This Is The Modern World: Doors Which Open Themselves

trainThe view from the train

I went to London on the train the other day. It was my day off.

I like trains. I like the sense that I am being carried, that someone else is doing the driving for a change. You can relax on a train. You can look out of the window at the world going by. Even the world looks relaxed somehow. It looks serene, unperturbed, just going about its daily business as it drifts by through the window like a moving picture. It’s like you are looking at the world from a new angle, uncluttered by the debris of modern life.

Just think of the difference between the view from a train and the view on the motorway. There are usually several lanes between you and the world on the motorway. Even if you drive on the inside lane, there’s the hard shoulder and a wire fence in the way. It’s like that fence is dividing you from the world. Not that you have time to look. You are too busy looking at the traffic, too busy worrying what the other drivers might be up to. One slip and you could be dead.

Now think about the train. It’s true that there’s a verge and a fence, but you don’t feel cut off in the same way. The verge is full of trees and plants and wildlife. You feel as if you are a part of the landscape. The world has grown up to accommodate the train. The towns and cities you pass through have nestled themselves around the lines, absorbing them, incorporating them, so that the railway has become an expression of the town’s character. Can you say the same about by-passes and out-of-town shopping malls I wonder?

If transport had never evolved beyond the train, I would not be unhappy. On a train, you don’t take the journey, the journey takes you.

I like other forms of transport too. I like bikes, I like buses. I can imagine a world in which all of these forms of transport are spliced together to form one, unified, effective, cheap, safe and reliable transport system, and I would never have to suffer the stress of motorway driving again.

But, then again, I’m old fashioned. Sometimes I like to remember the world I grew up in, a world that actually worked, as opposed to the one we have now, which seems to stumble on from one mad crisis to the next, regardless of its apparent modernity.

Change

It’s not that I’m against change. I like change.

I remember the first time I discovered predictive text on my mobile phone.

It was my son who showed it to me. He showed me how to use it, patiently taking me through the process: how to read the keyboard, how to change the words, how to find the address, how to send it off. My son became my teacher, and that was a revelation in itself. He’s been teaching me ever since. We sent a text to his mother, who was in Turkey at the time. And within a minute I’d got a reply. I fell in love with my mobile phone in that instant. What an incredible facility to possess, to contact anyone anywhere in the world, and to get an immediate reply.

I love computers, and the internet, and websites and Google Earth and digital cameras and have a huge hankering after a Tablet one day. They look like the embodiment of contemporary magic to me.

But for every innovation which enhances the world, there are a dozen more which make no sense whatsoever.

As I was saying, I was travelling up to London on the train, and I needed to go to the toilet.

I don’t know what the toilets on trains are like in your part of the world, but in my part of the world they are these huge imposing oval shaped rooms taking up about a quarter of the carriage. They fill up so much space that there’s hardly any room for seats nearby. Not that you would want to sit nearby, as they smell. And instead of door handles they have a button. The button flashes when the toilet is empty, but goes out when the toilet is occupied. Or maybe it’s the other way round: maybe it flashes when the toilet is occupied and goes out when it’s empty. It’s hard to remember. You press the button and the door swings open. You press one of the buttons inside the toilet and the door swings shut. Well I say “swings”, but that makes it sound smooth. It is anything but smooth. Rather, the door cranks its way open, juddering as it does so, making a sort of grinding noise along the way.

And on this occasion the door cranked and juddered open to reveal a woman with her child in there. The child was having a pee, his legs pressed up against the toilet, while the woman was behind, holding his rucksack and steadying him against the movement of the train. The two of them looked at me uncomfortably. It was an awkward moment.

“Sorry,” the woman said. “We forgot to lock the door.”

See, this is the kind of innovation that makes no sense whatsoever. Instead of a catch there is a series of buttons. There’s a button for opening the door, and a button for closing the door, and a button for locking the door – there’s even a button for flushing the toilet – and it’s an easy thing to think that having closed the door you have also locked the door. And when you do lock the door a remote woman’s voice echoes around the space. “The door is now locked,” she says. She doesn’t tell you that the door is unlocked, only that it is locked. Why would I want a woman in the toilet with me telling me that the door is locked? What’s wrong with a catch? In the old days you closed the door, and you put down the catch. It was obvious when the door was locked and when it was not.

Ten years ago, these toilets were considered very modern. These days they are the height of decrepitude. What happens when they break down? They are always breaking down. The toilet is incorporated into the carriage and is full of complex electronics. When it breaks down the whole of the carriage is put out of commission. It takes an electronic engineer to fix it. It probably has to be hauled off to a workshop. Compare this to the old days. What used to happen when the catch broke? You got someone with a screwdriver to come and fix it.

The reason the new toilets take up so much space is so that the oval shaped door can slide neatly along the oval shaped wall, allowing the automatic mechanism to open the door for you, rather than you having to open it yourself. Get that? It’s so you don’t have to open the door yourself.

Who thought of that? Who thought it would be a good idea to have doors which open themselves?

Invisible butlers

They are everywhere: doors which open themselves. They are in every supermarket and every bank. Every building society, every corporate building. Every shopping mall. You come to a door and instead of opening it you either have to press a button or you have to wait for it to open itself.

Are we so enervated as a species that we can no longer open doors? Are we so weak that the process of pulling or pushing a door to get it open takes up too much energy and thought?

We always managed to get doors open in the past. What has changed? Maybe the process is too intellectually challenging for our feeble brains to cope with? Would we stop, puzzled, at the threshold of every door wondering what to do without the aid of the automatic mechanism to help make the decision for us?

It’s like someone somewhere has decided that we need to have an army of invisible butlers everywhere we go, opening and closing doors for us.

We can’t afford to have real butlers but we can at least have a mechanical butler everywhere we go, opening and closing the doors.

I suppose doors which open themselves could be quite useful if you were weighed down with heavy bags, or you were pushing a pushchair or someone in a wheel chair. That must apply to a certain percentage of the population for a certain percentage of the time. But we had a method for dealing with people in this kind of predicament in the past, before we had doors which opened themselves. It was called politeness. Someone else would open the door for you. This had the advantage that you got to talk to someone in the process, something which, as yet, you can’t do with an automatic door.

There is also something called a power-assisted door. This is the most confusing kind of door of all. It looks like an ordinary door, but it’s not an ordinary door. It’s not quite an automatic door either. It’s like a combination of the two.

There’s one of these in my building society. It first appeared there over ten years ago now, and I’ve still not got used to it.

There’s a variety of ways to make it open. There’s a button on the window. If you touch the window the door will open. Also if you begin opening the door in the ordinary way, it will continue opening by itself. It will suddenly leap from your hand and yank itself open. This is very disconcerting. It’s like someone has suddenly pulled the door away from you. For a time people would fall through the door rather than stepping through it. They would stumble through the door wondering what just happened.

The puzzling thing about all of this is who decided to make the world this way? Who decided we needed doors which open themselves? I don’t remember being asked about this, do you? I don’t remember there being a referendum on the matter. I mean: I can imagine a million more useful things I would like to have than doors which open themselves. I’d like cheaper fares on the trains. I’d like a transport system which works. I’d like trains that run on time and a bus to meet my train. I’d like less plastic in the world. I’d like programmes on the TV I wanted to watch. I’d like films with plots and characters and a few less explosions. I’d like banks which didn’t rip you off. I’d like shorter queues in the post office. I’d like less junk mail through my door. I’d like a publicly owned Royal Mail. I’d like more independent shops on my High Street. I’d like the corporations off my back. I’d like lower utility bills. I’d like solar panels on my roof. I’d like the waste water from my bath to water the garden. I’d like newspapers with news in them instead of celebrity gossip and propaganda. I’d like a government I could trust.

But please, oh please, let me open doors by myself.

 

Idiot Wind

Someone’s got it in for me, they’re planting stories in the press.

Idiot Wind

Bob Dylan 1974.

A Bad Day

Too much mail

There are good days and bad days. Yesterday was a bad day.

I came into work at the usual time. There was the usual banter. “Morning Roy, aren’t you ready to go yet?” This is because I do a four-hour shift and, properly speaking, my frame should have been thrown off by the time I arrive. It never is, and it never has been since I started working part-time about three years ago now. I always get the same jokes though. “I expect you’ll be picking up your bags and going out,” they say, followed by – about ten minutes later – “you still here then Roy? You should be finishing your first bag by now.” There’s not a lot you can say to any of that.

Normally my letters have been thrown off, but not the flats. The “flats” are A4 size letters, magazines and brochures. The usual proportion would be 2/3rds letters to 1/3rd flats. Not this morning though. When I got to my frame it seemed unusually light. Just a scattering of letters here and there, so I went round to collect the flats and there was tons of the stuff. Reams of it. Acres of it. Oodles of it. Bundles of it. Every one of the pigeon holes was rammed full of magazines in bundles. Sky mags, Sky Sports mags, Saga mags, other mags, along with all the rest of the rubbish, the glossy brochures and the A4 letters. They’d all come in at the same time.

So now it was a case of bunging all of this into the frame. There were piles of it all over my bench. It was more like 2/3rds flats to 1/3rd letters today and it took me a good hour to throw it all off.

Magazines are bigger and bulkier than letters, of course. That goes without saying. They take up more room. They fill up more space. They’re a lot heavier. Some customers tend to get a lot of them. There are one or two customers on my round who normally get more mail than anyone else. Two in particular this morning, both in the same road, both over 50, both Sky subscribers. So their slots, always full, were literally exploding by the time I’d finished, squeezing out the surrounding slots, almost ready to burst the frame apart under the pressure. I was loading in the Sky mags and Saga mags and all the other stuff which seemed magically to have materialised on this particular morning, always going back to these two addresses, ramming yet another magazine into what was fast becoming a dangerous area of the frame. In the end these two houses both needed a separate bundle each.

After this I sorted the packets, and then did the redirections.

This is normally the last thing you do before you start bundling the letters up ready to pack.

Only this morning I heard my number being called.

Every frame has a number. Mine is 23.

So I kept hearing it from across the room, “23, you’ve missed some.” I was burying my head in my shoulders, trying to pretend it was someone else they were talking about.

No such luck. Along comes Fred, with two more bundles of flats I’d somehow not noticed in my first sweep. I must have been so overwhelmed by the volume that I had missed seeing these.

So now I had two more piles of mail to “throw off” as we call it: that is, to sort into my frame.

And that was just the beginning of my bad day.

Idiot Wind

Blood on the Tracks 1974

Ok, so now I was bundling up, grabbing handfuls of letters from the frame and putting them into parcels held together by elastic bands, and shoving them up on the top of my frame.

Normally I leave two bags for the driver to take out and the equivalent of another two on my bike. Only this morning the bags were full of magazines, and the two bags for the driver had turned into three, and the two bags for my bike had turned into even more. Luckily there weren’t too many packages today, which left a bit of room, and I managed to get it all on to my bike.

A was also taking out a lot of my door-to-door. That’s unaddressed mail to you, junk-mail, in the form of a large quantity of glossy leaflets, about A4 size, very heavily inked. You could smell the ink as you picked them up. They were floppy and sticky, with a kind of slimy texture, and by the end of the day my hands were blue with the ink. These are the worst kind of leaflets as they flop about in your frame and stick to your hands as you are trying to deliver them, and have no substance so crumple up as you’re trying to shove them through the letter box. This is the kind of junk mail I would most like to ban. It is cheap and garish and badly designed, and it’s obvious that whoever created this has never put a letter through a letter box.

However, aside from the nasty surprise I’d had when first seeing the pigeon holes full of flats waiting to be thrown off, this was a normal day. I was a bit late getting out on my round, but the sun was shining, the birds were singing, and now my only prospect was the 4 hours or so of intense labour needed to finish the round. It was heavier in terms of weight because of all of those flats, but not heavy in terms of the number of houses I had to deliver to. About average I would say. The first hour or so went along pretty swimmingly.

One problem: because of the bulk of the mail today, often what would normally take one bundle had to be divided into 2. I still had to do the loop in one, but I had two bundles to take with me. That meant taking weight on my shoulder, carrying the second bundle in a bag along with any packages I might have to take. I don’t like doing this. My left shoulder aches from years of taking weight on it, so I’ve swapped the bag round recently, so it now rests on my right shoulder. In case you haven’t figured this out: your left shoulder its convenient for your right hand, your right shoulder, for your left. If you’re right handed, like me, the bag is easier to handle on your left shoulder. So I had the bag on my right shoulder, which was awkward to handle, and taking out extra items as well. Trying to stuff things into the bag with my left hand was a nightmare. Trying to get them out again was even worse.

Another problem: though it was a sunny day, there was a blustering wind which was getting worse as the day wore on, one of those relentless, irritating winds that never let up, that just niggle at you constantly.

The A4 glossy sheets of junk mail were particularly annoying. I’d pick one out from the bundle, but then the wind would catch it, rustling it about in my hand, and making it difficult to fold in with the rest of the mail. Several times I almost had one blow out of my hand. Then the sheets would crumple just at the wrong moment. They wouldn’t go through the doors properly. They wouldn’t fold in with the rest of the mail. They were jerking about like kites in the wind, making urgent flapping noises. They wanted to take off. They wanted to take me with them. I was starting to get seriously annoyed by now.

But I pressed on, finishing off all the mail I had on my bike, before going to the drop-off point to collect the next two bags.

It was after this that things started to get ridiculous.

Mainly it was just those damned, infernal A4 leaflets giving me hell. They were sticking to my hands. They were creating some sort of static electricity between them so they stuck together. I’d pull one from the back of the pile and five would come out. It’s supposed to be a smooth operation. You take a leaflet from the pack, place it along side the mail in the front, stick it through the door, and that’s it. Only I couldn’t get it to behave properly. I was having to stand in front of each door trying to separate out and unravel the measly, sticky bits of paper which simply wouldn’t fold without crumpling up. I was wasting time, getting behind on my round, and getting progressively annoyed.

Also every time I tried to put a bundle into my bag using my wrong hand, the bundle would catch on the seam which runs around the top of the bag, and I couldn’t get it in. I was having to take the bag off my shoulder to get the bundles in, and then off again to get them back out again.

Then there was that wind. That relentless, invasive, idiotic wind, bustling about, threatening to scoop up the mail and send it scurrying across the road, flipping the A4 sheets in my hand, flicking my hair about so it stuck to my brow. Bob Dylan once sang a song called Idiot Wind. This was the day I found out what he was talking about.

Hopping mad

Bin day

The day was turning into a nightmare.

On top of that it was bin day. The bin men were about. The pavements, normally unobstructed, were an obstacle course this morning, with bins and bags left out all over the pavements. I was having to weave my way round them, sometimes having to get off to shove them to the side.

And that’s how the scene happened.

There’s one sharp corner I have to go around on a pavement. I have to go on the pavement because the kerbs are so high on this road it’s hard to hoist my bike up them. The kerbs are at least six inches high. So I came round the corner and straight into a bin which was stuck in the middle of the pavement. I braked, and turned, trying to get passed the bin, but there wasn’t enough room. I had the kerb on my right, and the bin in front of me, like a guard standing to attention at Buckingham Palace. I’d lost all of my momentum now, and was wavering, poised in mid turn. There was a long, protracted moment of tremulous uncertainty before the bike began to dip and I put out my foot. Only there was no where to put it. There was no room on the pavement, and the road was a good foot or so away, on the other side of that very steep kerb.

At which point everything went into slow motion. The bike began to fall, I put my leg out, realised I couldn’t stop the fall without hurting myself, and so leapt clear of the bike. The result was a kind of carnage. The bike clattered out into the middle of the road, spilling letters and packages and bundles onto the tarmac, along with several empty bags and all of those bundles of A4 glossy leaflets, plus all the used-up elastic bands which I had accumulated over the months and which were in every part of the bike, in the panniers, in the bags, in the tray at the front, all spread out in a swathe of wreckage, like some gruesome scene from a war-zone. Everything was blood-red. Red bands and red bags and a bright red bike. It was like I’d just had a fatal altercation with a roadside bomb.

At which point two women turned the corner across the road. “You all right, love?” one of them said.

“Humph,” I mumbled aggressively.

I wasn’t in a good mood.

I always hate it when the bike goes over. It’s a heavy thing, clumsy and awkward to handle. It’s designed for sailing along on wheels, not for picking up off the ground. The handle bars tend to spin around and the bike is awkward and uncomfortable to lift.

“I’m OK,” I said, slightly off-handedly. I was embarrassed and annoyed. Kindly strangers are one thing. Kindly strangers as witnesses to a postal wreckage in the middle of the road are something else.

But I hoisted the bike up from its reclining position, and onto the pavement, where I leaned it against the fence, turning back to start picking up the rest of the stuff. Only then the bike slipped, and fell again, crashing down to the ground and casting yet more stuff along the pavement and up a back alley which was nearby.

It was at this point I lost my patience, and in a fit of blind rage kicked the bike.

Several things happened at once now. The two women were approaching across the road to help me out. One said, “it’s the wind,” referring to what caused the bike to fall. The other, seeing my foot already launching at the bike, said, “you’ll hurt your toe”. She was leaning down to pick up the bag. I knew she was right. But it was too late. The momentum was already carrying my foot forward in a relentless arc of blustering, stupid rage, on towards the bike frame as it lay there prostrate on the ground, where, after the briefest moment of time, it made sickening, bone-crunching contact.

You’ll have to imagine how it felt.

An awful silence descended over the scene, broken only by the continuous ruffling of that awful wind, and the screams of pain going off in my head.

So now I had two more things to contend with: a searing pain in my toe, and pitying looks from the two women.

“Leave that!” I barked to the woman leaning down to pick up the bag, in a clipped voice born of physical pain and acute embarrassment, “I’ll do it!”

I was definitely using exclamation marks in my speech. It was hard to know which hurt the most: the pain in my toe, or the pain in my ego, which was crumpling up like one of those A4 glossy sheets before a letter box. My eyes must have been spinning round in my head. The women backed off in fright, scuttling away from the dreadful scene of wrecked letters and wrecked dignity, while I limped back to the bike, wrestling it into a standing position, before leaning it against the fence once more, making sure it would stay upright this time. Then I was turning back to the road to begin picking up all the mess which was strewn about, repacking my bag and lifting it back on to the tray, picking up all the packages, and all the leaflets – which were even now scurrying up along the road, borne aloft by that mischievous wind – before, finally, beginning the painstaking process of picking up all the hundreds of elastic bands which were scattered about across the road and all over the pavement and up that back alley and every where within about a three yard radius.

Us posties tend to accumulate elastic bands. It’s one of the signitures of the trade. We leave trails of them everywhere we go.

It took at least ten minutes before I was on my way again, breathless with frustration, cursing the very earth on which I walked, growling unpleasantly to myself with every step.

The funny thing now was that about halfway up the same road, parallel to where I parked my bike to begin the second loop, there was a builder working in one of the houses, cursing and stomping and swearing to himself as well. I could hear it as I set off on the loop, all the way up the road, and all the way back down again.

He kept repeating one word over and over again while banging a piece of wood against a doorpost. The word rhymed with “luck” and it wasn’t “truck”. That wind must have been getting to everyone.

I wanted to say, “I know how you feel,” as I passed but, feeling that way myself, knew that I would be stepping onto dangerous ground. So I kept my own council and got on with the job as best I could. Fortunately there were no more untoward scenes, though my right shoe was stained red from paint from the bike and my toe was throbbing like crazy.

Several hours later, as I was getting ready for bed, I accidentally stubbed my toe, which brought the whole scene back to me. It was only then that it occurred to me how stupid I must have looked, literally hopping mad, and it was at this point that I burst out laughing.

What a day! Thank God there aren’t too many days like that.

Deconstructing the agreement Part 2

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

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

Not the Deal of the Century

Reading some of the news reports about the national agreement signed between the CWU and the Royal Mail last week, you’d be forgiven for thinking that we’d secured the deal of the century.

From the LRB.

Read more here.

The New Agreement

The new agreement between the Royal Mail and the CWU is out as I’m sure you’ve heard. I’m looking at a copy now. It’s called – in a phrase which is both ominous and bland at the same time – “Business Transformation 2010 and Beyond.”

It’s a total dog’s dinner of a document, almost impossible to make sense of, full of obfuscation and vagary, with strings of letters representing various previous agreements, and a general attempt to hide its message behind obscure language. For instance, the phrase “MTSF Agreement” is used a number of times. When, eventually, you discover that this is the “Managing The Surplus Framework Agreement” you’re still not any the wiser. It takes a degree of digging to figure out that “The Surplus” means surplus jobs, so that “Managing The Surplus Framework Agreement” is referring to job losses.

Or, try this: “RM and CWU agree that the length of delivery span can be an enabler in bringing about mutual benefits. From now on, within the process of duty revision negotiations, spans must be looked at in the context of an enabler rather than a fixed amount of time to be aimed at.”

What does that mean? Simply translated “an enabler” means the opportunity to impose longer delivery spans. They can’t come out and say it directly because they know we are already overworked and will protest, so it’s hidden away in this obscure form.

But, to summarise, the agreement makes a number of significant changes to our working conditions and working practices. One of the most problematic is door-to-door (that is “junk mail”). Currently we take out 3 items per household per week and are paid separately per item. On average we would take home about £30 for this. The new agreement lifts the cap on the number and transfers it into our workload. We will no longer be paid separately. Instead we will be given a weekly supplement of £20.60, pro rata for part-timers. That figure also includes compensation for the loss of the early shift allowance.

In other words what this amounts to is a significant cut in pay for a significant increase in work: more work for less money. It will be even worse for part-timers as the pro-rata element means they will be taking out the same amount of door-to-door for half the money of their full-time colleagues.

This must be the first time in history that a workforce has gone out on strike in order to achieve a pay-cut.

Another problematic area will be longer Saturdays. Traditionally Saturdays have always been a short day to allow posties the benefit of a Saturday afternoon with their families. From now on Saturdays will be like any other day: maybe even worse, as there’s talk of Saturday-only door-to-door deliveries too. With the combination of later start times which will be rolled out for the entire week, this will mean some posties still being out on their rounds at 4.00pm on a Saturday afternoon. Too late to catch their boys out on the playing field or any other leisure activity.

Vague platitudes about “family-friendly” policies and half-hearted nods towards issues of stress and fatigue are no compensation for the very real damage this will cause to postal worker’s home lives and conditions at work.

The Huddle

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

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.

Beat the Post

Secured Mail: an insult to postal workers

We were recently asked to deliver an insulting letter. It was an advertising circular from Clifford James, announcing their January sale. The insult was a statement on the front of the bright red envelope.

From the LRB.

Read more here.

A Letter to Dispatches

This article was written in response to Simon Barnes, producer of the Dispatches programme which was aired on Channel 4 on Monday 8th of February 2010. I wrote a review which was published in the Guardian’s on-line Comment is free, which drew another response from Simon Barnes himself.

You can watch some of the programme here.

You can read my Guardian piece here.

You can read Simon Barnes’ response here.

I have yet to receive a reply to this letter.

To:

Simon Barnes,
Dispatches,
Channel 4.

Dear Simon,

Thanks for responding to my article in Comment is free.

I think that both of us are agreed that the Royal Mail is in an appalling state, and that something needs to be done. Where we disagree is in the idea that your programme actually addressed any of the issues.

You said that your coherent analysis of the situation was provided by the section dealing with industrial relations inside the company. What you failed to do was to ask why industrial relations are bad. Why are workers who were once loyal to the company disinclined to give of their best? What has gone so wrong with relations between the workers and the management that makes them speak with such bitterness of each other?

At the beginning of the programme you showed an agency worker training your reporter. The agency worker was cavalier in his attitude to the mail, so while he told his trainee the proper way of doing things, he consistently ignored his own advice. The narrator said that the agency worker claimed he had been doing the job for two years. The question you failed to ask at this point is why the Royal Mail has been employing an agency worker for this length of time? Why does the Royal Mail prefer to employ casual labour – and to keep it casual – than to employ a full-time postal worker on a proper contract?

You say that the fact that three of your four experts have a privatising agenda was not relevant to what they had to say and that they all want the Royal Mail to succeed. I think you will find that Dr Madsen Pirie of the Adam Smith Institute does not want the Royal Mail to succeed in its present form, but would prefer full-scale privatisation, including the ending of the universal delivery obligation. The other two probably want the Royal Mail to survive, but in a much reduced form, giving profits to the private companies who they serve.

One of the problems in attempting to have a discussion via a third party, is that an editor stands between us. The line “where were the voices of genuine postal workers” in my original version actually went on to say “who were not being filmed covertly?” That’s the question I wanted to ask. You had “experts” passing their opinions, and then covert filming of postal workers in a strife-ridden office, but you did not have reflections on the state of the industry from postal workers able to answer your questions directly.

This is cheap, nasty, sneaky television, like telling tales out of school, not even allowing the postal workers, whose jobs you have no doubt jeopardised, the right of reply. I wonder how long it would take for covert filming in your office to turn up similar material?

As one of my colleagues said: “how many hundreds of hours of film of ordinary everyday activities hit the cutting room floor just to leave these 40 minutes of shock-horror-outrage TV?”

However, you might be surprised to hear that the response in our delivery office was not all negative. Another colleague said he thought the programme was good in that it highlighted the inadequacies of management, the lax security, the poor equipment, the lack of training and the use of agency workers instead of full-time staff.

My problem with the programme, however, lies in its utter lack of analysis. You looked at the symptoms, but not at the cause, and in your response to my article failed to answer my main point, that the Royal Mail is being undermined by a regulatory system which requires the company not only to deliver its rivals’ mail for them, but to then supplement them at the rate of 2p per letter.

You asked if I had a story for you. Well I do.

You say that the private companies are a side show and that the problem with the Royal Mail is down to bad industrial relations. But this is the exact opposite of what is really happening. The private companies are not a sideshow, they are the cause of the problem.

We do the work, the private mail companies take the profit. Every time I deliver a letter for TNT or UK Mail, or any one of the other 41 other private mail companies, it is a blow to my job and my pride, not to say my pocket as a taxpayer.

You can read my views on that here: https://roymayall.wordpress.com/2010/01/31/royal-mail-in-the-free-market-casino/

They call this process “deregulation” but in order to achieve it the Royal Mail is highly regulated. And then, when you look at who does the regulating, you find that most of the members of the Postcomm have interests in privatisation in one form or another.

You can check that out here: http://www.lrb.co.uk/blog/2009/12/21/roy-mayall/who-regulates-the-regulators/

Your programme makes it clear that there is a bad attitude in some (but not most) offices, but it failed to address any of the major issues facing the Royal Mail at the moment. “Modernisation” is a euphemism for privatisation, and for an attack upon our wages and conditions at work. The company has shed 60,000 jobs in the last 7 years, while mechanisation has not taken up the slack. In other words, the remaining 120,000 RM employees have been doing a third more work for the same wages. It has been becoming harder and harder to do a proper job. We’ve watched our status as workers go down. We’ve listened to endless propaganda from the government and the management. We’ve heard them telling lies about us. We’ve been threatened with the loss of our pensions. We are carrying more and bulkier mail while being pressurised to do the job ever faster, doing longer rounds, all for the same money. Is it surprising then that some postal workers have become surly of late and that industrial relations are strained, to say the least?

I’d like to see you do a programme about “final mile delivery” and the collusion between government and the regulators to hide this attack upon our service behind the smokescreen of “market forces”. The market is a sham, a cheap cover for what is really happening to our industry – which Dispatches entirely failed to address – the process of enforced (and hidden) privatisation.

Best wishes,

Roy Mayall.

Downstream Access

Postal workers will certainly know about Downstream Access, but how many members of the public have heard about it or understand what is going on?

The following is a user’s guide to Downstream Access and its impact on the Royal Mail.

Downstream Access (DSA) is the means by which private mail companies can gain access to the Royal Mail network, using Royal Mail staff to deliver their mail for them. It is the result of a series of EU directives whose ostensible purpose was to liberalise and harmonise postal services across Europe. What the process has actually achieved is the casualisation of postal worker’s jobs and diminishing standards for the ordinary consumer.

There are 41 licensed postal operators in the UK, including the Royal Mail. Of these only the Royal Mail has a universal delivery obligation.

Downstream Access companies include Citipost, DHL, SecuredMail, TNT and UK Mail. They bid for the most profitable bulk city-to-city and business to business trade, taking it away from the Royal Mail, before handing it over to the Royal Mail to actually deliver it.

You can tell which is Downstream Access mail by the frank in the right hand corner of the envelope. Any mail that doesn’t have a Royal Mail stamp, or which has some other kind of mark on it, is Downstream Access mail.

Samples of DSA franks are shown to the right.

According to Billy Hayes in a recent article, every downstream access letter actually costs the Royal Mail 2p.

This means that the British taxpayer is subsidising private companies to run-down the Royal Mail at the cost of 2p for every letter.

The trick that is being played on all of us is to present this process as part of the normal workings of the free market. We are being presented with the picture of an out-of-date, old-fashioned Royal Mail struggling in a free market against its more efficient and “modern” rivals. The Royal Mail is then being asked to “modernise” in response to this.

What this means for the workforce is increasing amounts of work for diminishing numbers of staff, increasing casualisation of the workforce, more and more part-time staff on diminishing pay and conditions, and a lessening of the ratio of full-time to part-time staff. It is full-time staff who are expected to take up the slack, while, at the same time, the pressure is on for full-time staff to leave the Royal Mail, to take redundancy, or to look for work in other trades.

What this means for the consumer is an increasingly shoddy and make-shift service, as Royal Mail staff are coming under pressure to do more work in less time.

The old-fashioned postie’s pride in his job and his service to customers is being squeezed out in favour of a cheaper mail service for the big corporations. B2B (business to business) and B2C (business to customer) is being made cheaper at the expense the ordinary consumer, including small businesses and High Street shops, who are receiving their mail ever later.

What we can do about this

We need to start a campaign to return Downstream Access mail to the sender.

All unsolicited mail, such as advertising leaflets, promotional or charity mail, or other non-urgent mail sent by DSA, should be immediately returned.

Make sure the address window on the envelope is covered, and that the return address is highlighted.

Make sure, also, that it is clear WHY you are returning the mail.

Write “NO TO DOWNSTREAM ACCESS”, or some similar phrase, in bold clear letters on the front of the envelope, and put the letter back in the post.

What if I need to read the contents?

Obviously you will need to read some of your DSA mail. Bank statements, for instance, are often sent by DSA. Clearly you will need to open these.

However, you can write to the company who sent you the mail telling them that you disapprove of their use of private companies to deliver their mail and asking that all letters be sent by Royal Mail in future.

It is up to you how much or how little of your DSA mail you return. Obviously the more the better, but even if only non-essential mail is returned it will put pressure on those companies who opt for DSA to use the Royal Mail instead.

Downstream Access is not “competition” for the Royal Mail, it is a burden. The companies who profit by DSA are not “rivals” they are parasites.

Say NO to Downstream Access!

Return the Royal Mail to full public ownership.

Dear Majesty – A song based on Dear Granny Smith

I wrote this song after listening to the serialisation of Roy Mayall’s book ‘Dear Granny Smith’ on BBC Radio 4 . Also last year I took part in a Market Research day for the Royal Mail and came away dismayed.

So I wrote this song. The lyrics speak for themselves. The song is dedicated to Roy Mayall and all the other Posties who try and do their jobs in very difficult circumstances. The Shadow Kabinet say SAVE THE ROYAL MAIL! Who said the protest song is dead?

Steve Somerset.

Royal Mail in the Free Market Casino

It’s not a free market, it’s a rigged market, says Roy Mayall

The Hooper Report

Peter Mandelson: planning the partial sell-off of the Royal Mail.

When Peter Mandelson came on TV in May last year proposing the part-privatisation of the Royal Mail, he was very clear. Volumes are down, he said. People don’t send letters any more, they send texts and emails instead. The Royal Mail is under threat from the incursion of new technology into the communications business. It is all down to the market and to market choice.

The company he had in mind as the new potential co-owner of the Royal Mail was TNT, which had once been the Dutch national mail company.

TNT, of course, is one of any number of private mail companies vying for a place in the British postal market.

The impression we were being given was of an old-fashioned and beleaguered Royal Mail struggling with its more efficient rivals in an open market place.

The document that Peter Mandelson was basing his statements on was the Hooper Report.

The report makes a number of recommendations which are worth reviewing as they are still the basis of government policy. The Royal Mail has to modernise, but fast, it says. The CWU and Royal Mail need to get their act together and start being more cooperative. The government should take on responsibility for the pensions deficit in order to allow the company to concentrate on the modernisation process. A new regulatory regime is required to put the postal business in line with the rest of the communications market. And finally – and crucially – there should be a “strategic partnership” between Royal Mail “and one or more private sector companies with demonstrable experience of transforming a major business, ideally a major network business.”

These were precisely Peter Mandelson’s conclusions, although his plans for the part-privatisation were shelved – according to him – because of the weak condition of the market prevailing at the time. We might also add that there was an almighty outcry from the public, and from his own backbenchers, not to say, from Royal Mail staff and the CWU.

Plans for the sell-off remain in place, however, awaiting a change in “market conditions.”

What market?

Billy Hayes on the UK postal regulatory system: “It is uniquely bad,” he says.

All of this talk of “the market” makes you wonder.

What market?

Because when you take a close look at it, the market doesn’t exist. There is no market. It turns out to be little more than a propaganda tool used by the privatisation lobby to beat the Royal Mail over the head with.

In fact, the Royal Mail is in a very healthy state in terms of the profits it generates. Not only did it make £255 million in the first nine months of 2008 – a profit of over £1 million a day – but it also, through downstream access, generates massive profits for TNT and the other private mail companies too.

This is the issue that the Hooper Report fails to address: downstream access, the process by which private mail companies can crowbar themselves into the Royal Mail network, profiting from the system while undermining it. The Royal Mail is being regulated in order to allow the private companies to make a profit from it.

This isn’t a “free market”. It’s a rigged market.

What’s worse, according to Billy Hayes, general secretary of the CWU, the Royal Mail actually subsidises the private mail companies at the rate of about 2p per letter. So not only do they take the profitable trade away, leaving the Royal Mail with the expensive and hard to run universal service obligation, but the Royal Mail actually pays them to do this.

“I must make it clear, that the system used in the UK is not used in any other country,” Billy Hayes said, in a recent article. “It is uniquely bad.”

So what is going on here? The government can’t pretend that it is not aware of this. The members of Postcomm, the regulatory body which sets the prices, are all appointed by government, and I can’t imagine that Peter Mandelson, control freak that he is, does not insist upon being kept fully informed.

Not only that, but if you check out the Postcomm website you’ll see that members of the commission all have interests in private mail companies; either that or they are in the deregulation business. In other words, the people who the government appointed to look after the regulatory system are also the people who are rigging the market, for their own benefit.

It’s like the Royal Mail is being forced to enter the “Free Market Casino” against its will, only to discover that the roulette wheels are loaded, and that the dealers are all card-sharks.

None of this is mentioned in the Hooper Report, which also goes on to avoid a number of other issues. In particular, while it highlights the pensions deficit, estimated to reach £10 billion this year, what it doesn’t do is to tell us the cause of the deficit in the decades long pensions holiday which the company took, with full government approval, draining the coffers while allowing the workforce to pour our own hard-earned money into what was effectively a bottomless pit.

Finally the report makes what amounts to a threat. “Our recommendations are a package,” it says. “Each element of the package is needed if the universal service is to be sustained: modernisation achieved through partnership, tackling the pension deficit, and changing the regulatory regime.”

Or, to put it another way, the Hooper Report is a long drawn out ransom note with our pensions as hostage.

Give us privatisation, it says, or your pension gets it.

Petition to save the Royal Mail

Other links

“Charmingly subversive”

This is my favourite review of Dear Granny Smith so far, from the review website Me and My Big Mouth.

“You may have heard this charmingly subversive book on Radio 4 over Christmas. Roy Mayall (not, you will be amazed to hear, his real name) is a postman of 30 years service and he is, albeit politely, pissed off about the state of Royal Mail, or Consignia, or whatever they are called now. This short polemic takes the form of a letter to ‘Granny Smith’, the typical customer of old. In it, the author explains everything that he thinks is wrong with the postal service and why, in some instances, things would be better if they went back to the way they used to be. But this isn’t a whinging when-I-were-a-lad complaint. It is a common sense argument. Roy wants less junk mail in his bag, to be able to deliver your post at breakfast time, for his bosses to stop lying about the state of the business and trying to introduce new initiatives that don’t work. He isn’t against progress. He just wants a better service for his customers. Customers he knows personally and clearly cares about a great deal. As rants go this is about as well-mannered and well argued as they get. It will only take 30 minutes or so to read and you will feel a warm glow once you have finished. Not because of Royal Mail, they will annoy you and piss you off, but because there are still postmen like Roy Mayall out there. Let’s just hope his lone voice does not go unnoticed.”

At last, someone who understands what I’m saying.

Loopholes

I was talking to my union rep about the attendance procedure. If the management can misuse the procedure to the detriment of postal workers, that means there are loopholes in it, which means it’s a bad agreement.

From the LRB.

Read more here.

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