Tuesday, January 12, 2010

BOOK REVIEW - Dear Granny Smith - a letter from your postman

Roy Mayall, Dear Granny Smith - a letter from your postman, 2009, Short Books, www.shortbooks.co.uk, ISBN: 9781906021979. £4.99


A review by Alan Woodward , Libertarian Socialists


This timely book, conveniently published in envelope size, gives the inside story from a postal worker  about what's happening to a major public service and  the reasons why posties have been taking one day strikes over the last 5 months of 2009.  Its outline of working conditions is quite unusual and is a thorough account of the present Government and Royal Mail's offensive against ordinary workers.  The title uses the posties' own term for the public and  pulls no punches, being written in workshop language, and presents a totally devastating critique of the management's inflammatory commercial approach.  Because small bookshops may experience trouble obtaining it, I have given internet details.  The author uses a pen name but has apparently  been a working postman for some years. Whoever wrote the eleven chapters, it is an imaginative well constructed book and at  £4-99, it  is an absolute bargain.


As the blurb says, postal workers  have a pet name for their customers. It's "Granny Smith"  a name that calls to mind every old lady who lives alone and for whom the mail service is a ifeline.  The title is taken from yet another management meeting to  announciing to the staff some further details of the proposed  modernisation changes:

Someone piped up in the middle of it. "What about Granny Smith?" he
said. He's an old-fashioned sort of postman, the kind who cares about
these things. "Granny Smith is not important," was the reply. "Granny
Smith doesn't matter any more."

Roy Mayall  gives reasons for the industrial action including a consideration  for all the Grannie Smiths  and the book is likely to swing the public behind the postal workers once and for all .  Its exposure of corporate dominance  is as relevant as it is timely in an election year.

The book is written in a conversational style, with some workplace humour that sometimes approaches being crude and the postie is blunt in his message about reversing the  adoption of commercial values.   All this subversion was edited out by the BBC when the book was serialised on Radio 4 as Book of the Week in December 2009 but will ring a bell with anyone who went to the picket line during the dispute.  With its rotas, barbeques and careful monitoring of persons allegedly going into work, the strike, like the book,  was well organised and  successful.

The two main themes of the text are the degradation of working conditions and the market inspired transition from an efficient public service into a shambolic and inefficient business enterprise.  The first theme would be familiar to anyone concerned with the condition of the working class  it has been their constant companion for the best part of two centuries.  The author describes in some detail, and with some bitter humour,  how well-established workplace practices have been  just replaced with crackbrained schemes, designed  it seems with just proving that the current  management are in charge.

Or so they like to think. Roy Mayall tells how the impracticality  of the new technology based modernisation, has ground to a halt in all its essential features - address  reading machines, replacing bikes with
cumbersome electric trolleys, Starbursts or bulk delivery teams and suchlike. Mech-ed- mail  machine sorted - from a target of over 80% , has now dropped to 50% and that just the official figures!

What has not failed is the re-organisation of work, the consistent bullying,  the abolition of even the smallest amount of free time, the extremely authoritarian Attendance Procedures that force even quite ill
people into work on threat of dismissal, and such like.  You may say there's nothing new about all that. Everyone knows that there is no democracy in our totalitarian workplaces  and that  an ancient political commentator remarked that the only true wealth is time - the point is that all  these processes are cunningly hidden by the alliance of the politicals, management and most of the media.   Once again victim blaming
is announced - "the posties are being obstructive".

Now old timers may recall the promises of 30 years ago that new technology would liberate society .  People would work for only a few hours, machines would do the heavy toil and our most onerous task would be to
decide what to do with our leisure.  In reality Roy Mayall describes taking out six  bags of mail each day instead of one ,  the huge increase of junk advertising mail despite the lying assurances that mail levels are falling, constant and aggressive management interviews, [interrogation more like], and the leisure room turned into a management lecture centre for open  propaganda sessions  , or  corporate drivel as he calls it.

All this is done in the interests of renewed capitalism by Thatcher, Blair and Brown, can you tell them apart? Small wonder the political confusion as the leaders of the Communication Workers Union  try to boost
Labour while the members revolt into confusion.  And we havent  evenmentioned the Final Agreement.
This brings us  to the second theme, switching over from public to private ownership. We have described above the new slavery, posties too tired to do anything but work and sleep. Everyone  knows the management strategy:
~ allow pension holidays for management, but not workers, so that the
pension fund is deeply in debt,
~ hound out the full timers,
~ bring in part timers and casuals,
~ reduce the enterprise to the point of collapse to make a private take over seem like salvation  THERE  IS   NO  ALTERNATIVE  as we may remember.

The author gives chapter and verse about the public service ethos.  How posties have a social role, just like the hospital cleaners who were abolished for disease spreading contractors,  and, as part of the
community,  are  useful contributors. Reporting domestic ill health . helping out pensioners, transmitting information , monitoring temporarily empty houses, acting as a counsellor and so on.

Today Grannie Smith doesn't matter, the needs of the corporate bodies take first, second and all places.  Despite the record of these companies -and it was their failure that caused the modern pre-Thatcher society to
be set up, it should be remembered -  the private sector dominates  both industry and wider society.

The complicated process of privatisation  has been well publicised recently but what is less well known is the "creeping commercialisation".  Take downstream access, which allows private companies to  select out any part of the process which they think profitable and privatise it.  This is already used by operators like TNT, but the use of this surrender to profit scheme has now appeared in the NHS.  Clinicenta,  despite some appalling performances  is still allowed to cherry pick and make money from its choice.  The union leadership seems passive in various unions and allows this insidious practice to continue.  Once again it's down to the rank and file .

Another feature is the use of language, a key factor as Orwell noted.  Here "modernisation"  means  privatisation, more speed up, no job security, all casual labour, poverty wages. " Flexibility"
means  obeying instructions however absurd.  Management "discretion " in fact means mandatory.   "Public Service" means total subordination to corporate  objectives . "Attendance "  means absenting yourself from medical attention, "Mail sort" means junk mail or around two thirds of the total, and so on.  Royal Mail management have nothing to learn from 1984.

The recent international financial crisis should, in an ideal world, have demolished the credentials of the free market.   There is little evidence that this has happened, and even less that the political leaders have any intention of changing course. For them no alternative exists, so they press ahead with cosmetic reforms while keeping the pressure on the rest of us in the same old way. Mayall is quite clear about the consequences, in terms of blame for general issues, on the central role of the market. To an extent he also implicates the union for losing sight of the social aims of the labour movement in pursuit of the free market.  While his affection for old Labour may be exaggerated  remember George Brown and Harold Wilson?  his basic sentiments ring quite true.

He ends with a tale where an old person in a future world  that is totally commercial describes the Royal Mail set up as it used to be to an obviously incredible audience.  The McMail  option he calls it.  but as he also says,  it's not too late to save it, though prospects under Cameron, Brown  and co  do seem bleak.

Generally the text has no overall political message, despite his reference to  the gods of wealth and economics  .  He doesn't waste ink either on the alternative promises of The Revolutionary Party any more than conventional politicians.  His memories of old Labour  are likely to be illusory  but his demolition of the present institutions  and their scurrilous roles is complete.  As he says "my tale is of loss and deceit, anger and despair, and the wanton destruction of an ancient and venerable organisation".

It seem likely that no one has told him of the libertarian philosophy, and in particular the idea of workers' control of the workplace, then society.  This idea is implicit in his critique of management and politicians -  the workers can manage the place quite well on their own  but the political implications are missing.  This is a deep-seated problem and one which the conscious minority has been slow in tackling.

A happy postie in olden times
Finally, this is a unique publication.  There were some examples of solidarity from other workers in the long dispute.  Drivers  and service workers refusing to cross picket lines  and some workplace money collections, though  the strike leaders gave this a low priority.

What of the future? The 2007 strike was followed  by the 2009 one, as management kept on with its predetermined free market strategy - modernisation at all costs.   At present as management press on with their only delayed plans ,  we can expect more conflict and picket lines. Labour intends continuing to worship the gods that have failed  - be prepared  for more early rising.


1 comment:

  1. See also: '“They used to give us cakes” (Grumbles of an Xmas postal sorter)' by Paul Petard, details at www.whingerpress.blogspot.com.

    ReplyDelete