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Dear Granny Smith
A Letter from your Postman by Roy Mayall
Reviewed by Greg Maughan
THIS EXCELLENT short book gives an insight into the current attacks on Royal Mail workers from the viewpoint of an 'ordinary postie'. It is not a political polemic or a campaign resource.
There are other sources you can go to for facts and figures on the effect of cuts and the like, but this book offers something just as important. It is an insight from the 'front line' into how the job has changed over the last thirty years, written with candour and affection.
One accusation that could be levelled is that the book views the past with 'rose tinted spectacles', but I don't think so. What it does reflect is the shift in balance of power between postal workers and Royal Mail (previously Post Office) management.
One section deals with Roy's first few years on the job. It describes him being trained up by other postal workers and learning to sort his round on the 'frame' (the workstation where mail is collated by hand) in the morning. This shows that a certain element of workers' control existed in the past. The simple fact is that when it comes to sorting things out like round routes, shifts, etc, the people who do the job know best.
The book also shows how current managers resent this and gives examples of petty impositions just to 'show them who's boss'. For instance, Roy gives an example of a new manager who forced workers to stop storing mail bags underneath the frame on the grounds of 'health and safety'. The workers duly comply, but with nowhere else to put the bags they spend a week "stumbling over our own bags in the name of 'health and safety'" until the new manager quietly backtracks and the bags go back to where they've always been!
That might be a minor example, but others in the book show the all-too-familiar reality of a management trying to impose its will and break a workforce - "I've seen people hauled up before management because they were in hospital for a hernia operation and exceeded the total number of days allowed off in any one year."
That struggle over who controls the workplace is at the heart of this book. Should postal workers be pliable and part-time, or organised with job security? Is Royal Mail a business or a service?
Roy also outlines the implications of these attacks on people who rely on the post service. There are touching stories about the relationship that he has built up over the years with the people on his rounds and the little ways he has been able to help them.
There is also a stark warning about what a part-time, casualised workforce would mean. "Sometimes we get thieves among us, it's true: people who steal your credit cards, or open your birthday cards to see if there's any cash in them. They always get caught in the end. When one man does one round, the customer notices, and they know who it is. Once the mail is broken up, once the relationship between a postal worker and his customers has been destroyed, then what? Then it will be the end of the security of your mail."
The book then goes over the different 'modernisation' proposals being put forward and picks each of them apart. On 'Walk Sequencing Machines' he concludes that: "In the end the actual timesaving each of these multi-million pound machines provides is, on average, about seven minutes per round"! He also looks at the impact of deregulation and the threat of privatisation.
The book doesn't offer any particular way forward or programme to roll the balance of power in the workplace away from a profit-hungry management and back towards ordinary workers, but it never promises this.
I would recommend this book. For postal workers, the experiences and situations written about, as well as tales of workplace 'craic', will be very familiar. Other socialists and activists will recognise much from chatting to postal workers on last year's picket lines. It is an insight into a sector that will see more struggles in 2010.
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