Mail misery, but whose?

Observations on postal strike

Have you suffered "mail misery" over the past two weeks? Are you a victim of "postal chaos"? Perhaps you have "post-strike blues"?

These are just some of the phrases used by the media to describe the apparently painful impact of the postal workers' strike on our everyday lives. Striking posties have been accused of "acting recklessly" and, of course, "holding the nation to ransom". You'd think they'd committed an act of postal terror instead of taking industrial action to secure jobs and improve their measly pay.

There has been little sympathy for, much less solidarity with, the postal strikers. Online discussion boards are chock-a-block with complaints about not receiving the mail every day. I never knew so many depended on the daily ritual of opening gas bills and junk offers for credit cards and DIY stores.

It's nothing new that we more readily think of ourselves as consumers than as workers, so that a principled strike by 130,000 low-paid men and women evokes national moaning rather than support. But our grumbling is surprising, given so many of us communicate mainly by email rather than paper and pen.

If there's been "mail misery", let us admit it has been experienced mainly by postal workers, who put up with poor conditions and paltry pay packets. Adam Crozier, the big-mouthed boss of Royal Mail, might think that postal workers are "25 per cent overpaid and 40 per cent underworked compared with workers in competitor companies" (rich from someone so rich: Crozier recently earned a £300,000 bonus on top of his £700,000 salary). But, in truth, the basic pay of postal workers - £320 a week - falls far short of the national average.

The Royal Mail's original offer of a 2.5 per cent pay rise, made in June, would actually have made the postman's lot worse. The offer of £8 a week was contingent upon postal workers cutting out "Spanish practices" - Crozier's words for an agreement covering extra money for overtime and special deliveries.

In other words, for £8, posties were asked to forswear the £30 they get for delivering door-to-door items (such as leaflets) and a £12-per-week "early start" payment. Got that? Postal workers would receive an extra £8 but lose between £30 and £42.

The marginally improved offer included modernisation plans that the Communication Workers' Union believes would result in 40,000 lost jobs and an attack on pension schemes. Small wonder, then, that 130,000 postal workers felt they had no choice but to take strike action.

Given that Royal Mail seems to have got most of its way in the deal struck with the Communication Workers' Union to be voted on by members, there may well be more "postal misery" to come.

Expect more arguments from the government that it is uniquely irresponsible for postal workers to strike. And more Blitz-spirit gestures from local authorities such as Westminster, which in the current crisis has graciously allowed residents to pay parking fines "at any library". Ahhh.

This article first appeared in the 22 October 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Who’s afraid of Michael Moore?