Saturday, 24 October 2009

Moving The Goalpoasts of Modernization

The following was sent to me by postman, Adam Brazier, for anyone wanting a real insight into what has led to the current dispute between the CWU and the Royal Mail. One man’s story of what “modernization” really means…


By Adam Brazier

I have worked for Royal Mail for well over a decade. In that time, I’ve seen some changes, gone the extra mile, and entered into the spirit of the change I was sold. The first was what they described as ‘The Way Forward’. This tagline soon ended when they realised the nonsensical ‘Consignia’ name-change was commercial madness. If the management had bothered to ask any of us, we would have told them, when we weren’t laughing. The Consignia thing, always struck me as a clear sign of management intentions; privatisation. After all, they wouldn’t really be able to use the ‘Royal’ bit if they were in the private sector would they?

Then they invested millions in a computer system for post office benefits payments, that didn’t work. More money wasted (and one of the real reasons they couldn’t turn a profit for years). Then attention began to turn to us, the humble donkeys, who had it easy... doing all the work. The new tagline ‘modernisation’ came into being, and we were all convinced, over a period of years, by more and more ‘team talks’, ‘briefings’ and ‘huddles’. Week on week, we were sold the big new idea, along with phrases like; ‘the way the business is going’, repeated ad nauseam as justifications for every necessary evil.

Then came the time when they took away your second delivery and Sunday collections, not to mention changing mail delivery times to long to after you’ve all gone to work. The carrot on the stick, to accept taking up to half an extra workload for zero remuneration, later in the day, was the next mantra; ‘job and finish’. The concept of job and finish, was that we would accept all this, and in return, management would turn a blind eye to us getting half hour here, or half hour there, as an incentive to get the new increased workload done, in a speedy and efficient manner. The agreements were signed. We were moving towards the future and there were to be four phases.

Before the ink had dried and while we were struggling with our new workload, a new phrase came into being; ‘we just want you to work the hours you are paid’. We never heard ‘job and finish’ again, which now gets used to somehow portray us as lazy, work-shy, corner-cutters, eager to swan off down the boozer at midday complaining that we have to work our hours. Since the revision about four years ago, when we had an extra half of our workload added on top, we have had two further ‘revisions’ in our office. And each time, we get extra work, same pay (there’s been a freeze for a while now, but we understand, these are tough times). The latest revision happened to us this last spring, I willfully took on the new round, and signed the new contract, in the spirit of change which I had been sold. A month later, I took the family away and on my return, I was called into the manager’s office; “While you were away, we had some teething problems. We’ve added two streets to your walk, trialed it, and it works.” “How can it not work?” I thought, “you’re just giving me more to do”. I now deliver to going on 500 houses 6 days a week.

As well as the threat of instant dismissal if we forget to put our cycle helmets on in the early hours (‘health and safety’ or insurance claim worries?), there are other things that have happened recently. There’s a certain TV guide that we have always delivered monthly, and ever since I have worked there, we have had three days to deliver them unless they are late and it’s near the end of the month. Last month, I was again summoned to the manager’s office. A pile of these TV magazines were in front of me. It was what I had left from the day before, and was due to finish that day, a day ahead of schedule. My contract was waved at me and I was told I could be sacked on the spot, but they would let me off this time. Apparently the rules had changed, and from now on I had to deliver them all in one day, and if I did it again I would be sacked. I asked why I hadn’t been told, but apparently I had, and I must’ve not heard it. A common occurrence in our workplace. I guess the manager’s must walk down the aisles whispering our new diktats for that week. It got to the point a while ago, where I started joking to my workmates on a Monday morning; “So what’s new since last week? What are we doing differently today?”

Very recently, a new imposition came into being. If we fail to get a Special Delivery signed, we now have to phone the office by 1:30pm so they can tell the computer ahead of it’s return by the van driver. I had some difficulty remembering when I got home (probably due to being a bit tired), and last week I phoned in 45 minutes late. Yet again, I was whisked into the manager’s office and told that as a punishment, they had no choice to make me report back to the office every day at 1:30pm. My round is a couple of miles from the office and I cycle. The reason for this is apparently that for every failure to report Special (non) Deliveries, the boss gets £15 docked from his bonus. Management go to great lengths to repeatedly tell us about ‘bullying and harassment’. Maybe this is what they are on about. These constant changes in rules and regulations brings to mind my favourite Ayn Rand quote: "There’s no way to rule innocent men. The only power any government has is the power to crack down on criminals. Well, when there aren’t enough criminals, one makes them. One declares so many things to be a crime that it becomes impossible to live without breaking laws."

A few months ago, I couldn’t take the pressure and the backbiting culture of the letter sorting anymore and decided to buy my hours down. In return for cutting my hours to 30 a week, I got a pay-off and took the kids on that holiday I mentioned. I take home £200 a week (as well as being a regular Royal Mail customer too, putting a fair chunk back). I don’t consider myself lazy. Like my workmates, most days I work like a dog. We don’t have breaks. We don’t sit down at all from the time we walk in the office to the time we walk into our houses. And we definitely don’t get to sit on the internet in offices posting about how lazy workers in other jobs are. Of course, we are entitled to breaks, but if we take them, there is no way we will finish on time, and then questions will be asked, and punitive measures implemented.

What about the ‘volumes are falling’ mantra you ask? Well, we’re delivering more than ever. You’re getting more junk, more bills and many many more packages, and that’s good for the company surely? They just do to the mail volume figures what is done to crime and unemployment figures. Reassign certain things, give other things different names, and then, as if by magic, they aren’t counted in the figures anymore. Check the postmarks on your mail. All those non-Royal Mail logos are companies that ‘deregulation’ allows to make a profit for sorting, only to hand back to Royal Mail to deliver for peanuts. The internet is like a golden goose for a company like Royal Mail. I’ve always wondered why, apart from delivering the eBay packages, the management didn’t really go to town with the possibilities of the web for a company positioned like it is.

Doublespeak is also a common managerial tool. This last few months we’ve had a spate of people apparently ‘talking out of school’ where we’ve been called into meetings to be punished by being made to watch videos before we are allowed to deliver the mail due to people apparently doing this. ‘Talking out of school’ is apparently one of our number talking to postmen from other offices about working practices in our office. The line we are sold is that we have it better than other offices, and therefore ‘loose lips sink ships’. Somehow, I see this as simply divide and conquer. Each office is isolated and encouraged, by threat, not to communicate with others. And by the way, as soon as there were murmurs of this strike months ago, our boss announced in a meeting about it; “I just so happen to be reading a book on the miner’s strike at the moment, and this is the way I see this going, to the bitter end.” Dressed as an observation, I believe this was a briefing, and quite a lot of manager’s ‘happened’ to be reading that same book. The implied threat. The invisible stick. That same observation is now getting regular airplay in the media, including The Sun’s feature on how the police are being prepared to deal with us. Isn’t Mr. Murdoch a shareholder in TNT? Isn’t Mr. Mandelson too? I’m sure I read that somewhere. Funny how that company name keeps popping up as the favoured buyer. You, the public, are being primed.

A dark chapter for me was before the last general election, when, as usual, I refused to deliver the racist BNP leaflets. Something which is getting harder and harder to do, even with the CWU’s ‘conscience clause’ (this last local election my bosses words were ‘f*** that’ in response to my citing said clause). As usual, I left the leaflets on my work fitting, then one morning I came into work and someone had graffitied it with the words “You F***in’ C***!” with three swastikas underneath. I was shocked. The room span. I don’t know if you know what it feels like to be surrounded by people and not know who would do something like that, but it’s not pleasant. I told my line manager at the time. He laughed and mumbled something about it being childish. I asked him if there was anything that could be done as I’d photographed the graffiti. He told me to write a letter and he would put it on the notice board. I told him that advertising it would hardly solve the problem. I then asked him; “What about the CCTV cameras you are always tell us are watching us?” He replied with a wry smile; “They’re not on.” I lost a little bit of faith right there. I didn’t tell the union as I just felt like no-one would help me at that point, and I didn’t want to attract anymore attention to myself.

Another great moment was being put on a stage one disciplinary (three strikes and you’re out) for nearly dying, but being saved, within hours, by a lifesaving operation. This operation meant I had to take six weeks off to recover. It was the only blemish on a spotless sick leave record, but I was treated the same as if I’d pulled a sickie and just felt like some time off. Hauled in the office on ‘unavoidable’ disciplinary charges. This was after six weeks of daily phone calls asking me when I would be back in work, when I could barely move to pick up the phone.

The problem with Royal Mail is not the workforce, the problem lies with the people who’ve spent the pension I’ve been paying in for years. Those with a vested interest in running this all into the ground to get their hands on the loot before the Tories do when they get into power. Chairman Allan Leighton has gone now. He used to run the Royal Mail, the UK’s largest employer, from Canada a couple of mornings a week for a million quid while running his real businesses over there before going on the telly to tell us that we needed to get ‘significantly more motivated’ than we were. Adam Crozier seems to be doing alright. He gets bonuses for closing Post Offices. Good money if you can get it I guess. Although a practice reminiscent of making us stand by our work fittings every day, waiting to be allowed to leave and deliver the mail. Sometimes we wait for an hour, sometimes it’s half an hour. Either way, how many companies do you know that rewards inefficiency? It’s like a race to the bottom. A race to the bottom for a reason. It’s the same class of people who stand to gain in this, as the bankers and the politicians caught with their hands in the till.

And that’s why I personally think that ‘modernisation’ is simply a buzzword for preparing the company for a sell-off. It’s the same old story: Get public finances to buy all this shiny new machinery they keep talking about, while destroying public confidence. Demoralise the workforce, sideline the trade union, and get everything positioned perfectly for a bargain price quick buck for government debt, and then all the private profit can go out un-noticed once the deal is done. A deal that will miraculously see the private sector sort out all the problems and turn the company around. The old ‘the rich take the credit and the poor take the blame’ axiom. Next in line once they’ve sold Royal Mail will be the NHS, once they’ve convinced you that the ‘filthy hospitals’ need ‘modernisation’.

Do you know what the fourth phase of ‘modernisation’ is? It’s supposed to be the last phase, but something tells me that this is a permanent revolution, until it gets sold. Apart from the automated sorting machines to again increase the amount of mail we can deliver a day, the next phase is to take the postman’s bike away and stop those postal workers who use their own vehicles (at their own cost). The postmen will then go out in teams of four in vans, and be tied to those vans, returning back and forth to get mail for delivery until everyone is done. These four postmen will not take out four rounds, they will take out five, and the fifth will be split between the four in the spirit of one of the many new buzzwords ‘Flexibility’. Why? To slow down the postal service so that we ‘work our hours’ and you get your mail even later, and in an even more disorganised manner. Why? Because when they come over the tannoy every day asking if any of us want EVR (Early Voluntary Redundancy), those of us who leave, will not be replaced. Every full-timer who leaves, his or her round is ‘absorbed’ into the surrounding postal worker’s duties. The only people coming into ‘the business’ now are on 20 hour contracts. What is the end result? A part-time workforce with no rights, no pension and no union. This is what they really mean by ‘modernisation’: death by a thousand cuts. Their vision for the future is a mail service akin to working at McDonald’s. How much will your privatised ‘postman’ care about ‘the service’? I don’t know, as I doubt any of us will be working there by then.


For more interesting reading check out:

John Pilger: The New Statesman

Victoria Coren: The Observer

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