They couldn’t manage a mail service in a post office

Behind the UK postal dispute is the spectre of privatisation and the authorities’ inability to take responsibility for basic state services.

Mick Hume

Mick Hume

Topics Politics

Oh what a sight is the New Labour establishment in a hissy fit at the working classes! Lord Mandelson, our prime-minister-in-the-wings, has let it be known that he is in a place ‘beyond anger’ at Britain’s postal workers. Adam Crozier, the New Labour-appointed Royal Mail chief executive, has managed to out-shrill Mandelson by accusing the postal workers of launching an ‘appalling and unjustified attack on customers’. Much of the media, meanwhile, has accused the postal workers’ union of holding Britain to ransom and putting the economic recovery at risk in the ‘run-up to Christmas’ (ie, mid-October).

What have these terrible posties been doing to warrant such emotional invective in high places? Have they cancelled Christmas, perhaps, or taken to shoving excrement through the customers’ letter boxes? Not exactly. They have exercised their right and voted overwhelmingly for industrial action in their dispute with management over working conditions. Their union, the Communications Workers Union, has planned two days of partial strike action for Thursday and Friday this week – one day involving sorters and drivers, the next day delivery staff.

Once, such a modest display of industrial militancy might have been seen as a token protest. Nowadays it is condemned as an act of national sabotage and a crime against Christmas.

An executive jobsworth such as the Royal Mail’s managing director might think that the decision to take even such limited industrial action ‘beggars belief’. However, others among us might conclude that, at a time when a national strike is as rare as a Penny Black stamp and about as popular as a late-delivered birthday card, the fact that some 120,000 postal workers have opted to face the abuse and take action together shows they must have a serious grievance.

Contrary to the impression the New Labour coterie might like to give, the issue underlying the dispute is not the state of mind of rank and file postal workers, most of whom are neither mad nor malicious. It is the management that has lost it. The Royal Mail has not only lost a few million letters. Like just about every other arm of the British state, it has lost any real sense of what it is supposed to be for and whose interests it is meant to uphold.

However the continuing talks turn out and whatever happens this week, it is clear that they really could not organise a mail service in a post office.

‘Modernisation’ has been the watchword of the Royal Mail management in recent years – a slogan that might have been taken straight from the book of Mandelson. In the name of modernisation, mechanisation and making the mail fit to compete in the internet/email age, they have cut jobs – up to 60,000 gone through ‘natural wastage’ since 2005 – and intensified the working conditions of those workers who remain.

The results of this modern miracle? The abolition of the second daily post (in fact in most places it is the early first post that has disappeared), the end of Sunday collections, and a general deterioration in services and reliability alongside a rise in prices. We are left with the worst of all worlds – a disgruntled workforce and dissatisfied customers. Royal Mail may have finally managed to achieve a relatively small profit on its huge turnover last year, which was enough to ‘earn’ Mr Crozier and his cronies their handsome bonuses. But his overall impact on postal services seems to match his previous disastrous achievements as head of the Football Association.

Now management and Mandelson want to go further and prepare the Royal Mail for partial privatisation to ‘save’ it. (The Conservatives would like to go further still.) The government has previously made it clear that the union’s agreement to part privatisation is the price it would expect in return for bailing out the Royal Mail’s multi-billion pound hole in its pension fund.

Why do they want to privatise the post office? Many of my old friends on the left think it is about an ideological belief in Blairite neo-liberalism. In fact it looks more like another product of the authorities’ collapse of belief in anything, including themselves, and the desire to dodge responsibility by outsourcing the state’s authority to others.

After all, just about every backward state and banana republic around the world manages to run a centralised postal service. Britain established the first modern mass postal service with its penny stamps as far back as 1840, and has always been proud of its post office traditions. Yet now, 169 years later, the British authorities have decided that they really cannot continue to deliver the post without the overpaid assistance of a Dutch corporation.

‘The Royal Mail cannot be profitable without private involvement’, they warn us. But why does a postal service need to make a profit? It has long been one of the basic infrastructural services for which the state has taken on responsibility, on behalf of capitalism as a whole. Today, however, when the state seems to want to intervene in many places where it has no business, interfering in everything from our liberties to our children’s lunchboxes, it simultaneously wants to shy away from fulfilling its basic responsibilities, such as delivering the mail on time.

New Labour’s reluctant nationalisation of big banks to keep capitalism stable was a desperate stopgap measure. But the general trend is for more and more ‘public’ services to be run by consultants or through private finance initiatives. (They even brought in bankers to run the nationalised banks.) This drift towards privatising or farming out control is not primarily driven by money – indeed it generally ends up costing the state far more to do things this way. It is more about those at the top abdicating responsibility and bottling out, while hoping that the demand for making a profit can somehow act as a substitute for the lost public work ethic and keep public services together. It cannot.

The current postal dispute shows up the dire state of affairs to which this has brought the postal service. It is a stand-off between a management that cannot manage, and a trade union that cannot really stand up for the collective interests of its members.

The Royal Mail executives are now trying to carry off a poor imitation of the hard man union-bashing bosses of past industrial conflicts – threatening to carry on its modernisation programme without union consultation or cooperation, and taking on 30 000 casual workers – double its normal Christmas staff – to ‘cope with the backlog’. They are at pains to point out that they are not of course hiring strike-breakers, aka scabs, since that would be illegal.

On the union side, too, we are witnessing an attempt to recapture the spirit of the militant past, with CWU general secretary Bill Hayes assuring the media that he is in a stronger position than the National Union of Miners leader Arthur Scargill was at the start of the 1984 national miners’ strike. Others may think calling a two-day partial protest is not exactly comparable with a year-long national strike to defend jobs and communities, but never mind.

In fact the CWU is not even officially striking over jobs and pay. The union leadership is at pains to point out that, since the last postal dispute ended a couple of years ago, it has cooperated fully with the first three phases of the management’s modernisation plan, leading to thousands of job cuts, working practice changes and pay restraint. The union officials’ complaint now is largely that the management has stopped talking to them about stage four of the modernisation drive, and has instead resorted to ‘harassment and bullying’ in the workplace. It sounds less like a demand to defend jobs, pay and conditions than an appeal for the bosses to be a bit nicer about how they shaft their staff, with the threat of strike action used to try to persuade management to talk to them.

This stand-off looks like a ghost of the postal strikes of the past. Perhaps the clearest sign of how far things have changed comes in the wider public reaction. Postal workers are certainly being subjected to abuse from the government, management and the media – although many in the latter camp have also had a go at the Royal Mail. But whereas in the past major industrial disputes might have sharply polarised public opinion for and against the strikers, in the anti-political mood of today there is widespread indifference, a shrug of resignation, the strike seen as just another glitch in the generally maligned postal services. The thousands of people reportedly applying for those extra casual post office jobs might once have been widely condemned as scabs attacking fellow workers – now the Daily Mail complains that they might be criminals who will nick our Christmas post.

Despite all this, there are good reasons why we should show solidarity with the postal workers and support them fighting as hard as they can. Contrary to the impression given by some, posties are hardly underworked or overpaid. It is already a hard enough job to do. I know something about it, because I was that postal worker. Thirty years ago I spent nine months working in a Surrey sorting office. It was long on hours and short on rewards, where postmen needed to work plenty of overtime just to pay the bills and the grind was broken only by graveyard humour, dirty stories and the occasional outbreak of violence. Many British workers will recognise the sentiment of Los Angeles post worker-turned novelist Charles Bukowski, who in his forties decided he had had two choices – to ‘stay in the post office and go crazy’ or leave and starve: ‘I have decided to starve.’

When I worked there the union – in the shape of ex-military shop stewards – ran the sorting office. It appears those days are well and truly gone. The drastic changes in working practices mean that postal workers are doing longer rounds and hours with less chance of being paid that crucial overtime. The Royal Mail’s claims about the decline of post in the age of electronic communication might contain some truth, but they are exaggerated to date and more than made up for by the slashing of postal staff numbers.

The reported basic starting salary of a postman delivering the mail on foot is now £16,266, rising to an average of £18,200 after a year. The reported average income of all postal workers – including allowances and overtime – is around £23,000 nationally and about £28,000 in inner London. Writing in a recent edition of the London Review of Books, one postman revealed they are paid a princely 1.67 pence per item of junk mail delivered – a figure which, he said, had not altered for 10 years.

Postal workers deserve better than that. And we should be on their side. The public support exhibited in defence of ‘our post offices’ should also come out for ‘our’ posties. You do not need to indulge (as some have done) in nostalgia for the village postman as a symbol of Olde England in order to see that, despite all of the changes, local postmen and women can still play an important part in communities. The post is more than a business model.

So, Victory to the Posties! They seem unlikely to win, with the way things are. But we can still send a message to the management that we do not buy their bullshit. And let the politicians know what we think of governments which cannot even deliver the mail, never mind the future.

Mick Hume is editor-at-large of spiked.

Previously on spiked

Mick Hume looked at the February Lindsey oil refinery dispute. Patrick Hayes reported on the Visteon factory occupation. Tim Black found a striking spontaneity at the Lindsey oil refinery dispute, and saw a blow against austerity struck by the London Tube workers. Back in 2005 Rob Lyons saw a timely reminder of the power of solidarity during the Gate Gourmet dispute. Dave Hallsworth reflected on leading a major strike in 1982. Or read more at spiked issues British politics and Economy.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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