Deconstructing the agreement Part 2
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?
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!
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.
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.