From the LRB blog.
One of my neighbours came over to say hello the day the Royal Mail was privatised.
‘I expect you’re looking forward to getting your hands on all that money you’ve just made,’ he said. The shares allocated to me as a member of staff had gone up by almost 40 per cent in a day. The government had brought forward the date of the IPO in order to beat a strike ballot by the Communication Workers’ Union. Most of us, like most people, were against the privatisation. It felt like my neighbour was congratulating me on taking a bribe.
I lost my temper, and told him what I really thought about the privatisation. I pointed out the contradictions: that the state has spent billions of pounds of public money to subsidise the bargain basement sell-off; that the pension fund was nationalised to sweeten the deal; that the loss-making Post Office was decoupled from its more successful partner and retained in public hands; that pricing restrictions were lifted in anticipation of privatisation, allowing the company to increase its profits.
None of this has got anything to do with the free market. This is direct government intervention to create a rigged market. If the price restrictions had been lifted ten years ago, the entire argument for privatisation would have disappeared overnight.
My neighbour said that governments shouldn’t be involved in the business of running companies. He said that privatisation would allow the company access to future investment. He said that previous privatisations had been a great success, and cited British Telecom and British Airways as examples. He said that taxpayers were fed up with subsidising the Royal Mail.
The argument went on for a while. Every time I was about to get in my car he’d say something that I had to contradict. I finally lost patience and drove away when he talked about the investors who were going to help the company become a big success: ‘They are wealth creators. They build the factories so that we can have jobs.’
You hear that phrase ‘wealth creators’ a lot. It is a commonly used justification for the privatisation agenda, the idea that these individuals generate wealth by their investment. They are the ‘wealth creators’, and we are the beneficiaries of that wealth. It’s a form of magical thinking, like the pharaohs believing that their rituals were responsible for the flooding of the Nile, a post hoc fallacy: because they have invested in the company and increased their wealth, their investment somehow ‘created’ the wealth. The actual wealth creation, the work that my colleagues and I do, in this version of reality, is an accidental by-product of the process, a privilege I am allowed by the goodwill of these magically endowed individuals.
Moya Greene, the chief executive of Royal Mail, has already told us to expect job losses. Very soon I expect to be begging for the privilege of working longer hours for less money.
There used to be a vicious old Boxer dog on my round. He lived at the end of a long drive with a gate. There was a post box outside where I used to leave the mail. Occasionally the owners forgot to close the gate and left the dog out. It would spot me as I was parking my bike, and begin padding in my direction, head down, growling, until it got close enough to launch itself at me.
There’s not much you can do at this point. I’d have my post bag at the ready to swing at the dog’s head. One smack in the jaw was usually enough. I’d complain to my manager, who would contact the owners, who would agree to keep the dog under control, which was fine until the next time it happened. There was a warning about the dog in the office, but that didn’t stop the owners forgetting to close the gate.
Dog attacks on postal workers increase significantly during the summer. Children, off school, run in and out of the house, leaving the door open. The Communications Workers Union estimates that there are around 5000 dog attacks on postal workers every year. Sometimes it’s little more than a nip or a scrape, but Keith Davies nearly lost an arm when he was attacked by two Rottweilers in Trumpington in 2008. The owner couldn’t be prosecuted because the attack took place on a private road. Most attacks on postal workers take place on private property as we have to enter people’s property to deliver the mail. The CWU launched a campaign in 2008 to change the law, but so far it hasn’t been successful.
Some dogs lie in wait behind the door to grab the mail as it comes through the letter box. Postal workers have lost fingers this way. A few months ago we were issued with a tool to deal with this problem. It’s like a child’s ruler, about six inches long and one inch across, made of red plastic, with a slot in the end. You put the letters in the slot, then shove the thing through the letter box.
The Royal Mail has been promoting it heavily for the past few weeks. Hardly a day goes by when we’re not called to the front of the office and given a warning about dogs behind doors and offered one of these tools. I’ve yet to see a single postie accept one. They’re clumsy and awkward to use. It takes a certain amount of concentrated manoeuvring to fit the letters into the slot, and then to wrangle the whole lot through the letter box. It is only really of any use if you happen to know there’s a dog on the other side of the door. But then, if you know there’s a dog on the other side of the door, there’s a much simpler solution: don’t stick your fingers through the letter box in the first place.
I understand why some people vote for the BNP. Saying that doesn’t mean that I will vote for the BNP, or that I support the BNP, or that I am recommending the BNP; it simply means that I have a certain sympathy with people who are so far excluded from the political process that they feel they need to vote for an extreme party in order to make an extreme statement.
People are angry. They are justifiably angry. According to theSunday Times Rich List 2010, the wealth of the richest 1,000 multi-millionaires has increased by 29.9% in the last year. This is at a time when the rest of us are being asked to tighten our belts, to accept wage cuts and austerities and a reduction in our public services.
People can see this. They know that the system is stacked against them. They recognise the political system for what it is: a mechanism for the redistribution of wealth, from the poor, to the rich.
Anti-racism is a diversion. Everyone in the political establishment is anti-racist. Gordon Brown is anti-racist. David Cameron is anti-racist. Nick Clegg is anti-racist. Politician’s wear their anti-racist credentials in the same way that Nick Griffin is wearing a Remembrance Day poppy in the picture above. Being anti-racist is just a radical rosette which any politician can pin to his lapel to make it look like he is a concerned and caring person.
It has become so much a part of the political brand as a whole, that any politician who deviates from the message by just a few ill-considered words is hounded down. What this sets up is a form of self-censorship. Is the average Tory squire any less racist than he used to be? Of course not. He just doesn’t say it in public any more.
Billy Hayes, the general secretary of the Communications Workers Union – and a strong supporter of the Labour Party – is a spokesman for Unite Against Fascism, and has made a number of statements against the BNP. This is all very radical and left-wing and it shows how deeply committed he is to a progressive political agenda.
But Billy Hayes has just negotiated an agreement with the Royal Mail which sees postal workers having to take a reduction in wages and a worsening of our conditions. Maybe this is also part of his anti-racist agenda. We are all going to be shafted equally, regardless of our ethnic background.
The issue isn’t race, it is class. It always was. All working people are suffering under the strains of the neo-liberal attack which politicians have encouraged in the last 30 years; the deregulation of the banking sector to allow the kleptocratsin the City of London to steal our pension funds and our savings; the break-up and sale of our public services at knock-down prices; the export of our jobs to low-wage colonies abroad.
The myth of the asylum seeker being given priority for housing wouldn’t have such a potent appeal if it wasn’t set against the background of poor quality housing and ever lengthening waiting lists. Immigration wouldn’t be an issue if, at the same time, our living standards weren’t being driven down, if we weren’t suffering cuts to our public services and an attack upon the future we always hoped for our children.
The BNP is a vile and morally corrupt political party which has set out to exploit this situation for its own ends, but we don’t defeat it by marching up and down and shouting. The BNP thrives on confrontation. It uses violent opposition to it as justification for its own existence. Allow Nick Griffin to speak and you show him for what he is, a sinister clown with a hate-filled political agenda. Silence him and you encourage the age-old reactionary tendency of the British working class to shove a rocket up the arse of the political establishment and then to stand back and watch the reaction.
Never underestimate the bloody-mindedness of the British working class.
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Postal workers will soon be under pressure to deliver junk mail to every household.
From the Guardian.
Read more here.
If the agreement between Royal Mail and the CWU is accepted it will be another weapon in the armoury of bad-natured managers..
From the Guardian.
Read more here.
That’s the Royal Mail for you: cheapskate and penny pinching on every level. The company we work for can’t even afford to allow us to take a little time to ask some of the questions and to get some of the answers that will help us to make an informed decision about our future.
From the London Review of Books.
Read more here.
I can’t speak for anyone else, but I didn’t go on strike for money last year. I went on strike for quality: for the quality of our jobs and the quality of the service. It was the quality of service I was as concerned about as much as anything to do with money.
I was talking to one of my mates at work yesterday. I asked him if he’d read the agreement?
“There’s no point,” he said, “I’m not in the union so I can’t vote on it anyway.”
That seemed like a strange point of view to me.
“But it will affect your job for the next few years. Aren’t you interested to find out what it says?”
“No Roy,” he said, in a voice resonant with resignation and defeat, “I’ve been in the job for thirteen years now, and what I’ve found is that the management always gets what it wants.”
That seems like a loser’s attitude to me. The management always gets what it wants. Even when they are wholly wrong, we just have to accept it. It is the way of the world. If we all thought like that then nothing would ever change and we might as well roll over and die right now for all the good that breathing would do.
And then my friend said, “In the end there’s only eight hours in a day. They can’t make us work more than that.”
This is true. But they can make us work harder in those eight hours. They can make us carry more weight. They can make us break our backs with the sheer volume of mail we are obliged to carry. They can make us work till four o’clock on a Saturday, heaving out shit-loads of junk mail to households that hate us for it. They can turn our lives upside down with all of their ludicrous innovations. They can have us leaping through hoops to satisfy arbitrary management requirements which serve no other purpose than to undermine our self-esteem.
This is the thing I most dislike about this agreement. It opens the door to all of that. Longer spans. More junk mail. Later starts. Late Saturdays. A poorer service all round.
And in the end, whose interest is all of this serving? Take those late starts. What’s that for exactly? It’s so they can run their Walk Sequencing Machines to automate the job. But – hang on – aren’t Walk Sequencing Machines meant to make the job more efficient? So how come they can’t run to time then? Why do we have to start late in order to serve them? Why can’t they start early in order to serve us?
There’s the question. And the answer is – I very strongly suspect – that we are starting later in order to serve the interests of the private mail companies. It’s a strange kind of business indeed that inconveniences it’s own work force and it’s own customers in the interests of its rivals, but I’m certain that that is what is going on.
This is the point that keeps coming back to me again and again and again. We are constantly being bombarded with this propaganda about the diminishing market, when we all know, by the sheer weight we are lugging about every day, that the market is growing. There’s plenty of cash flowing about in the postal trade. What they mean is a diminishing share of the market, because the private mail companies are eating into our profit base, but without adding anything of value. We still do most of the work.
So what really puzzles me is why the union isn’t doing something about this?
There would be no need to talk about growing the market by loading our poor unsuspecting customers with yet more unwanted junk, if only the Royal Mail was being properly paid for what it does. There would be no need for later start times if we weren’t having to wait for the private mail companies to get the mail to us first, adding one more unnecessary link to the chain.
If the union told us to stop delivering Downstream Access (DSA) mail, we could kill it off instantly.
The union’s official policy is for an end to DSA mail and a return to the Royal Mail monopoly. But where are the campaign leaflets to go with this policy? Where’s the strategy? Is there a plan of action? Are the membership being informed? Do we know what steps we are going to take in order to overturn this unbalanced relationship? And, while Dave and Billy are presenting their all-singing, all-dancing never-ending musical road-show around the country, why aren’t they mentioning the one issue that could actually make a difference to all of us?
Why aren’t they telling us what they propose to do about DSA?
As I say: I didn’t go on strike for money. Money isn’t the most important issue here. What concerns me is what the job will be like in two, three, five years time, and what sort of an industry we bequeath to our kids.
Automation doesn’t worry me either. Bring it on, I say. Let’s have all that walk-sequenced mail flowing in so we can throw it off in half the time. Except that no one is expecting us to be able to do that. The estimate is that walk-sequencing will save about seven minutes a round. And meanwhile, in the real growth market, the relentless rise of on-line shopping, walk-sequencing machines are all but useless. The best way of sorting oddly shaped and uneven packets is still by hand. And until they’ve invented robots that can read the mail and rails that lead to everyone’s front door, they will always need people to deliver the mail on foot. The postal market is a growing market – or at least a steady market – and there will always be space for people within it.
It’s a question of how we fill that space: as donkeys, or as thinking human beings.
So what do you think is the real reason behind the “modernising” agenda. I put the word in inverted commas because I remain sceptical about the use of the word in current management-speak.
There’s an old-fashioned economic theory known as The Labour Theory of Value. It isn’t taught much any more. Marxists will know of it, but it isn’t only a Marxist concept. John Stuart Mill used it. Ricardo used it. It dates back to the thirteenth century. It was the traditional measure by which value was estimated.
I have all of the following from Michael Hudson, who I highly recommend as someone who makes economic theory understandable again.
The principle concern in Classical economic theory was the question of value. Where does it come from? And then it asks another question: what’s the difference between the hide of a cow and a pair of shoes? (In modern terms, what’s the difference between a pile of sand and a silicone chip?) The hide is worth less than the shoes. (The sand is worth less than the chip.) And what makes the difference? It is labour. It is the value of the labour that has gone into the making of the product, both the direct labour, and the accumulated labour in terms of education and training, which is why skilled work is worth more than unskilled work. More labour has gone into it.
And traditionally, Classical economics drew a line between earned income, and unearned income. Earned income came from adding your labour to a product to create value. That is the real economy. Unearned income is things like rents, interest, stocks and shares, land value and real estate. Unearned income is money that can be earned while twiddling your thumbs or goosing the maid. You don’t need to work to get it.
Classical economics therefore proposed taxing unearned income in order to benefit society as a whole. It is what Adam Smith meant when he talked about the free market. The free market did not become free until the burden of unearned income had been lifted from the economy by taxation: the exact opposite of current free market thinking. It was what the Labour Party was created to do. That was what was meant by the redistribution of wealth: redistribution from those who lived off unearned income to those who earned their income by work, by labour.
You can see why it’s not taught any more can’t you? Because it questions the very basis of the world we inhabit, where unearned income lords it over earned income, and we have all become serfs to the profit motive.
This is the real reason behind the euphemistic term “modernisation”. Modernisation means privatisation. What they actually mean is the right of the agencies of unearned income who now rule the world to extract private profit from every form of human endeavour: and that includes the postal market.
The postal market is not being privatised in the interests of efficiency, but in the interests of the corporations that already control most of our lives.
This, of course, is the world we live in, and I guess the union think that they are just being realistic by making compromises with it in order to survive. But here are some of the things I don’t understand. So, for instance, we are now being told that the Royal Mail were going to abolish the piece rate for door-to-door anyway, so we should consider the door-to-door supplement as a bonus.
Can you imagine what would have happened if Royal Mail had unilaterally got rid of door-to-door payments and attempted to force them into our workload without union consent? We’d have simply refused. They would have had a rebellion on their hands. They could never have got away with it.
In other words, what the union have done here is to offer the management a gift of the door-to-door payments. They’ve handed it to them on a plate.
But I wouldn’t even mind taking a pay cut if I thought this agreement was in the best interests of the work force. The trouble is there is so much in the agreement which is not.
The six-day work plan, the revision of hours, the later start times, the longer Saturdays, all of this adds up to a sell out. It’s not like we’ve given one thing in order to get something better back. It all stinks.
Take the issue of productivity, for example.
As it says in the agreement:
“We want to bring everybody’s actual performance up to the level of the top 10% performance…”
I think this is what concerns me the most.
I know I couldn’t possibly go any faster. I’m a middle-aged man and the job already knackers me out. I’m sure I’m not the only one who feels this. I know how fast the top 10% can go. I’ve worked with them, and it’s just not possible for me to go that fast.
My friend the Minister of Cucumber on Royal Mail Chat made an interesting observation about this. Why were we allowed job and knock for a period? It’s obvious now: it upped the work-rate. People started working faster so they could get home earlier. But now that work-rate, which we used to do voluntarily for ourselves, is expected of us as part of the job.
They upped the speed of Pegasus to match it, and are upping the length of our walks to reflect the greater amounts of work we are expected to do.
The agreement continues this process. Longer walks, more junk mail, longer delivery spans. It’s all a way of increasing productivity so they can siphon the profit off to the private sector.
Meanwhile the agreement assigns the role of management enforcer and collective cheerleader to the CWU.
Listen to these passages if you don’t believe me:
“Both Royal Mail and the CWU recognise that successful change needs full and meaningful involvement of all key parties. It is therefore critical that both local management and the CWU are positively and actively involved in the revisions process.”
That means they’ll decide for us what the work plan will be.
After that there will be “joint training on the relevant parts of this agreement” – that means propaganda – “CWU reps being able to play an active role in Work Time Listening and Learning (WTLL) sessions” – that means they will be expected to pass the propaganda on to us.
God help us! Our weekly WTLL propaganda sessions are dull enough as it is, without having to listen to yet more platitudinous commentary by people who have been brainwashed into management ways of thinking.
It’s all very well for the union and the management to want to improve industrial relations so we can get on with the job of delivering the mail, but this agreement just looks like the CWU are getting into bed with management.
Let’s hope they will be very happy together.
Read more by Roy Mayall
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Roy Mayall is a pseudonym for a postal worker who has been in the job for about five years and works in a delivery office somewhere in the south-east of England. He writes a blog at roymayall.wordpress.com
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