Did you know this about the postal strike?

Because I didn’t.

In all the talk about the postal strikes, we’ve been hearing a lot that the Royal Mail is dying.  No-one sends letters anymore, we’re told, they use email instead.  It’s a persuasive argument, because it seems intuitively correct – I send quite a few emails, and I almost never write a letter.  But then again, if I stop to think, I never really did write letters.  Pretty much the only times I used to use the Royal Mail were for sending out christmas cards and returning forms.  These days I use the Royal Mail for sending out christmas cards and returning forms.  I would guess the same is true for an awful lot of people.

Of course, there have been other changes – 15 years ago if I was looking for a job I might have sent out several letters on spec, whereas these days I’d send emails instead.  Also, lots of people have opted to have their utility bills and bank statements delivered to them online, rather than through the post.  (Although I haven’t – if something goes wrong with my bank account, I want to know that I have the proof of it in hardcopy, and in my possession, not in easy-to-alter virtual form on a server belonging to the company I’m in dispute with.)  But at the same time there have been other changes in the opposite direction – think of the volume of books and CDs sent out by Amazon and the like, not to mention the DVDs flying backwards and forwards thanks to companies like LoveFilm.  I’m also pretty sure I get a lot more junk mail than I used to.

Still, the Royal Mail tell us that their official figures show a year-on-year reduction in mail volume, and they must know what they’re talking about, surely?  Well, I don’t know about you, but I had naively assumed that the way that Royal Mail knew the volume was reducing was by counting the number of letters they were delivering, but it turns out that’s not been their approach at all:

Mail is delivered to the [delivery] offices in grey boxes. These are a standard size, big enough to carry a few hundred letters. […] In the past, the volume of mail was estimated by weighing the boxes. These days it is done by averages. There is an estimate for the number of letters that each box contains […] That number is 208. This is how the volume of mail passing through each office is worked out: 208 letters per box times the number of boxes. However, within the last year Royal Mail has arbitrarily […] reduced the estimate for the number of letters in each box. It was 208: now they say it is 150. This arbitrary reduction more than accounts for the 10 per cent reduction that the Royal Mail claims is happening nationwide.

Doubting the accuracy of these numbers, the union ordered a random manual count to be undertaken over a two-week period in a number of offices across the region. […] On average, those boxes which the Royal Mail claims contain only 150 letters, actually carry 267 items of mail. This, then, explains how the Royal Mail can say that the figures are down, although every postman knows that volume is up. The figures are down all right, but only because they have been manipulated.

Now, I don’t know about you, but I find that pretty shocking – it suggests that the Royal Mail is handling almost four-fifths (78%) more letters than they claim they are.  That information itself is pretty shocking by itself, of course, but what’s just as shocking is that I found out about this in the diary column of a literary newspaper, which a serving postman, Roy Mayall (presumably a pseudonym), had been invited to contribute to.  Why hasn’t this been the lead story in The Guardian, or The Mirror?  Why hasn’t ITV’s Tonight programme, or Channel 4’s Dispatches, or the BBC’s Panorama, done an investigation?  It’s pretty important after all, because it means we’re all of us under a completely false impression about the background to the strikes.

The major cause of the dispute between the management and union is not the introduction of new technology, as some stories have claimed, but rather the introduction of ‘modern’ working practices (i.e. drastic cuts in overall staff-hours) which have been made necessary, the management claims, by a reduction in the number of letters the company handles.  If, as official figures show, the number of letters the Royal Mail is handling is dwindling by 10% a year, then clearly the postal workers who try to resist reductions in working hours or staffing numbers are being rather naive (or ‘suicidal’, as the press have described them, with typical hyperbole).  If, on the other hand, and as Roy Mayall claims, the official figures have been manipulated downwards by 27%, but still only  show a reduction of 10%, then that would seem to mean that mail volumes have actually increased by 17%.  This would mean that, far from there being a business case for an overall reduction in staffing-hours, there’s actually a business case for an overall increase.  That case is all the stronger when you bear in mind that the original estimate (208 letters per box) was itself a significant under-estimate of the actual figure (267 letters per box).

All of which prompts an interesting question: why would an organisation – any organisation – try to make out that it’s less busy than it actually is?  It’s hard to imagine a commercial company would ever act in the same way – I can’t really think of any circumstances in which Pizza Hut would claim to be selling 78% fewer pizzas than they actually do – because it would make their market share look smaller than it is.  It also applies in the public sector, too.  It wouldn’t make sense for a hospital clinic to report that it had seen 78% fewer patients than it had, because this would lead to a reduction in the resources that were allocated to the clinic.

So far as I can see, the only possible reason for the Royal Mail to pretend that it delivers so many fewer letters than it actually does is that it offers a pretext to cut staff numbers.  Since the actual amount of work isn’t decreasing – since it may, in fact, be increasing – that would translate into a drastic rise in the work-rate required of each employee.  This would mean that the ‘modernisation’ programme isn’t actually a ‘modernisation’ programme, but rather an attempt to get fewer people to work harder for the same money.  In other words, some postal workers will lose their jobs, others will be forced onto part-time contracts, and the remainder will be left scrabbling to try and cover more and more work.  And, of course, with the spectre of redundancies stalking the company, the management can use the fear of being fired as a way of ‘encouraging’ the workers to sign up for the new, un-improved working practices.

Well, I don’t know about you, but to me those seem like reasonable grounds for strike action.  It would also mean, of course, that striking postal workers aren’t short-sighted ‘lemmings’ (to quote another word the media likes using), unable to see that the end is nigh for the industry they work in.  Instead it would make them workers for a stable business who are just trying to stop the company management from exploiting them.

Still, it has to be said – why aren’t the CWU jumping up and down about this?  Why isn’t every union spokesperson saying in every interview and press release that the management are basing their proposals on a deliberate falsehood?  I am always, by instinct, sympathetic to strikers, and I would guess I read and listen to/ watch more news about this sort of thing than the average person could stomach, but even I thought, until I read Roy Mayall’s article, that the postal workers were probably striking more against changes in the way people communicate than they were something they could actually change.  I was sympathetic, in other words, but felt that their cause was probably a hopeless one.  If I was a postal worker, I don’t think I’d be venting all my anger on the management of the Royal Mail.  I think I’d be reserving at least some of it for the higher echelons of my own union, who seem to be allowing this perception to go unchallenged.

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5 Responses to Did you know this about the postal strike?

  1. Yeah, Govt policy to run it down into the ground, so then they can say that therefore it must be sold off. Bastards.

    Good article you linked to – read it a couple of weeks back. Well worth the read.

    Hope you’re well, D

  2. la says:

    Illuminating reading. Thanks for bringing this to my attention.

  3. Lucy McGough says:

    If this is true, why aren’t they shouting about it from the rooftops?

    It all looks a bit fishy to me, but I would be inclined to believe that volumes have gone up. Thanks to Amazon I’m using the Royal Mail more than I ever have before.

    Also, official letters, especially from the NHS, still get delivered through the post. I worked for the NHS over the summer and the amount of documentation that gets sent via Royal Mail is HUGE. I should know – I had to open the letters! Seems like a mentally ill person can’t swear, fart or scratch their bum without at least six different professionals, each at a different address, being notified in a printed, physical letter.

    Yeah, come to think of it, there’s no WAY volumes are falling.

  4. aethelreadtheunread says:

    Thanks for the comments.

    abysmal musings – Well, i don’t think there’s much doubt the government would like to sell of the Royal Mail, but they’ve been rather hamstrung by the fact that no one wants to buy it. Which is not that much of a surprise, if potential purchasers think the volume of mail handled is so much lower than it actually is. Possibly i’m being very cynical, but i have a feeling that, if Royal Mail are succesful in getting the new working practices accepted, their reported mail volumes will unaccountably start to rise just a few months later…

    la – thank you, and you’re welcome!

    Lucy McGough – good point about the NHS. And with the massive increase in bureacracy over the last few years, that must mean quite a few extra letters.

  5. NiroZ says:

    and the (news) media fails again! Strange, my eyeballs no longer pop out like they used to…

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