Friday, 13 June 2014


scab noun \ˈskab\ 1: scabies of domestic animals. 2: a crust of hardened blood and serum over a wound. 3a: a contemptible person. 3b (1): a worker who refuses to join a labour union. (2): a union member who refuses to strike or returns to work before a strike has ended. (3): a worker who accepts employment or replaces a union worker during a strike. (4): one who works for less than union wages or on non-union terms.

It was the first day back from my holiday. I'd been to Texas, and had stories to tell. I had come in to the sorting office half an hour early on the understanding that whoever had been covering my duty would probably have left a ton of work for me. Happily there hadn't been so much mail left behind on the Saturday as I had anticipated, and it didn't take very long to get it all sorted into my frame, so as the sun rose and the clock approached six, I wandered out onto the loading bay for a smoke. The others were wandering in. I'm not really looking for lengthy conversations at that time of day, but I said good morning to a few of them. Some failed to return my greeting, which did not seem in and of itself unusual.

The clock above the entrance always ran a few minutes fast, which management insisted was not part of some deliberate policy to have us all racing around like blue-arsed flies even more than we were already doing. It struck six and I returned to my sorting frame. A couple of years earlier, Jimmy Axton had retired and bequeathed to me the thermos flask from which he'd frequently poured me out a cup of coffee simply because he was a nice guy. It seemed a tradition worth preserving, and so as I decanted my first coffee of the day from Jim's old flask, I would usually also pour one out for Danny who worked the frame behind mine. I liked Danny and it seemed like a nice thing to do.

'Coffee, Dan?'

'No thanks, Lol.' He walked away, and I immediately recognised the ambiguous concern that had been lurking at the back of my thoughts as I'd stood upon the loading bay, ignored by my fellow postmen as they entered the building. I was a scab, and had as such become an untouchable. Milk would now turn sour as it fell beneath my shadow.

I had joined the CWU, or Communication Workers Union, almost immediately after joining Royal Mail as a postman back in 1988, every month paying my four or five quid - or however much it was - on the understanding that whatever fast ones the management tried to pull, there would at least be a body of people making it difficult for them. The management tried to pull quite a lot of fast ones over the next few decades as new business practices were introduced and it was decided that the most important aspect of Royal Mail was not the delivery of letters and parcels so much as the profit which might be made for the shareholders.

Accordingly the CWU rose to the bat most of the time, and would occasionally stage a strike. I think the longest I can recall lasted about three days, during which a terrific backlog of undelivered mail built up to such volume that it took us months to get back on an even footing. More often than not, industrial action - if it came to that - would be conducted as a one day strike every few weeks until things started moving, which they always eventually did by some definition.

The problem was nearly always the same. We, as a company, were not making a profit, or we weren't making the sort of profit which those upstairs hoped we would make, despite this claim usually running contrary to what was being reported in droning financial circles. Royal Mail has to change with the times, we were told over and over, mainly because that's the sort of thing business management people say in order to make themselves appear dynamic, thrusting, and hence profitable. The advent of email means that no-one will send letters any more, they warned us, and yea there shalt be rude internet sites meaning that single gentlemen of certain interests will no longer send for specialist materials in discreet brown envelopes, so think on, because the end is nigh.

Whilst the number of handwritten missives posted by 1950s schoolboys to doting aunts and grandmothers in thanks for the penny whistle or spinning top decreased as predicted, this reduction was counterbalanced by the explosion in parcels as all the single gentlemen of certain interests began to order everything off Amazon, just like everyone else. It wasn't the Royal Mail which got shafted by the rise of the internet, it was high street shops.

Royal Mail was working just fine, had been working just fine for a very long time, and as such did not require change, particularly not at the hands of people whose experience of the situation was limited to a series of surreal flip charts in some antiseptic boardroom. I suppose the real issue was that Royal Mail had been working just fine as a public service, which was viewed by the increasingly right-wing British governments of the nineties as an inherently bad thing, carrying the sort of loser mojo you would associate with scruffy trendy leftie do-gooder dole scrounger layabouts who hate success and want to turn the clock back to when Michael Foot was prime minister and everyone was on strike, even the Queen; and Michael Foot looked like a scarecrow, innit?

Ha ha.

Change meant mechanisation and massive loss of jobs, sometimes described as streamlining because it sounds friendlier and achieves at least a little distance from the truth, namely business being more important than people, and that people are only ever as valuable as the tasks they perform. It may possibly be a little early to invoke Adolf Hitler in the context of this monologue, but the euphemistic capacity of the term streamlining is probably evident when one considers that all the Third Reich were really trying to do was streamline the population of Germany, and eventually the world.

When I joined Royal Mail in Chatham, Kent back in 1988, most of the walking duties comprised two to three hundred delivery points or addresses, with the average length of first post delivery being two and a half hours. Because these routes had mostly been worked out by the fairly obvious method of having a bloke walking around them and seeing how long it all took, that which was expected of the individual postman or postwoman was generally that which they achieved without difficulty. As the supposed need to change with the times and streamline anything that moved was wrought from above, delivery duties were expanded in size so as to require less staff - so the theory ran - meaning that the less efficient humans could be disposed of, either by means of redundancy payout, staring at them long enough until they screwed up and could be legitimately sacked, or just making the job so laboriously unpleasant and so beyond the means of regular organic work units that they gave up and handed in their notice. Hooray.

By the time I was working at the East Dulwich sorting office in 2009, the average walking duty comprised around eight-hundred delivery points, taking an average three and a half continuous hours providing you didn't stop to tie up your shoelace or scratch your arse or whatever. These duties were worked out by a person with a computer programme and a map of the area. This presumably dispensed with the inefficient method of paying a puny human to make a decision which would inevitably be subject to his or her weak human physiology; and if the robot had somehow decided that Postman Patrick could quite easily deliver the mail to five-thousand addresses in just under fifteen minutes, then the problems that inevitably arose would be attributed to Postman Patrick lacking the necessary yes I can attitude of today's thrustingly modern Royal Mail.

Anyway, as is hopefully needless to say, since the very beginning, I'd always done as my union asked, never once breaking a strike. On a few occasions I even bothered showing up to man the picket line, which tended to be a somewhat lonely occupation as those most vocally and grunty about strike action generally stayed home and had a lovely day off with a cup of tea and some super football on the telly. Worse still, striking attracted representatives of the SWP, or Socialist Workers Party, usually the youngest and most overly earnest members of the cult eager to offer support and relieve some of the terrible guilt of having grown up wealthy and middle-class through adopting someone else's misery. It was always astonishing to see how little they realised how much they were hated by those of us who worked our crappy jobs for a living rather than as a lifestyle statement. It was also impressive how often they came back to wave a scarf and chant rah rah rah up the jolly old workers despite being told to piss off.

Our infrequent strikes were, more often than not, implemented in protest against proposed cuts and streamlining. In practical terms, each day taken off as a strike day would mean twice the quota of work to deliver the following day, and as by 2009, our office frequently received a much higher quantity of mail than we could deliver in a single day even without strike action, this meant the system immediately became clogged up for weeks to follow as everyone struggled to catch up with themselves. Then the strike would be declared over, and we would find that this was because the union had come to some arrangement with the management. Generally this meant that the bad thing we had wished to nip in the bud had been postponed, and would be back again next summer under a different name, or worse still when the announcement was made: good news, colleagues, we've fought your side and thrashed out a deal, and here's what has been agreed, followed by a list of promises which actually sounded one hell of a lot like the crap we had all been striking against in the first place.

Strike action, whilst I was at Royal Mail generally served to delay the inevitable ill-considered changes by a few months, left everyone with a gaping hole in their pay packet, and meant that the work itself would be ridiculously demanding once we went back to work and spent weeks struggling to cope with the tidal wave of rubbish spewn forth from direct mailing companies which had continued to churn out sofa advertising whilst we all had a lovely day off with a cup of tea and some super football on the telly. Additionally there was the possibility that Royal Mail wasn't actually that bothered by our striking. All of the work was still delivered, generally without any costly overtime resulting from industrial action being paid out - the denial of which being something else against which we had striked without success - and despite certain pinstriped types weeping about business opportunities lost through our selfish behaviour, it was one less day of wages wasted on one hell of a lot of people so, you know - big savings for them upstairs!

Even more aggravating was that striking was only one available option in terms of industrial action, and it was the one least likely to work because no-one could afford more than one lovely day off with a cup of tea and some super football on the telly in a row. The other option was working to rule, which wasn't so militant as that may sound. Working to rule meant coming in to work at the designated start time, working until one's designated finishing time, and taking the half hour break guaranteed by employment law. Surprisingly, this method was incredibly effective in terms of making a statement because, since the first wave of streamlining, the job had become impractical with each postman or postwoman required to process and deliver more mail than is possible during the available hours. So many of us began to come into work a few minutes early in order to get a head start, and in order to avoid leaving ourselves with a surfeit of mail which would have to be delivered the following day, and which would have to be delivered during ordinary working hours due to restrictions on overtime. To add to this, certain more senior postmen, having been in the job since the days when even management had regarded it as a public service, tended to have the cushier delivery routes, those with less steps, shorter garden paths, fewer blocks of flats, a lower quota of delivery points, or which were geographically nearer to the sorting office. Amongst these senior postmen, at least at East Dulwich, were a number who had spent many years racing around their second delivery in order to get home as quickly as possible. Some had it down to a fine art, and one whom I'll identify as Grumpy Bollocks frequently blew up into the sort of temper tantrum one would expect from a child of five if anything were to threaten his being indoors by eleven. If it was twenty past ten, and you found amongst your own work a missorted letter for this fellow's route, you would find a way to lose it or sneak it back into the system rather than incur the wrath of this terminally grumpy man-child by passing him the letter in the expectation of him doing the job for which he was paid.

Even more aggravating was that Royal Mail management, and particularly the streamlining enthusiasts knew that this was going on, and that whilst Royal Mail staff aren't insured to be at their place of work prior to their official start time or whilst working through their meal breaks in pursuit of the earliest possible finish, anything that gets mail delivered without the necessity for paying out overtime can only be viewed a good thing, so a blind eye is turned, except in cases where a particular postman is noted to be at home by eleven each day. The fact of this being due to his coming in early and racing around at ninety miles an hour is neither here nor there, for all the streamlining evangelist can see is a man who is paid until one in the afternoon finishing two hours before time, and therefore someone who could probably be reasonably expected to take on a few more streets in addition to those to which he presently delivers.

At our office, duties were signed for by individual postal workers on a roughly yearly schedule to keep up with the turnover of staff, and to appease those senior men feeling they might be entitled to whichever marginally cushier number had become available. As the first and second delivery were amalgamated into a single more profitable megadelivery, certain routes were doubled in size thanks largely to those crusading individuals turning up at half past four in the morning and flying around their delivery at half the speed of light, presumably fearing transformation into a pumpkin if they should fail to be at home with a cup of tea and some super football on the telly by noon. You could track the careers of certain postman through a series of walks that had doubled in size due to their cutting corners year after year. Not only was there no sense of guilt experienced by these people who were essentially screwing up the job for the rest of us, but the sense of entitlement was incredible. I once heard Grumpy Bollocks complaining to our manager about an additional bundle of his mail which had emerged from the sorting process after he had tied up in readiness to leave the office. 'It's not on,' he growled. 'I'm supposed to be picking my boy up at half past!'

To get to the point, or at least to this segment of it, the upshot of this was that by about 2003, there were very few duties at East Dulwich which could be done in the allotted time by a postman or postwoman beginning work at six, taking their meal break, and finishing work at their proper finishing time. Working to rule therefore always had a dramatic effect, guaranteeing the necessity of leaving some undated mail unsorted at the end of the day, so that everyone could cope with what they had and complete their delivery. This would mean that the second day would then end with twice the unsorted mail left over as on the first day, and so on until presumably, the crust of the earth would crack beneath the weight of all the undelivered Viking Direct catalogues of south-east London. This practice could, in theory, have been continued indefinitely, and by rights should have done. The important mail got delivered, so no-one ended up hating us, no-one lost a day's wages, no-one had to get up at fucking three to start work, no-one had to run around like a blue-arsed fly for eight hours non-stop, and it terrified upper management more than strike action ever had, because technically we weren't doing anything we shouldn't have been doing; quite the opposite in fact. The only casualty of a work to rule was that no-one got home at eleven in the morning, which is annoyingly why the work to rule would tend to last about three days before a few of them were suddenly back to beavering away an hour and a half before their official start time, chasing the early finish.

'We've made our point,' Grumpy Bollocks would announce, apparently having forgotten he was simply a postman like the rest of us. 'Let's crack on - get back to normal.'

By around 2003, I'd had enough. I had been in the job for fifteen years and it wasn't getting any easier, and following another couple of days of working to rule over something or other, I decided the situation was getting ridiculous, and I was going to stick with it and work the hours I should have been working all along. When I'd first started coming in early some years before, fifteen minutes had been enough to give me that head start I needed to have everything delivered by the end of the day. By 2003, most days required at least an hour, sometimes an hour and a half to stay on top of the tsunami of junk mail and crap choking up our sorting office. So I stopped, as did a few others. We started at six - our correct starting time; we took our meal breaks; and if we were still walking around out there at two o'clock in the afternoon - the official finishing time - we brought the remaining mail back to the office so that it could be delivered the following day.

By this point the climate at East Dulwich sorting office was such that this was considered weird, disruptive behaviour by some of our colleagues. 'Look at the six o'clock boys,' one particular tool laughed as we all turned up one morning. He himself had been there working for free since 4AM, and yet we were the fools, apparently.

The office was divided into two main factions. In fact it had always been divided into two main factions, but I'd managed to ignore this detail for the first ten years, either keeping myself to myself or just doing whatever it took to avoid the playground politics. Roughly speaking, the divide was split between the old guard and the newer recruits, although there was some crossover if the old guard saw some potential in one of the new people. The old guard were mostly older and generally white blokes whose main interests in life were football, cars, and being home by eleven in the morning even on the heaviest days. They all had a surfeit of opinions about everyone else, how others should do their jobs and so on. They made the difficult decisions about who was effectively useless, who needed to work a bit faster because they were holding everyone else back, all the stuff that you would traditionally expect to be the role of the manager. Their support of the union seemed to come from a love of hierarchy and moral high-ground.

Near the top of this hierarchy was Wiggy, a PHG - or Postman Higher Grade - one of those who remained office bound, who dealt with the public, with registered mail, with overtime sheets and so on. Wiggy, a man who seemed to hate the universe which had cursed him with what was presumably a Kojakesque appearance beneath his unconvincing hairpiece, conducted himself as very much the Daddy of the sorting office in the vein of Ray Winstone's character in Scum. He submitted our overtime sheets to the wages department, as well as the paperwork pertaining to household delivery items - the crappy pizza advertising and related leaflets we were also obliged to deliver - so if he didn't like you - and there were quite a lot of people he didn't like - it was a matter of luck whether you received your full wages that week. Wiggy had taken an immediate dislike to me when I first began working at East Dulwich, apparently on the grounds that I had been assigned a duty sat next to one of his enemies; or maybe it was that I was too fancy or something, not one of the gang. Eventually he thawed, I suspect because I spoke to more or less everyone there, and to continue whatever juvenile beef he carried would have made him look like an idiot. I got on more or less with everyone, because life is too short to hold the sort of grudges you're supposed to grow out of when you're ten, and I was there to do a job and to get paid for it, not to make friends.

The last strike of my employment approached during the summer of 2009. The management had already taken more duties out of the office than was practical for an office which was about delivering mail rather than just saving money. We were again faced with the possibility of strike action, which no-one wanted. We were overworked and we'd had enough. Whilst the CWU may have made differences in a great many areas, we saw very little of this at our office. We no longer even had a CWU representative at our office because it was a thankless task, and those who cared the most vocally were apparently bothered that union meetings would impinge too greatly on their being at home with a cup of tea and some super football on the telly by noon. Every so often one of the union people would turn up from Mandela Way, or wherever it was, and spend ten minutes begging us to desist from coming in to work two hours before our time, to cease chasing the early finish, to basically cease helping out in our own exploitation. Grumpy Bollocks, or whoever had called the union in to address some management proposal which would prevent his being at home with a cup of tea and some super football on the telly by noon, would grunt that this was missing the point, adding that no-one could tell him how to do his job. Aside from this, our dealings with the union were limited to some person coming around with a clipboard every few months to ask if anyone was interested in the great rates on car insurance that the CWU had wrangled for us.

Being 2009, I had recently come close to breaking point. The job was eight daily hours of tearing around, heavy manual work which left me exhausted for the rest of the day. I had just escaped from a toxic relationship as the personal combined cash cow and scratching post to a sociopathic upper-class therapy addict with anger issues, and I was now living in a flat the size of a rabbit hutch which ate up two thirds of my wages even before utility bills and council tax. On top of this, the CWU which had in recent years distinguished itself mainly by offering me cheap car insurance, and by agreeing to numerous changes in terms of employment against which they had initially asked us to take strike action, was once again proposing another series of lovely days off with a cup of tea and some super football on the telly.

'I'm not doing it,' I said. 'Not this time.'

I couldn't afford it. I was single and a representative of the demographic with the highest suicide rate in the capital. I was struggling as it was, and unlike Grumpy Bollocks and so many of his colleagues, I was not living either in a multiple-income household or with my parents. Life was becoming effectively impossible in London, and I was planning to move and start anew, and I was simply not going to jeopardise that for the privilege of still paying off rent arrears two years down the line and a strike which wasn't going to make the slightest bit of difference.

Much to my relief, I was not alone. Even Grumpy Bollocks, Wiggy and the others saw that this would be a futile gesture. The CWU was a spent force, and everyone knew it. Bollocks to it, was the general grunting consensus.

The day of the strike came and I turned up for work. There were seven or eight of us, mostly the more economically vulnerable members of staff, less so those commuting from three bedroom houses in north Kent. We sat around for most of the morning, sorting what mail had arrived in readiness for delivery the next day. We knew we were technically scabs, but no-one felt the term really applied. Had our colleagues been committed union members interested only in the greater good, rather than a cultish group of self-centred nest-feathering shitehawks, things may have been different. It didn't feel particularly great to break a strike, but at least I would be able to pay my rent.

It was upsetting when I returned to work that morning and found myself ignored by those who had blustered about having had enough and how this time the union could stick its useless strike up its arse. I can't say it was because I would have done the same in their shoes. Some members of staff habitually broke strikes. There were always one or two, a drop in the ocean which made no difference to the general efficacy of our industrial action so far as I could see. I would continue to talk with them regardless, if it was someone I had any reason to talk to. If someone worked during a strike, I presumed in our case that they would have their reasons. I couldn't see the point in the silent treatment given that I was no longer a ten year old boy, and this was a somewhat McCarthyite sorting office full of postmen all bending over backwards to work for free when it meant being at home with a cup of tea and some super football on the telly by noon. Parallels with the plight of the Welsh mine workers in the early eighties were few and far between, and would have been pretty insulting had anyone dared to draw them.

It was upsetting when I returned to work that morning and found myself ignored, but for the most part it was by people I'd never really liked in the first place, those with whom one would agree just for the sake of keeping the peace.

'Slag,' Wiggy muttered at my back as I walked past, reverting to more honest type. He was the main suspect for whoever had anonymously vandalised my sorting frame, removing photographs of my fiancé and other personal belongings. It seemed like the sort of thing he would have done. One of the postwomen had told me how Wiggy once brought a Christmas card to her, apparently handed in at the front office by one of the people to whom she delivered mail. The card was in an open envelope. The next day, the woman had asked my colleague if she had received the card with the five pound note inside. It was at least a relief that I was no longer obliged to pretend Wiggy was anything other than a sad and vicious little man.

I still regret that my coming in that day alienated Danny and maybe one or two others, but then it was as much their choice as mine whether or not we remained friends. I've stayed in touch with the people with whom I would have stayed in touch regardless, and the rest I don't miss. Ultimately, I don't suppose any of it really mattered given that at the time I was two months away from handing in my notice, and experiencing a generally stratospheric improvement in the quality of my life. It took six months of nagging phone calls to get paid for the final two weeks, which I expect was Wiggy teaching me a lesson; and it was a shame to end twenty-one years of service on such a sour note, but that was just the way it had to be. I pissed off some people who had never been on anyone's side but their own, and it's still hard to really care about that aspect.

1 comment:

  1. Very entertaining misery, as usual! I sympathise. I believe in unions, in being in a union, and... I was about to say 'all that goes with being in a union' but in fact by the 90s I was faced with the dilemma of believing in unions as a general principle, and yet being in a union that was as crap and self-serving as the CWU (by the sound of it). I'm talking about what was NATFHE. As a lecturer in Further Education, I was a member. However, I was teaching part-time and hourly-paid, and as strike action loomed I was told by our NATFHE rep that actually if I went on strike it couldn't protect me, as I was part-time and hourly-paid, which left me with a no-brainer decision: I wouldn't go on strike. I told the rep he had to publicise what he'd just told me properly - I mean, should I not have been told that when I joined? - but he never did. As it turned out, to the 2 strike days during the year fell on days when I wasn't working at the college, so I wasn't affected in any way. It didn't destroy my faith in unions, per se, I guess - well, I remained a member of NATFHE even when I stopped teaching and went into full-time educational research - but it's like a lot of things I believed in back in the day: the Labour Party is now like Tories-lite and unions seem to just pay lip-service to some ancient idea of unionism: a sort of workers' theme park version.