“A postal duty is, in effect, a four hour intensive workout, and it gets increasingly difficult the older you get. Any further pressure on delivery staff is likely to leave us suicidal.”
According to the Daily Telegraph, “American activist investors” – who are becoming the main buyers into Royal Mail – believe that the company “could execute deeper cost cuts and yield far bigger profits”.
Staff costs are one of the areas being looked at.
“The productivity improvement rate is really pretty low, given the amount of new technology at the company,” said a source. “Now 80% of mail is sorted by technology, yet the productivity costs have only come down marginally in comparison. The company could be far more aggressive on driving the costs savings through.”
We all knew this would happen. The pressure will soon be on to cut staff numbers and to increase workloads in order to improve productivity.
But I can tell you now that this is just not possible, at least where delivery duties are concerned. When Panorama did a programme about the Royal Mail in 2009, it arranged for former Royal Marine and military fitness expert Tony Goddard to test a duty. He was unable to finish it in the allotted time, saying that it was “unreasonable” to expect postal workers to do it five days a week.
A postal duty is, in effect, a four hour intensive workout, and it gets increasingly difficult the older you get. Any further pressure on delivery staff is likely to leave us suicidal.
However, there is some truth in the assessment. The productivity improvement rate is, indeed, pretty low given the amount of technology that has been introduced. There’s a reason for this. It’s called “Methods”.
This is the internal name for the modernisation programme which the company has been undertaking since 2009. It involves the scrapping of bikes and their replacement by trolleys: two postal workers working out of the back of a van using customised golf trolleys, carrying two bags apiece.
The ostensible reason for the new method is so that we can carry more packets: packets being the new growth area within the postal business. However, it is also considerably slower than using a bike. Just to give you a measure of this: my round used to take around three hours and fifteen minutes. Under Methods we are supposed to manage our rounds in four hours. That’s already forty five minutes longer than before. However, there is never a day when we can complete the round even in this time, often going as much as an hour over. In other words, the new method is at least a third slower than the old method.
It is also much more tiring. Using a bike we were constantly changing position: sometimes walking, sometimes scooting, sometimes cycling, sometimes freewheeling down a slope. All we do now is four hours or more of relentless walking, mile after mile: around twelve to fifteen miles a day. My hips and my back ache from the strain and all I can do when I get home these days is to eat my dinner and fall asleep in front of the telly.
Slowing down the work while making it harder: I wonder whose bright idea that was? The reason it’s called “modernisation” and not “a big pile of shit” is that it is being modelled through a computer. We’ve replaced an old technology – bikes – which were very efficient at delivering the mail, with a new technology – computers – which are very efficient at measuring the process. We’ve privileged the needs of the office over the needs of the job. Now you tell me which is more useful in an industry whose sole purpose is the delivery of mail?
It’s a pity they never thought to ask us posties. We would have told them that it wasn’t going to work. TNT – one of the rival mail companies currently experimenting with end-to-end delivery in some parts of London – do so using bikes, while Deutsche Post has recently been testing electric bikes on the streets of Berlin.
The reason the CWU went along with the new method is that it was supposed to take the weight off our shoulders. In fact it has done the opposite: it has put weight onto our shoulders, as in an effort to get the work done on time, many posties are now dispensing with the trolleys.
But the real measure of the insanity of this is that despite the fact that it was extensively trialled, and that it has consistently shown itself to be slower and more costly than the old method, it has nevertheless been rolled out throughout the country.
This is the reason why the productivity improvement rate is so low, despite the amount of new technology being deployed. If “activist investors” really wanted to improve productivity, then they could start by bringing back the bikes. After that, they might consider reducing staff numbers by getting rid of everyone who thought that “Methods” was a good idea in the first place. That includes Moya Greene.
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.
It’s been a bad few weeks at our delivery office. First of all Vince Cable announced that the Royal Mail was going to be privatised. Then, at one of our weekly ‘Work Time Listening and Learning’ meetings, the line manager announced that our delivery office is going to close.
From the LRB blog.
Read more here.
A quilt inspired by Dear Granny Smith
The quilt is called The Romance of the Envelope and is made by Charlotte Soares of London.
It was inspired by Dear Granny Smith and incorporates parts of the book in its design.
The entry in the catalogue describes it as follows:
“Inspiration, Roy Mayall’s ‘Dear Granny Smith’ educating me about threat of private sorting firms taking lucrative business from Royal Mail.
Mixed Media, pillar-box red felt, polywadding, torn sacking organza, metallic and invisible thread loosely stitched by hand and machine.”
The quilt is meant as a symbolic representation of the current state of the Royal Mail. This is how Charlotte describes it:
“The red is felt. On top of that is sacking. On top of that is a collage of envelopes which I did send through the mail, then covered over my name and address, stamps sewn together to make a textile, parts of Dear Granny Smith, and old postcards – some secured under netting, some under perspex. This all represents the post office at its best, working efficiently and meaning a lot to the public, delivering messages and Valentines and greetings cards to nearest and dearest. Then you get the business mail represented by the windows from bill envelopes and some franked Royal Mail.”
After this the quilt appears to fall apart:
“The sacking begins to tear. There are red elastic bands, every one picked up from the pavements where they were dropped by our local postmen. Under the tear there are the new franchises with their different symbols, UK Mail, TNT etc, and a selection of the companies using them. These are left hanging loose, they do not make the company secure, they make it fragile. Near the bottom are the pages from Dear Granny Smith which explain about this new development. There is a photo printed onto organza of a postman struggling to push his wagon up over a footbridge which I thought was quite symbolic. I asked permission from Royal Mail Twickenham to include this anonymous postman. The water is rising at his feet, and the blue watery organza represents the threat to the institution of overloading the postman and the companies who do not contribute to the profits of Royal Mail but demand deliveries by their postmen. A few stamps are drowning in this corner. The bottom is black edged, in memoriam, the rubber bands are only done up with safety pins, the whole thing might unravel. The patriotic braid down the sides is little Union flags with hearts in the centre and there is a large Union Flag at the top left of the quilt. Not all the franchises are British but the Postal service was a British invention. Pillar boxes and post vans are icons of Britain.”
On the front is printed on a panel:
The Romance of the Envelope.
Red pillar boxes, Postmen, mail through the door, like fish and chips, are part of our way of life. But just as fish and chips is threatened by the pizza industry, so sorting franchises threaten the extinction of a British invented institution we take for granted. Did you even know UK Mail etc are not part of Royal Mail? It’s CRAZY. Use it or Lose it!
On the back is printed on a label:
Befriend contentment, harbour no disappointment.
Stitch with integrity. Know when to stop.
Stephen Seifert, The Tao of Quilting.
“This quilt grew and grew from a few stamps sewn together to a wall hanging with a story without an ending,” she says. “It’s not the world’s best sewn quilt. It’s very rough and ready but as my daughter said, sewn with passion. It’s quite delicate and I hope it survives its journey to and from Birmingham. I am thinking of donating it afterwards to the new postal museum in Swindon.
“Old Crazy Quilts were haphazard patches,” she adds, talking about the history of quilt making. “Usually they were in rich fabrics, added on top of each other and embroidered and embellished with stitchery and beads. I have hinted at this tradition with a spectacular glittery blue thread, braid and a few ornamental stitches. On the whole though I stitched randomly. The stitching isn’t as important as the message.”
Let’s hope the message gets through.
The usual excuse that is reeled out every time anyone brings up the idea of privatisation is the huge £10 billion pension deficit which the company has run up in the last 20 years or so. But no private sector company will take this on. So in order to create an incentive to the private sector, the government will have to agree to fund it. Whether the Royal Mail is in the public sector or the private sector, the pensions deficit will remain a public liability.
From the LRB blog.
Read the rest of the article here.
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.
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?
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:
- New machinery.
- New delivery methods.
- Mail centre “rationalisation”.
- New products and services.
- Working practices.
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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
- Deconstructing the agreement Part 2
Weve 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….
- Private companies are Royal Mail\’s real enemy | Roy Mayall | Comment is free | guardian.co.uk
Roy Mayall: The postal industry’s greatest problem is not modernisation, but unfair agreements with private mail companies
- Royal Mail deal is junk | Roy Mayall | Comment is free | guardian.co.uk
Roy Mayall: Royal Mail’s deal with the CWU is not just bad for postal workers it will leave our postboxes stuffed with junk mail
- Not the Deal of the Century London Review Blog
- Roy Mayall: The new agreement | Post & Parcel
The new agreement between the Royal Mail and the CWU is out as Im sure youve heard. Im looking at a copy now. Its called in a phrase which is both ominous and bland at the same time Business Transformation 2010 and Beyond.
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.