Royal Mail staff are trying to save the universal postal service

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read more here.

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

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

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

From the Guardian Comment is free

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

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

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

They are as follows:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read more here.

Junk mail – the facts

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

Junk mail. We all hate it don’t we?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From the Guardian Comment is free

Read more here

The Meaning of Value

 

Money

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

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

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

That seemed like a strange point of view to me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Value

Michael Hudson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Work

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

Pardon?

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

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

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

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

Take the issue of productivity, for example.

As it says in the agreement:

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

I think this is what concerns me the most.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s hope they will be very happy together.

Read more by Roy Mayall

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.

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

A Review of Dear Granny Smith by Alan Woodward

Forwarded from Alan Woodward of Haringey Support Group:

This timely book, conveniently published in envelope size, gives the inside story from a postal worker about what’s happening to a major public service and the reasons why posties have been taking one day strikes over the last 5 months of 2009. Its outline of working conditions is quite unusual and is a thorough account of the present Government and Royal Mail’s offensive against ordinary workers. The title uses the posties own term for the public and pulls no punches, being written in workshop language and presents a totally devastating critique of the management’s inflammatory commercial approach. Because small bookshops may experience trouble obtaining it, I have given internet details.

The author uses a pen name but has apparently been a working postman for some years. Whoever wrote the eleven chapters, it is an imaginative well constructed book and at £4-99, it is an absolute bargain. As the blurb says, postal workers have a pet name for their customers. It’s “Granny Smith”, a name that calls to mind every old lady who lives alone and for whom the mail service is a lifeline.

The title is taken from yet another management meeting to announce to the staff some further details of the proposed ‘modernisation’ changes: Someone piped up in the middle of it. “What about Granny Smith?” he said. He’s an old-fashioned sort of postman, the kind who cares about these things.

”Granny Smith is not important,” was the reply. “Granny Smith doesn’t matter any more.”

Roy Mayall gives reasons for the industrial action including a consideration for all the Granny Smiths, and the book is likely to swing the public behind the postal workers once and for all. Its exposure of corporate dominance is as relevant as it is timely in an election year. The book is written in a conversational style, with some workplace humour that sometimes approaches being crude and the postie is blunt in his message about reversing the adoption of commercial values. All this subversion was edited out by the BBC when the book was serialised on Radio4 as Book of the Week in December 2009 but will ring a bell with anyone who went to the picket line during the dispute. With its rotas, barbeques and careful monitoring of persons allegedly going into work, the strike, like the book, was well organised and successful .

The two main themes of the text are the degradation of working conditions and the market inspired transition from an efficient public service into a shambolic and inefficient business enterprise. The first theme would be familiar to anyone concerned with the condition of the working class — it has been their constant companion for the best part of two centuries. The author describes in some detail, and with some bitter humour, how well established workplace practices have been just replaced with crack brained schemes, designed it seems with just proving that the current management are in charge. Or so they like to think . Roy Mayall tells how the impracticality of the new technology based ‘modernisation’, has ground to a halt in all its essential features – address reading machines, replacing bikes with cumbersome electric trolleys, Starbursts or bulk delivery teams and suchlike. ‘Mech-ed’ – mail – machine sorted – from a target of over 80% , has now dropped to 50% and that just the official figures!

What has not failed is the re-organisation of work, the consistent bullying, the abolition of even the smallest amount of free time, the extremely authoritarian Attendance Procedures that force even quite ill people into work on threat of dismissal, and such like. You may say there’s nothing new about all that . Everyone knows that there is no ‘democracy’ in our totalitarian workplaces and that an ancient political commentator remarked that the only true wealth is time – the point is that all these processes are cunningly hidden by the alliance of the politicals, management and most of the media. Once again victim blaming is announced – ” the posties are being ‘obstructive’”.

Now old timers may recall the promises of 30 years ago that new technology would liberate society . People would work for only a few hours , machines would do the heavy toil and our most onerous task would be decided what to do with our leisure. In reality Roy Mayall describes taking out six bags of mail each day instead of one, the huge increase of junk advertising mail despite the lying assurances that mail levels are falling, constant and aggressive management ‘interviews’, [interrogation more like] , and the leisure room turned into a management lecture centre for open propaganda sessions, or corporate drivel as he calls it . All this is done in the interests of ‘renewed capitalism’ by Thatcher, Blair and Brown , — can you tell them apart ? Small wonder the political confusion as the leaders of the Communication Workers Union try to boost Labour while the members revolt into confusion. And we haven’t even mentioned the Final Agreement. This brings us to the second theme, switching over from public to private ownership.

We have described above the new slavery, posties too tired to do anything but work and sleep. Every one knows the management strategy – ~ allow pension ‘holidays’ for management, but not workers, so that the pension fund is deeply in debt, ~ hound out the full timers , ~ bring in part timers and casuals, ~reduce the enterprise to the point of collapse to make a private take over seem like salvation; THERE IS NO ALTERNATIVE as we may remember. The author gives chapter and verse about the public service ethos. How posties have a social role, just like the hospital cleaners who were abolished for disease spreading contractors, and, as part of the community, are useful contributors. Reporting domestic ill health, helping out pensioners, transmitting information, monitoring temporarily empty houses, acting as a counsellor and so on . Today ‘Granny Smith’ doesn’t matter, the needs of the corporate bodies take first, second and all places. Despite the record of these companies — and it was their failure that caused the modern pre-Thatcher society to be set up it should be remembered – the private sector dominates both industry and wider society.

 

Downstream Access

The complicated process of privatisation has been well publicised recently but what is less well known is the “creeping commercialisation “.

Take ‘downstream access’, which allows private companies to select out any part of the process which it thinks profitable and privatise it. This is already used by operators like TNT, but the use of this surrender to profit scheme has now appeared in the NHS. Clinicenta, despite some appalling performances is still allowed to cherry pick and make money from it’s choice. The union leadership seems passive in various unions and allows this insidious practice to continue. Once again its down to the rank and file.

Another feature is the use of language , a key factor as Orwell noted. Here “modernisation” means privatisation , more speed up, no job security, all casual labour, poverty wages. ” Flexibility” means obeying instructions however absurd. Management “discretion ” in fact means mandatory. “Public Service” means total subordination to corporate objectives . “Attendance ” means absenting yourself from medical attention, “Mail sort” means junk mail or around two thirds of the total, and so on. Royal Mail management have nothing to learn from 1984. The recent international financial crisis should, in an ideal world, have demolished the credentials of the free market. There is little evidence that this has happened, and even less that the political leaders have any intention of changing course. For them, no Alternative exists, so they press ahead with cosmetic reforms while keeping the pressure on the rest of us in the same old way. Mayall is quite clear about the consequences, in terms of blame for general issues , on the central role of the market. To an extent he also implicates the union for losing sight of the social aims of the labour movement in pursuit of the free market . While his affection for old Labour may be exaggerated — remember George Brown and Harold Wilson? –his basic sentiments ring quite true.

He ends with a tale where an old person in a future world that is totally commercial describes the Royal Mail set up as it used to be to an obviously incredible audience. The ‘McMail’ option he calls it . but as he also says, it’s not too late to save it, though prospects under Cameron , Brown and co do seem bleak. Generally the text has no overall political message, despite his reference to ‘the gods of wealth and economics’. He doesn’t waste ink either on the alternative promises of The Revolutionary Party any more than conventional politicians. His memories of old Labour are likely to be illusory but his demolition of the present institutions and their scurrilous roles is complete.

As he says “my tale is of loss and deceit, anger and despair, and the wanton destruction of an ancient and venerable organisation”. It seem likely that no one has told him of the libertarian philosophy, and in particular the idea of workers control of the workplace , then society. This idea is implicit in his critique of management and politicians – the workers can manage the place quite well on their own, but the political implications are missing. This is a deep seated problem and one which the conscious minority has been slow in tackling.

Finally, this is a unique publication. There were some examples of solidarity from other workers in the long dispute. Drivers and service workers refusing to cross picket lines and some workplace money collections, though the strike leaders gave this a low priority. What of the future? The 2007 strike was followed by the 2009 one, as management kept on with its predetermined free market strategy – modernisation at all costs. At present as management press on with their only delayed plans , we can expect more conflict and picket lines.

Labour intends continuing to worship the gods that have failed – be prepared for more early rising.

Who regulates the regulators?

I’m interested in the way that words change their meaning once they are adopted by bureaucratic institutions. Take deregulation, for instance, as it’s applied to postal services in Britain. It appears to mean an opening of the market to allow competition. But if you look more closely you will see that, in order to achieve this, the Royal Mail’s ability to act in its own interest has been severely curtailed…

Read more here.

An Answer to You and Yours

On You & Yours on BBC Radio 4 there was a discussion about Dear Granny Smith, featuring Billy Hayes of the CWU and Richard Hooper, author of the Hooper Report into the future of the Royal Mail. This is Roy Mayall’s response to that programme.

On You & Yours on BBC Radio 4 there was a discussion about Dear Granny Smith, featuring Billy Hayes of the CWU and Richard Hooper, author of the Hooper Report into the future of the Royal Mail.

One of the things that has started to get to me since the publication of my book, Dear Granny Smith, is how often it is misrepresented in the press and by the media.

Peter White, on You & Yours called it “sentimental and unrealistic”. He also says that I am scathing about new technology and the idea of modernisation.

That was odd, because he played a short snippet from the BBC Book of the Week reading by Philip Jackson, in which, after a brief description of how the new Walk-Sequencing Machines work, the narrator quite clearly says, “and there’s not a postie in the whole world who would object.”

In another sequence Richard Hooper, author of the Hooper Reportinto the future of the Royal Mail, described the book as “a witty, mischievous, wonderfully nostalgic piece of writing”, but went on to describe it as “absolutely anti-modernisation, anti the modern way of doing things.”

Then he said: “But let’s get real, we all agree, Billy Hayes has just said it, the union agrees, the management agrees, the government agrees, that if we’re going to maintain our beloved universal postal service…. that the Royal Mail must accelerate its modernisation programme….” adding that the Walk-Sequencing Machines will “save the posties time, giving them more time to be out on delivery.”

This is precisely our fear. As if 3.5 hours is not already long enough to be working flat-out – 3.5 hours which generally turns into 4 hours, often more – now they want to put even more weight on our backs, even more time out on delivery.

You see, when Richard Hooper and the management of Royal Mail talk about “modernisation” it’s actually a euphemism. It doesn’t mean modernisation at all.

No postie would object to machines that took some of the drudgery out of our work, or which speeded things up, or which made the Royal Mail more efficient. This is the trick that is being played whenever anyone says that Dear Granny Smith is a nostalgic book – or as Billy Hayes, the General Secretary of the Communications Workers Union put it: “pining for the blue remembered hills” – that discussing past work conditions is being “unrealistic”, as if having time, having proper tea-breaks, good pay and conditions, time to do the job properly and not being worked like a pack-mule, were all unrealistic goals.

No. What “modernisation”, in the sense that management consultants and senior management at the Royal Mail mean it, is not modernisation. It is privatisation.

There is a passage in the book where I compare the lives of two postmen: one an old postman who started work in the 1950s, and the other, a younger family man, now in his 40s. The first, who I call “Tom”, now lives in happy retirement, having left the postal service a couple of years ago, while the other – “Jerry” – has only a lifetime of hardship to look forward to, and fully expects to be working for a privatised mail service by the time he retires.

And then I say:

You have to ask why this should be? What has changed in the last 50 years? Why is Jerry’s future so different than the one that Tom would have expected at the same age? How come Tom can rest in contented retirement, while Jerry only has a future full of hardship and uncertainty to look forward to?

Us postie’s haven’t changed. Jerry is as committed to his customers as Tom ever was. He is as dedicated, as honest, as straightforward, as hard-working, as decent, as kind. The post hasn’t changed. We still need the post. So why are the workers suffering in this way?

I guess you might say, “it’s the same for everyone. No one has any certainty any more.”

I guess that’s true.

But you still have to ask why? What is the driving force behind all these changes?

In the book I don’t answer that question, but I will try to here.

The driving force behind all these changes is something called neoliberalism. It is the guiding philosophy of the corporations. It basically says that nothing will exist on this planet – no human endeavour will take place, no plot of land will exist – that does not make a profit for them. Humans beings’ only purpose is to work for them. We are indebted to them through our mortgages, in the exact same way that serfs were indebted to the Lords in feudal times, and a portion of our labour will go to pay off our indebtedness in the same way that serfs were made to hand over a portion of their produce to the Lords.

In other words, what they have in mind for us isn’t “modernisation” at all. It is the exact opposite. It is a return to feudal serfdom.

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