It's now well over a decade ago – but the lurid headlines told their own disturbing stories for the Royal Mail.
“A Birmingham postman has been suspended after being accused of donning a home-made Ku Klux Klan mask in front of Asian colleagues.”
“Two workers have been switched from their jobs at the Royal Mail Birmingham sorting office following disclosures about alleged mafia-style gangs.”
“The Royal Mail today condemned the ‘utterly shameful’ action of some managers who drove postman Jermaine Lee to commit suicide following years of bullying.”
“A Royal Mail union representative has been suspended from his job at the Birmingham Mail Centre after being accused of insulting Turks.”
All of the above were news stories featured in the Birmingham Post and Evening Mail in the years 2001-02, and there were many others of a similar nature.
The Royal Mail was not just a loss-making drain on the taxpayer’s purse, it seemed, but a hotbed of bullying, occasional racism and downright anarchy right here in Birmingham.
Journalists may have lapped up the constant drip-drip of negative publicity – who could ignore a story about any worker suspended for going to work dressed as a member of the Ku Klux Klan? – but the harsh reality was this was no laughing matter, either for workers or management.
The extraordinary headlines routinely filtering out of the Royal Mail Centre in Birmingham ten or more years ago owed more to those 1970s tales of British Leyland workers paid to sleep on the job at Longbridge – the Evening Mail once smuggled a reporter into the car factory to take his place among the slumbering workforce – rather than an efficient organisation which aspired to be a key pillar of the UK economy.
In the worst instance, the ‘utterly shameful’ actions of some managers who drove Birmingham postman Jermaine Lee to commit suicide, aged 26, following years of bullying were condemned by the Royal Mail, who lamented a ‘macho culture’ at the Mail Centre.
An undisclosed substantial cash sum was paid to the Lee family following a year-long investigation. Careers were destroyed – some of the managers were possibly more innocent than others in my view – as paranoia and fear stalked the Mail Centre in Birmingham. It was not a happy period for the Royal Mail.
In November 2004 then chief executive Adam Crozier – himself a man with a reputation for confrontational management – told me that the Royal Mail had failed to stamp out the ‘worst bullying record’ in British industry.
“We started with the worst record of any company in Britain. But this is something we are absolutely determined to stamp out,” he admitted back then.
Today, a decade later, the contrast could not be greater. The Royal Mail has transformed itself from a loss-making dinosaur beset by inefficiencies and turbulent industrial relations into a profitable, privatised company which has embraced technological change and the threat of competition to emerge as a force to be reckoned with in the post-industrial world.
Gone are the seemingly endless stories of worker discontent and constant clashes with management. The CWU, formerly a byword for industrial conflict and strife more akin to the last days of Fleet Street before the Wapping revolution, has dragged itself kicking and screaming into the 21st century.
If truth be told, they probably had little choice in the matter. Ten years ago the Royal Mail was announcing losses of £1 billion a year, and facing increased competition from the likes of TNT as the marketplace opened up.
And then there’s the technological revolution. E-mail and the clamour for online shopping has grown exponentially in recent years. The art of letter-writing – once a staple element of civilised communications – is almost as dead as the Dodo, sadly in many ways.
The big beast of the modern world, the Internet, takes few prisoners, and the Royal Mail has been forced to adapt to a new universe where parcels have now overtaken letters as a source of revenue.
The strange worlds of ‘Lol’ and ‘Hi’ have replaced ‘Yours Faithfully’ and ‘Yours Sincerely.’
The unstoppable march of E-bay and Amazon has left letter-writing an increasingly obsolete practice, almost as rarefied a world as John Major’s memorably wistful description of a “country of long shadows on county cricket grounds, warm beer, green suburbs, dog lovers, and old maids cycling to holy communion through the morning mist”.
There may still be a few of Major’s old maids getting on their bikes on a Sunday morning here and there, but they’re a dying breed, much like posties on a bike, who are being replaced by two-men (or women) teams in vans to help relieve the burden of increased numbers of parcels ordered online.
The old Royal Mail world of cycling posties with bags of letters emptying red postboxes is fast disappearing, sacrificed at the altar of the all-conquering Internet, along with much else. But it’s about as futile to mourn the nostalgic sentiments behind John Major’s sepia-tinted tribute to a vanishing world as it is to lament the slow decline of vinyl albums and singles in a digital world.
The information age has changed the way we live forever – and the Royal Mail had no choice but to embrace that change if it was to survive as a viable organisation in a world where broadband calls the shots.