Royal Mail managers – bureaucrats not businessmen

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Annual leave

I had an interesting conversation the other day with the manager who allocates the annual leave. They’ve just brought in a new system. You have to specify the date in one box, and then the day in another box, two boxes for each day, on one half of the sheet; and then do the whole thing again on the second half of the sheet, which they return to you if your request is denied. Meanwhile they allocate dates for you which you haven’t requested, which you then have to ask to be removed: again two boxes for each day, on two halves of the same sheet. The whole sheet is a maze of boxes and dates and days which you have to negotiate your way through. If you fail to fill it in correctly your request will be denied.

In the old days you just asked for the days you wanted and, if certain days were over subscribed, you would have a conversation about it. Sitting in the office with the Line Manager talking about your annual leave was one of the pleasures of the job for both parties.

So I complained about the fact that my last lot of requests hadn’t been given and that I was still being landed with a holiday in February which I didn’t ask for and didn’t want.

The manager was being particularly obstreperous about it. It was obvious that he enjoyed the power he had over me. He said, “we’re not here to please you. This is a business now. It’s the interests of the business that come first.”

The joke here is that neither this manager, nor the management of the Royal Mail as a whole, are businessmen. They are bureaucrats. Very few, if any, of them have ever had any experience outside the Royal Mail. They learnt their trade in a 500 year old state owned industry, not in the cut and thrust of the business world. The basic requirement since privatisation, to cut costs in order to increase profits, is the perfect excuse for them to become even more belligerently awkward than they already were.

War of attrition

Recently there’s been a war of attrition going on in our office. I imagine that it has been repeated in offices up and down the country. We are allowed 40 minutes break in total. We have to take 20 minutes indoors early on in the shift but, according to our national agreement, we are allowed the take the second 20 minutes at the end of the shift, which in the past meant we would go home early. Then management started making people stay in the office for this last 20 minutes which meant that people who had previously had time to pick up their kids from school were no longer able to do so.

How this is in the interests of the business is anyone’s guess.

This is on top of negotiations currently taking place with the CWU over changes to our pension plan, with the union threatening to take a ballot on industrial action if the current defined-benefit pension scheme is closed, as the company proposes, next year.

There are also proposed changes to our working practices, with rumours flying around about what this will mean. There’s talk of a six hour delivery span, of longer and shorter days, of longer hours in the Winter and shorter hours in the Summer, of working in teams and of having our dedicated rounds taken away from us: a whole raft of possible changes which will make the job unrecognisable from what it was.

Most posties took the job because they liked the early hours: but the hours are getting later and later, and the new proposals want to put them back even more.

Most posties took the job because they like working on their own, but new delivery methods sees us working in pairs, and the new proposals want to bring in even larger teams in order to cover sick leave, annual leave and rest days without overtime.

The job is arduous as it is, involving four to four and a half hours of intense activity, walking and carrying weight. A six hour delivery span will be impossible for all but the youngest and most fit members of staff.

And now they want to take our pensions away from us as well.

Is it any wonder that relationships between management and the work force are at an all time low?

Responsibility

As for how all these changes will affect you, the public, I’ll just give one illustration.

In fact, for all the fact that postal work is a menial job, it does involve a high degree of responsibility. We get very close to our customers: intimate even. We know when you are at home and when you are away. We know when marriages are breaking down or when the kids are leaving home. We handle your credit cards and your bank statements. We deliver your birthday and Christmas cards, which can contain cash or gift vouchers. Occasionally thieves will pass through the office, opening your mail in the hope of finding goodies; but they invariably get caught, because customers soon begin to notice their mail is being tampered with, and at the moment it’s easy to locate by whom.

Larger teams will make this increasingly difficult. The lack of a dedicated round will remove the trust from the relationship between posties and their customers. It’s already true on some rounds that you don’t know from day to day who will be walking up your garden path and looking in through your front window: if these changes take place then this will become true of all rounds.

The future is looking increasingly bleak in the postal industry.

The Royal Mail Attendance Procedure

“Stage 3”: Illustration by Frank Stamp

At the Royal Mail you are sometimes made to come into work even when you are sick or injured.

They monitor your attendance. If you are off work more than a certain number of days they put you under threat of dismissal. It doesn’t matter how ill you are, they still threaten you.

If you are off work for sickness or injury more than three times in a year, or for more than three weeks in a row, you are given a warning. This is a Stage 1 warning. If you go over the limit a second time you are given another warning. This is a Stage 2 warning. If you exceed the limit for a third time you are given a Stage 3 warning and threatened with dismissal. After that you can’t afford to take time off from work no matter how severe the illness.

The Attendance Procedure works whether you are ill or not. All absences are assumed to be illnesses, but all illnesses, no matter how severe, count towards your absences. So a day off from work with a hangover is counted the same as a week off from work for a hernia operation; and a month off work after a heart attack will count the same as three separate days off for sheer laziness. Hernia operations and hangovers and heart attacks are all counted the same in the Royal Mail book of illnesses.

So say you have an accident and you’re off work for more than three weeks. At this point the office starts to ring you up asking when you will be back at work. They will ring you up daily, hassling you to come back to work. And no matter how ill you have been, you will get a warning when you do eventually come back.

You could come in on crutches, and you’d be given a warning. You could be bandaged up to the eyeballs. You could have coughed up your oesophagus. It makes no difference. You’ve been off work, so you will be warned. Three weeks off twice in a year and you’re up for dismissal, and that’s that.

We’ve all seen it. People who have had heart attacks or hernias, or some other major illness, crawling into work to avoid the warning, or hauled up before the “lino” (as we call the manager) and given a reprimand. People under severe stress, or with depression. People with broken arms or legs or twisted backs. People on medication, too drugged up to walk in a straight line, pleading for some understanding.

It’s no good protesting that you are ill. The lino loves his job. He will smile at you – sweetly, or gravely, or maliciously, depending on his personality – and say he’s sorry. But he’s not sorry really. He doesn’t have the choice, he’ll say, the computer has flagged you, and you have to be given a warning. No space for personal initiative here, or judgement, or an intelligent weighing up of the circumstances: you’ve had too much time off and you will be punished.

Also, one day off counts the same as a week. So if you’re off for one day you might as well take the week off. If you underestimate your illness and come back to work too soon, only to find you are still ill, or the illness recurs, and you take another day off, this will count as two absences, and the computer will flag it, and you’ll be one step nearer a warning.

The result of all of this is twofold. One: you will take a week off work even for the slightest illness. Two: you will sometimes have to go into work even if you are sick and contagious.

In other words, the Royal Mail would rather you came into work and make everyone else sick than allow the possibility that occasionally people might ring in sick and take a day off because the wife is feeling horny that morning.

Such is life in the modern Royal Mail.

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

Park and Loop

New delivery methods threaten the integrity of the mail

Restructuring

Royal Mail will be spending £20m on speeding up Christmas mail before the next cold snap arrives. Photograph: Hartshead Services

It hardly needs saying, but Christmas is the busiest time of the year for postal workers. There’s a veritable assault of mail bearing down on us: more so this year than any year, as so many more people are buying on-line these days.

In previous years we took it in our stride. It was hard work, but we enjoyed it. We got on with the job and we got it done, to the best of our ability.

This year, however, things are different. This is due to the introduction of new working methods in a large number of delivery offices around the country. Quite why the Royal Mail decided to undertake a wholesale restructuring of our job just before the Christmas rush is anybody’s guess. It’s only one of a series of increasingly insane decisions we’ve been subjected to this year.

The process is called “revision”. First of all they got rid of our bikes and replaced them with vans: two posties to a van doing two extended rounds between them.

This is called “park & loop”. We park up the van, fill up our trolleys, head off in two different directions, spend 40 minutes or so completing the loop, then come back to the van to drive off to the next parking spot.

Now this would be fair enough if it actually worked, but it doesn’t. Someone somewhere has made a serious error in their calculations. The company has spent millions of pounds buying a brand new fleet of vans, but they are actually too small for the job. We have to carry our trolleys in the back, plus up to twenty-four ten kilo pouches, and then all the packets, both large and small.

And therein lies the problem. There’s not enough room for the packets, and, having dispensed with the dedicated packets delivery rounds which were part of the old method, there are serious backlogs building up in the offices as we struggle to get them out. The backlogs were already there before the Christmas rush started. I suspect that many people around the country won’t be getting their presents this year.

Priorities

Calculations

The next problem lies in the figures they’ve used to calculate the rounds. They took a sample week in June, a notoriously light month, and have extrapolated from that. On that basis they’ve estimated that we have around 26,000 items of mail passing through our office in any one day, when we all know it is more like 42,000.

What this means is that the sorting process takes a lot longer than their calculations allow for. We are allowed one hour to sort the mail into the individual rounds (known as “Internal Preparatory Sorting”) and then another hour to “prep” our frames: that is to slot the letters into the frame, into the sequence they will be taken out in. I never have time to complete this task, which means that most days there are at least six boxes of mail left unsorted under my frame, which are then “prepped” by managers or office staff while I am out on my round. So every day I come in to an already half-full frame of mail left over from the day before.

In this time we are also supposed to have prepped the door-to-door leaflets – usually referred to as “junk mail” by you, the customer – which we take out at the rate of 1/6th a day, and which can amount to anything up to six items per household. We are given six minutes to do this in when it actually takes more like 15 minutes. We are not allowed to leave the junk mail behind, which means that these days junk mail is given precedence over the normal mail, which quite often does get left behind.

That’s the measure of the Royal Mail’s priorities these days.

When the planners first came to the office to discuss the revision they made it quite clear that their aim was to reduce the workforce and therefore the number of man-hours in the office. When the revision was implemented it amounted to eight full time jobs lost. But so huge is the backlog of mail that’s been building up – at one time there were up to 26,000 items of mail, backed into a corner and filling up half of the office – that they’ve had to re-employ the eight full-time employees who had previously taken voluntary redundancy, just to clear it.

They’ve now agreed that the office actually needs five more full-time staff. But, here’s the trick: the new staff will be working on much less favourable contracts than the guys they are replacing.

Which, you might suggest, is the entire purpose of the exercise.

Second Class Post

Christmas chaos in the Royal Mail. New working methods disrupt Christmas deliveries.

Last posting day

The last posting day before Christmas for second class post is the 18th of December. The last posting day for first class post is the 21st of December. Aside from this, did you know that during the last three weeks in December there is actually no difference between the two services? That’s because the normal “quality of service” targets for first class post, ensuring that 93 per cent of first class post is delivered the next day, don’t apply for most of December at all. Some cards and letters bearing first class stamps will still get there the next day but, for this period, the Royal Mail is fully entitled to deliver them the day after or, indeed, the day after that too. Pretty much whenever, in fact. So we might as well all save our money and stick second class stamps on the whole lot. After all, that’s how they’re going to be treated.

I have to say the fact that service targets for first class post don’t apply in December was news to me, despite me having been a postman for many years. But, given the endless stream of nonsense that flows down from our unseen senior management – a management more preoccupied with privatisation and profits than minor things like getting the Christmas post delivered – it certainly doesn’t surprise me.

Our postal system is in chaos and this Christmas it could easily reach breaking point. A combination of demoralised staff, local sorting office closures and the wholesale introduction of new and untried working methods could easily result in millions of items simply not getting delivered by December 24th. And that, I can honestly tell you, breaks my old postie‘s heart.

Being a postman in December used to be a wonderful job. You had to work hard – of course, you did – but as you stomped across the frosty pavements to the sorting office at 5am, steam blowing from your frozen nostrils, there was a real sense of doing something important. Yes, the overtime helped – it was Christmas, after all – but a real Dunkirk spirit set in. Every day huge amounts of mail would come in – up to 10 times the normal amount – and every day we’d get our heads down, our winter boots on and do our very utmost to make sure it was all delivered in time. And, by and large, it was.

This year, however, is going to be very different. It’s not only going to be the last Christmas I do my round by bike (confusingly, we call our rounds “walks”, even when we do them on a bike) but it’s also going to be the last one I do from the local sorting office in our town. Like dozens of others, it’s now due to close which means that next year we’ll all be based in one huge sorting office in the not-particularly-nearby city. Every morning, I’ll have to drive there to get to work and then drive back to this town in a van to deliver the post, before doing both journeys again, this time in reverse. Crazy, huh.

Compared to a bicycle, that certainly doesn’t sound very environmentally friendly, and I’m not sure it would make much economic sense either but for the fact that many of these local sorting offices are on prime, town-centre sites which, even today, are worth a fair amount of money. Back in the 70s, I have a distant memory this used to be called asset-stripping but these days, I’m told, it’s maximising total financial returns. Not sure where delivering the post fits into all this but then I’m not sure our management are either.

Longer walks

Snow

The battle for breakfast time deliveries, was lost long ago. These days, I don’t even start work until 8.40am and usually I’m not out on the road before 10.30am. Which means the lucky ones get their post mid-morning but those at the end of my walk don’t get theirs until mid afternoon. If something needs a signature, the chances of anyone being in at that time are, of course, pretty remote so, all too often, it has to come back with me to the local sorting office to be collected. People have got used to this but I don’t think they’re going to be anything like as understanding when that local sorting office closes and they have to drive to the city to pick up whatever it is.

And it’s going to get worse, thanks to the new working practices that are being rolled out all over the country. They can best be summarised as longer walks, longer hours, fewer full-time jobs, more casual labour.

In particular, you’re going to be seeing far more of something called “park and loop” which sees three or four of the old walks being done by two postmen in a van. We have all the post in the back – letters and packets – which, at predetermined stops, we then unload into those golf-trolley things. We then loop round, delivering the mail before coming back to the parked van and driving on to the next stopping-off point.

That’s the theory, anyway.

Will it work? No it won’t. In fact it is already failing as office after office are building up huge backlogs of undelivered mail. A friend of mind in a Northern office which has recently gone through this so-called “revision” process, told me that one day they had 26,000 undelivered items of mail sitting in the office waiting to be sorted, and it was only by re-employing the half a dozen blokes who had recently taken voluntary redundancy, that they were able to bring the backlog down to manageable levels again. Now there’s only about 5,000 items a day which they are failing to deliver.

The problem is that the management just haven’t thought things through properly. The theory was that we were going to take all the packets out with us. That’s the draw-back with bikes: no room for packets. But the trouble with the new vans is they are too small, so there’s still no room for the packets and, given that they have stopped the dedicated packets delivery-vans as part of the revision, sometimes the packets just aren’t getting delivered at all.

Walk sequencing

Meanwhile they have also introduced a new piece of massively expensive technology called a walk sequencing machine, a wonderful-sounding bit of kit which actually sorts the post in the order the postie is going to deliver them. The only problems are that, to do it properly, the post has to go through the machine three times and that each machine services several offices and potentially hundreds of individual frames. Also it can only sort standard sized letters, not packets. Packets still have to be sorted by hand, the old fashioned way. All of which means everything takes longer and your post gets later and later. Some postmen aren’t finishing till 4 in the afternoon these days. We used to deliver in time for your breakfast. Soon we won’t even be delivering in time for your tea.

This is already having a seriously unpopular knock-on effect during the Festive Season. More and more packets – or Christmas presents as I believe you call them – are going to be delivered at lunchtime or mid-afternoon when people are either at work or out shopping, if they are delivered at all.

Some unlucky people are going to end with more “Sorry You Were Out” cards than Christmas cards and their mood is unlikely to be improved when they traipse off to their local sorting office, where they’ve been picking things up for years, and suddenly discover it’s not there any more. Sorry but that’s the future.

I’d love to be able to come to some more positive conclusion but that’s just about impossible. Royal Mail’s management are more interested in their bonuses than they are with the long-term future of the Royal mail. They have forgotten the basics. Posties are early morning people who like the outdoors and who enjoy getting to know the folk – Granny Smith as we collectively call you – on our walks.

Now, we’re being made to keep office-hours, be stuck in a van for most of the day and won’t meet many people because most of you will be out by the time we eventually get round to delivering.

As for you, our poor, put-upon customers – I have a nasty feeling that wondering whether to stick a first or second class stamp on your Christmas cards could soon be the very least of your postal problems.

Who Is Roy Mayall?

“Neither snow, nor rain, nor heat, nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.”

Herodotus, The Histories, via the inscription on the main post office at 34th Street and Eighth Avenue in Manhattan.

 

Roy Mayall is not just one postal worker. He is all postal workers everywhere, men and women, drivers, delivery workers, office workers, sorters, machine operators, engineers, union members and non union members, young and old, retired or just starting out, part-time or full-time, 20 hour, 25 hour, 30 hour and 40 hours a week, agency workers, casual workers, cleaners, everyone who has ever taken part in the postal service, black, white, or Asian, European or African or Afro-Caribbean, gay, straight or a little bit of both, left-handed or right handed, City or Rural, inner City or Suburban, from the craggy coasts of Cornwall to the Highland Glens, from the green hills of England, to the mountains of Wales, North and South, East and West, the Home Counties, the Midlands and the North.

Wherever men and women pound the streets with mail on their backs, that’s where Roy Mayall walks. Wherever they skip onto a bike and go skimming along with their burden of mail that’s where Roy Mayall is. Wherever there’s a letterbox, wherever there’s a gate, wherever there’s a footpath to a door, wherever there’s a garden, wherever there’s a dog barking, in the morning, in the afternoon, rattling along with the thoughts in his head, that’s our Roy. Harassed by the time, as the hours are getting later, stressed by the lack of money and the weight on his back, pushed for time, pushed to his limits, energetically pressing on, through the wind, through the rain, through the heat of the sun, through ice, through snow, when the hail stones pelt like shrapnel on the roofs of houses, rattling the bonnets of cars, wrapped up in his waterproofs, with the mail bundled up beneath his arm to keep it dry, that’s Roy.

Hopping in and out of his van a hundred, a hundred and fifty times a day, the same movement of the hip, the step out onto the kerb, with the mail in bags in the back to take out to all the delivery workers. To this drop off point, to the next. All day and every day from one day to the next.

Sorting the mail, throwing it off into the frames, like a card dealer dealing his cards. A pack of two thousand cards with 600 players in every game. The advertising coupons, the leaflets, the brochures and the letters, from the banks or the building society, from the Insurance company or the gas, from the electricity company, from the Solicitor. Birthday cards and anniversary cards and Mother’s Day cards and Christmas cards and Easter cards. Postcards from the seaside. Parcels from ebay. Books from Amazon. DVDs from LoveFilm.com. Competition Winners. Christmas catalogues. Saga magazine. Sky Mag. The Beano. The London Review of Books. All of these pass through Roy Mayall’s hands, from the sorting frame into the box, from the box to the frame.

And then sweeping them into bundles, wrapped up in elastic, and then packed into bags, turning the letters where there’s a packet. All this weight of communication on his shoulders, all this dizzying constellation of words. All these presents to be opened. All these thoughts to be remembered. All this love in scrawled handwriting. Love from Mum and Love from Dad and Love from your dear Aunt Vera. How much love have us posties carried down through the centuries? How much kind regards? How much that is now forgotten? How much that is yet to be written?

The everyday postie on his round, a secret conveyor of love.

Best Management Talent

The Royal Mail's Retiring Chief Executive

The Royal Mail’s Annual Report was published on 3 June, containing details of its executive pay for the previous year. According to the figures, Adam Crozier, the retiring chief executive, received more than £2.4m in the year 2009-10…

From the London Review of Books

Read the rest of the article here.

Dead Letters and Daily Responsibilities

A miserable looking postal worker with a cleared frame ready to go out

Clear Frame

When we got back from our rounds the other day there was a brand new notice attached to our frames. It was a bright yellow embossed A4 sheet with the following words written upon it:

CLEAR FRAME

 

  • Your frame must be clear of all mail.
  • Redirections must be completed prior to your departure on delivery.
  • Local redirections should be sorted directly to the appropriate walk or handed to your section/line manager.
  • Dead letters must be completed prior to your departure on delivery.
  • All items on the frame that require further investigation to be clearly marked up.
  • These are your daily responsibilities.

Now this is odd as we already do most of these things. The only real change is in the way we handle the so-called “dead letters”. These are letters for people who no longer live at an address and which have been returned, often with a scrawled note on the front, such as “return to sender” or “deceased” or “this person hasn’t lived at this address for at least five years”. Sometimes the notes can be very angry.

What we do with these letters is to “kill them off”: that is we paste a little red and white sticker across the address with the reason for its return. There are various options, with tick boxes beside them. These include “Incomplete Address”, “No Such Address”, “Addressee gone away”, “Refused”, “Address inaccessible” etc. We tick the appropriate box, sign and date the sticker, and then highlight the return address on the envelope with a blue crayon. It is then returned to the sender in the hope that they will correct their mailing list.

I suspect some mailing companies never do this as the same letters from the same senders go to the same non-existent people week after week after week.

We sometimes get as many as 20-40 “deads” a day, which we normally process after our rounds are finished. It seems odd to prioritise dead mail over live mail, to delay our deliveries for the sake of a bunch of letters that no one wants. There’s no deadline for when these letters get to their destination as no one is expecting them; unlike the live letters, some of which may be of the utmost importance.

The other odd thing about this notice is the fact that the management feel compelled to put it there in the first place. It hangs over the frame, black lettering on a yellow background, like some sort of a warning.

It’s disconcerting and inappropriate as we already do these things anyway. We already know what our daily responsibilities are. We already clear the mail from our frames. We already redirect mail before we go out on delivery. We already pass local redirections to the colleagues who are responsible for them.

“Items on the frame that require further investigation” refers to letters with incomplete addresses which we might leave on the frame till we’ve worked out where they are supposed to go. They hardly need marking up as it’s obvious what they’re doing there.

The whole thing seems like a grand exercise in stating the obvious. They might as well add: “In order to post a letter you should push it through the letter box” and: “In order to walk up a garden path one foot should be placed in front of the other”.

If I was of a paranoid disposition I might think they were put there in order to deliberately upset us.

As it is, my guess is that they just represent another one of those management whims, the sort of thing that passes for work by people who sit in offices all day.

The notices dangle from the tops of the frames blocking access to some of the addresses. What this means is that, in order to sort the mail, the notices have to be folded back out of the way.

Which is where, I suspect, they will stay in the end.

Read more by Roy Mayall

  • Roy Mayall LRB blog
  • Roy Mayall | guardian.co.uk
    Roy Mayall is a pseudonym for a postal worker who has been in the job for about five years and works in a delivery office somewhere in the south-east of England. He writes a blog at roymayall.wordpress.com

Don’t take posties’ bikes away

Royal Mail bicycles stand in their racks at the end of the working day at Knutsford. Photograph: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

Royal Mail wants us to stop delivering on bicycles and drive vans instead – a move at odds with sustainable transport policy.

From the Guardian.

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

Idiot Wind

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

Idiot Wind

Bob Dylan 1974.

A Bad Day

Too much mail

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Only this morning I heard my number being called.

Every frame has a number. Mine is 23.

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

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

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

And that was just the beginning of my bad day.

Idiot Wind

Blood on the Tracks 1974

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was after this that things started to get ridiculous.

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

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

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

Hopping mad

Bin day

The day was turning into a nightmare.

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

And that’s how the scene happened.

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

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

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

“Humph,” I mumbled aggressively.

I wasn’t in a good mood.

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

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

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

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

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

You’ll have to imagine how it felt.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Deconstructing the agreement Part 2

Interpretation

We’ve been reading through the text of the agreement to see what it reveals. This technique of close reading of a text is sometimes called “deconstruction” and is usually reserved for literary analysis.

The problem is, as we’ve already found, that the actual words of the agreement are open to interpretation. The people who put this piece of writing together may think they know what it means, but individual managers in individual offices may have entirely different thoughts altogether. This, then, leaves the agreement open to abuse.

It’s also clear that there are a number of problem areas and un-thought-out aspects to the agreement which make it a very unsatisfactory document all round.

The idea that we have to vote on this agreement as it stands, that there is no alternative and no way of adjusting it, shows how arrogant the negotiators have been. Didn’t it occur to them that we might want to have our say? After all, it is our union. It is our industry. These are our jobs on the line. It’s our pay and conditions we’re talking about here. These are our workloads. Some of us will be expected to be out on the streets delivering door-to-door as late as 4pm on a Saturday afternoon for what amounts to a cut in pay. Didn’t the union think there might be a reaction to this?

The Work-Plan

Central to the agreement is the new work-plan which will be rolled out in the coming months. This involves a six day week and later start times. Our whole working day is going to be moved back an hour. This will be a problem for a lot of people. Most of us took this job because of the hours. Many of us have commitments. Maybe our spouses work too and we pick the kids up from school. That’s a common arrangement. What has the new agreement done to accommodate that?

Then there are our customers, particularly our small business customers, who have been used to getting their mail early. It’s not only a matter of inconvenience. Hundreds of companies across the country operate their own mail-rooms and employ staff to sort their mail internally. Most have no clue that their mail is about to be disrupted and their office routines thrown out of the window. Similarly the thousands of other companies who deal with incoming mail early in the day in order to deal with sales or enquiries and try to give a “same day” service are shortly in for a nasty surprise.

The question is, what is driving these changes? Are they really in the best interests of our customers and our industry, or might this not have something to do with the private mail companies who need extra time to get their work done and delivered to us? Will the private companies now be holding us back in terms of hours in the same way that they currently hold us back in terms of profitability?

I’d like to see the statistics on this, wouldn’t you? I’d like to see the calculations these decisions are based upon, instead of which it’s just a case of take it or leave it, with the union now being privy to the information, but the rest of us being left in the dark.

I think that it is this that I find most disturbing about the agreement. It’s an accommodation between the union and Royal Mail management which will be subject to rules of commercial confidentiality. That means the union will have to make decisions based upon information which they are unable to pass on to the membership. This changes our relationship to the union altogether. It forces them closer to management and further away from us. There’s already a fundamental split between paid union officials and the membership they serve, since most of them have forgotten what the job is actually like. This new “accommodation” will make that split even more pronounced.

“World Class Mail”

Going through the agreement you find a lot of jargon. It’s full of buzz-words and phrases which obviously have some other meaning than the ones we usually use in common English. This is standard practice when you have something to hide. It is why legal terminology is so dense and complex. It also has the advantage that normal people don’t have the knowledge and the equipment to handle it, so have to employ “experts” to help with their understanding. The experts, of course, are the ones who came up with all the entangled terminology in the first place, thus ensuring that they have a job for life disentangling it and helping to make sense of it for the rest of us.

Take this paragraph as an example:

“Royal Mail and the CWU commit themselves to develop and deploy world-class standards of performance and methods using a range of approaches. One such approach…. is the World Class Mail (WCM) initiative. In order to progress WCM Royal Mail are committed to help the CWU at all levels to gain a better understanding of this initiative.”

This is disturbing on a number of levels. The phrase “World Class Mail” is a technical term. You can tell a technical term when it can be reduced to a string of letters. That’s always an indicator of the fact that the words being used might turn out to mean something other than what you expected them to mean. It appears to refer to the adoption of delivery methods and techniques which are used in other countries. That means that the Royal Mail will be scouring the world for methods of increasing our work load and therefore our profitability in order to offer cheaper products for the private companies. At least that’s what it implies.

The trouble is it’s not clear what it means. What is clear is that the Royal Mail are already committed to this Whatever-It-Turns-Out-To-Be (WITOTB) and that the CWU’s role is simply to gain a better understanding of it in order to help implement what it has already been decided is going to happen anyway, whether you like it or not.

So, you think, how can the CWU have signed up to something it currently has no understanding of?

The agreement then goes on: “Royal Mail will ensure that WCM becomes a core agenda item in the new strategic involvement forums.”

That means that when the two sides meet the WCM (WITOTB) will be one of the main items on the agenda.

It sounds like these meetings will be very one-sided. CWU reps will sit there and be lectured on the WCM (WITOTB) agenda. Then they will come back to the office to help management implement it. And we still don’t even know what it is as yet!

 

Productivity

Later we find ourselves talking about productivity and we come to this very disturbing sentence:

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

There are caveats attached to this, about good employment policy and safe working practices, but, it seems to me this is a recipe for pure bullying. What if one worker can’t get into that top 10%? Some of us work at different speeds. Older guys just take longer to do the job, that’s all there is to it, and not everyone is consistently fast and accurate at the same time. With a bullying manager and a weak, or non-existent rep, I can see this turning some people’s lives into a living hell.

And we all know, despite the platitudes and high-minded phrases, that bullying is endemic in management culture. The directors bully the DSMs who bully the cluster-managers who bully the DOMs who bully the line-managers who bully us. Some people get it worse than others and changes in the job have meant that we’re all more isolated from each other than we used to be. Hidden in the quiet recesses of a frame a lot of threats can be made. I’m not sure if it takes a certain kind of a person to want to be a manager in the first place, or whether there are training programmes, but we all know that bullying goes on and that the procedures for dealing with it are crude and inadequate.

The question of productivity is a form of bullying in itself. It is bullying made into policy. If you are not going fast enough, we will force you to go faster. Add this to the bullying tendencies of a large number of managers and I can see a recipe for a great deal of unhappiness in the Royal Mail: even more unhappiness than we have now.

 

Health and Safety

Another characteristic of the agreement is the use of generalised “mission-statements” which, you suspect, are nothing more than sound-bites to be rolled out in front of the press, should we ever need them. So “health and safety…. is of paramount importance to Royal Mail.” Well duh. Who isn’t committed to health and safety? They’re hardly going to come out and say they are committed to disease and danger, are they?

It’s a question of what your policies are. Currently we all have to wear cycle helmets and there are yellow lines zigzagging all over the yard to indicate where you are supposed to walk – which everyone ignores – and smokers are made to stand behind the bicycle sheds (virtually) to get their nicotine fix. One of my colleagues was put through the disciplinary procedure for smoking too near to the entrance to the office.

All of this is in the name of “health and safety”. But the Attendance Procedure is still in place, which still forces me to come into work when I’m not fit, and all of the platitudes and vagaries and generalised mission statements in this agreement are not going to compensate for the fact that we are going to be carrying more mail of worse quality till later in the day, and that this will affect our home lives and our leisure-time and will impact dramatically on our time-off, thus endangering our health.

So the document promises to identify the causes of stress and to work to address them, while, at the same time it intends to understand, identify and tackle the causes of fatigue.

Well I can tell you what the answer to both of these questions are. Stress. It’s caused by the job. Fatigue. It’s caused by the job. And this agreement is about to add more stress and more fatigue to the job.

End of.

Door-to-door

As we all know this is one of the most contentious areas in the document. Door-to-door is to be included in our workload, the cap to be lifted on the numbers, a door-to-door and early shift allowance supplement to be paid out to all staff, pro-rata for part-timers. I won’t go into all of the arguments here. We all know it is a pay cut for many of us, part-timers in particular. But here is the most significant element, that I haven’t heard anyone say as yet. Our customers hate door-to-door. They loath it with a passion. We’ve all heard them rattling on about it. They all want it stopped. So by voting for this agreement we are voting for something our customers hate.

At the moment there is still a residue of respect for what we do as posties. It’s fading fast and with the casualisation of the workforce over the last few years and the increasing workload, which means we aren’t able to do our job properly, there is a growing element amongst the public who are starting to get very vociferous about us. By voting for something we know our customers don’t want – and that isn’t even in our interests – aren’t we just inviting the public to take their frustrations out upon us even more?

Add to this the increasing damage to the environment as more forests are decimated to make more pointless reading matter that people will just throw in the bin, and the implication in the agreement that we will be delivering junk mail right up until Christmas, and the suggestion that we might be forced to take out Saturday-only junk mail (maybe even on the Saturday before Christmas) and it looks increasingly like a very, very bad deal indeed.

But here is the bit that made me scream out with sheer exasperation when I read it:

“Managers, CWU reps and employees will all play a part in driving up the perception, awareness and importance of the door-to-door delivery.”

No I won’t. I hate it. It is shit. It is corporate propaganda on a grand scale. It is part of the culture of glossy diversion and distraction which is endangering our very future on this planet. It is meaningless drivel. It clogs up the mail. It flops about in my frame. It sticks to my hands. It is of poor quality. It’s embarrassing. It serves no other purpose than as recycling. What does it get recycled into, I wonder? More junk mail.

Currently, when I hand a bunch of junk to a customer and they say, “is that all there is?” I can say, “I’m sorry, it’s not my fault.”

If we accept this deal we will know that it is our fault, that it was our decision which foisted this upon them, and we can only shrug in shame.

Think about that when you cast your vote.

Deconstructing the Agreement Part 1

Purpose and Scope

Reading through the new agreement I’m struck by how far short of expectations it actually falls.

On this basis I’ve decided to “deconstruct” the text to see if we can’t find out what is actually going on within it.

Remember, this document was written by a bunch of people with various agendas, sitting in various rooms in various parts of the country, arguing about individual words in the text in order to secure what they consider to be the best deals for their clients. It’s a question of who you think the clients may be. In the case of the union, it should be the membership, but is probably more likely the organisation of the union itself. In the case of the Royal Mail, it should be its shareholder, the government – that is us, the taxpayer – but is more likely to be the vested interests of its top management and the immediate prejudices of those members of the government who are overseeing the process: in this case, Peter Mandelson.

It’s not exactly a coherent document, and any close reading shows that large parts of it are made deliberately obscure in order to hide its meaning. That, in itself, tells you something.

The aims of the agreement are laid out in the introduction, called Purpose and Scope. In the first paragraph it states: “our traditional business is being overtaken by modern methods of communication… where competition, pension costs and volume decline are massive challenges for the company.”

You see, we’re already into a debate, and we haven’t even started reading the main body of the agreement yet. Who says that our traditional business is being overtaken? Where is the independent assessment of this? We hear statements of this kind all the time, and it appears to fit into some kind of narrative the various parties are setting up in the public mind, but it’s not necessarily true. I mean, I’m writing this on Mother’s Day. Have I sent my Mum a Mother’s Day text or a Mother’s Day email today? Of course not. I’ve sent a Mother’s Day card and a bunch of flowers, like everyone else. I’ve been delivering other people’s Mums their Mother’s Day cards all week. In a few weeks time it will be Easter and there will be Easter cards to deliver; so while we might agree there have been some alterations to our traditional business, most of it is still here, and will always be here, regardless of modern methods of communication.

As for the “competition”: every postie knows this is a wholesale deceit. There is no competition in the delivery market. There is only the Royal Mail, and all of these so-called competitors are merely parasites on the Royal Mail network, taking trade from us at a subsidised rate, while demanding that the Royal Mail delivers their letters for them.

The same holds for “volume decline”, another meaningless phrase which adds to the story-line we are being spun, but which is demonstrably not true. They must think we are idiots. We handle the mail and know more than anyone that most on-line business is passing through our hands these days, and that this has led to a dramatic increase in the volume of traffic, at least in terms of size and value.

In other words, the very terms this document is basing its arguments on are at best a severe distortion of the truth, at worst, outright lies.

Modernisation – Not A Shared Vision

The first part of the document is called “Modernisation – A Shared Vision”.

Again, we are at the site of some contention here, since I’m clear in my head that what the Royal Mail means by the word “modernisation” and what I mean are two entirely different things.

What I might mean would be things like new machinery brought in to make my job easier, and to make the delivery of mail more efficient. What the Royal Mail mean, on the other hand, is more work for less pay. They are bringing in the new machinery in order to cut jobs, in order to load us up like donkeys, in order to increase profitability. This is the exact opposite of any generally accepted meaning of the word “modern”. It’s not “modernisation” we’re talking about here, but regression to a past era of exploitation and oppression, and to label it “modern” in any way is to test the English language to its limits.

Another contentious word in the document is “customer”. This is used a lot. We have to “align the interests of our customers, the workforce and the company as a whole.” But it depends who you mean by “customer”. As posties, of course, we are aware of the customers on the street, in the houses, behind the letter boxes we deliver to. But there’s another level of customer too: the corporate customer, whose interests may be entirely different from the first kind of customer, in a large number of ways.

Our day-to-day customers want their mail delivered as early as possible, as quickly as possible, at a fair rate across the country to reflect the needs of the entire community. The corporate customer, on the other hand, wants his own mail to be delivered as cheaply as possible, preferably cheaper than his rivals, and doesn’t care about the network as a whole or its impact on the general public.

The corporate customer is driven by the demands of privatised profit, not by social responsibility or the needs of the ordinary customer to receive a decent service.

It’s a question of who we serve.

It’s the top-brass at the Royal Mail who deal with corporate customers on a daily basis, of course, and it’s interesting to note that the line between us – the management and the workforce – lies at exactly the same meridian as the line between the interests of the corporations and the interests of the every day customer.

Transforming Relationships

The next part of the document is called “Transforming Relationships”.

This, of course, is the centrepiece of the entire agreement. It is what both the CWU and the Royal Mail set out the achieve. Traditionally the relationship between the union and management has been adversarial. The reason we went on strike was because management were refusing to negotiate with the union or to inform them of its plans. The very least we have managed to achieve is to have forced management to consult with the union as the process of modernisation goes ahead.

We can all be grateful for that.

But this is precisely where the problem arises, it seems. It’s like the union have rolled on their backs at this point, seduced and flattered by the prospects of consultation – of being allowed to play with the big boys in the big boys school – and have given away their whole negotiating position.

Yes, the management now has to “recognise and value the CWU as an independent trade union”, but, at the same time, the CWU has to “recognise that Royal Mail management has absolute accountability to the public, it’s customers, employees and stakeholders, for the performance of the business.”

It’s that word “absolute” I find somewhat ominous.

It’s a very final-sounding word. It’s a dictatorial word in fact. Compare the two statements. One is a promise to “value” the union, the other is a demand for “absolute accountability” of management; that is, for absolute control.

In other words, reading between the lines, what the union had secured is an agreement to be consulted as the management implement their plans, to possibly tinker around the edges, and to become cheerleaders for the on-going programme of management-led “modernisation”, while management have secured the right to do exactly what they want.

This is all tied together by a series of meetings between management and the union, to “structure training to ensure everyone involved in the IR framework is developed to a minimum standard in line with defined skills and capabilities.” What does that mean? To me it reads like a season of free junkets in which reps will get brainwashed into accepting the terms of the agreement.

What none of this does is to ask posties or the public what we want.

Part-time to full-time

To be fair to the union, they were in an impossible position. Obviously they can’t please all of the people all of the time, and they’ve had to make some very difficult decisions along the way. They’ve clearly opted for what they see as the best interests of the majority of the workforce. The commitment to a 75%-25% full-time to part-time ratio is one of the points of principle in the agreement I’m sure the union feel proud to have achieved. In an industry in which, on a world-scale, full-time jobs are being replaced with part-time and casual labour, this is a significant hold.

Unfortunately they appear to have done this at the expense of part-time workers. As the agreement says:

“Full time employees will retain full-time status unless they volunteer to move to part-time hours. Part-time employees will be entitled to retain their existing contractual hours if they wish.”

That statement is glaring in its omission. There is no reference to the possibility of part-time workers ever being in line for a full-time job. In fact, by not stating it, it is being very clearly ruled out.  This effectively creates a multi-tiered workforce, with increasing casualisation of the job as new contracts are brought in without the prospect of promotion to full-time grades. Along with pay issues – which we will discuss later – this is surely the beginning of the end for the notion of equality in the workplace. It’s not just a question of hours, it’s also a question of status. Part-time workers are now second-class citizens within the Royal Mail, with agency workers even lower down on the ladder.

You wonder if there was any deliberate calculation going on in the minds of our union leaders here. “75%-25%. That means that if we get the backing of the largest group, the rest will just have to make do.”

Whatever happened to the idea that our union was there to represent us all?

Operational Transformation

Next we come to the central issue, what the document, in it’s typically opaque manner, refers to as “Generic Operational Transformation”.

That means – to put it into common English – changes in the way we work.

These are the six points the agreement outlines:

  1. New machinery.
  2. New delivery methods.
  3. Mail centre “rationalisation”.
  4. New products and services.
  5. Working practices.
  6. Productivity.

If you’ve read the agreement you’ll know I’ve severely cut-down the length of these points, but I think I’ve generally got the sense of what is being said without getting clogged up in the detail.

So now to add commentary from a posties point of view:

  1. New machinery. No problem with this. Anything which makes my job easier is welcome. But the new machinery won’t save vast amounts of time, won’t be able to cope with the large amounts of traffic coming in the form of on-line purchases and other oddly-shaped objects, will have problems reading ordinary people’s handwriting, so will still require a significant amount of hand-sorting as usual. I expect they will make a lot of noise too, thus interrupting our banter.
  2. New delivery methods. These I suspect will be mainly rubbish. Things like “starburst” – where we all go out in vans and deliver on mass to estates – which have been trialled and shown to fail. The problem with all of these methods is they undermine the traditional relationship between the postie and his customer, so will encourage more fraud and more theft along with more casualisation of the workforce. Plus – knowing what I know about the Royal Mail management – there will be a bunch of hare-brained absurdities brought in, invented by people in offices with calculators for brains, which will just turn out to be unworkable on the ground. Let the postie do his job, that’s what I say. When it comes to delivering mail, we are the experts.
  3. Mail centre rationalisation. This will effectively be a real estate grab. Imagine the value of some of those prime city centre sites. What is Mount Pleasant worth, for example? And don’t be surprised if the sites are being knocked off at below market prices, and that some members of the current Royal Mail leadership – or their cronies in the city – won’t be making a lot of money from this. The other problem with this is that it goes against the best interests not only of posties, who want to work near home, but of their customers also, who would much prefer to retrieve their packages from a local office than have to drive over to the nearest city. It also goes against the interests of the planet as a whole, forcing us to drive to get to work, rather than just hopping on a bike, as many of us do now.
  4. New products and services. More rubbish no doubt. More door-to-door. More rebate. More trash. More of the stuff that no one wants and no one needs. More stuff being forced upon us in the interests of the corporations. More forests being decimated. More weight on our backs. When will these people learn: you can repackage an advert a million times and it’s still an advert? People are getting quicker at seeing through all the complex subterfuges which attempt to disguise these “products” as something else and it all ends up in the bin in the end.
  5. Working practices. This will mean more interference in our work, more people looking over our shoulders and following us round, more “innovations” of the sort we’ve already seen, most of which don’t work. More excuses for bad-natured managers to practice their bullying techniques. More lapsing of frames. Greater workloads. Longer delivery spans. Increased work rates. Learning how to jog, juggle and read mail all at the same time.
  6. Productivity. This works in parallel with the last point, of course. Productivity is referring to what we take out and carry on our backs. It means turning us into donkeys. The more weight we carry and the faster we deliver it, the better for profitability. It all goes in with the transformation of our working lives from one of service to our customer to one of serfdom to the neoliberal barons and the banking elite who have demanded that nothing will exist on this planet that does not, at the same time, make a profit for them. That’s what really lies behind this agreement. It is just one more of the incremental steps that are being taken to transform our economy from one based upon the needs of the population as a whole, to one that only serves the interest of profit.

More on the agreement

Not the Deal of the Century

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

From the LRB.

Read more here.

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.

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.

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