Cost-cutting won’t deliver solution to postal problems

As anyone who knows me well will tell you, I’m not a huge fan of trade unions.

For the most part, they leave me angry and frustrated.

In my experience, having covered more than a few industrial disputes in the last 20 years, I find them remote and impotent.

Worse still, their “one-for-all and all-for-one” philosophy creates a haven for the mediocre and the lazy.

Unions are supposed to protect the vulnerable and seek fairness. However, more often than not, they serve to shield the less able and less willing (the mediocre and the shirkers) at the expense of the real hard workers.

Like many people, I have in recent years had cause to have a pop at the Communication Workers’ Union (CWU).

That’s because you’d be hard-pressed to find someone in the ST postcode area who hasn’t had their mail deliveries disrupted by strikes and stoppages.

Indeed, the postal service in the Potteries has been so bad in recent years you’d have been as well keeping a few carrier-pigeons in a coop at the bottom of your garden.

At least the birds are less likely to crap on you.

It’s been a tale of dispute after dispute and, lo and behold, here we are again.

Postal workers at Stoke-on-Trent’s main sorting office walked out indefinitely today as their row with Royal Mail escalated.

There are two separate disputes running concurrently – a national row about pay and job cuts and a very local battle over plans to close the sorting office in Leek Road, Stoke, and transfer operations to Wolverhampton.

And, despite my earlier protestations, the more I learn about Royal Mail’s cutbacks the more I find myself coming down on the side of the strikers with regard to the localised dispute.

People like postal worker Lee Thorley who has been told that his job is being transferred to yam yam country.

So, instead of working 10am to 6pm Monday to Friday, he will be working midday to 8pm Tuesday to Saturday and face a daily 60-mile round trip to work.

As someone who commutes to work I know only to well how much you begrudge the time spent on the road – time which you would rather spend with your family.

But I chose to live some distance away from The Sentinel and I could always move (well, as and when the housing market comes back from the dead).

But Lee Thorley didn’t choose to live 30 miles from his place of employment and I dare say he would rather not uproot his family and move to the Black Country in order to keep his job.

Do Royal Mail bosses care? Do they even consider such trivialities as Lee Thorley’s quality of life in their ruthless pursuit of savings? Of course not.

But you know what my basic problem is with this ‘transfer of operations’?

It just doesn’t make sense. If I post a letter in Sneyd Green to a friend Longton where is the logic in sending that envelope to Wolverhampton to be ‘sorted’ in order that it be sent back to the Potteries?

There isn’t any logic. It’s madness – just another example of the powers-that-be centralising certain aspects of a business to save a few pennies and bugger the consequences.

I understand that, south of the Watford Gap, Stoke-on-Trent may only be known as ‘that place near Alton Towers which used to make pottery’ but I dare say that a city with a population of around 240,000 should be able to sort its own Christmas cards.

What price local knowledge, or are such things simply old-fashioned in the world of big business?
The sad truth is that dear old Royal Mail has been playing catch up for the best part of 15 years.

As a business it has never quite got to grips with the advent of the internet and email.

From their privileged monopoly position, perhaps the management always thought that sales of stamps, postal services and old dears collecting their pension would be enough to sustain a business in the digital age.

How wrong they were.

And it is people like Lee Thorley and those who live in the ST postcode area who are now paying the price for that naiveté.

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Panto star Wilkesy has had his day? Oh no he hasn’t…

It’s A straightforward question: Do you want Jonathan Wilkes back again this Christmas at the Regent Theatre?

‘Oh no we don’t!’ cry a vocal minority. ‘Oh yes we do’, answer his legion of fans.

And so the debate rumbles on in The Sentinel’s letters pages.

As we struggle to get to grips with the worst recession since the ’30s, I suppose who stars in this year’s premier Potteries pantomime is hardly a pressing issue.

Then again, you’d be surprised how exercised people can become when threatened with the Chuckle Brothers or Joe Pasquale.

This will be Wilkesy’s fifth year taking the starring role at the Hanley venue.

Critics say they’ve had enough of Baddeley Green’s finest and they want, nay deserve, a change.

They claim his local-boy ‘Ay up, me ducks’ is wearing thin and point to other cities where the cast is fresh every year and a new headliner attracts first-time theatregoers.

Well, even if I didn’t know the bloke, people would have a hard time convincing me that his star is waning just yet.

We could go round in circles debating the quality of the pantos. (I think last year’s was Wilkesy’s best to date.)

However, the facts speak for themselves. The 2008 production of Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs broke box office records for a Regent panto for the fourth year running.

And isn’t that, ultimately, what it’s all about? Yep… bums on seats.

If the Ambassador Theatre Group which runs the Regent thought for a second that Wilkesy couldn’t bring home the bacon, don’t you think he’d be looking for work elsewhere over the festive season?

Of course, the Regent isn’t alone in having a star return year after year.

Other examples include Gerard Kelly in Glasgow, Billy Pearce in Wolverhampton and John Barrowman in Birmingham.

It is also interesting to note that when the Regent surveyed 100 random pantomime ticket buyers this year, none of them said they wanted rid of Wilkesy.

It seems that here in the Potteries, the punters keep on coming because they love the star turn and are happy with the parochial nature of much of the comedy.

I think they have learned to appreciate the huge amount of work and the incredible attention to detail which gears each production to the local audience.

Presumably they also love the use of upcoming talent in the form of local youngsters who take on the roles of dancers, etc.

Certainly, the warm reception afforded to the winner of the inaugural Stoke’s Top Talent competition (Daniel Hewitt), who went on to star alongside Wilkesy for three months, underlined the appetite for home-grown performers.

Indeed, I think the unique selling point of the Regent’s panto is that it is, perhaps more than any other festive theatre show in the UK, tailored to its audience and brimming with talent from North Staffordshire.

Sure, you still get the fantastic costumes, the slapstick humour and the singalongs, but we also get video messages from the likes of Robbie Williams (the genie of the lamp), or a magic mirror voiced by Phil ‘The Power’ Taylor.

If we didn’t have Wilkesy, we could, of course, have a big name from soap land to head the cast.

But, hang on a minute… we had Corrie’s Shobna Gulati in 2007 and the lovely Claire Sweeney last year.

So, for my money, we are getting the best of both worlds.

In short, I’m not really sure what the detractors are bleating on about.

More to the point, they can boo and hiss all they like – Wilkesy will still be compering Stoke’s Top Talent in September and stepping into Dick Whittington’s well-worn boots this Christmas.

And, as far as I’m concerned, that’s no bad thing.

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Tuesday in The Sentinel