This week’s public servant is a part-time postman at a Royal Mail sub-post office, with experience in a major sorting office.
I’ll have been a postman for two years in December. I work in a sub-office, though for some time I was at a bigger sorting office. I’m part-time, working three days a week, and I enjoy it – though it took me a while to reach that comfort zone. When I was at the larger office I was being moved around a lot, doing all sorts of delivery routes, and I found it quite tough. But since I’ve worked at the sub-post office things have been a lot better, and my current manager is fantastic – he listens a lot. I have a disability, and I have to say they’re very understanding about it.It’s obviously a big political hot potato at the minute, with the strike action on the boil. It’s hard to comment on what is happening all around the country but I am aware that in other parts of Royal Mail, relations between management and postmen are not as good as they are where I work. Particularly at the bigger offices, an ‘us and them’ mentality definitely seems to be prevalent.
To some extent, that is understandable – at larger offices the routes can be longer and there’s much more pressure on postmen to get their rounds done on time. Delivering the post is quite a labour-intensive job, we are subject to the elements, and we do have limits. In the early days, I remember being out there in the rain until five or six some nights, though the shift is meant to finish at lunchtime. Remembering that makes me grateful for my current route, which takes three hours plus cycling time.
When I was at the bigger sorting office, I noticed a bit of apathy and a poor work ethic. The sheer size of the office meant that lots of things went unnoticed, like people throwing away door-to-door leaflets: admittedly, lots of the public throw them away anyway, but businesses pay the Royal Mail to distribute them, and as an incentive we get paid a small amount to deliver them. There were also things like posties completing recorded delivery slips themselves, but this was quite rare. There was definitely more pressure at the bigger office: more managers looking over your shoulder while you were trying to work. The whole place seemed more oppressive.
I am a member of the [Communications Workers] union, having joined when I first became a postman – but I didn’t strike, nor did I vote to. I asked around, and most people seemed to think that the strike is mostly a result of grievances among London posties. I have to say, I’m not really sure of their grounds for striking: as far as I know, in London they already get paid more than the rest of us.
The modernisation agreement was signed in 2007, and set out a future where the bulk of the sorting would be done by machines rather than by hand – it’s already happening at many of the bigger sorting centres. The modernisation will obviously involve reductions in the number of frames [workstations where sorted mail is assigned to postmen] and some manpower cuts, but on a voluntary redundancy basis. The payouts can be as much as £40,000 for the veteran posties, and nobody’s being forced out.
So my question is: why would I strike? I personally have nothing to strike about; we’ve signed the modernisation agreements, and to me the bigger issue is that if the public keep hearing about strikes, they will lose confidence in Royal Mail altogether – and then we’ll all be out of a job.
The union’s about protecting the working man, and working men rely on Royal Mail to deliver post. Small businesses particularly could be badly affected. To be honest, I have heard so many stories of ‘the good old days’ from the old-school posties – about claiming overtime and finishing early, for example – that I find it hard to sympathise with people who have to work harder when they’ve had it so good in the past.
All that said, the office where I work is a great place to be. There’s a great bunch of guys and a lot of characters – we have a real laugh. We work hard while having great banter and lots of mickey-taking, and there’s a definite sense of camaraderie, of being part of a team.
Perhaps I’m a bit old-fashioned about the idea of the Royal Mail as a public service, but it’s a 400-year-old British institution. I know it is run as a business and we operate in a competitive environment, but notwithstanding the modernisation, I hope we don’t lose the humanity, the social contact with people on our round. I don’t even like using the word ‘customers’, because some of the people on our rounds are friends.
In an ideal world, the Royal Mail might be run more like a public service and less like a business, but that’s not the world we live in. Modernisation is inevitable – it’s happened in every other industry, and if Royal Mail is going to survive, it needs to happen. As nature assures us: the species that doesn’t adapt, dies.
As far I can see, the government really does take an arms-length approach to the organisation, leaving the Royal Mail bosses pretty much to themselves, but if I had to give a message to ministers, it would be to not let the service become over-mechanised to the point of losing all its humanity. We don’t want robots delivering the post in 20 years. Then I will be striking.