Au revoir le post

Some time ago (quite some time ago) I wrote several posts charting the gradual demise of the Dutch postal services and the possible demise of the British Post Office. Little has changed at the core apart from the fact that the Post Office in England finally got shunted off into the long-term privatisation programme. Yes, they did it finally. One more crossed off the list of stubborn public organisations resisting the neo-liberal capitalist mantra of “everything safely in private hands”. The NHS is a much tougher nut to crack, but they are working on it, so have your credit card ready.

I’ve read newspaper pieces on it, and some blogs ,with the usual pepperings of ignorant comments from semi-literate simpletons half-way through their latest how-to book for making money on the stock market. These people always have great memories at least, when they rattle off, almost verbatim, the words of the latest policy stuffed into the mouths of political party spokesmen doing the rounds of the tv infotainment cabaret circuit. If we were as smart as they were we’d know deep in our hearts that the Post Office was a ‘failing organisation’ that wasn’t making any profit. We’d see that privatisation would ‘inject much-needed capital’ and allow a more ‘streamlined structure’ allowing it to become a profitable service. Let us thus consult our special handbook:

Understanding Newspeak. (Revised edition 2013):

Failing organisation: Organisation targeted for either privatisation or destruction by prevailing powers that deem it unsuitable for their ideological programme. It is first put under scrutiny by an ‘outside audit’ paid for by taxpayers, after which teams of managers, PR people, and ‘ troubleshooters’ will be drafted in to effect a reorganisation. The alleged purpose is to discover how to save lots of public money by paying lots of the public money to private companies. Eventually, when the public has finally lost interest in the entire farrago, said organisation is either quietly liquidated, privatised in some way or broken up and sold off to asset strippers and similarly deep-pocketed capitalist vultures.

Injecting much-needed capital: Most often large amounts of private money waved under the noses of neo-liberal governments in several ways; sometimes in the form of bribes, and increasingly in place of proper public services funding. Governments seeking to ‘streamline government’ (see: big government and bloated administration) but having limited tax resources, are approached by those whose tax they commonly never receive, offering to fill the resources gap in exchange for leverage. Once secured, the arrangement allows the government to jettison both its role of providing core public services and the costs involved. The downside is zero appreciable gains in tax revenue and an entire public service (free of private corporate interests) given away for free.

Streamlining: In general, sacking large parts of a workforce and/or transferring any remaining functions to locations (usually sub-tropical) where employment law is weak and exploitation high.

Big government: (Usually pejorative) Anything more than the minimum; where the minimum still includes the jobs of the same people calling for smaller government. In the United States e.g. big governments usually arise when Democrats win more seats than Republicans. In the UK a big government is when the Conservative Party, or people like them, is out of office. In the minds of very extreme American politicians, ‘big government’ actually means ‘ the government’, since the general aim is to completely replace its functions with private business and a utopia of free-market pioneers.

Reorganisation: A PR term for saving money by two means: firing large parts of the workforce and selling-off buildings, machinery, tools etc. The theoretical aim seems generally to be an attempt to run businesses on impossibly low levels of normal investment.

Flexible work: The opportunity for an employer to have labour-on-demand available 24 hours a day when it suits them. Most often erroneously defined as ‘suiting the employees lifestyle’. Exceptions where it suits small numbers of people are often highlighted to give the impression that the works fits the employee rather than the other way about.

So now, armed with our enhanced understanding, what can we say about the British Post Office sell-off? Initially we might have wondered why people who want to make money would want to pursue ownership of something that is supposedly failing due to reasons beyond anyone’s control. The argument was originally quite clear-cut. The advent of the internet meant that everyone threw away their pens and paper; banned handwriting; stopped sending birthday and Christmas cards; forgot where pillar boxes were located and that all parcels  – including the internet-driven increase in physical parcels from the likes of Amazon and Ebay – all started to magically be sent via email. The obvious outcome was the demise of real world-postal services. As a result private financiers flocked to acquire this moribund service  in order to pour money into it. Impeccable logic so far.

Before we peruse this conundrum any more, let us mosey over to the Dutch postal service (in name only) to see what things are like much further down the privatisation road. The skeleton history runs thus: The old PTT (Phone, telegraphy, telephony) served its time as a post-war social amenity in the now-outmoded social-democracy economy. Some time later it was partially marketised, but remained largely state-run as the TPG. In time it was finally forced to walk the plank and was bought by Austrian corporation TNT. They went round and stuck TNT stickers onto the post boxes to help people who were confused understand that the post boxes (then still red) now belonged to TNT. Most of the population carried on calling the service the PTT. Later on the company split its parcel service from its post and Post.nl (Post Nederland) was created from a melting pot of existing post handlers, money in fat envelopes (not sent through the postal system) and some back-room politics. Most of the population carried on calling the service the PTT.
Post.nl then adopted their chief policy that the future of paper post is in rapid terminal decline and drastic reorganisation (targeted cutbacks) was needed to secure the future of the postal service; a recent recession gave justification. In the meantime all the postal boxes that weren’t removed now turned orange. Serendipitously this helped in locating them as they became so scarce in towns and cities. Most ordinary people blamed the long-since retired PTT.

Streamlining eased labour costs, but the local nature of the postal service meant that work couldn’t be outsourced to the Far East slave pits, so a policy of old-fashioned exploitation of the remaining workforce, mixed with management techniques and PR, was put into place. A policy of reminding workers at every opportunity that the amount of post is rapidly declining was rolled out, which then of course required flexible work, minimum-hour contracts, time-and-motion spying. In addition most administration staff were helpfully ‘streamlined’ into unemployment and buildings sold off, including central and local post offices and sorting depots. The total separation in the public mind of the Post Office and the Postal Bank (now ING) was completed by eliminating proper banking services from ex-post offices. The promotion of (non-football-related) team managers was done on the basis of general political ignorance, mild-to-severe sociopathic tendencies and an ability to blindly follow policy.

One jargon term that accurately explains this is ‘hollowed out’. The Dutch postal service is a scaled-down semi-professional service carried out by a core of highly-exploited ‘full-time part-timers’ alongside a shifting group of casual labour as and when required: students and the half unemployed essentially. Meanwhile it turns over a generous profit on the stock market, which is quite a feat for a service in rapid terminal decline.

The British postal service can be expected to follow this trajectory mutatis mutandis. Once the old guard of postal workers are retired or hounded out, it will be a purveyor of casual labour and insulting low-paid ‘flexible’ jobs. The ‘Postman’ is now that demoralised figure shambling down your street, way past midday, wearing gaudy polyester and noticeably not whistling. Next week, next month, next year (if he can last that long) his face may change, several times. The shareholders of the British Post will earn a tidy profit. The post will be saved.

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