Home > Associated stories > Deconstructing the Agreement Part 1

Deconstructing the Agreement Part 1

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

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