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Royal Mail staff are trying to save the universal postal service

December 7, 2012 Leave a comment

‘It is Royal Mail postal workers like me who walk along your street and up and down your garden path, six days a week, in order to get the mail to you.’ Photograph: Rex Features

If private companies can pick the best bits of the network, the obligation to deliver to all is undermined. That’s why we’re considering action.

From the Guardian, Comment is free, Thursday 6 December 2012 15.05 GMT

According to a headline in Wednesday’s Daily Mail, postal workers are threatening “to ditch half of their deliveries in bid to protect Royal Mail from ‘unfair’ competition“.

The Mail makes it clear with those quotation marks exactly where it stands on plans by the Communication Workers’ Union (CWU) to ballot its members on whether to boycott letters handled by rival companies.

As the article says: “Royal Mail has lost business to the likes of TNT Post and UK Mail over the past seven years. Currently, half of all letters are handled by a rival company, with Royal Mail responsible for only the final mile of the delivery.” Again, it’s that little word “only” which betrays its prejudice. In case you’ve forgotten, the business of a postal delivery service is to deliver the post.

The Royal Mail doesn’t “only” deliver the final mile. The final mile is the actual work. All the rival companies do is collect the mail from the bulk mail contractors (such as banks and utility companies) and then drive it to one of the Royal Mail’s delivery hubs for distribution around the country. We do all the rest.

It is Royal Mail postal workers like me who walk along your street and up and down your garden path, six days a week, in order to get the mail to you. The technical term is downstream access. Private mail companies have access to the Royal Mail’s distribution system. The Royal Mail has to apply something known as “headroom” in fixing its price for this service. Headroom is the difference between what the Royal Mail is allowed to charge for its bulk mail contracts and what it can charge its rivals for access to the network. It has to allow rival companies headroom to make a profit.

The whole system is administered by Ofcom, the postal regulator. In other words, the Royal Mail is heavily regulated to achieve what is sometimes called “deregulation”, ie access of private companies to the postal market.

This is what the CWU is talking about to when it refers to “unfair competition”. As the union says: “CWU is concerned that unfair competition is undermining the sustainability of the universal service … Private postal company mail makes up 45% of letter volumes delivered by Royal Mail, a figure which has consistently grown under competition arrangements. New end-to-end competition is a worrying expansion, further undermining the USO [universal service obligation].”

Guardian readers will not be surprised by this statement, as I’ve been banging on about the issue for the last three years at least. What is new is the introduction of so-called end-to-end competition into the postal market. Currently only one company, TNT, is doing this, with around 300 delivery staff delivering mail to about 350,000 households in west and central London.

What this means is that TNT continues to use the Royal Mail’s downstream access service in all but those 350,000 households, although in a recent press release it said it planned to increase the number of its postal employees to 20,000 in the next five years.

There is no obligation on TNT to deliver the universal service, therefore it is able to cherry-pick those parts of the network that are the most profitable. Nor is there any obligation to match the Royal Mail’s pay and conditions.

In other words, what this amounts to is an attack upon our jobs. If TNT and other private mail companies are able to pick the best bits of the network with no obligation to deliver to the rest of the country and, at the same time, are able to pay reduced wages, then this is clearly a threat – not only to our pay and conditions, but also to the universal service. Personally, I will be voting yes when my ballot paper arrives.

Read more here.

If you don’t like the 60p stamp, wait till you see Royal Mail privatisation

March 29, 2012 Leave a comment
Image

‘Sixty pence to deliver a first-class letter from the Outer Hebrides to the Scilly Isles: it’s still a bargain by anyone’s reckoning.’ Photograph: Kevin Foy/Rex Features

Royal Mail may be viewed with a high level of affection by the public now, but will that still be the case after it’s privatised?

From the Guardian Comment is free

The inevitable has happened. The government has announced its schedule for the privatisation of the Royal Mail, due to begin in 2013.

It’s not clear yet whether it will be full privatisation or part-privatisation, whether it will be sold off to another mail company or to a private equity firm, or whether it will be floated on the stock market as an IPO (initial public offering) and advertised to the public in the manner of the “Tell Sid” campaign for the sale of British Gas way back in 1986. “We see no reason why this company should not be IPO-able,” said one senior figure. “Royal Mail is viewed with a high level of affection by the public.”

The reasons given for the privatisation were outlined in the Hooper report in 2010.

They are as follows:

1) Falling volumes of mail due to competition from electronic media such as email and texts.

2) The inefficiency of the Royal Mail compared with its competitors.

3) The need for modernisation and the private investment to complete this.

4) The pensions deficit, the headline figure for which seems to rise on a yearly basis. It currently stands at £9bn according to some reports, less according to others.

Hooper consulted widely throughout the industry. However, he has never, as far as I know, spoken to any postal workers.

What we would have told him is that while it may be true that mail volumes have fallen, staff numbers have been falling at a faster rate. Up to 50,000 job losses since 2002.

In other words, the weight of mail for the average postal worker has been increasing. We are carrying more mail, to greater numbers of people, on larger rounds than ever. Our sacks are heavier. We work longer hours, and we’ve taken an effective pay cut since the postal agreement of 2010 in which door-to-door (junk mail) – which we were previously paid for separately – has now been incorporated into our workload. In other words, falling mail volumes have been more than compensated for by staff efficiencies.

We would also have told him that the so-called inefficiency of the Royal Mail is due as much to market liberalisation as it is to anything inherent in the company.

Private mail companies have access to the Royal Mail network through a mechanism known as downstream access. They bid for the most lucrative contracts from corporate customers, but have no obligation to deliver the letters. They leave that up to the Royal Mail, dropping it off on our doorstep for final-mile delivery. In other words, our so-called competitors have a peculiar market advantage. They take a cut of the profits, while we do the actual work.

As for modernisation, that is being subsidised by the taxpayer. The government has already loaned the company £1.7bn and is proposing to write off £1bn of that.

Which brings us to the pension deficit, which has already been taken into government hands. Even then it was never as great a problem as has been made out. The deficit currently stands at £9bn but the assets stand at £28bn. That’s three times as much. The deficit only becomes a problem if all Royal Mail workers cash in their pensions immediately, something that is not going to happen.

These are just some of the ways in which the argument for privatisation has been skewed.

Meanwhile, in preparation for the event, the new regulator, Ofcom, has announced a lifting of the cap on how much the company can charge for first-class mail. The public are hardly likely to enjoy that. Nor is this going to increase public affection for the company.

However, here’s the problem. The cost of mail delivery has been way too cheap for way too long. Sixty pence to deliver a first-class letter from the Outer Hebrides to the Scilly Isles: it’s still a bargain by anyone’s reckoning.

Traditionally the profitable parts of the company were used to supplement the unprofitable parts. This is the means by which the Royal Mail has been able to deliver the universal service obligation (USO).

It is the breaking up of the company that has lead to the threat to the USO, one of the reasons Hooper gives for the need for privatisation. (Indeed, his report is called “Saving the Royal Mail’s universal postal service in the digital age”.) The irony here is that the USO might be dropped in order to sweeten any future deal.

Anyone who wants to know what privatisation means for staff only needs to look at the Dutch model, where postal rounds have been franchised out to home workers in a system known as “sort and deliver”. Boxes of mail are dropped on a home-worker’s doorstep, who then has to sort the mail and deliver it on an agreed day. The worker is paid per item, not by the hour.

The trick here is that there is often a gross underestimation of the time it takes to do the work. Casual workers get no sick pay, no holiday pay, no health insurance, no pension and – depending on how long the round takes – often end up being paid below the minimum wage.

All of which is likely to erode that “high level of affection” felt by the public for the Royal Mail.

Read more here.

Ofcom offers little hope to Royal Mail

October 30, 2011 Leave a comment

Under Ofcom’s proposals, ‘Royal Mail has a monopoly of the work, while other companies get a share of the profits’. Photograph: Adrian Dennis/AFP/Getty Images

Royal Mail has a new regulator, but its proposals fail to protect the service from privatisation and unfair competition

From the Guardian, Comment is free

Friday 28 October 2011 08.00 BST

The Royal Mail now has a new regulator, Ofcom, which took over the role from Postcomm on 1 October. Ofcom has already issued a report in which a number of changes are proposed. There is a public consultation under way, which closes on 5 January 2012.

The most contentious of the proposals is the one to lift the cap on what the Royal Mail can charge for its principal service. According to some reports this could mean the price of a first-class stamp going up to £1. Less well recognised, but equally important, is the proposal to lift the cap on the price of bulk mail and business mail, which could also have an impact on customers further down the line.

The move to Ofcom follows on from proposals made in the Hooper report, which has been the basis of policy for successive governments since it was first published in 2008. It was updated at the request of the current government in 2010.

Hooper makes a number of recommendations, of which the change of regulators is just one. Other recommendations include the introduction of private capital through a “strategic partnership with a company with corporate experience of modernisation” – privatisation – and the removal of the pension deficit to the public purse, thus lifting the burden from any future buyer. In March 2010 the deficit stood at £8bn. Hooper states that his proposals must be taken as a package, which implies that privatisation is not far off.

The stated aim of both the Hooper report and the Ofcom proposals is the protection of the Universal Service Obligation (USO) by which the Royal Mail is required to collect and deliver letters six days a week at an affordable and uniform price across the UK. None of the other mail companies has this obligation. It is interesting to note that these proposals come on the eve of privatisation. They allow any future buyer the freedom, not allowed to the Royal Mail for the past few years, to set a price in line with actual costs.

Meanwhile Ofcom also offers safeguards to protect vulnerable consumers from onerous price rises by placing a cap on the price of second-class stamps of between 45-55p. It also, very significantly, promises “to require Royal Mail to continue to provide competitors with access to its delivery network”.

It’s at this point that we enter the bizarre world of “downstream access”. Hooper explains the term in his report, in a footnote on page 12:

“Royal Mail delivers 99% of all letters downstream. Royal Mail is required by the regulator … under the terms of its licence to deliver letters for competitors who collect and sort upstream in competition with Royal Mail. This is called the access regime or downstream access regime. Competition in physical mail happens upstream whereas downstream delivery of physical mail has the characteristics of a monopoly.”

Do you get that folks? “Competition in physical mail” – that is competition for profits – “happens upstream”, while “downstream delivery of physical mail” – that is, the actual work – “has the characteristics of a monopoly”. Royal Mail has a monopoly of the work, while the other companies get a share of the profits. And you wonder why the USO is under threat?

The Ofcom proposals continue: “Royal Mail would have the freedom to set the ‘wholesale price’ for access to its network but would be subject to rules regarding the allowed margin between the wholesale and retail prices. This would help ensure that efficient competitors can compete effectively with Royal Mail.” This is known in the business as “headroom”. It is the difference between what the Royal Mail is allowed to charge, and what the “competitors” – who don’t, in any recognisable sense of the word, actually compete – require in order to continue to generate profits for themselves.

Ofcom makes a sort of nod of recognition to the absurdity of the situation when it promises, in the next sentence, “to assess on a case-by-case basis any interest in providing so-called ‘end-to-end competition’ in the UK, where a postal operator receives the letter and delivers to an address without using Royal Mail’s network.” It is interesting to speculate what this might mean. Are we going to see rival pillar boxes on our street corners, and rival posties with different coloured uniforms vying with each other to get to the letter box first? Will there be a kind of postal workers’ turf-war going on, in which I meet my rival at the gate and have to fight him off for access to your letter box?

Of course not. The rival companies will only consider an end-to-end service if there is profit to be made, which means they won’t be in the slightest bit interested in the USO. If such a thing happens at all it will be delivery within one city, or between cities, no more. Rural and remote areas of Britain will never be graced by any but the Royal Mail’s characteristic uniform. Whatever else happens, the Universal Service Obligation will remain the obligation of one company alone. Which is the reason why the Royal Mail will always remain a special case.

Read more here

Royal Mail’s ‘neighbourly’ delivery service has a hidden cause

October 4, 2011 1 comment

Staff unload vans at Royal Mail’s sorting office in Filton, Bristol one of the biggest in the UK. Photograph: Matt Cardy/Getty Images

The Royal Mail’s decision to leave undelivered mail with neighbours fits in with its policy of closing delivery offices

From the Guardian, Comment is free

Monday 3 October 2011 10.09 BST

How well do you know your neighbour? Well enough to trust him with your valuables, for instance, with confidential information, with your cup-final tickets or your passport? Well enough to allow him to receive your latest bargains from eBay or your brand new iPhone?

You’d better get to know him pretty soon, if the latest proposals by the Royal Mail are accepted by Postcomm.

Currently the Royal Mail is the only postal company not allowed to leave undelivered mail with your neighbours. Instead a 739 (“Sorry you were out”) card is left and the items returned to the local delivery office for collection.

In future, if you are not in, the postal worker will be expected to try delivering to a neighbour instead. A neighbour is defined as someone who “lives within close proximity”. It’s up to the postal worker to decide who this might be. If the neighbour accepts the item, then a 739 card will be delivered to your door detailing the address where the mail is left. If the item requires a signature, then the neighbour’s signature will be taken. If the neighbour is not at home, or refuses to accept the item, then the postal worker will return it to the delivery office in the usual way. The Royal Mail will not accept liability for loss, damage, or delay once it is in the neighbour’s hands.

According to the latest research by GfK NOP market research carried out on behalf of Consumer Focus, customers are generally suspicious of the proposals. Four out of five of those questioned said that they should be allowed to opt-out of the scheme if they wished, while nearly half (49%) said that neighbours shouldn’t be allowed to sign for recorded post. One in five people said they were unhappy for any neighbour to be given any post.

The Royal Mail states that the reason for the change in procedure is to “bring its service into line with other providers”.

That’s “modernisation” for you. Because other mail companies provide a lesser service, the Royal Mail feels obliged to reduce the quality of its service too. I always thought the idea of competition was that it would improve the service. Not so, it seems …

Actually, I think the company is being disingenuous here. I think it has little to do with saving money or with competition. Something else is going on, something you will know about if it is happening in your area, but which you will not have heard of otherwise: the large-scale but mostly hidden closure of delivery offices up and down the country.

Just to give you some idea of the scale of these closures: in the last month I’ve had notification of the impending closure of more than 10 delivery offices in the UK. This includes the closure of a number of delivery offices in the RG7 postcode area around Tadley, Hook and Thatcham and their removal to Reading, about 11 miles away. The Reading delivery office is also due to close, and the whole lot moved into an industrial estate outside the town. Also planned for closure are offices in DundeeHull, Holbeach, Fishguard, Droitwich, Guisborough, Malmesbury, Whitstable and Herne Bay.

The most high-profile closure is that of the central London delivery office in Rathbone Place, which serves W1, WC1 and WC2, which Great Portland Estates has just bought for £120m. I have to say that sounds like a bit of a bargain for a 2.3 acre site, just off the eastern end of Oxford Street, in the heart of the London’s fashionable West End. The Royal Mail operation will be moved to the Mount Pleasant office in Phoenix Place, Islington, a significant bus or tube journey away.

These are only the ones I’ve heard about in the last month. According to the Royal Mail annual report 2010-2011, 19 delivery offices closed last year. This should give you some idea of the on-going scale of the programme.

The reason news of the closures remains hidden is that the story always appears in the local paper and as yet there has been no notification in the national press. There are small-scale protests happening throughout the country, as local people are beginning to recognise the implications of the closure of their particular delivery office, but no recognition of the sheer scale of the closure programme, nor what this will cost in terms of extra journeys to and from distant offices for the nation as a whole.

Just to give you one example of this, if the Herne Bay and Whitstable delivery offices close and their operations move to Canterbury, some eight miles away, then this could mean in the region of 1.5m extra miles of road journeys per year for staff going to and from work and for customers forced to pick up their undelivered mail.

Hence the need to change procedures. While staff will have to undertake the journey regardless, customers might well prefer to risk having their mail dropped off with a neighbour rather than having to drive to some out-of-the-way office on an out-of-town industrial estate to pick it up.

Royal Mail is supposed to be a low-carbon company. As it says on the website: “We want to make sure our services have a positive impact on society and a minimal impact on the environment – and we’re working with you and our partners to make it happen. For us, sustainability affects every part of our business, every day, and we can all make a contribution.”

Meanwhile the Royal Mail are raking in vast amounts of cash for the sale of prime real estate in the heart of our towns and cities. Where will all the money go I wonder?

Read more here.

Junk mail – the facts

July 7, 2011 Leave a comment

A Panorama programme on postal junk was compelling, but didn’t mention that the market is skewed against Royal Mail

Junk mail. We all hate it don’t we?

Postal workers probably hate it more than anyone else, as we see more of it than anyone else. You only have a few items a week to deal with, we have hundreds of items a day. Sometimes we have as many as six separate items per household to load into our frames. That could be well in excess of 3,000 items a week. You can’t imagine how tedious this is.

And whereas in the past we were paid separately for it, as a supplement to our wages (which compensated us for it somewhat) these days it is part of our workload; and whereas the general estimate for the number of houses we cover on a daily basis is about 85%, for junk mail it is 100%, meaning it takes longer to deliver than ordinary mail.

Now a Panorama programme has been aired all about junk mail. It seems as if the Royal Mail is addicted to it – at least if you believe Richard Hooper, author of the Hooper report into the future of our postal services.

As he said in the programme: “There is absolutely no question that advertising mail, which the critics describe as junk mail, is central to the viability of the Royal Mail in the 21st century.” As proof of this he gave us some fairly compelling figures: about a quarter of the total letters market, of around £5.4bn, is advertising mail. Or as Tom Heap, the reporter, summarised it: “On the face of it, it seems the best way of ensuring the survival of our beloved postal system is to sign up to as much junk mail as you possibly can.”

Unfortunately, as the programme also pointed out, there are some pretty serious consequences to this, not least in the cost of disposing of the stuff once it comes through our doors, and – almost immediately – is chucked into the bin. Millions of pounds a year is spent by councils around the country, either in recycling the material, or in shovelling it into landfill sites.

It seems we are stuck with junk mail. Or are we?

The problem is that we were not given all the facts. There are a number of issues that Hooper – the acknowledged expert in the field – omitted to inform you about.

Central to this is something known as downstream access (DSA). This is the means by which rival companies are allowed access to the Royal Mail’s delivery network, at a loss to the Royal Mail. According to Royal Mail’s chief executive Moya Greene in December last year, this is in the region of 2.5p for every item of DSA mail we deliver. Some price changes have since been introduced by the regulator and the extent of subsidy and loss since the changes is as yet unclear [see footnote].

Yes, that’s right: we deliver our own rivals’ mail for them, and then we take a loss on it. By law. Or, to put it another way: we postal workers, and you members of the public, are made to pay so that rival companies to the Royal Mail can make a nice profit. This is what Hooper refers to as “modernisation”. It is the real drain on the Royal Mail’s revenues, and the reason why it is now so dependent on junk mail to survive. Sometimes we are made to deliver our own competitors’ junk mail.

It is achieved through a process known as headroom. What this means is that the price the Royal Mail is allowed to charge for bulk mail delivery – the bills and statements sent out by banks and utility companies, which is the prime source of all revenue in the letters market – always has to allow headroom for its rivals to make a profit.

Without this artificial skewing of the market – in the name of the so-called “free market” – the company would not be anywhere near as dependent on junk mail for its future survival.

Actually, the Panorama programme was effectively two stories in one. Only the first part was about junk mail, the second part was about scam mail. What the programme failed to come up with was a solution to this particular problem, but I can provide that: allow postal workers to identify scam mail and to report it, and then allow the Royal Mail the legal means to stop it at its source.

There’s one old lady on my round who has been receiving scam mail. Day after day she gets a pile of letters from someone who is described on the envelope as “the world’s most trusted psychic”. The envelopes are always the same, but the return addresses are from all over the world. Sometimes I’m delivering 10 or 15 of these letters a day. I reported it to my manager and asked if we could stop delivering them, but he told me we couldn’t. It is paid-for mail and we are obliged to deliver it.

This is a perfect example of what I have been suggesting over and over again: the company should learn to trust its own workers. Because unlike the high-tech machines which are being introduced in the much heralded modernisation programme, us postal workers actually know our customers. We can tell the difference between scam mail and real mail. We know who is vulnerable and who is not, and we can alert our managers when a vulnerable person is being targeted.

I’m certain that every postal worker would recognise this material. If there was a system by which we could report it, and a legal means of stopping it, we could get rid of it overnight.

• This footnote was appended on 7 July 2011. TNT contacted the Guardian after publication of the piece to say the reference to the DSA agreement is not applicable in the context mentioned. “In fact there has been a 22 percent price increase in charges by Royal Mail this year alone which renders this argument obsolete”, a company representative said.

From the Guardian Comment is free

Read more here

No united front at the Royal Mail

October 27, 2010 1 comment

Memories of last year's postal workers' strike, which some managers broke, have not faded. Photograph: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

The thought of striking managers caused hilarity in the posties’ smoking shed this morning. The thought of privatisation didn’t.

From the Guardian, Comment is free.

Read more here.

The Unsorting Office

October 14, 2010 1 comment

The end of bikes?

It’s been a bad few weeks at our delivery office. First of all Vince Cable announced that the Royal Mail was going to be privatised. Then, at one of our weekly ‘Work Time Listening and Learning’ meetings, the line manager announced that our delivery office is going to close.

From the LRB blog.

Read more here.

The mood in the Royal Mail sorting office

September 16, 2010 3 comments

Vince Cable has spoken: Royal Mail is to be privatised. My colleagues wonder whether things can possibly get any worse…

From the Guardian.

Read the rest of the article here.

The Romance of the Envelope

August 1, 2010 Leave a comment

A quilt inspired by Dear Granny Smith

Symbolic

The Romance of the Envelope

A quilt made to highlight the plight of the Royal Mail was exhibited at the Festival of Quilts held at the NEC in Birmingham between the 19th and the 22nd of August 2010.

The quilt is called The Romance of the Envelope and is made by Charlotte Soares of London.

It was inspired by Dear Granny Smith and incorporates parts of the book in its design.

The entry in the catalogue describes it as follows:

Inspiration, Roy Mayall’s ‘Dear Granny Smith’ educating me about threat of private sorting firms taking lucrative business from Royal Mail.

Mixed Media, pillar-box red felt, polywadding, torn sacking organza, metallic and invisible thread loosely stitched by hand and machine.”

The quilt is meant as a symbolic representation of the current state of the Royal Mail. This is how Charlotte describes it:

“The red is felt. On top of that is sacking. On top of that is a collage of envelopes which I did send through the mail, then covered over my name and address, stamps sewn together to make a textile, parts of Dear Granny Smith, and old postcards – some secured under netting, some under perspex. This all represents the post office at its best, working efficiently and meaning a lot to the public, delivering messages and Valentines and greetings cards to nearest and dearest. Then you get the business mail represented by the windows from bill envelopes and some franked Royal Mail.”

After this the quilt appears to fall apart:

“The sacking begins to tear. There are red elastic bands, every one picked up from the pavements where they were dropped by our local postmen. Under the tear there are the new franchises with their different symbols, UK MailTNT etc, and a selection of the companies using them. These are left hanging loose, they do not make the company secure, they make it fragile. Near the bottom are the pages from Dear Granny Smith which explain about this new development. There is a photo printed onto organza of a postman struggling to push his wagon up over a footbridge which I thought was quite symbolic. I asked permission from Royal Mail Twickenham to include this anonymous postman. The water is rising at his feet, and the blue watery organza represents the threat to the institution of overloading the postman and the companies who do not contribute to the profits of Royal Mail but demand deliveries by their postmen. A few stamps are drowning in this corner. The bottom is black edged, in memoriam, the rubber bands are only done up with safety pins, the whole thing might unravel. The patriotic braid down the sides is little Union flags with hearts in the centre and there is a large Union Flag at the top left of the quilt. Not all the franchises are British but the Postal service was a British invention. Pillar boxes and post vans are icons of Britain.”

On the front is printed on a panel:

The Romance of the Envelope.

Red pillar boxes, Postmen, mail through the door, like fish and chips, are part of our way of life. But just as fish and chips is threatened by the pizza industry, so sorting franchises threaten the extinction of a British invented institution we take for granted. Did you even know UK Mail etc are not part of Royal Mail? It’s CRAZY. Use it or Lose it!

Message

Dear Granny Smith

On the back is printed on a label:

Befriend contentment, harbour no disappointment.

Stitch with integrity. Know when to stop.

Stephen Seifert, The Tao of Quilting.

“This quilt grew and grew from a few stamps sewn together to a wall hanging with a story without an ending,” she says. “It’s not the world’s best sewn quilt. It’s very rough and ready but as my daughter said, sewn with passion. It’s quite delicate and I hope it survives its journey to and from Birmingham. I am thinking of donating it afterwards to the new postal museum in Swindon.

“Old Crazy Quilts were haphazard patches,” she adds, talking about the history of quilt making. “Usually they were in rich fabrics, added on top of each other and embroidered and embellished with stitchery and beads. I have hinted at this tradition with a spectacular glittery blue thread, braid and a few ornamental stitches. On the whole though I stitched randomly. The stitching isn’t as important as the message.”

Let’s hope the message gets through.

When Royal Mail modernisation means a worse service

July 20, 2010 Leave a comment

A walk-sequencing machine

New sorting machines have taken the last skill from our job and pushed back delivery times. More change, not for the better

From the Guardian, Comment is free. Read more here.

Royal Mail part-privatisation is a lose-lose situation

May 25, 2010 Leave a comment

Vince Cable’s proposal will mean a loss of public control, a loss of profits and a new tier of costly management…

From the Guardian.

Read more here.

Union deal lets postal workers down

April 15, 2010 1 comment

Up to 35,000 delivery workers will be worse off if the deal between Royal Mail and the CWU goes through. Photograph: Chris Ratcliffe/Rex Features

If the agreement between Royal Mail and the CWU is accepted it will be another weapon in the armoury of bad-natured managers..

From the Guardian.

Read more here.

Who will stop Royal Mail privatisation?

April 13, 2010 Leave a comment

Which party will halt the march towards Royal Mail privatisation? Photograph: Christopher Thomond

Those of us who are opposed to Royal Mail privatisation find that none of the major parties represent our views this election…

From the Guardian.

Read more here.

The Meaning of Value

March 24, 2010 Leave a comment

 

Money

I can’t speak for anyone else, but I didn’t go on strike for money last year. I went on strike for quality: for the quality of our jobs and the quality of the service. It was the quality of service I was as concerned about as much as anything to do with money.

I was talking to one of my mates at work yesterday. I asked him if he’d read the agreement?

“There’s no point,” he said, “I’m not in the union so I can’t vote on it anyway.”

That seemed like a strange point of view to me.

“But it will affect your job for the next few years. Aren’t you interested to find out what it says?”

“No Roy,” he said, in a voice resonant with resignation and defeat, “I’ve been in the job for thirteen years now, and what I’ve found is that the management always gets what it wants.”

That seems like a loser’s attitude to me. The management always gets what it wants. Even when they are wholly wrong, we just have to accept it. It is the way of the world. If we all thought like that then nothing would ever change and we might as well roll over and die right now for all the good that breathing would do.

And then my friend said, “In the end there’s only eight hours in a day. They can’t make us work more than that.”

This is true. But they can make us work harder in those eight hours. They can make us carry more weight. They can make us break our backs with the sheer volume of mail we are obliged to carry. They can make us work till four o’clock on a Saturday, heaving out shit-loads of junk mail to households that hate us for it. They can turn our lives upside down with all of their ludicrous innovations. They can have us leaping through hoops to satisfy arbitrary management requirements which serve no other purpose than to undermine our self-esteem.

This is the thing I most dislike about this agreement. It opens the door to all of that. Longer spans. More junk mail. Later starts. Late Saturdays. A poorer service all round.

And in the end, whose interest is all of this serving? Take those late starts. What’s that for exactly? It’s so they can run their Walk Sequencing Machines to automate the job. But – hang on – aren’t Walk Sequencing Machines meant to make the job more efficient? So how come they can’t run to time then? Why do we have to start late in order to serve them? Why can’t they start early in order to serve us?

There’s the question. And the answer is – I very strongly suspect – that we are starting later in order to serve the interests of the private mail companies. It’s a strange kind of business indeed that inconveniences it’s own work force and it’s own customers in the interests of its rivals, but I’m certain that that is what is going on.

This is the point that keeps coming back to me again and again and again. We are constantly being bombarded with this propaganda about the diminishing market, when we all know, by the sheer weight we are lugging about every day, that the market is growing. There’s plenty of cash flowing about in the postal trade. What they mean is a diminishing share of the market, because the private mail companies are eating into our profit base, but without adding anything of value. We still do most of the work.

So what really puzzles me is why the union isn’t doing something about this?

There would be no need to talk about growing the market by loading our poor unsuspecting customers with yet more unwanted junk, if only the Royal Mail was being properly paid for what it does. There would be no need for later start times if we weren’t having to wait for the private mail companies to get the mail to us first, adding one more unnecessary link to the chain.

If the union told us to stop delivering Downstream Access (DSA) mail, we could kill it off instantly.

There would be no need for Dave and Billy to go grandstanding around the country trying to sell an unpopular deal to a sceptical membership.

The union’s official policy is for an end to DSA mail and a return to the Royal Mail monopoly. But where are the campaign leaflets to go with this policy? Where’s the strategy? Is there a plan of action? Are the membership being informed? Do we know what steps we are going to take in order to overturn this unbalanced relationship? And, while Dave and Billy are presenting their all-singing, all-dancing never-ending musical road-show around the country, why aren’t they mentioning the one issue that could actually make a difference to all of us?

Why aren’t they telling us what they propose to do about DSA?

Value

Michael Hudson

As I say: I didn’t go on strike for money. Money isn’t the most important issue here. What concerns me is what the job will be like in two, three, five years time, and what sort of an industry we bequeath to our kids.

Automation doesn’t worry me either. Bring it on, I say. Let’s have all that walk-sequenced mail flowing in so we can throw it off in half the time. Except that no one is expecting us to be able to do that. The estimate is that walk-sequencing will save about seven minutes a round. And meanwhile, in the real growth market, the relentless rise of on-line shopping, walk-sequencing machines are all but useless. The best way of sorting oddly shaped and uneven packets is still by hand. And until they’ve invented robots that can read the mail and rails that lead to everyone’s front door, they will always need people to deliver the mail on foot. The postal market is a growing market – or at least a steady market – and there will always be space for people within it.

It’s a question of how we fill that space: as donkeys, or as thinking human beings.

So what do you think is the real reason behind the “modernising” agenda. I put the word in inverted commas because I remain sceptical about the use of the word in current management-speak.

There’s an old-fashioned economic theory known as The Labour Theory of Value. It isn’t taught much any more. Marxists will know of it, but it isn’t only a Marxist concept. John Stuart Mill used it. Ricardo used it. It dates back to the thirteenth century. It was the traditional measure by which value was estimated.

I have all of the following from Michael Hudson, who I highly recommend as someone who makes economic theory understandable again.

The principle concern in Classical economic theory was the question of value. Where does it come from? And then it asks another question: what’s the difference between the hide of a cow and a pair of shoes? (In modern terms, what’s the difference between a pile of sand and a silicone chip?) The hide is worth less than the shoes. (The sand is worth less than the chip.) And what makes the difference? It is labour. It is the value of the labour that has gone into the making of the product, both the direct labour, and the accumulated labour in terms of education and training, which is why skilled work is worth more than unskilled work. More labour has gone into it.

And traditionally, Classical economics drew a line between earned income, and unearned income. Earned income came from adding your labour to a product to create value. That is the real economy. Unearned income is things like rents, interest, stocks and shares, land value and real estate. Unearned income is money that can be earned while twiddling your thumbs or goosing the maid. You don’t need to work to get it.

Classical economics therefore proposed taxing unearned income in order to benefit society as a whole. It is what Adam Smith meant when he talked about the free market. The free market did not become free until the burden of unearned income had been lifted from the economy by taxation: the exact opposite of current free market thinking. It was what the Labour Party was created to do. That was what was meant by the redistribution of wealth: redistribution from those who lived off unearned income to those who earned their income by work, by labour.

You can see why it’s not taught any more can’t you? Because it questions the very basis of the world we inhabit, where unearned income lords it over earned income, and we have all become serfs to the profit motive.

This is the real reason behind the euphemistic term “modernisation”. Modernisation means privatisation. What they actually mean is the right of the agencies of unearned income who now rule the world to extract private profit from every form of human endeavour: and that includes the postal market.

The postal market is not being privatised in the interests of efficiency, but in the interests of the corporations that already control most of our lives.

Work

This, of course, is the world we live in, and I guess the union think that they are just being realistic by making compromises with it in order to survive. But here are some of the things I don’t understand. So, for instance, we are now being told that the Royal Mail were going to abolish the piece rate for door-to-door anyway, so we should consider the door-to-door supplement as a bonus.

Pardon?

Can you imagine what would have happened if Royal Mail had unilaterally got rid of door-to-door payments and attempted to force them into our workload without union consent? We’d have simply refused. They would have had a rebellion on their hands. They could never have got away with it.

In other words, what the union have done here is to offer the management a gift of the door-to-door payments. They’ve handed it to them on a plate.

But I wouldn’t even mind taking a pay cut if I thought this agreement was in the best interests of the work force. The trouble is there is so much in the agreement which is not.

The six-day work plan, the revision of hours, the later start times, the longer Saturdays, all of this adds up to a sell out. It’s not like we’ve given one thing in order to get something better back. It all stinks.

Take the issue of productivity, for example.

As it says in the agreement:

“We want to bring everybody’s actual performance up to the level of the top 10% performance…”

I think this is what concerns me the most.

I know I couldn’t possibly go any faster. I’m a middle-aged man and the job already knackers me out. I’m sure I’m not the only one who feels this. I know how fast the top 10% can go. I’ve worked with them, and it’s just not possible for me to go that fast.

My friend the Minister of Cucumber on Royal Mail Chat made an interesting observation about this. Why were we allowed job and knock for a period? It’s obvious now: it upped the work-rate. People started working faster so they could get home earlier. But now that work-rate, which we used to do voluntarily for ourselves, is expected of us as part of the job.

They upped the speed of Pegasus to match it, and are upping the length of our walks to reflect the greater amounts of work we are expected to do.

The agreement continues this process. Longer walks, more junk mail, longer delivery spans. It’s all a way of increasing productivity so they can siphon the profit off to the private sector.

Meanwhile the agreement assigns the role of management enforcer and collective cheerleader to the CWU.

Listen to these passages if you don’t believe me:

“Both Royal Mail and the CWU recognise that successful change needs full and meaningful involvement of all key parties. It is therefore critical that both local management and the CWU are positively and actively involved in the revisions process.”

That means they’ll decide for us what the work plan will be.

After that there will be “joint training on the relevant parts of this agreement” – that means propaganda – “CWU reps being able to play an active role in Work Time Listening and Learning (WTLL) sessions” – that means they will be expected to pass the propaganda on to us.

God help us! Our weekly WTLL propaganda sessions are dull enough as it is, without having to listen to yet more platitudinous commentary by people who have been brainwashed into management ways of thinking.

It’s all very well for the union and the management to want to improve industrial relations so we can get on with the job of delivering the mail, but this agreement just looks like the CWU are getting into bed with management.

Let’s hope they will be very happy together.

Read more by Roy Mayall

Deconstructing the agreement Part 2

March 16, 2010 2 comments

Interpretation

We’ve been reading through the text of the agreement to see what it reveals. This technique of close reading of a text is sometimes called “deconstruction” and is usually reserved for literary analysis.

The problem is, as we’ve already found, that the actual words of the agreement are open to interpretation. The people who put this piece of writing together may think they know what it means, but individual managers in individual offices may have entirely different thoughts altogether. This, then, leaves the agreement open to abuse.

It’s also clear that there are a number of problem areas and un-thought-out aspects to the agreement which make it a very unsatisfactory document all round.

The idea that we have to vote on this agreement as it stands, that there is no alternative and no way of adjusting it, shows how arrogant the negotiators have been. Didn’t it occur to them that we might want to have our say? After all, it is our union. It is our industry. These are our jobs on the line. It’s our pay and conditions we’re talking about here. These are our workloads. Some of us will be expected to be out on the streets delivering door-to-door as late as 4pm on a Saturday afternoon for what amounts to a cut in pay. Didn’t the union think there might be a reaction to this?

The Work-Plan

Central to the agreement is the new work-plan which will be rolled out in the coming months. This involves a six day week and later start times. Our whole working day is going to be moved back an hour. This will be a problem for a lot of people. Most of us took this job because of the hours. Many of us have commitments. Maybe our spouses work too and we pick the kids up from school. That’s a common arrangement. What has the new agreement done to accommodate that?

Then there are our customers, particularly our small business customers, who have been used to getting their mail early. It’s not only a matter of inconvenience. Hundreds of companies across the country operate their own mail-rooms and employ staff to sort their mail internally. Most have no clue that their mail is about to be disrupted and their office routines thrown out of the window. Similarly the thousands of other companies who deal with incoming mail early in the day in order to deal with sales or enquiries and try to give a “same day” service are shortly in for a nasty surprise.

The question is, what is driving these changes? Are they really in the best interests of our customers and our industry, or might this not have something to do with the private mail companies who need extra time to get their work done and delivered to us? Will the private companies now be holding us back in terms of hours in the same way that they currently hold us back in terms of profitability?

I’d like to see the statistics on this, wouldn’t you? I’d like to see the calculations these decisions are based upon, instead of which it’s just a case of take it or leave it, with the union now being privy to the information, but the rest of us being left in the dark.

I think that it is this that I find most disturbing about the agreement. It’s an accommodation between the union and Royal Mail management which will be subject to rules of commercial confidentiality. That means the union will have to make decisions based upon information which they are unable to pass on to the membership. This changes our relationship to the union altogether. It forces them closer to management and further away from us. There’s already a fundamental split between paid union officials and the membership they serve, since most of them have forgotten what the job is actually like. This new “accommodation” will make that split even more pronounced.

“World Class Mail”

Going through the agreement you find a lot of jargon. It’s full of buzz-words and phrases which obviously have some other meaning than the ones we usually use in common English. This is standard practice when you have something to hide. It is why legal terminology is so dense and complex. It also has the advantage that normal people don’t have the knowledge and the equipment to handle it, so have to employ “experts” to help with their understanding. The experts, of course, are the ones who came up with all the entangled terminology in the first place, thus ensuring that they have a job for life disentangling it and helping to make sense of it for the rest of us.

Take this paragraph as an example:

“Royal Mail and the CWU commit themselves to develop and deploy world-class standards of performance and methods using a range of approaches. One such approach…. is the World Class Mail (WCM) initiative. In order to progress WCM Royal Mail are committed to help the CWU at all levels to gain a better understanding of this initiative.”

This is disturbing on a number of levels. The phrase “World Class Mail” is a technical term. You can tell a technical term when it can be reduced to a string of letters. That’s always an indicator of the fact that the words being used might turn out to mean something other than what you expected them to mean. It appears to refer to the adoption of delivery methods and techniques which are used in other countries. That means that the Royal Mail will be scouring the world for methods of increasing our work load and therefore our profitability in order to offer cheaper products for the private companies. At least that’s what it implies.

The trouble is it’s not clear what it means. What is clear is that the Royal Mail are already committed to this Whatever-It-Turns-Out-To-Be (WITOTB) and that the CWU’s role is simply to gain a better understanding of it in order to help implement what it has already been decided is going to happen anyway, whether you like it or not.

So, you think, how can the CWU have signed up to something it currently has no understanding of?

The agreement then goes on: “Royal Mail will ensure that WCM becomes a core agenda item in the new strategic involvement forums.”

That means that when the two sides meet the WCM (WITOTB) will be one of the main items on the agenda.

It sounds like these meetings will be very one-sided. CWU reps will sit there and be lectured on the WCM (WITOTB) agenda. Then they will come back to the office to help management implement it. And we still don’t even know what it is as yet!

 

Productivity

Later we find ourselves talking about productivity and we come to this very disturbing sentence:

“We want to bring everybody’s actual performance up to the level of the top 10% performance…”

There are caveats attached to this, about good employment policy and safe working practices, but, it seems to me this is a recipe for pure bullying. What if one worker can’t get into that top 10%? Some of us work at different speeds. Older guys just take longer to do the job, that’s all there is to it, and not everyone is consistently fast and accurate at the same time. With a bullying manager and a weak, or non-existent rep, I can see this turning some people’s lives into a living hell.

And we all know, despite the platitudes and high-minded phrases, that bullying is endemic in management culture. The directors bully the DSMs who bully the cluster-managers who bully the DOMs who bully the line-managers who bully us. Some people get it worse than others and changes in the job have meant that we’re all more isolated from each other than we used to be. Hidden in the quiet recesses of a frame a lot of threats can be made. I’m not sure if it takes a certain kind of a person to want to be a manager in the first place, or whether there are training programmes, but we all know that bullying goes on and that the procedures for dealing with it are crude and inadequate.

The question of productivity is a form of bullying in itself. It is bullying made into policy. If you are not going fast enough, we will force you to go faster. Add this to the bullying tendencies of a large number of managers and I can see a recipe for a great deal of unhappiness in the Royal Mail: even more unhappiness than we have now.

 

Health and Safety

Another characteristic of the agreement is the use of generalised “mission-statements” which, you suspect, are nothing more than sound-bites to be rolled out in front of the press, should we ever need them. So “health and safety…. is of paramount importance to Royal Mail.” Well duh. Who isn’t committed to health and safety? They’re hardly going to come out and say they are committed to disease and danger, are they?

It’s a question of what your policies are. Currently we all have to wear cycle helmets and there are yellow lines zigzagging all over the yard to indicate where you are supposed to walk – which everyone ignores – and smokers are made to stand behind the bicycle sheds (virtually) to get their nicotine fix. One of my colleagues was put through the disciplinary procedure for smoking too near to the entrance to the office.

All of this is in the name of “health and safety”. But the Attendance Procedure is still in place, which still forces me to come into work when I’m not fit, and all of the platitudes and vagaries and generalised mission statements in this agreement are not going to compensate for the fact that we are going to be carrying more mail of worse quality till later in the day, and that this will affect our home lives and our leisure-time and will impact dramatically on our time-off, thus endangering our health.

So the document promises to identify the causes of stress and to work to address them, while, at the same time it intends to understand, identify and tackle the causes of fatigue.

Well I can tell you what the answer to both of these questions are. Stress. It’s caused by the job. Fatigue. It’s caused by the job. And this agreement is about to add more stress and more fatigue to the job.

End of.

Door-to-door

As we all know this is one of the most contentious areas in the document. Door-to-door is to be included in our workload, the cap to be lifted on the numbers, a door-to-door and early shift allowance supplement to be paid out to all staff, pro-rata for part-timers. I won’t go into all of the arguments here. We all know it is a pay cut for many of us, part-timers in particular. But here is the most significant element, that I haven’t heard anyone say as yet. Our customers hate door-to-door. They loath it with a passion. We’ve all heard them rattling on about it. They all want it stopped. So by voting for this agreement we are voting for something our customers hate.

At the moment there is still a residue of respect for what we do as posties. It’s fading fast and with the casualisation of the workforce over the last few years and the increasing workload, which means we aren’t able to do our job properly, there is a growing element amongst the public who are starting to get very vociferous about us. By voting for something we know our customers don’t want – and that isn’t even in our interests – aren’t we just inviting the public to take their frustrations out upon us even more?

Add to this the increasing damage to the environment as more forests are decimated to make more pointless reading matter that people will just throw in the bin, and the implication in the agreement that we will be delivering junk mail right up until Christmas, and the suggestion that we might be forced to take out Saturday-only junk mail (maybe even on the Saturday before Christmas) and it looks increasingly like a very, very bad deal indeed.

But here is the bit that made me scream out with sheer exasperation when I read it:

“Managers, CWU reps and employees will all play a part in driving up the perception, awareness and importance of the door-to-door delivery.”

No I won’t. I hate it. It is shit. It is corporate propaganda on a grand scale. It is part of the culture of glossy diversion and distraction which is endangering our very future on this planet. It is meaningless drivel. It clogs up the mail. It flops about in my frame. It sticks to my hands. It is of poor quality. It’s embarrassing. It serves no other purpose than as recycling. What does it get recycled into, I wonder? More junk mail.

Currently, when I hand a bunch of junk to a customer and they say, “is that all there is?” I can say, “I’m sorry, it’s not my fault.”

If we accept this deal we will know that it is our fault, that it was our decision which foisted this upon them, and we can only shrug in shame.

Think about that when you cast your vote.

Deconstructing the Agreement Part 1

March 15, 2010 Leave a comment

Purpose and Scope

Reading through the new agreement I’m struck by how far short of expectations it actually falls.

On this basis I’ve decided to “deconstruct” the text to see if we can’t find out what is actually going on within it.

Remember, this document was written by a bunch of people with various agendas, sitting in various rooms in various parts of the country, arguing about individual words in the text in order to secure what they consider to be the best deals for their clients. It’s a question of who you think the clients may be. In the case of the union, it should be the membership, but is probably more likely the organisation of the union itself. In the case of the Royal Mail, it should be its shareholder, the government – that is us, the taxpayer – but is more likely to be the vested interests of its top management and the immediate prejudices of those members of the government who are overseeing the process: in this case, Peter Mandelson.

It’s not exactly a coherent document, and any close reading shows that large parts of it are made deliberately obscure in order to hide its meaning. That, in itself, tells you something.

The aims of the agreement are laid out in the introduction, called Purpose and Scope. In the first paragraph it states: “our traditional business is being overtaken by modern methods of communication… where competition, pension costs and volume decline are massive challenges for the company.”

You see, we’re already into a debate, and we haven’t even started reading the main body of the agreement yet. Who says that our traditional business is being overtaken? Where is the independent assessment of this? We hear statements of this kind all the time, and it appears to fit into some kind of narrative the various parties are setting up in the public mind, but it’s not necessarily true. I mean, I’m writing this on Mother’s Day. Have I sent my Mum a Mother’s Day text or a Mother’s Day email today? Of course not. I’ve sent a Mother’s Day card and a bunch of flowers, like everyone else. I’ve been delivering other people’s Mums their Mother’s Day cards all week. In a few weeks time it will be Easter and there will be Easter cards to deliver; so while we might agree there have been some alterations to our traditional business, most of it is still here, and will always be here, regardless of modern methods of communication.

As for the “competition”: every postie knows this is a wholesale deceit. There is no competition in the delivery market. There is only the Royal Mail, and all of these so-called competitors are merely parasites on the Royal Mail network, taking trade from us at a subsidised rate, while demanding that the Royal Mail delivers their letters for them.

The same holds for “volume decline”, another meaningless phrase which adds to the story-line we are being spun, but which is demonstrably not true. They must think we are idiots. We handle the mail and know more than anyone that most on-line business is passing through our hands these days, and that this has led to a dramatic increase in the volume of traffic, at least in terms of size and value.

In other words, the very terms this document is basing its arguments on are at best a severe distortion of the truth, at worst, outright lies.

Modernisation – Not A Shared Vision

The first part of the document is called “Modernisation – A Shared Vision”.

Again, we are at the site of some contention here, since I’m clear in my head that what the Royal Mail means by the word “modernisation” and what I mean are two entirely different things.

What I might mean would be things like new machinery brought in to make my job easier, and to make the delivery of mail more efficient. What the Royal Mail mean, on the other hand, is more work for less pay. They are bringing in the new machinery in order to cut jobs, in order to load us up like donkeys, in order to increase profitability. This is the exact opposite of any generally accepted meaning of the word “modern”. It’s not “modernisation” we’re talking about here, but regression to a past era of exploitation and oppression, and to label it “modern” in any way is to test the English language to its limits.

Another contentious word in the document is “customer”. This is used a lot. We have to “align the interests of our customers, the workforce and the company as a whole.” But it depends who you mean by “customer”. As posties, of course, we are aware of the customers on the street, in the houses, behind the letter boxes we deliver to. But there’s another level of customer too: the corporate customer, whose interests may be entirely different from the first kind of customer, in a large number of ways.

Our day-to-day customers want their mail delivered as early as possible, as quickly as possible, at a fair rate across the country to reflect the needs of the entire community. The corporate customer, on the other hand, wants his own mail to be delivered as cheaply as possible, preferably cheaper than his rivals, and doesn’t care about the network as a whole or its impact on the general public.

The corporate customer is driven by the demands of privatised profit, not by social responsibility or the needs of the ordinary customer to receive a decent service.

It’s a question of who we serve.

It’s the top-brass at the Royal Mail who deal with corporate customers on a daily basis, of course, and it’s interesting to note that the line between us – the management and the workforce – lies at exactly the same meridian as the line between the interests of the corporations and the interests of the every day customer.

Transforming Relationships

The next part of the document is called “Transforming Relationships”.

This, of course, is the centrepiece of the entire agreement. It is what both the CWU and the Royal Mail set out the achieve. Traditionally the relationship between the union and management has been adversarial. The reason we went on strike was because management were refusing to negotiate with the union or to inform them of its plans. The very least we have managed to achieve is to have forced management to consult with the union as the process of modernisation goes ahead.

We can all be grateful for that.

But this is precisely where the problem arises, it seems. It’s like the union have rolled on their backs at this point, seduced and flattered by the prospects of consultation – of being allowed to play with the big boys in the big boys school – and have given away their whole negotiating position.

Yes, the management now has to “recognise and value the CWU as an independent trade union”, but, at the same time, the CWU has to “recognise that Royal Mail management has absolute accountability to the public, it’s customers, employees and stakeholders, for the performance of the business.”

It’s that word “absolute” I find somewhat ominous.

It’s a very final-sounding word. It’s a dictatorial word in fact. Compare the two statements. One is a promise to “value” the union, the other is a demand for “absolute accountability” of management; that is, for absolute control.

In other words, reading between the lines, what the union had secured is an agreement to be consulted as the management implement their plans, to possibly tinker around the edges, and to become cheerleaders for the on-going programme of management-led “modernisation”, while management have secured the right to do exactly what they want.

This is all tied together by a series of meetings between management and the union, to “structure training to ensure everyone involved in the IR framework is developed to a minimum standard in line with defined skills and capabilities.” What does that mean? To me it reads like a season of free junkets in which reps will get brainwashed into accepting the terms of the agreement.

What none of this does is to ask posties or the public what we want.

Part-time to full-time

To be fair to the union, they were in an impossible position. Obviously they can’t please all of the people all of the time, and they’ve had to make some very difficult decisions along the way. They’ve clearly opted for what they see as the best interests of the majority of the workforce. The commitment to a 75%-25% full-time to part-time ratio is one of the points of principle in the agreement I’m sure the union feel proud to have achieved. In an industry in which, on a world-scale, full-time jobs are being replaced with part-time and casual labour, this is a significant hold.

Unfortunately they appear to have done this at the expense of part-time workers. As the agreement says:

“Full time employees will retain full-time status unless they volunteer to move to part-time hours. Part-time employees will be entitled to retain their existing contractual hours if they wish.”

That statement is glaring in its omission. There is no reference to the possibility of part-time workers ever being in line for a full-time job. In fact, by not stating it, it is being very clearly ruled out.  This effectively creates a multi-tiered workforce, with increasing casualisation of the job as new contracts are brought in without the prospect of promotion to full-time grades. Along with pay issues – which we will discuss later – this is surely the beginning of the end for the notion of equality in the workplace. It’s not just a question of hours, it’s also a question of status. Part-time workers are now second-class citizens within the Royal Mail, with agency workers even lower down on the ladder.

You wonder if there was any deliberate calculation going on in the minds of our union leaders here. “75%-25%. That means that if we get the backing of the largest group, the rest will just have to make do.”

Whatever happened to the idea that our union was there to represent us all?

Operational Transformation

Next we come to the central issue, what the document, in it’s typically opaque manner, refers to as “Generic Operational Transformation”.

That means – to put it into common English – changes in the way we work.

These are the six points the agreement outlines:

  1. New machinery.
  2. New delivery methods.
  3. Mail centre “rationalisation”.
  4. New products and services.
  5. Working practices.
  6. Productivity.

If you’ve read the agreement you’ll know I’ve severely cut-down the length of these points, but I think I’ve generally got the sense of what is being said without getting clogged up in the detail.

So now to add commentary from a posties point of view:

  1. New machinery. No problem with this. Anything which makes my job easier is welcome. But the new machinery won’t save vast amounts of time, won’t be able to cope with the large amounts of traffic coming in the form of on-line purchases and other oddly-shaped objects, will have problems reading ordinary people’s handwriting, so will still require a significant amount of hand-sorting as usual. I expect they will make a lot of noise too, thus interrupting our banter.
  2. New delivery methods. These I suspect will be mainly rubbish. Things like “starburst” – where we all go out in vans and deliver on mass to estates – which have been trialled and shown to fail. The problem with all of these methods is they undermine the traditional relationship between the postie and his customer, so will encourage more fraud and more theft along with more casualisation of the workforce. Plus – knowing what I know about the Royal Mail management – there will be a bunch of hare-brained absurdities brought in, invented by people in offices with calculators for brains, which will just turn out to be unworkable on the ground. Let the postie do his job, that’s what I say. When it comes to delivering mail, we are the experts.
  3. Mail centre rationalisation. This will effectively be a real estate grab. Imagine the value of some of those prime city centre sites. What is Mount Pleasant worth, for example? And don’t be surprised if the sites are being knocked off at below market prices, and that some members of the current Royal Mail leadership – or their cronies in the city – won’t be making a lot of money from this. The other problem with this is that it goes against the best interests not only of posties, who want to work near home, but of their customers also, who would much prefer to retrieve their packages from a local office than have to drive over to the nearest city. It also goes against the interests of the planet as a whole, forcing us to drive to get to work, rather than just hopping on a bike, as many of us do now.
  4. New products and services. More rubbish no doubt. More door-to-door. More rebate. More trash. More of the stuff that no one wants and no one needs. More stuff being forced upon us in the interests of the corporations. More forests being decimated. More weight on our backs. When will these people learn: you can repackage an advert a million times and it’s still an advert? People are getting quicker at seeing through all the complex subterfuges which attempt to disguise these “products” as something else and it all ends up in the bin in the end.
  5. Working practices. This will mean more interference in our work, more people looking over our shoulders and following us round, more “innovations” of the sort we’ve already seen, most of which don’t work. More excuses for bad-natured managers to practice their bullying techniques. More lapsing of frames. Greater workloads. Longer delivery spans. Increased work rates. Learning how to jog, juggle and read mail all at the same time.
  6. Productivity. This works in parallel with the last point, of course. Productivity is referring to what we take out and carry on our backs. It means turning us into donkeys. The more weight we carry and the faster we deliver it, the better for profitability. It all goes in with the transformation of our working lives from one of service to our customer to one of serfdom to the neoliberal barons and the banking elite who have demanded that nothing will exist on this planet that does not, at the same time, make a profit for them. That’s what really lies behind this agreement. It is just one more of the incremental steps that are being taken to transform our economy from one based upon the needs of the population as a whole, to one that only serves the interest of profit.

More on the agreement

Private companies are Royal Mail’s real enemy

March 10, 2010 Leave a comment

The postal industry’s greatest problem is not modernisation, but unfair agreements with private mail companies.

From the Guardian.

Read more here.

Royal Mail deal is junk

March 9, 2010 2 comments

Junk

Royal Mail’s deal with the CWU is not just bad for postal workers – it will leave our postboxes stuffed with junk mail.

From the Guardian.

Read more here.

The Huddle

March 9, 2010 Leave a comment

A group pf postmen preparing for their rounds

Every so often postal workers get called up to the front of the office for a ‘huddle’. This usually involves the manager standing by the front doors, issuing a long-winded statement from head-office about procedures, while the rest of us stand about feeling restive because we are getting behind with our work….

From the LRB.

Read more here.

Don’t Give Up On The Union

March 8, 2010 Leave a comment

In the light of the leaked agreement document. and all the comments on Royal Mail Chat about it, the following is Roy Mayall’s personal response. Please feel free to leave comments if you like, and to forward this link on to your rep.

First of all, all of those people who are threatening to leave the union should stop and think about it. Stay put. If you leave you have no influence, the union will die, and the management will have won.

Then there has to be a massive no vote for this agreement. It’s a complete and utter mess. It addresses none of our issues. It covers everything up in platitudes and vagaries. It amounts to a pay reduction. It uses union reps as management enforcers. It divides part-time from full-time. It means delivering more of what the public don’t want, namely D2D. It means a massive sell-off of public building in the sale of delivery offices. That’s a real-estate grab. It is being forced through by a neoliberal agenda controlled by the banking sector, and the union, meanwhile, is just rolling on its back and playing dead.

The central issue, to me, is downstream access. If you look at what profits the Royal Mail network is generating, not just for ourselves, but for all the DSA companies that are riding on the back of our network, you’ll see that the postal industry as a whole is very, very healthy. The problem is that, with government sanction, we are giving our profits away. That’s the issue the union should be fighting on. If we refuse to deliver DSA mail, that’s the end of DSA, but no one in the union is contemplating that either because they don’t have the imagination, or because they are too cowardly to take the fight all the way to its natural conclusion.

No one is arguing against modernisation: what we need is modernisation which serves us and our customers, not a false modernisation which is only serving the interests of the banking elite, grinding down the workforce in order to extract every penny from us.

The government bailed out the banks, but it doesn’t need to bail out the Royal Mail. The Royal Mail is fundamentally sound. People will always need a postal service. We just need the legislative fetters removed so we can crush the opposition. What we need is a union with enough balls to challenge the government, to issue a simple order to its membership to refuse to deliver DSA mail. We don’t even need to strike. We just have to rediscover the fundamental principles of solidarity with each other, to refuse to accept that these private companies have the right to extract profit from our labour without giving us anything in return. It’s a free ride. We deliver their mail. They don’t have to give us pensions or benefits or even bother to pay us the market rate.

Have you noticed this? D2D is now filtered through the private mail companies. Take a look at the boxes when they come in. It’s TNT and UKMail etc etc. That means there’s enough spare profit in the business to pay the private mail companies for D2D before it even gets to the Royal Mail, before we take our crummy pittance at the end.

They are cutting our D2D money so TNT can get more profit.

Ian Bone

Anarchist in the UK

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