Thursday 22 October 2009

Why Postal Workers Need Our Support Today

This article originally appeared in the London Review of Books, 8 October 2009.

Old people still write letters the old-fashioned way: by hand, with a biro, folding up the letter into an envelope, writing the address on the front before adding the stamp. Mostly they don’t have email, and while they often have a mobile phone – bought by the family ‘just in case’ – they usually have no idea how to send a text. So Peter Mandelson wasn’t referring to them when he went on TV in May to press for the part-privatisation of the Royal Mail, saying that figures were down due to competition from emails and texts.

I spluttered into my tea when I heard him say that. ‘Figures are down.’ We hear that sentence almost every day at work when management are trying to implement some new initiative which involves postal workers like me working longer hours for no extra pay, carrying more weight, having more duties.

It’s the joke at the delivery office. ‘Figures are down,’ we say, and laugh as we pile the fifth or sixth bag of mail onto the scales and write down the weight in the log-book. It’s our daily exercise in fiction-writing. We’re only supposed to carry a maximum of 16 kilos per bag, on a reducing scale: 16 kilos the first bag, 13 kilos the last. If we did that we’d be taking out ten bags a day and wouldn’t be finished till three in the afternoon.

‘Figures are down,’ we chortle mirthlessly, as we load the third batch of door-to-door catalogues onto our frames, adding yet more weight to our bags, and more minutes of unpaid overtime to our clock. We get paid 1.67 pence per item of unaddressed mail, an amount that hasn’t changed in ten years. It is paid separately from our wages, and we can’t claim overtime if we run past our normal hours because of these items. We also can’t refuse to deliver them. This junk mail is one of the Royal Mail’s most profitable sidelines and my personal contribution to global warming: straight through the letterbox and into the bin.

‘Figures are down,’ we say again, but more wearily now, as we pile yet more packages into our panniers, before setting off on our rounds.

People don’t send so many letters any more, it’s true. But, then again, the average person never did send all that many letters. They sent Christmas cards and birthday cards and postcards. They still do. And bills and bank statements and official letters from the council or the Inland Revenue still arrive by post; plus there’s all the new traffic generated by the internet: books and CDs from Amazon, packages from eBay, DVDs and games from LoveFilm, clothes and gifts and other items purchased at any one of the countless online stores which clutter the internet, bought at any time of the day or night, on a whim, with a credit card.

According to Royal Mail figures published in May, mail volume declined by 5.5 per cent over the preceding 12 months, and is predicted to fall by a further 10 per cent this year ‘due to the recession and the continuing growth of electronic communications such as email’. Every postman knows these figures are false. If the figures are down, how come I can’t get my round done in under four hours any more? How come I can work up to five hours at a stretch without time for a sit-down or a tea break? How come my knees nearly give way with the weight I have to carry? How come something snapped in my back as I was climbing out of the shower, so that I fell to the floor and had to take a week off work?

So who’s right? Are the figures down or aren’t they? The Royal Mail couldn’t lie, could it? Well no, maybe not. But it can manipulate the figures. And it can avoid telling the whole truth.

One thing you probably don’t know, for instance, is that the Royal Mail is already part-privatised. It goes under the euphemism of ‘deregulation’. Deregulation is the result of an EU directive that was meant to be implemented over an extended period to give mail companies time to adjust, but which this government embraced with almost obscene relish, deregulating the UK mail service long before any of its rivals in Europe. It means that any private mail company – or, indeed, any of the state-owned, subsidised European mail companies – is able to bid for Royal Mail contracts.

Take a look at your letters next time you pick them up from the doormat. Look at the right-hand corner, the place where the Queen’s head used to be. You’ll see a variety of different franks, representing a number of different mail companies. There’s TNT, UK Mail, Citypost and a number of others. What these companies do is to bid for the profitable bulk mail and city-to-city trade of large corporations, undercutting the Royal Mail, and then have the Royal Mail deliver it for them. TNT has the very lucrative BT contract, for instance. TNT picks up all BT’s mail from its main offices, sorts it into individual walks according to information supplied by the Royal Mail, scoots it to the mail centres in bulk, where it is then sorted again and handed over to us to deliver. Royal Mail does the work. TNT takes the profit.

None of these companies has a universal delivery obligation, unlike the Royal Mail. In fact they have no delivery obligation at all. They aren’t rival mail companies in a free market, as the propaganda would have you believe. None of them delivers any mail. All they do is ride on the back of the system created and developed by the Royal Mail, and extract profit from it. The process is called ‘downstream access’. Downstream access means that private mail companies have access to any point in the Royal Mail delivery network which will yield a profit, after which they will leave the poor old postman to carry the mail to your door.

So if ‘figures are down’ that doesn’t mean that volume is down. Volume, at least over that last few miles from the office to your door, is decidedly up. But even assuming that Mandelson was telling the truth, that volume really is down by 10 per cent, the fact is that staff levels are down even more, by 30 per cent. That still means each postman is doing a whole lot more work.

There are more part-time staff now. No one is taken on on a full-time basis any more. There are two grades of part-time workers: those working six-hour shifts and those working four hours. The six-hour staff prepare their own frame – their workstation, divided into roads and then numbers, with a slot for each address – but they don’t do any ‘internal sorting’ (this is the initial sorting done when the mail comes into the office). The four-hour part-timers come in and – in theory at least – pick up their pre-packed bags and go straight out. They are hardly in the office at all. This means that the full-timers have to pick up the slack. They are supposed to prepare the frames, sort out the redirections, bundle up the mail and put it into the sacks for the part-timers to take out, as well as doing all the internal sorting, and preparing their own frames: all in the three hours or so before they go out on their rounds.

When I first started working at the Royal Mail every postman prepared his own round. These days maybe a third of the staff are part-time. It’s the full-timers who are on the old-fashioned, water-tight contracts, with full pension entitlement, the ones whose pension fund is such a nightmare for the Royal Mail’s finances. As well as being invariably part-time, new staff are on flexible contracts without pension rights.

The pension fund deficit was £5.9 billion last year and is predicted to rise to £8 or £9 billion next year. The deficit is the main reason various people in positions of authority within the government and the Royal Mail were suggesting the partial sell-off earlier in the year. These people included Adam Crozier, the chief executive, and Jane Newell, the chair of the pension fund trustees, as well as the business secretary, Peter Mandelson. But a partial sale of the Royal Mail wouldn’t get rid of the pension deficit. No private investor would take it on. Which means that, whether the Royal Mail remains in public hands or is partly or fully privatised in the future, the pension deficit will always remain the tax-payer’s obligation.

Meanwhile there is increasing tension in Royal Mail offices up and down the country. There was a strike in 2007, and a national agreement on ‘pay and modernisation’, but this year has seen management constantly implementing new practices, putting more and more pressure on the steadily dwindling ranks of full-timers. The latest innovation being forced on an unwilling workforce is the collapsing of frames.

Let me explain what this means. Each frame represents a round or a walk. Letters are sorted on the frame, and then bundled up to take out onto the walk. But mail delivery is a seasonal business. Traffic varies throughout the year. Around Christmas it is at its highest. In the summer months, when the kids are out of school, the volume drops. This is known as ‘the summer lull’. So a national agreement was reached between the union and the management to reduce the number of man-hours in each office during the summer months. And the way this was done was to collapse one of the frames. One frame in the office would no longer have a specific postman assigned to it, but would be taken out by all the postmen in the office on a rotating basis. This meant an average of ten or 15 minutes extra work every day for every postman in the office. This agreement was meant to apply to only one frame and for the summer period only.

Now this has changed. There is increasing pressure to collapse more and more frames – that is, to get the same number of postmen to do larger amounts of work – and not just in the summer months but over the whole year. Management are becoming noticeably more belligerent. For some weeks now the managers have been bullying and cajoling everyone in our office, saying that a second frame would have to be collapsed – ‘figures are down’ – and that the workforce would have to decide which frame that would be. Everyone refused. Collapsing a frame would mean that one person would have to move frames, while another person on a ‘flexible’ contract would lose his job altogether. No one wanted to be responsible for making that kind of decision. No one wanted to shaft their workmates. And then last week it was announced, on the heaviest day of the week, and without notice, that a second frame was going to be collapsed anyway, regardless of our opinion. When the shop steward put in a written objection it was ignored.

Such was the resentment and the chaos in the office that a lot of mail didn’t get delivered that day, and what was delivered was late. If a postman fails to deliver a letter, it is called ‘deliberate withholding of mail’ and is a sackable offence. When management are responsible, it is considered merely expedient. There’s a feeling that we are being provoked, and that this isn’t coming from the managers in our office – who aren’t all that bright, and who don’t have all that much power – but from somewhere higher up. Everyone is gearing up for a strike.

The truth is that the figures aren’t down at all. We have proof of this. The Royal Mail have been fiddling the figures. This is how it is being done.

Mail is delivered to the offices in grey boxes. These are a standard size, big enough to carry a few hundred letters. The mail is sorted from these boxes, put into pigeon-holes representing the separate walks, and from there carried over to the frames. This is what is called ‘internal sorting’ and it is the job of the full-timers, who come into work early to do it. In the past, the volume of mail was estimated by weighing the boxes. These days it is done by averages. There is an estimate for the number of letters that each box contains, decided on by national agreement between the management and the union. That number is 208. This is how the volume of mail passing through each office is worked out: 208 letters per box times the number of boxes. However, within the last year Royal Mail has arbitrarily, and without consultation, reduced the estimate for the number of letters in each box. It was 208: now they say it is 150. This arbitrary reduction more than accounts for the 10 per cent reduction that the Royal Mail claims is happening nationwide.

Doubting the accuracy of these numbers, the union ordered a random manual count to be undertaken over a two-week period in a number of offices across the region. Our office was one of them. On average, those boxes which the Royal Mail claims contain only 150 letters, actually carry 267 items of mail. This, then, explains how the Royal Mail can say that the figures are down, although every postman knows that volume is up. The figures are down all right, but only because they have been manipulated.

Like many businesses, the Royal Mail has a pet name for its customers. The name is ‘Granny Smith’. It’s a deeply affectionate term. Granny Smith is everyone, but particularly every old lady who lives alone and for whom the mail service is a lifeline. When an old lady gives me a Christmas card with a fiver slipped in with it and writes, ‘Thank you for thinking of me every day,’ she means it. I might be the only person in the world who thinks about her every day, even if it’s only for long enough to read her name on an envelope and then put it through her letterbox. There is a tension between the Royal Mail as a profit-making business and the Royal Mail as a public service. For most of the Royal Mail management – who rarely, if ever, come across the public – it is the first. To the delivery officer – to me, and people like me, the postmen who bring the mail to your door – it is more than likely the second.

We had a meeting a while back at which all the proposed changes to the business were laid out. Changes in our hours and working practices. Changes to our priorities. Changes that have led to the current chaos. We were told that the emphasis these days should be on the corporate customer. It was what the corporations wanted that mattered. We were effectively being told that quality of service to the average customer was less important than satisfying the requirements of the big businesses.

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.’

So now you know.

Roy Mayall, a pseudonym (obviously), has worked as a postman for the last five years.


HarpyMarx said...

Couldn't make any of the picket lines today but will be checking ones out tomorrow (it is delivery offices Friday).

Viva postal workers!

Anonymous said...

Not a letter: an article in the LRB. And you can read more by Roy on the London Review Blog.

Kevin said...

Thanks for the clarification - I'll correct the post accordingly.

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