Press coverage of the Communication Workers’ Union dispute with Royal Mail, even when slightly sympathetic, shakes its collective head at the apparent hopelessness of the workers’ situation. We get little insight into the day-to-day experience of the workers themselves. It is not stretching a point to note that this lack of anecdotal analysis chimes with our concern within Youth Work to encourage workers to tell their stories of practice. Thus it is fascinating on a number of counts to read this detailed account of the pressures upon the postal workers and the impact upon their lives of ‘new managerialism’.
The Diary of Ray Mayall begins:
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.
His tale ends:
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.
The whole detailed story is well worth your attention and well worth bearing in mind if your young people wonder why folk are forced to go on strike.
Thanks to Peter for the link.