Today is the last day for sending first-class post if you want it to arrive before Christmas. You’re lucky there’s anyone to deliver it. In October, the Communication Workers Union held a ballot which came out overwhelmingly in support of strike action – 89.1 per cent in favour on a turnout of 73.7 per cent – but the Royal Mail got a High Court injunction to stop the strike.
If you believe Royal Mail, letter volumes have declined by 40 per cent in the last ten years as people have increasingly taken to email. But there doesn’t seem to be any noticeable loss from where postal workers are standing. In fact, volumes are as high as they’ve ever been. It’s true that people don’t write so many personal letters any more – that was always a minority interest anyway – but the loss of personal mail has been more than compensated for by a marked increase in advertising mail. I’m sure you’ve noticed it too.
It's a joke in the office. ‘Figures are down,’ we say, while loading all those extra bags into the back of the van. And it's here we see a really strange thing in the conduct of the postal industry in the UK. There are just as many letters as there were before privatisation, but many of them are now ‘handled’ by rival mail companies like UK Mail and TNT, who, while they take the profit for handling it, don't actually deliver it. We deliver it. Yes, that's right: the Royal Mail delivers its rivals' mail. Management tells us that if we go on strike it will strengthen our rivals, but without us, our rivals can't exist.
The rival mail companies are allowed to use Royal Mail staff and equipment to deliver their post, through a process called ‘downstream access’; at the same time, none of them is hampered by the Universal Service Obligation, which requires the Royal Mail to deliver to every household in the country, no matter how remote.
Meanwhile, the privatised Royal Mail is now under an obligation to increase profits to pass on to shareholders. What this means is that there is growing pressure to cut costs, to deliver the same amount of mail using fewer staff.
The way they achieve this is through a process called ‘lapsing’. What they do is to break down two or three rounds in the office into their constituent parts – they ‘collapse’ the frames – thus saving on the wages of the workers who would otherwise have delivered those rounds. They then hand the extra bundles on to the rest of us to deliver.
Which is fine on a light day, but these days we lapse almost every day; and because of the pressure to cut costs there is no longer any spare capacity in the office. There aren't enough staff, and if something unexpected happens, like one or two people going off sick, or a surge of mail, there isn't the man-power to cope. This is when mail gets left behind. This is when third-class mail is given priority over first-class.
Which is what happened recently. There was a last-minute surge of mail, including a significant quantity of first class letters. Well, I say ‘last-minute’. It was last-minute as far as delivery staff were concerned, but the management, who brought it in from the lorries, and the people who run the sorting machines, must have known it was there all along.
There were howls of protest from the staff. How are we going to sort and deliver this, and take out the lapsed mail?
That’s when I heard something I’d never heard before in all my years as a postman: instead of dropping the lapsed mail, some of which was just the third-class advertising junk known as Mailsort, we were told to leave the first-class mail under our desks.
You may ask why they did this. And the answer is: I have no idea. But I can take an educated guess. It was about saving money. They didn’t have anyone to take out the lapsed mail, so, rather than bring in casual workers, which would have cost them, they decided to delay the first-class mail instead.
None of this happened when we were publicly owned. First-class mail was always given priority, and most postal workers were willing to go into overtime to get it delivered. Not any more.