Thursday, November 05, 2009


"The assault on post workers is a sign of things to come." You wouldn't know it from reading the papers or watching the news, but the postal strike has brought industrial action back into common currency. The strikes planned for tomorrow and Monday may have been called off, but it seems likely that this is a postponement rather than a cancellation.

DV noted the other evening how odd it is that the only vaguely mainstream media outlet which is covering the postal workers' side of the story is the London Review of Books. A BBC News report this week depicted the dispute as if it was between two equally culpable sides, with the Unions inevitably coming out as the more loggerheaded of the two. There is very little inquisition into what the Royal Mail's management mean by "modernisation," nor any challenge to its claim that the number of letters and packages they handle each day is down (a conclusion they have reached largely by fiddling the figures).

In September, "Roy Mayall" debunked the "figures are down" myth:

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?

Royal Mail has become unprofitable because much of its activities have already been privatised. TNT, for example, have a lucrative contract with BT, where they collect BT's mail, deliver it to Royal Mail's offices, where it is sorted and then delivered by Royal Mail staff. For Royal Mail, who do most of the work, this is not a profitable contract. In other words, "if ‘figures are down’ that doesn’t mean that volume is down."

Royal Mail has responded with redundancies, a flurry of initiatives to get employees to take on more and more office and delivery work for the same pay, and a carving-up of jobs so that part-time and casual (non-unionised) staff gradually replace full-time workers. Those who don't comply with the management's directives become the victims of bullying:

“They started me on the new walk earlier this year. When I realised that it could not be done in the time allotted, I followed procedure and rang my manager to explain. I said that there was too much mail and that the route made no sense. But they didn’t want explanations. They’re just like some of the teachers I had at school – they’re just bullies. When I got back to my office the top manager shouted, ‘I want him in the office. Now!’.”

A letter in this fortnight's LRB describes the Royal Mail's new walks. They have reduced the number of delivery walks, but made them much longer. Christmas means that the bulk of mail delivered on a particular walk increases, which means staff face the double-whammy of a mailbag so heavy it becomes unsafe to carry, and a walk which is so long that they cannot complete their round until 7 or 8 o'clock in the evening. Royal Mail has stopped paying overtime, so whatever hours a postie is forced to work to complete his excessive round, s/he will only get paid a basic salary.

The LRB correspondent suggests that Royal Mail is being wilfully hostile towards its staff because it wants to replace them with casual (non-unionised) workers. It has certainly (and probably illegally) embraced the idea of a scab workforce. Neither Labour nor Tories have any time for a public Royal Mail - even though experience shows that privatisation causes unprofitability and redundancies, it remains the plan for the Royal Mail. A Tory Councillor in Ipswich has even drafted the staff of his firm "Experience Connect" to join anti-strike protests.

Maybe I'm being naive, but you would have thought the Mirror would have covered the dispute in a bit more detail. The Guardian have published a number of pretty mealy-mouthed pieces. For anybody who places a grain of faith in the idea of justice, taking sides in this dispute is a no-brainer. Yet the Socialist Worker and the LRB are alone in supporting the postal workers.

The strikes are off for now - but where does this leave us? As Seamus Milne wrote last month,

The test will come in the next few days: do Royal Mail managers, and the ministers behind them, want a deal to give a more progressive future for a popular public service – or a self-defeating, confected confrontation with one of the strongest workforces in the public sector? We'll know soon enough.


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