Once great Royal Mail can be restored to its previous glory

An article from the Camden New Journal (5 March 2009)

by Don Ryan, retired CWU Rep from Londonís Northern District Office (now closed)

- forwarded to the Green Partyís Trade Union e-mail list as ĎA little piece of historyí


Lord Mandelson wants to partly privatise the Royal Mail. Is he right? Former postman Don Ryan traces the sad decline of our postal service at the hands of false modernising prophets and politicians fixated on privatization.

THE year was 1976. Britain was in the grips of a recession. An economic impossibility called "stagflation" haunted the land.

The experts were nonplussed, they hadnít seen it coming and didnít understand what was happening.

Out of work, I applied for, and got a job, as an "unestablished postman", in the Post Officeís Northern District, Sorting and Delivery Office in Upper Street, Islington.

Getting the job necessitated passing an interview and two aptitude tests.

Weeks of training followed.

For days I shuffled hundreds of cards with the names of British towns or districts typed on one side, into a metal frame with numerous compartments, above each of which was stencilled the name of a county or London postal district. Then local sorting required mastering. At every stage a tough test had to be passed, otherwise it was back to the dole queue.

Next came two weeks on a school walk, working with real letters, while being shadowed along the streets around Packington Square by a senior postman.

Even after all this learning and testing, a further year was spent shuffling round various jobs in the sorting office, before I was appointed an "established" postman and allowed to sign for a regular job.

The Post Office had, over many years, carefully and painstakingly, developed a complex system for sorting, despatching and delivering the mail.

It worked perfectly. Every day without fail, the staff at the Northern District sorting office ensured all mail was delivered on time, to the correct destination, be it a residential letter box in Islington, a sorting office in Cornwall or some far flung corner of Scotland. The postal system was safe reliable and secure.

By the time I left in the 1990s, the system was severely damaged.

An army of managers had been recruited to modernise the business. The best local managers were relocated away from the sorting office floor, to assist the new management teams with their plans. A continuous stream of elaborate schemes was imposed, disrupting the complex service.

As soon as one project was installed another began.

The result was stacks of mail left unsorted, for days. An ever-changing stream of poorly trained, expensive casual labour, was hired from agencies to sort and deliver the backlog.

The security of the postal service became seriously compromised; individual items of mail disappeared in the system, while vans delivering registered and other valuables between sorting offices were regularly attacked. Even the district office was robbed several times.

On one occasion, thousands of wage packets were removed from a giant safe on the sorting office floor, loaded onto a Royal Mail van and driven out of the office.

The Post Office mail business, now renamed Royal Mail has been in limbo for many years. It is a public service that was readied for a privatisation the politicians have been unable to deliver. Its top managers, parachuted in from private sector businesses, are not committed to its public sector role.

Government ministers and top civil servants, have forced the letters business to offer loss-making services to its rivals, while handing the most profitable bits to private companies.

Postcomm, the quango set up by the government to oversee postal services, is chaired by the chairman of the Stock Exchange (another man with several jobs), its board dominated by supporters of privatisation.

Some columnists writing in the national and London press have placed the blame for poor service on the men and women who sort and deliver the mail.

This is grossly unfair.

Don Ryan