Royal Mail: In praise of wild cats

October 19, 2007

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The very term wildcat strike implies a dangerous untamed force is stalking the land.. How different from our own cherished and domesticated pussy cats. But wildcat strikes may be a necessary force for inevitable change

The vocabulary of conflict

The vocabulary of conflict can be revealing of our deeply held beliefs and fears. In the Royal Mail dispute, reports differentiated between official and unofficial action. Official action is granted some legitimacy. The unofficial actions quickly led to the language of wildcat strikes.

The terminology an unauthorized work stoppage while a labour contract is still in effect. In practice, the strikers often insist that the labour contract conditions have been broken by ‘management’, or ‘The government’ , (Or even, sometimes, by their own Union leaders) leaving them with no other redress for the injustice. but to strike Each side claims the legal high-ground

The interventionist view

The Guardian reported the interventionist view:
Gregor Gall, a professor of industrial relations at Hertfordshire University, said there was a “pressing need” for government intervention because of the entrenched positions of both sides in the dispute. He told BBC Radio 4′s Today programme: “If the service is to be resumed to its normal state, then I think the government, as the single shareholder, does need to step in, and not just call for an end to the strike but actually work towards resolving the issues.” Professor Gall said the prime minister should instruct Royal Mail managers to give some ground in an attempt to find a compromise.

According to The Daily Telegraph [12th October 2007]

An unlikely coalition of Left-wing Labour MPs, Conservatives, unions and academics is now urging John Hutton, the Business and Enterprise Secretary, to intervene

However, the Prime Minister made the Government’s position clear.

He was reported as saying there was

“No justification [for the unofficial actions, and that the dispute] … should be brought to an end on the terms that have been offered as soon as possible”.

Wildcattery

OK. I am not an instinctive admirer of wildcat actions. I have tended to express frustration at the laborious mechanisms of conflict resolution which seem often to lumber towards lose-lose outcomes. I have already expressed these sorts of views in earlier posts.

So why the headline in praise of them? Has something rekindled in me an armchair faith in the revolutionary power of action direct, which I had misplaced somewhere since the days of 1968?

No. Not so much that. Nor even interest in a chance to test events against theories of emergent leadership, or leaderless groups.

It is more a suspicion that when the Government, The Parliamentary Opposition, the Trade Union Council (TUC), and commentators of all political hues apparently share the same broad disapproval, there may just be something worth thinking more deeply about.

In this country there is usually some independent spirit around to state the opposing case, often from what is seen as an off-centre position. However, until some more authentic eccentric speaketh, I will attempt to make the case.

Unofficial action is rather double-edged for Union leaders. It serves to illustrate the determination and commitment of their members. But it is never totally under their control.

If leadership is defined as the exercise of influence towards goals, wildcattery raises uncomfortable questions about whose goals.

In this instance, the unofficial actions seem to have had a galvanizing effect on the negotiators. If this is the case, however unappealing it may be, the threat of wildcat action may have served its purpose, and may have moved things on, giving additional momentum within the negotiations.

It may also offer an indication of hidden dimensions that bring closure to a dispute. Postal Workers were described in as engaging in Spanish practices, by Royal Mail leader Adam Crozier. What might he have meant?

And how intentionally provocative were the actions from management which were alleged to have triggered the wildcat actions on Merseyside and in parts of Greater London? The issue seems to be a reaction against ‘imposed changes’. In the past such ‘they started it’ arguments are rarely clear-cut. The substantive issue is the wish of the posties to start work at 5.30 am, and their managers seeking to implement a 6 am start, with more flexible work allocation to ‘fill-in’ towards the end of a shift.

In any event, today [17 October, 2007] talks are continuing.

The websites of the Royal Mail and the CWU make no mention of unofficial actions, although the BBC reports that there was still some wildcattery persisting around Liverpool and Yorkshire.


Royal Mail: Lions led by donkeys?

July 12, 2007

lions_donk_haig_cartoon.jpgA second one-day strike at Royal Mail is announced for Friday 13th of July. Letters are exchanged between the Union and Management. In that curious way of industrial disputes, the letters seem intended to avoid constructive dialog. The battle looks more and more like the Somme, or perhaps Little Big Horn and General Custer’s last stand.

Events at Royal Mail grind forward, painfully slowly. Billy Hayes and Dave Ward are in there somewhere battling for the Union side, Allan Leighton and Adam Crozier also somewhere for ‘Management’.

Sometimes the general shape of a battle-field has old warriors reminiscing of past triumphs and disasters. Two historic possibilities occur to me, one from The First World War, and one from the early days of American History.

Despite rumors to the contrary, I do not have first-hand experience of either, although my father survived the Somme, an experience that stayed with him for the rest of his life. He rarely talked about it. There were no real survivors. Poets and military historians give us a picture of the bloody futility of it all.

Appeals to Patriotism

The first world war was a war of patriotic slogans, sometimes wrapped up in the noble ancient language of the ruling class.. Dulce et decorum est, pro patria mori… Lions led by donkeys. Two or three generations later and there is cultural residue, a nagging awareness in Great Britain, going back to Dr Johnson’s maxim that patriotic rhetoric is the last resort of the scoundrel.

While patriotism remains more desirable and contested ground in the USA, two American journalists are worth mentioning for a modern gloss.

In Dr. Johnson’s famous dictionary, patriotism is defined as the last resort of a scoundrel. With all due respect to an enlightened but inferior lexicographer, I beg to submit that it is the first.”—Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary, at entry for patriotism, The Collected Writings of Ambrose Bierce, p. 323 (1946, reprinted 1973).

H. L. Mencken added this to Johnson’s dictum: “But there is something even worse: it is the first, last, and middle range of fools.”—The World, New York City, November 7, 1926, p. 3E.

Lions led by Donkeys

Historians argue over the origins of the term. Alan Clark wrote a book which helped popularize the expression. A reviewer noted:

The title comes from the German view of the English soldiers who charged into their machine guns and barbed wire: “Lions led by donkeys.” The donkeys were the professional officers of the British army which was destroyed in those battles, officers who were unable to adapt to the awful technology that changed the face of war forever

Back to the Royal Mail dispute

From the outside, events since the last one-day strike are baffling. Maybe they are as baffling on the inside as the battle orders were to the front-line troops on the Somme, or to General Custer’s men.

As the troops hunker down for the next planned push, the generals exchange letters. The tone of the letters is that of civilized beings engaged in diplomatic speak. Dear Allen, Dear Dave they begin.

But are the generals struggling and ‘unable to adapt to the awful technology’?

There is no alternative

Royal Mail claims it needs a billion pounds for the new technology, rather than meeting payclaims they compute as roughly the billion pounds for modernisation. There is no alternative. Or is there? It seems cruel to quote words associated with Margaret Thatcher, a general who waged war with another great Union two decades ago.

Today we have a new generation of political leaders. Dave the toff an open admirer of Tony Blair trying to drag the conservatives to a safe place for their political survival. Gord of the clunking fist is busy recruiting talented capitalist heroes to advise him.

Maybe the outcome will eventually attract more political attention. But for the moment, Dave and Gordon are united in their silence over the Royal Mail dispute. The BBC is curiously uninterested. The business has not yet cast any leader in a particularly heroic light. Creative leadership is at a premium.


The Postal Strike and the Horsemen of the Economic Apocalypse

June 29, 2007

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The twenty-four hour postal strike in the UK is the type of ‘little local difficulty’ large enough to require an immediate response from a new political leader. Even with his formidable energy, Gordon Brown could do without confronting an industrial dispute so soon into his leadership. There are echoes of the Airbus conflicts that captured the attention of Nicholas Sarcozy in the first week of his Presidency.

Why strike? Why now?

The strike, which began at 3 am on Friday June 29th 2007, involved some 130,000 members of the Communication Workers Union who have issued the following statement

The CWU’s Negotiating Team met with the Royal Mail’s Chief Executive Adam Crozier, and his Senior Management Team yesterday. The CWU reiterated to Royal Mail that it was prepared to reach an agreement that would move forward both the Union and Royal Mail’s position … The CWU impressed upon the company that there was no possibility of Royal Mail management successfully transforming the business unless both parties could reach an agreement that galvanises the workforce too. During the course of the meeting the Union set out its position and expressed its genuine concern about Royal Mail’s business plan and how it would result in a spiral of decline for the company, and the workforce … The CWU reminded Royal Mail that the Union was not alone in severely criticising Royal Mail’s business plan. A recent all-party Select Committee criticised Royal Mail’s leadership for lacking vision.

Chief Executive Adam Crozier, responded by rehashing all of his previous statements and refused to enter into meaningful negotiations with the Union.

The strike on Friday 29th June 2007, will go ahead.

Technology and jobs

The old debate about technology and jobs continues. Innovation accompanies creative destruction, like Horsemen of the Economic Apocalypse. Maybe ultimately the job losses are compensated elsewhere. Which is no consolation to threatened workers. The perceived grievances of Royal Mail workers are easy to identify. As with Airbus, competitive pressures have triggered plans to reduce costs which threaten jobs.

The Royal Mail leadership team

Royal Mail has a high profile leadership team within the UK business world. Chairman Allan Leighton has been persistently linked with stories of his intention to head a lucrative buy-out initiative. In an earlier post I noted:

Allan Leighton has an appetite for self-publicity, as inspection of the Royal Mail website reveals. He presents himself as a dynamic (and somewhat terrifying) leader. In public he attempts to soften the image by implying he is very much one of a team, operating closely with CEO Adam Crozier.

Their styles remind me of an earlier high-profile double act, Lord King and Colin Marshall at British Airways. The pugnacious King had also been confronted with an ailing BA facing vigorous competition. Like Leighton, King presided over job cuts on a similar scale, and had serious internal morale issues and Union conflicts. Colin Marshall, like Adam Crozier, had a more urbane style.

Since his arrival, the Royal Mail has cut 30,000 jobs, shut thousands of post offices, and moved away from record annual losses that had reached £1bn. The various changes have been forced through against considerable opposition internally and externally.

The changes have not resolved the fundamental problems of the corporation which remains in dire financial circumstances. It recently announced that the gap in its pension funds would be tackled by ending the corporation’s final wage pension scheme, another unwelcome move and one described as unilateral bullying by its Union leaders.

Amazon and The Economist on-line

In preparing this post, I held off from ordering a book from that well-known e-business Amazon. It could wait. Co-incidentally, Amazon could not wait for a better deal from The Royal Mail, and has recently switched a lucrative contract away. If the management’s resolve needed stiffening, that would have done the trick.

Yesterday, those nice people from The Economist sent me an email. It apologized for any inconvenience caused by today’s postal strike, pointing out that I am eligible as a subscriber to access their on-line version, if I can’t wait for the delayed delivery through the Royal Mail.

Globalization as economic apocalypse

Royal Mail employees, like the rest of us, are facing an economic apocalypse. The current wisdom of the tribe is that we are seeing consequences of globalization. My examples illustrate some of the threats and opportunities cropping up, as the horsemen of the apocalypse gallop about, and technological changes sweep the countryside.

Card-carrying optimists hold to the view that the human spirit, creativity and morally-grounded leadership will help us through the crisis.


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