U.K. postal worker: Royal Mail in a race to the bottom
Royal Mail worker Leila delivers mail in Balham, London, Jan. 12, 2021. | Kirsty O'Connor / PA via AP

Jon Tait is a former sports journalist and postal worker, now working for the U.K.’s largest public sector trade union. In this op-ed, he discusses the dispute between postal workers and the U.K.’s Royal Mail, which has been simmering since summer.

If you’ve never read Charles Bukowski’s classic novel Post Office, I’d highly recommend it.

Because while Bukowski’s work was set in 1960s Los Angeles, my experiences of over a decade working for the Royal Mail in the U.K. were strikingly similar.

Lumping hefty bags jam-packed with mail up rows of red brick streets, dogs snapping at the heels, standing under strip lights at 6:00 a.m. throwing mail into a fitting with a plastic cup of coffee from a dispensing machine, putting up door-to-door leaflets, and panicking as the packets piled up on the top of the frame.

It’s all there in Post Office, baby. The same gripes and grumbles, the same workplace banter, similar characters. The impossibility of the schedule. Hank Chinaski would have had a field day writing about the job lapsing, the PDA scanning, and the demands being forced on posties by Royal Mail management today.

But industrial relations at the company have been sour for years now. Many postal workers will remember the Colleague Share scheme. A previous chairman implemented the scheme to incentivize changes. The shares were worth around £1,500 ($1,800 USD)—until it came time to cash them in when they had somehow miraculously dropped to zero.

Workers were similarly duped when the publicly owned service was privatized in 2013 and the shares they were given in the deal had more than halved in value by the time they could cash them in without paying income tax on them.

The 115,000 postal workers in the Communication Worker’s Union (CWU) have been embroiled in a national dispute over pay and working conditions with the company since the summer. The union wants a “reasonable and fair” pay raise (inflation is currently at 11.1% in the U.K.), and has objected to around 10,000 compulsory redundancies (layoffs), enforced Sunday working, changes to delivery times, increased automation, stopping the Universal Service Obligation (which requires that letters and parcels should be delivered to each home or business premises, on five days each week), and the ending of allowances, saying that the company was “in a race to the bottom” and wanted to turn the service into “just another parcel courier company.”

A series of one- and two-day strikes have seen pickets on the gates outside Royal Mail delivery offices and they are set to continue into the Christmas period after talks at the arbitration service ACAS broke down. Royal Mail CEO Simon Thompson has taken a hard line and seemingly refuses to back down.

The workers have been offered a 2% pay raise from April this year, a further 3.5% when an agreement is reached, which is not backdated, and 1.5% from April 2023. New entrants into the workforce are being employed on 20% less pay and worse terms and conditions than existing workers, the union claimed. Shareholders were handed £567 million ($692 million USD) in dividend payments by Royal Mail just a few weeks ago.

Royal Mail workers do so much more than just squeeze post through the letterbox. An elderly lady on one of my rounds fell outside and broke her wrist but didn’t panic as she thought I’d be there soon enough with her post and would help her. I had none that day, and it wracked me with guilt. Because posties do look out for the people in their communities. They care about the people they meet every day, however cynical they pretend to be.

The sight of the luminous orange jacket coming up the street is a British institution and the same goes for the grey uniform in America—Bukowski enjoyed being a postman and then a postal clerk. The job gets to you. The character Chinaski sneered when a colleague told him he would finally get that dedication to service in the novel, but he got it and felt he’d reached his “postal maturity.”

I got it too. That sense of comradery with my colleagues as we humped bags into the back of vans or into trolleys, stood in front of mechanical sorting machines, or tipped sacks of mail is something that stays with you, in California or Cumbria.

That’s why I’ll be back on the picket lines with them again. That’s why I’m proud to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with my friends and former colleagues. And that’s what makes the CWU so strong.

Maybe Royal Mail CEO Mr. Thompson should read Post Office too.

As with all op-eds published by People’s World, this article reflects the opinions of its author.


Jon Tait
Jon Tait

Jon Tait is a former sports journalist and postal worker, now working for the U.K.'s largest public sector trade union.