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Royal Mail Privatization – A Worker’s Inquiry

So, Royal Mail is getting privatized. Those of you who’ve met me won’t be surprised to hear that I’m a postperson. So here is a critical account of the job, having worked mostly in one large office in Glasgow, and sometimes in various others – I’ve attempted to explain how it seems to me from a subjective position, rather than repeating the description of the organizational structure presented by management. There’s one thing we don’t often analyse about ‘work’ – preferring to view it as a concept – and thats what it actually requires us to do. It’s tough trying to get interested in work, but here we go.

Please note that this is a generalized account written in a personal capacity, and does not refer to specific individuals, and does not represent the opinion of Royal Mail or any of its employees.

What the Job is Like

So, if Royal Mail is to be gone in 2014, what was it like in the heady days leading up to the end of almost 500 years of history?

I started work with Royal Mail in the summer of 2009 after leaving University. The first round of the interview process started with an online ‘sorting game’ which tested your basic ability to recognize combinations of letters and numbers. i.e. postcodes. It was about as much fun as it sounds. The second round was an interview at the office I had applied to work for, with the office manager. I started on a 25-hour a week contract at a delivery office – the front-line, i.e. putting stuff through doors. My training consisted of:

  1. a video warning us that’d we’d get the jail if we stole anything
  2. not to leave our bag unattended because we’d get the jail if someone stole anything
  3. to use our bag to defend ourselves from dogs
  4. not to put our fingers through letterboxes (because dogs)
  5. to pick up rubber bands (because Daily Mail)
  6. shadowing an experienced postman for a couple of weeks
ADAB

“Oh don’t worry he won’t touch you…” Until recently our office had had more cat-related injuries than dog-related ones.

At various points I’ve had anything from full-time hours with overtime at 45+ a week (though never with a full-time contract), down at times to a standard ‘Saturday Contract’ of 5 hours a week. Currently I am on that 5 hour a week guaranteed permanent contract, but with a long-term unofficial arrangement whereby I get 10-12 extra hours ‘scheduled overtime’  - i.e. at the normal rate – a week. I work Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays – which are the busiest delivery days.

This arrangement suits me – however many other staff are unable to get enough hours to support their families.

Royal Mail delivers 6 days a week, Monday – Saturday1. Most staff work 5 days, with a rotating day off. If you are part-time this is a 25-hour a week contract. There are various sorts of contracts and working practises that make up the front-line labour-supply within the organization – it is always unclear exactly who is doing what – a cynic would say this is useful for management, but I’m not always sure they’re fully informed either.

Duty Holders: I am not a ‘duty holder’ – duty holders are permanent staff, 50-50 part-time to full-time, who are responsible for the same ‘walk’ (a delivery route, often called a ‘duty’) every day.

Floaters: Nor am I a ‘floater’ who has a set rotation of walks, working when the duty-holders have their day off.

Spare: I am a ‘spare’ – this means I cover sickness, and generally do ‘dig outs’ – that’s where certain walks have a unusual volume of mail or packets, and need digging out (literally pulled out from under the weight of mail) in order to deliver within their target times. When I am not needed to deliver any of the mail in my office, I do tidying and preparation for the next day, or might be transferred to another office within the city to cover a shortfall there.

From my perspective there is just enough slack that un-forseen problems can be solved. Management rely on pride in the job, goodwill and some bribery in order to get the work done. Most staff have to carry out some unscheduled overtime on a weekly basis, and this requires good relations – and sometimes we finish before our time on light days. Our office has never failed to deliver a duty while I have worked there – apparently it has happened elsewhere in the city. A failure on this scale would likely come down on management.

Not delivering to an address when you can is ‘delaying the mail’ – gross misconduct. Despite this, a lot of mail is returned to the office everyday: a mixture of undeliverable (wrong address, addressee gone away) and ‘shuts’ – i.e. the address was inaccessible, usually because a tenement or block of flats couldn’t be accessed: it always gets re-attempted the next day.

Many postpeople will do an extra 30-60 minutes unpaid every day, often in the morning in order to finish in time – especially if they are less fit than the average. This is sometimes tacitly recognized by management, but is largely an unspoken resentment. It represents a large amount of unpaid labour: required and ‘standard’ timings are always set based on the abilities of the fittest member of staff. Corners get cut. For example, you are officially not allowed to walk and read the addresses at the same time. This is done all the time – somehow in my case it resulted in me falling in a pond. Again, never been bitten by a dog.

Not me. But similar.

Not me. But similar.

My standard workday looks like this when I’m covering a whole duty – most part-timers will have similar days:

  • 8.00 – 8.10 – (Indoor) Arrive in the office, sign in. Check to see if I’m on the rota to take a whole walk out, and which walk. Check the preparation frame for that walk, find out who I’m partnered with.
  • 8.10 – 9.00 - (Indoor) ‘Throw up’ the frame. This means:
    • a) taking unsorted and sorted mail and placing it in order in a work-frame. All of this should be done by a full-timer before I arrive – it often isn’t. Full-timers have been working from around 5.30
    • b) collecting packets and parcels from the sorting frames, and sorting them into the right locations.
    • c) ‘Re-directing’ mail to new addresses where someone is a ‘gone away’.
    • d) putting up ‘Door-to-Doors’: i.e. advertising mass-mail-outs
    • e) processing ‘gone-aways’, this involves endorsing every letter with an incomplete address, or where the resident has gone-away without arranging a redirection.
    • d) ‘Tie-down’: pull the mail off the frames, stack it into bundles and tie them together with the ubiquitous rubber bands. Put them together with parcels into bags.
  • 9.00 – 9.30 Collect van keys, scanner and special deliveries. Load the van. Get going.
  • 9.30 – 13.30 (Outdoor) Deliveries
  • 13.30 – 14.00 Return to the office, file away undeliverable mail and packets. Return keys, scanner, etc. Sign-out.

Volumes / Weights

  • We work in 2-person teams, delivering 2 separate ‘walks’ in succession.
  • A walk is a geographically contained area – it can include anything from 300-1000 ‘delivery points’ depending on the density of the housing. Walks with houses featuring long driveways have fewer delivery points – it can take an hour to do 50 addresses. If you’re doing a block of flats you can do 300 addresses in half an hour.
  • These walks are bagged up into ‘loops’, with a standard 8-loops per walk. Each postman will usually deliver 8 bags in a day. The maximum loop weight is 12kg for the first bag, dropping to 10, then 8, for subsequent bags.
  • We also deliver over-sized packages and special deliveries in between delivering our loops. Specials have to be delivered by 1pm so sometimes we break our route order to get them done in time.
  • We have anywhere from 1-6 ‘Door to Doors’ or ‘households’ to do each week. These are unaddressed marketing leaflets that no one wants, must be delivered to every address, and which represent a huge extra weight, though not much extra time. They are really really really really really really really demoralizing.

What My Workmates are Like

The office I am assigned to employs around 120 staff. There are 4 women working, the rest are men. Not just predominantly male – overwhelmingly male. There is an even spread of ages, though notably very few beyond mid-50s.

Though its a good job, it doesn’t pay especially well any more. The work is hard, I am often tired – but I’m relatively young, and fit, and can recover easily as I only work 3 days. Many of the others, especially full-time staff, are worn out.

There is a surprisingly high proportion of graduates who have been unable to find work related to their qualifications, or do not wish to – this is increasing noticeably.  Many people use it as a part-time job while studying – and often end up staying on. There are many house-husbands who make sure to finish before 2pm so they can pick their children up from school.

Most people there would consider themselves working class. There used to be (30+ years ago?) football teams, fishing groups, cycling groups – these have all gone. There’s the odd whip-round for retirees, but generally people are here to work. Old staff come in now and again to say hello.

Its not a job for life – but many will spend their whole lives doing it. Some postpeople work in the evenings, often as taxi-drivers. Previous jobs include: retail managers, warehouse workers, sailors, nurses, other delivery companies, BT, binmen etc. There is a notable number of people who used to run their own small businesses, which have collapsed over the last few years.

What We Get Paid

A weekly paycheck2 looks something like this  - note, this is my first paycheck of the financial year, and I’m not earning enough to be taxed at the moment:

Payments Amount Deductions Amount
Basic Pay @ 5 hours 47.71 Employee NIC 0.89
Delivery Supplement 2.77 RMDCP 5% EE 8.02
Weekday Overtime 11.48 hours 119.13 CWU Opt Out 0.97
Gross Pay 156.41 Total Deductions 9.88
Net Pay £146.53

A couple of clarifications:

  1. That RMDCP is employee pension contributions, matched with an employer contribution of 7%. Its a defined contribution scheme (boring!). I’m not in The Plan which was/is the defined benefits pension scheme George Osborne messed around with during the budget to balance his books. The Plan was closed to new entrants in 2008. The defined contribution scheme I’m in provides far lower and unguaranteed benefits based on stock-market performance.
  2. The CWU ‘Opt Out’ is payment of my union dues, but without the default £1 political divvy that would have gone to the Labour Party.
  3. I work another job, which is 6 hours a week, roughly at the same rate. I have no other income, or in-work benefits.
  4. The ‘Delivery Supplement’ replaces a ‘Door to Door’ supplement, which was paid based on the volume of advertising you were asked to deliver on top of the ‘real mail’. Around 2 years ago this was abolished and the workload was rolled into normal duties. Looking at my old paychecks, this could be up to £30 for a delivery of 5-6 adverts per address –  its end represented a sizeable wage cut.

Rubber BandWhat Management are Like

Line managers are generally ex-postmen promoted from the shop floor. There is one office manager who is a grade above them, but he also comes from the shop floor. There is a clear visual distinction between managers and postpeople – managers wear their own shirts and suit trousers/jeans, postpeople wear Royal Mail branded uniforms. They also get paid more, and eat more crisps.

Generally there is a robust atmosphere: postmen are pretty combative about their customary rights – ‘the job’ as defined by a combination of what feels right, and what we’ve always done –  and will negotiate continuously over the volume of work to be done. Managers generally understand the job, and when there is friction it is usually because they are being asked to implement some novel new-and-efficient-world-class-service idea from up the command chain.

The basic job of being a postman can’t really be changed – it is defined by the nature of the geography you work on.

Very little is seen of any senior management on the shop-floor. They’re all up at the Mail Centre (‘upstream’ where all the major sorting and distribution happens – we’re a ‘Delivery Office’, though we still do a lot of sorting.)

Some postpeople have additional responsibilities such as staffing the customer desk, working in secure areas, or doing collections from pillar boxes. This represents a hierarchy of sorts.

Royal Mail Shoes

My last couple of pairs of Royal Mail shoes

What’s been happening over the past few years: Working Practice Revisions

Over the past few years Royal Mail have been paying off experienced full-time postpeople (aged 40+) with the equivalent of 2.5x their yearly wage in order to encourage them to take early-retirement/voluntary redundancy. When this began the claim was that we’re over-staffed. However there has been a subsequent round of new hires, resulting in a near replication of labour resources, but at a lower cost. The staff who took retirement had legacy contracts and pension rights, usually negotiated at a time of higher union strength, which are now unavailable.

I believe this is largely how Royal Mail has managed to return to profitability – reduced labour costs. This is just the latest of a series of massive revisions, layoffs and reconfigurations over the past decade.

This and other revision processes have largely resulted in a breaking of the link between postpeople and local areas – meaning staff are more often moved around and have to deliver to routes they don’t know. When you’re delivering to up to 1000 delivery points then mistakes are made, and quality decreases. People also hate not recognizing their postperson.

They’ve invested in one new van for every 2 postpeople (50 vans in my office3) supposedly in order to increase efficiency – what it has done is create 2-person working where they work at the speed of the slowest person. We also don’t have enough drivers in what is the city in the UK with the lowest car ownership. This has also ended the practise of ‘job-and-finish’, where you could end your round and return home early (usually half an hour or so) if you worked harder to get your duty finished. As far as I can see, as well as lowering morale, this has increased overtime costs in those cases where postpeople still attempt to claim it.

Management seem to be constantly fire-fighting ‘no shows’ (i.e. people going sick on the day) due to people with injuries, stress and sickness. Indoor working has decreased due to increased mechanization of sorting, and heavy outdoor working has gone from 3 hours/day up to almost 5/hours for some routes – this is an intensification of working. Many postpeople work more slowly in order to avoid burning out, and dare not claim overtime for fear of being pushed out.

A few months ago there was a group of agency staff brought in. Generally they didn’t know the job, weren’t vetted for security or criminal records, and thrown straight out on the street. It seemed to be a stop gap in-between the voluntary redundancies and the new hires: it resulted in an increase in complaints.

There is an explicit commitment to the Dutch model, where posting is a part-time job you do in the morning before going to college or uni – not something you can live on or bring up a family on any more. Even this idea is breaking down as delivery times get later and later, for no other reason than reducing supplements for late-night and early-morning working.

The Union

P739 - Because posties are miserable and so should you be.

P739 – Because posties are miserable and so should you be.

The Union is the Communication Workers Union (CWU). I have been a member of the Union since I started the job. There is no shop-steward at my office – in fact it was a manager who suggested I join the union. Some offices seem to have far more active union presence.

The Union focuses its negotiations during each round on protecting the rights of ever-dwindling numbers of full-timers on old-style pre-90s contracts (i.e. the contracts Union reps have). Within my office the main form of worker-management negotiation takes the form of unofficial discussion and negotiation over customary rights, and a general belligerence.

Privatization

The Tories are pressing ahead with privatization. Labour began it with their ‘market liberalizations’ which are the proximate cause, though of course the logic dates back to the mass privatizations of the 80s.

I have no high hopes for this 30-pieces-of-silver share scheme the Tories seem to be pushing, even if I were to accept the ideology behind them. We’ve just had a previous attempt a profit-sharing (ColleagueShare) totally written off as without any value after years of contributions. This was meant to compensate for increased intensity of working – obviously this represents another wage cut, but one hard to quantify.

Posties are the last link many older people have to the outside world – and we are delivering more items than ever before, especially with Amazon packets etc. Some think that because it says ‘TNT’ in the top right corner they have their own delivery people. In fact Royal Mail has to carry these based on common downstream access (last leg) legislation – priced at a level where TNT, UKMail and others can undercut the RM’s own service. The same companies which will gobble up whatever parts of the Royal Mail distribution chain they think they can make money from – and the same companies Channel 4′s ‘Dispatches’ showed abusing people’s packages.

Of course the logic of privatization has been a proven failure, so I’m not going to go into too much detail.

Do we want competition in this ‘market’? 30 different carriers stomping up your drive everyday? For a start it’d wear your letterbox out! Its a natural monopoly – like electricity, gas, railways.

Postpeople want to do a good job, under reasonable conditions: I see no evidence of crime, or laziness – just overworked men and women doing their best to get through a tough week, every week. Preparations to become a private company are making this increasingly impossible. Under total privatization, things will only get worse.

Fightback

Bring Back Royal British Mail Rail sorting Trains!

Bring Back Royal British Mail Rail sorting Trains! (Maybe without the Royal or the British.)

I’m not sure, and I’m worried, about what scale of fightback is possible. The Union isn’t visible, there is little cohesion in the office or consciousness about the possiblity of resistance. I wouldn’t put too much faith in the official campaign.

On the otherhand, we went out on a wildcat strike a week after I joined. There is a low-level endemic rebelliousness about posties that comes from seeing close up how people live, of being able to see deprivation wax and wane from years of walking the streets, and a deep understanding of community and its contradictions. Check out Roy Mayall, who was active a few years ago with articles for the Guardian.

Who knows? Strategy is all for a later article. Welcome to the bad new times.

References

  1. It used to be twice a day except Sundays when there was only one delivery []
  2. a weekly paycheck is one of the things the union has managed to maintain. There are many good reasons for them: it stops you running out of money at the end of the month (you just run out at the end of the week), it allows you to check whether you’ve been paid overtime before any arguments have settled down []
  3. directly increasing the ratio of constant : variable capital []

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  • James

    Thanks for writing this, it was illuminating!

  • Wob

    Interesting. I know RM from a supplier perspective (I own a mailing house). I’ve never had an issue with the those that walk thew walks, but constantly have issues with the management side of things that deal with bulk mail.

    Of course the bulk mail is where RM makes its money. And if RM continue the way they are then I can only see more of it moving over to the likes of TNT. Since that’s the only area of the business that is profitable, I can’t see the service that the public gets remaining the same.

  • Santachuff

    Extremely interesting. It’s December 30th 2013 and I’ve had 18 items sent to me by Royal Mail since December 01st. Only 1 has arrived by a Royal Mail deliverer.
    I went with an elderly neighbour to help her into the collection point for one of her items from a relative. It looked like chaos in there and all of the workers looked very miserable. I can assume it’s by the terrible support by the Government.

  • postie

    as a postman myself in a rural office the job is almost impossible now. our shift starts at 6.15 (everyone goes in at 6 to get a headstart) we are supposed to go out on delivery by 8.15 but we are rarely out before 8.45. then we are supposed to do our round and take a 40 minute break by 2.15…..this is impossible 5hr45 is fastest possible to complete most rounds in our office on wed thu fri and if you even hint at overtime or having to finish ontime you will be in managers office and reprimanded for willfull delay of mail…..its bulls£%t

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  • Stephen Tearle

    well done, a very good ‘as it is’ or was . . .

  • Springbok

    I have just completed my on line application, then stumbled accross this article. I may be accepting alternative emplyoyment, thanks for the excellent job description. I’m 56, looking for another job after being made redundant after 8 years with a Gas & Oil company that was bought out and cut backs followed to save money.