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.
When the business secretary Vince Cable announced the sale of Royal Mail shares last autumn, his Labour counterpart Chuka Umunna, rather than focusing on the principle of a publicly owned postal service, complained that taxpayers were being ripped off. Royal Mail shares soared by 38 per cent in 24 hours. A parliamentary select committee said the group had been undervalued by £1 billion, in part because ministers had failed to account for the expanding parcels trade. They also appeared to have forgotten the company owned three major development sites in inner London, including Mount Pleasant, where several Christmases ago I sorted parcels – mainly Amazon deliveries.
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.
By unlucky coincidence, the Royal Mail launched this year’s set of Christmas stamps the day before the Leonardo da Vinci exhibition opened at the National Gallery. On the one hand, both versions of The Virgin of the Rocks in the same room; on the other, to ‘celebrate the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible’, Mary looking like one of the Bisto kids, but more inane, with her head wrapped in an ethnically imprecise white cloth, covering her hair but knotted oddly at the back. That’s on the first-class stamp, purporting to illustrate Matthew 1.23 (‘Behold, a virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son’). The larger version shows a dove, apparently perched on a Windsor chair.
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.
It’s been a bad few weeks at our delivery office. First of all Vince Cable announced that the Royal Mail was going to be privatised. Then, at one of our weekly ‘Work Time Listening and Learning’ meetings, the line manager announced that our delivery office is going to close. We are going to have to move to the main sorting office in the next town, seven or eight miles away. He couldn’t say when this was going to happen. All he could say was that ‘plans are underway’.
It appears that the Royal Mail is to be sold off. According to theDaily Mail, it will be transformed into a ‘John Lewis-style trust’ by the autumn. John Lewis is a chain of department stores whose employees are also partners. The employees own shares, but these are held in trust, so cannot be sold off when the employee leaves the company. John Lewis employees earn a dividend in addition to their wages and are allowed some say in the running of the company. The idea is that a similar scheme will give postal workers an incentive to help improve the Royal Mail’s performance. Except that the government has said that its intention is to ensure the Royal Mail 'benefits from private sector capital and disciplines’. The private sector will only inject capital on the expectation of returns. So it won’t be a ‘John Lewis-style partnership’. Part of it will be part-owned by postal workers, but staff will be subject to ‘private sector discipline’, meaning attempts to cut costs in order to maximise profit.
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. With bonuses and pensions that figure rises to £3.5 million. Ian Duncan, the group finance director, took home a total of £1.4m, while Mark Higson, the managing director of Royal Mail Letters, received a total of £1.7m. Adam Crozier is the highest paid public sector worker in the country and his income puts the paltry figures earned by top Whitehall mandarins to shame.
I earn £8.98 an hour. I work a 20-hour week. I’d like to work more but there are no full-time jobs available. My basic pay is £177.28 a week, before deductions. That’s about £9200 a year. That means that I would have to work for nearly 380 years to earn as much as Adam Crozier earned last year.
There’s a Tannoy system in our office. It’s very rarely used. Most people just shout when they want to get our attention. The people with the loudest voices tend to gravitate towards the jobs where the most shouting is required. Pretty well the only person who uses the Tannoy is the manager. He doesn’t have a very loud voice and doesn’t play a significant role in the daily life of the office. Usually he is hiding behind his computer in his little office, keeping out of everyone’s way. So when the speakers crackle, and an uncomfortable voice starts to mumble into the microphone, we always know it’s the manager, about to announce something out of the ordinary. ‘Hello everybody. Can everyone hear me out there?’
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. Under the headline ‘Pay rise and bonuses for striking postmen’, the Daily Express said: ‘Royal Mail postal workers who caused havoc with a series of strikes before Christmas are to get a pay rise, shorter hours and bonuses of up to £2500.’ Or try this headline from thisismoney.co.uk (owned by the Daily Mail): ‘Royal Mail strikers get more for less work.’
These reports read as if they’re based not on the actual agreement, but on the press releases handed out by the CWU and the Royal Mail.
Every so often postal workers get called up to the front of the office for a ‘huddle’. This usually involves the manager standing by the front doors, issuing a long-winded statement from head-office about procedures, while the rest of us stand about feeling restive because we are getting behind with our work. The word, as it applies to a management technique, seems to come from American football – those close-in, head-down strategy discussions in the middle of play. We used to have office announcements.
We were recently asked to deliver an insulting letter. Insulting to us as postal workers, that is, not to our customers. It was an advertising circular from Clifford James (established 1970), announcing their January sale. The insult was a statement on the front of the bright red envelope. The letter was an item of downstream access mail relayed through a private mail company called Secured Mail (I'd never heard of them before), and underneath the frank there was a label, 'Beat the POST!', across an image of a speeding van. And underneath: 'Our products are delivered by private courier NOT ROYAL MAIL.' The capital letters are all their own.
I was talking to my union rep about the attendance procedure, the process by which posties are threatened with dismissal for being ill. ‘The union must have negotiated this,’ I said. ‘If the union hadn’t negotiated it, it wouldn’t exist.’ ‘But if the union hadn’t negotiated it,’ my union rep said, ‘it would be worse. Anyway, it’s not the procedure that’s wrong, it’s bad management and the way they use it.’ But as I pointed out to him, if the management can misuse the procedure to the detriment of postal workers, that means there are loopholes in it, which means it’s a bad agreement. This is the problem.
I’m interested in the way that words change their meaning once they are adopted by bureaucratic institutions. Take deregulation, for instance, as it’s applied to postal services in Britain. It appears to mean an opening of the market to allow competition. But if you look more closely you will see that, in order to achieve this, the Royal Mail’s ability to act in its own interest has been severely curtailed. Deregulation is the means by which rivals companies can gain access to the Royal Mail network in order to make a profit. It is also sometimes called ‘liberalisation’ and is the result of a number of convoluted EU directives. On the ground the system takes the form of something called ‘downstream access’. Rival companies bid for large city-to-city and bulk mail contracts from private utilities, banks and other corporations, and then, having secured them, use the Royal Mail to deliver. Using the Royal Mail to undermine itself, in fact. What it means for us posties is that we’re being made to deliver our rivals' mail for them, and then told we can't have decent pay and conditions because our rivals are taking our trade away. In an unregulated market the solution would be simple.
My new book, Dear Granny Smith, describes the job of a postal worker 30 years ago, and compares this with the job today. Slightly unexpectedly, people keep referring to it as a nostalgic book, which wasn’t its purpose at all. Robert McCrum’s review in the Observer, for example, trades extensively on the notion that the book is an elegy for a lost world. There’s a false dichotomy being set up, between ‘nostalgia’ and ‘modernisation’.
The postal strike is off. You don’t need me to tell you that. What you may not know is how this has affected us posties. I first heard the rumours in the office on Thursday when I got back from my round. The union rep said: 'You’d better watch the news.’ I'm sure I wasn’t the only postie glued to his TV that afternoon, waiting for clarification. It seemed a strange way of finding out whether or not you were going into work in the morning, waiting for a BBC newscaster to inform you. The atmosphere at work on Friday was slightly odd, slightly out of kilter. Someone had turned the volume up. Everyone was a tad more animated than usual, a fraction louder, a notch more bellicose. But after that – well you get on with things, don’t you. There’s a job to do. By Saturday everything was quieting down, and by Monday it was as if the strike had never happened at all.
I was just watching a news item on Sky. It was a programme about TNT, the Dutch national mail company that has recently been ‘liberalised’. This is the company that earlier in the year Peter Mandelson suggested as a possible buyer for the Royal Mail. Postmen over there are losing their jobs. Fixed contracts are being replaced by ‘flexible’ contracts, full-time postmen by ‘freelance’ postmen. People who have been doing the same round for 31 years are being got rid of and made to reapply for their jobs, but on a freelance basis. The Dutch minister responsible for the change was being interviewed. 'As consumers,' he said, ‘and especially from business to consumer, there is more flexibility. Competition has made mail companies modernise, and that’s where consumers profit from.’ You have to pay attention to the words here.
I’ve just got back from the picket line. There were ten of us at the gate while about the same number had crossed the picket line and gone into work. That was a bit sad. Some of them weren’t members of the union, so had no choice. Mind you, they had the choice whether to join the union or not, and would take the benefits if we won the dispute. One or two of the younger members were still on their trial contract, so were worried in case it wasn’t renewed. I have a lot of sympathy for them. But the sad thing was seeing union members go in. One of them was overheard to say that he used the union when he needed it, but otherwise he wasn’t interested. I don’t think I can ever respect the man again. On the other hand, we had a spy on the inside who was popping out every so often bringing us regular updates about what was going on.
I’ve just heard this from a colleague. He’s been told by one of the managers that as part of the modernisation programme we're all going to get new electric trolleys. I wish you could hear the sounds of scornful laughter coming out of all the delivery offices up and down the country. Electric trolleys no less! It’s a hoot. How much are they planning to spend on that, I wonder? How many new mechanics are they going to take on for when they – inevitably – break down? Me, I like my bike. It’s simple and it’s efficient, it’s robust and old-fashioned, it keeps me fit, and Tom – the bike mechanic – does a great job of keeping it in good condition. So who takes all the profit for all the new electric trolleys they’re going to foist on us, regardless of whether we want them or not? Not the Royal Mail, that’s for certain. Now can you see where all the profits are disappearing to?
At the Royal Mail you are sometimes made to come into work even when you are sick or injured, on threat of dismissal. It’s called an ‘Attendance Procedure’. They monitor your attendance. If you are off work for sickness or injury too many times, or for too long, you are given a Stage 1 warning. If you go over the limit a second time while still on the Stage 1 warning, you are given a Stage 2 warning. If you exceed the limit for a third time you are given a Stage 3 warning and threatened with dismissal. The limits are: either three absences in the space of a year, or one absence of three weeks or more. This is whether or not you are actually ill. All illnesses are assumed to be genuine, but all illnesses, no matter how desperate, also count towards your warnings. They don’t take any mitigating circumstances into account.