely to live longer than the average worker. So, we see life expectancy inequality as well. The consequence of this is that once an individual retires at say 60, if your life expectancy is 85, then you have 25 years to live in retirement receiving whatever pension you have accumulated throughout your working life. If, however, your life expectancy is only 75, perhaps because of your background, your occupation, your health, then you will only spend 15 years in retirement. The person that lives longer therefore receives significantly more in pension payments and if this differing life expectancy is related to your occupation and thus your salary, then inequality of income clearly has some very wide implications for pension schemes and rates of contribution.
There are, of course, wider effects of any industrial action by doctors. Whilst some may agree with their view that this further pension reform is unfair, if any strike action does take place there will be wider economic effects. Those in need of treatment may have to delay it and if that means more people taking sick days, then the economic cost to the economy could be significant. The following articles consider the latest controversy in public-sector pensions.
Independent Public Service Pensions Commission Final Report HM Treasury, Pensions Commission March 2011
Doctors’ strike: how the cost of NHS pensions soared Telegraph, Matthew Holehouset (21/6/12)
Are doctors’ pensions too generous Guardian, Hillary Osborne and Jill Insley (21/6/12)
Lansley: ‘Doctors’ pension scheme is generous’ BBC News (21/6/12)
Doctors get a nasty taste of Gordon Brown’s pension medicine Telegraph, Philip Johnston (18/6/12)
Doctors wrong on pensions, says Hutton Financial Times, Sarah Neville and Norma Cohen (19/6/12)
BMA ‘Inherent unfairness’ in doctor pensions BBC Radio 4 Today (21/6/12)
Reluctant move against intransigent government Scotsman, Dr Brian Keighley (21/6/12)
Will you be affected by the doctors’ strikes? BBC News (15/6/12)
- Explain the main factors that are contributing towards the so-called pensions crisis. In each case, is it a demand-side or supply-side issue?
- What are the main proposals to tackling the pensions crisis (not just for Doctors)?
- What is the difference between a career average and a final salary pension scheme? Which is better for (a) those on a higher salary at the end of their career and (b) those who are on a relatively lower salary at the end of their career? Make sure you explain your thinking!!
- What are the arguments both for and against this new round of pension reforms for doctors? Do you think the doctors are justified in taking strike action?
- What are the wider implications of industrial action? Think about the effect on individuals and on the economic performance of the wider economy.
- To what extent is it equitable that public sector workers should pay more in contributions and retire at the same age as the state pension age?
- How might higher contributions affect the incentive to work? What could we see happen to labour supply? Think about both income and substitution effects.