Talking out of turn was something not appreciated at our morning briefs. At these meetings all the posties would gather around perched on stools, looking resentful at having their sorting interrupted. People wanted to get done, things to do after work for God’s sake. Asking questions, giving advice, raising issues all burned time. Some things were important enough to be talked about of course, but you needed some experience to judge which. Ross, who hadn’t been a postie long, would have done well to keep a stoic silence. Yet this was beyond him, he couldn’t keep his mouth shut, blurting out stuff like:
Everybody be careful out there in the wind…
The other day I got a courier parcel so long I couldn’t put in my trailer...we need to do something about this, it’s just not on…
If we just keep talking to each other about these problems, everything will be okay…
Ross was about six foot when not stooping. He had square calves and a square head, which didn’t suit his personality. He stormed around the depot with great energy, a danger to the hinges of every door he flung open. Later he admitted to me that he raced around to cover the fact that he was often slacking. When he asked questions at briefs he did raise his hand, but despite this good habit there were grumblings:
He’s only been here three minutes and he already knows it all!
Ross was a cross-cutter: he had to sort off-day mail and then deliver to 20 or 30 percent of houses on three on-day runs. One run covered roughly one suburb. I wasn’t a cross-cutter, so I didn’t really get what they did. Since we had recently started delivering mail to any specific area only every second day, there was too much volume for one person to deliver 100 percent of a run. This caused the advent of the cross-cutters and their percentages. Because there were now multiple sorters and deliverers on a single run case, greater cooperation between workers was needed. Sometimes it was just a mess.
Ross started as a postie just after they’d done away with the push bikes. We now delivered mail using electric trikes imported from Switzerland. These trikes, called ‘Kivurz’, could also tow trailers loaded with courier parcels. I started a couple of months after Ross, so never got the push bike experience either. Every morning Ross would greet me by the lockers and tell me about the events of the previous day delivering. We talked non-existent street numbers and aggressive dogs. Ross’ eyes would bulge...imagine if that dog got near a kid!...Ten letters a week for that place and it’s an empty lot! He got a bit in my personal space to utter these meaningful phrases, unpleasant because he had the habit of eating raw garlic cloves. He swore they warded off any illness. It had to be raw garlic, cooking took away a lot of the vitamin C and antioxidants. He cut the cloves up and put them in his pâté sandwiches. Too bad he couldn’t pick up on his own bad breath.
He was often discussed in the smoko room…
He’s a weirdo! exclaimed postie Dawn, summarising the opinion of many.
Give credit where credit is due - he is fast enough at delivering! said Johnno.
Yeah but yesterday he came back with pants covered in mud. Saw him outside using the hose to wash down his pants. Hate to think how he got that way. And have you seen the way he opens and shuts doors? Heck, we’ll be replacing all the hinges soon.Anyway, you playing Lotto this weekend Johnno?
Once the conversation got off Ross and onto Lotto I decided to cut my break short and get delivering. Out on my round it was sunny, my concentration was good, and the public didn’t put in too many appearances. I started to worry that things were going too well. Told myself not to get too cocky and confident because something would go wrong. Then I stepped in dog shit, it was almost a relief.
Because of the garlic, I preferred talking to Ross when we were sorting. Two shelves full of letters between us kept the vampire-slaying smell at bay. As he arrived to sort the case next to me at around eight-thirty, Ross usually bid me good morning for the second time in the day, forgetting that we’d talked at the lockers not quite two hours earlier. One morning he asked me:Did you meet the union guy yesterday?
Yep...I had met the postal union boss in the smoko room – a guy in his fifties with well slicked-back grey hair. It was said he had never been married, his whole life was the union and he was a bloody radical. Bob was his name. Dipping a biscuit in his tea, Bob told me he was interested in how lifting heavy courier product was affecting us workers, and whether the company was streaming out packages that weighed over 25kgs...I said I thought they did, and that only van couriers were getting heavy stuff. Bob looked a bit disappointed at this, then managed a smile and said: I used to have a job where I lifted 25kg slabs of butter all day long. You guys just have one or two heavy packages, but that was real hard work…
I was prickly about listening to people’s stories during my break time and this just sounded like, when I was at school we walked every morning ten miles through the snow and blah blah blah. I wondered whether Bob saw the basic contradiction in relating this anecdote about him being made into the man he is today through the hard work of lifting butter, while at the same time wanting to jump on the company for the injustice of making us lift heavy packages?
Ross had his own take on all this. There was a period when all Ross talked about was the conditions of the job, like he wanted to become a hero for the workers. In fact, this lasted right up until he left. On Bob and the union he had this to say, These unions won’t do anything mate...it’s all a political game to them. They enjoy their meetings over cups of tea with company bosses. They’ll get a few small concessions for the workers, but basically they are good with what’s happening.
And what is happening?
Classic worker exploitation mate caused by the purchase of those bloody....ah…
Yes, those bloody machines….We need to start again, the workers need to organise. We’ve been the pilot city for using those machines and it’s up to us to stop them spreading. There is a lot wrong with them. They can only go 45km/h, making them unsafe in the flow of traffic. They are unstable, the trailers are a nightmare…I could go on…but despite it all the company will go ahead and introduce those things nationwide if we don’t act. We just need to say no, refuse to go out on them one day. What can they do? Nobody else is trained to drive them, they’ll have to let us back on the push bikes. And from there eventually go back to everyday delivery...but I haven’t quite figured that bit out yet. With everyday delivery the system will work again – no off day sorting, no cross-cutters.
Okay I see, but I don’t get how it’s worker exploitation?
It’s a case outlined by Marx: invest in an upgrade of technological capital and make the work more intense for labour; flog the horses harder. Now we are on those machines we have to concentrate on driving, deliver a whole range of different stuff, not just letters, but fucking golf bags and boxes of wine, and we still get the same hourly rate, right?
I shrugged. Yeah...but there isn’t exactly a second-hand market for those Kivurz things. They’ll never let us off them now that they’ve forked out for them.
Yep, that’s the capitalist way. You need to read Marx. He saw the sceptical look on my face, and gave a garlicky laugh. No I haven’t read all of him, don't worry...you think all Christian nuts have read the whole of the Bible? Obviously not! Smarten up my friend. He seemed to be pretty self-aware, as in he knew he was an unbalanced radical nut, but then an accurate diagnosis is not a cure.
Yeah, well, the big boss himself will be here next week, won’t he? I said. Memos reminding us about the CEO’s upcoming meeting with staff had been plastered up by the lockers that morning. Maybe Bob will tell him what’s what.
He better. Ross’ face showed half hope, half envy. If he doesn’t, I just might have to do something.
Ross’ enthusiasm was a force of nature, but I was cautious. The best thing to do? Help Ross to get a grip. Tell him there are injustices, but you need to bear them. Do your work, just keep quiet.
Why would the others follow Ross as leader of a protest anyway? He and I weren’t anywhere near the top workers performance-wise, and we never would be. At team brief, both of us were admonished for damaging our trailers in minor crashes, me in Westown, him in Whalers Gate. Ross pointed out that the damage was minimal and it was easy to lose control of those unsteady machines and tip the trailers.
They won’t allow us one mistake, it’s ridiculous! He complained after the brief.
I agreed. But...look at what we are up against mate!
I said this in reference to the other new postie, an ex-cop from Perth who never mis-sorted and cleaned her vehicle every day. She was never going to lose control of her machine.
Ross went quiet. Over my case I could see him fuming as he shoved letters into slots. He was planning something. He would have done well to remember that if he caused trouble he could be out of a job, especially if he wasn’t even in the union. He’d be fucked.
But what if he succeeded? Managed to organise the workers to stop riding the machines and cause a return to the bikes, what then? He’d be our representative for life. And how would that go? He’d do well remember another Marxist idea: that dead generations weigh heavily once the revolution has begun. Meaning you inevitably morph into the monster you’ve overthrown. And so he’d have to start playing the political game like all others before – like Bob the union boss now.
This was the rubbish going through my brain as, luckily, my arms, hands and eyes continued sorting. I knew I was right somehow, but didn’t know how to articulate these thoughts to Ross.
A week or so later when I drove into the depot after delivery, some dude was whizzing round the interchange on a Kivurz. He asked me where it was usually parked in accented, yet perfect English. Where RHZ571 does go? I didn't know.
He was a Swiss engineer. The machines were getting fitted with new wider wheels, air freighted from Switzerland, to make them more stable. Not just wheels for the machines, but for the trailers too. The Kivurz in Switzerland didn’t have canopies or trailers - these additions had been designed by a bird-brained local company. Apparently the Swiss engineers had sniggered at how top heavy they were with the additions. Next morning at the brief, Mavis the team leader, gave us an update. With the aid of her very bad adenoids, she told us about the new wheels: the tests have had very positive results…the stability is much improved...no more tipping trailers and of course we want to keep you guys from hurting yourselves. Look after those wheels they’ve been flown in from Switzerland at great cost.
As if they care about us. They just don’t want any incidents in the paper. So they were unsafe! Ross was triumphant when we were back sorting, a trace of garlic wafting over. But do you think they’ll say sorry for bollocking us over our little accidents?
No I don’t, I said, they’ll justify it because you have to bollock somebody when things go wrong. If they say sorry it’ll be like taking the bollocking back and then they’ll have to administer another one - and only the machines deserve it, but there’d be no satisfaction in bollocking them...
Ross came round to my sorting case smiling. He grabbed my hand and shook it vigorously. My God, is that a bit of anger? I didn’t think you had it in you!
I had taken it stoically at the time, but I really hated getting bollocked. And now there was evidence I had been bollocked wrongfully. I went through a few days of bitter rumination. Things about the job started to irritate me, like the thousands spent on those new wheels while we couldn’t even get a new marker pen out of the little Hitler middle manager who controlled the stationery drawer!
Friday, more of a crowd than normal assembled for morning tea in the smoko room. After the usual comments on the amount of mail facing us that Saturday, talk turned towards retirement. Some of the older posties were debating how much they would need. 200,000 dollars was the modest figure bandied about as necessary. Dawn was going to sell her house and live in a campervan, continuing to kayak and go mountain biking. What about winter? I asked.
My husband has already insulated the caravan.
Afterwards, with only the two of us by the lockers, Ross was bursting to speak:
20,000 each those Kivurz. Ten of those fucking machines worth the rest of your life. I’m not practical enough to insulate a caravan, so I’ll probably need even more than 200,000 for retirement! I’d like to smash those Swiss contraptions with a sledge hammer the day of my retirement. Then I’d up and escape, see my days out somewhere cheap.
Ross’s face spasmed slightly, breathing deep he managed to collect himself and move on. By the way, watch it, you know how you go home for coffee during your delivery run?
Well, Mavis can see where your machine is at all times. They’ve got GPS on them. Don’t go over your 15 minute break time.
Jeez another blow for the worker via the machine eh! But I don’t think she’d look at the data that closely. Surely the company has bigger problems than calculating who is taking an 18 minute break?
She would, mate. With her it’s a case of the information being in the wrong hands. She likes to have control - to have one over you for that crucial moment. She’s a nutter with power.
It was becoming harder to tell who the crazies were. Could it be possible that Ross was starting to sound like he knew what he was talking about? I was almost ready to fall in with his plan of boycotting the machines, to ask him more about it and to suggest the idea to others.
The day of the CEO’s visit had arrived. I expected asparagus rolls for morning tea with our great leader, but no, it was lollies, sausage rolls and cake as usual.
In preparation, the CEO had been given a list of the questions we were going to ask. Asking him anything off-the-cuff was forbidden. He was a fit, smallish man pushing sixty. Shirt, no tie. Spoke in platitudes. Pretty much what you expected. Anything about the future of postal services he was good on, realistic, informed, but on the last question about the wage for posties he bombed.
Are there any plans to increase the starting hourly rate so it’s more in line with the liveable wage?
Well, he said, we start people on twenty-one dollars an hour and the living wage is nineteen...so I think we are doing pretty well.
Um, actually people start on seventeen, Bob chipped in quietly, almost embarrassed.
Ah well, if you’d like to discuss anything further drop us an email. I know you have a lot to do, so I’ll let you eat your morning tea and get out there.
That was it. I was stunned. No idea what his workers earned and that was not leapt on by Bob? I hoped the CEO bollocked his PA for giving him such inaccurate information - up until that fuck-up I was giving him a pass mark for the little Q&A session. He made 1.3 million a year, I knew that - why did he have no clue what I got?
I tried to catch Ross’ eye, wanted to hear him launch into Bob over his failure to act, but he was just sitting there, with a disgusted look on his face. Wasn’t he going to kick up a fuss? This was his chance, he wasn’t popular – perhaps I was the only one who ever listened to him – but Bob was useless, the time was right for a new leader.
However, Ross just got up and walked out. The rest of the crew got on with munching morning tea. Dawn, Johnno and others started talking about the percentage of mis-sorts coming through from the night-sorters, so I went and drank my coffee in peace on the toilet.
The next morning, there was still no sign of Ross. The smell of garlic gone, like it was never there. I went out into the interchange to load my machine. According to the company measurers we had twelve minutes to do that - but remember you should check your tyre pressure in that time, slather yourself in sunscreen, and do other bits and bobs.
Ed! Mavis was calling me, her eyes peering, suspicious but not astute, her ears sensitive and accusing. What had I done now? Damn, I’d had a fast sort and was first out in the interchange, now she was going to hold me up.
You’re training a newbie tomorrow. Show her your round, she said.
Just as bloody well she’s starting, what with Ross doing a no show. Anyway, let me know how she does.
She walked off, doubtlessly thinking it was hard to get good help these days.
My machine was packed and ready to go. I was usually too lazy to do the mandatory safety check, but today was different. Lights, check, indicators, check, horn, check, wheels, um hang on…And there it was. Simple, but effective. I would have just slashed the tyres, but this worked too. I soon discovered that every single Kivurz was without hubcaps and all the nuts and bolts had been removed from the wheels. Sure, they’d have a few spare bolts, but not for the whole fleet. A risk to try and put on some makeshift local bolts and it would take time for an order to arrive from Switzerland. Back to delivering mail on push bikes for now then. Were my thighs up to it? The local press didn’t have much to do, so posties back on bikes would make the papers. Ross had made a small ripple in the universe, not so easy to do these days. I was the only one who had any idea of what he was trying to achieve, to the rest it’d be pointless vandalism.