I sometimes think there’s a special relationship between postal workers and dustmen. We deliver the rubbish, they take it away again. We used to get paid per item for the junk mail we dropped through your letter box. These days we get a delivery supplement: a fixed amount per week no matter how many advertising leaflets we carry. The maximum we are allowed to deliver has also increased, to seven per household.
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.
Something that hasn’t been mentioned much in the post-privatisation analysis is the amount of money the Royal Mail stands to make out of its immense property holdings. One building alone in the company’s portfolio of disused offices in London – the mail centre in Nine Elms Lane – has been valued at half a billion pounds. That’s one-sixth of what the government sold the whole company for.
One of my neighbours came over to say hello the day the Royal Mail was privatised. ‘I expect you’re looking forward to getting your hands on all that money you’ve just made,’ he said. The shares allocated to me as a member of staff had gone up by almost 40 per cent in a day. The government had brought forward the date of the IPO in order to beat a strike ballot by the Communication Workers' Union. Most of us, like most people, were against the privatisation. It felt like my neighbour was congratulating me on taking a bribe.
In the last year our delivery office has moved from working on bikes to working in vans. There are two of us to a van, doing two rounds between us. We’ve also been given new trolleys so we can carry more weight, new bags to fit onto the new trolleys, and new tracking devices to show customers exactly where their post is. They also, coincidentally, show the Royal Mail exactly where its employees are.
With Christmas approaching, the Royal Mail is taking on 18,000 temporary staff to help cover the extra work. This happens every year. This year, though, all job enquires are being directed to a company called Angard Staffing Solutions Ltd, a wholly owned subsidiary of the Royal Mail. It doesn’t just handle temporary staff over Christmas. There appears to be no way to get a job as a postal worker these days except by going through Angard.
There used to be a vicious old Boxer dog on my round. He lived at the end of a long drive with a gate. There was a post box outside where I used to leave the mail. Occasionally the owners forgot to close the gate and left the dog out. It would spot me as I was parking my bike, and begin padding in my direction, head down, growling, until it got close enough to launch itself at me.
The Royal Mail is instituting a massive restructuring of the service. Rounds are being altered, delivery methods changed, new technology introduced, bikes scrapped, hours extended, delivery offices closed, all in the name of something they call ‘modernisation’. In practice it means that people are getting their post later in the day; there is an increasing casualisation of the work force as staff are moved around more and the traditional relationship between a postal worker and his round is being broken; office closures mean that people have to travel further to pick up undelivered packages; the move from bikes to walking with trolleys and the huge increase in the workload means that postal workers are left aching and exhausted after a day’s work; extensive use of vans means more pollution. You have to wonder why they’re doing it.
Last week all the new walk-sequencing machines in our area broke down. This meant that only about a third of the letters arrived at our delivery office on Wednesday. So on Thursday we had two days’ post to deliver, and everyone’s mail was late. Walk-sequencing machines sort the letters into the order that they are going to be delivered in. The old walk-sorting machines only organised the post into rounds: postal workers had to do the final sorting. Under the old system, all the post was in the delivery office by 7.15 and we were usually out on our rounds by 9.00. Under the new system, the last lorry arrives at 9.15 and sometimes we don’t get out until after 11.00. It’s quite normal for a postal worker to finish work at 3.30 these days, and for posties doing rural rounds still to be delivering letters as late as four in the afternoon. The machines also have a tendency to break down, as we’ve just discovered, so on some days no post is delivered at all. But they are central to the Royal Mail’s ‘modernisation’ programme.
Yesterday was the first day I have ever had off work because of the weather. I’ve had to take shelter in a downpour or a hail storm before. I’ve trudged through the rain while icy winds blew off the sea. I’ve worked in the frost and the rain and in fog and in heat. Once I was delivering along a terrace where there was a torrent of water pouring from a leaky gutter. I was avoiding it as best I could, but a sudden gust of wind took hold of it and directed it down the back of my neck while I was stuck at a letter box. I went back to the office sodden to my socks, but I didn’t take a day off because of it.