Royal Mail: In praise of wild cats

October 19, 2007

wild-cat.jpg

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.


Silence of the leaders in Postal and Climate Protests

August 21, 2007

images1.jpgWhen leaders are silent, the absence of noise may be revealing. David Cameron and Gordon Brown remain remarkably quiet over the Postal Dispute. This week, their silence extended to the climate change protests at Heathrow

As the great Sherlock Holmes taught us, the hardest thing to see is what is missing from a story. One of the functions of the Press is to point to the gaps, the spaces between words. To drag a response out of politicians, for example.

I mentioned in an earlier post a lack of contribution from our political leaders into the on-going postal dispute . The Prime Minister may indeed have been attending to a host of urgent issues over the last two months. That might just explain it. He can’t be expected to speak out on everything. But what about his ministers? Isn’t that a more surprising silence?

Then there’s David Cameron. Why hasn’t he pointed out that Gordon Brown has been guilty of inaction over the dispute? And why has Ming Campbell been so silent, on behalf of the Liberal Democrats?

The silence of our political leaders this week has extended to story of the protestors against the third runway at Heathrow. Which, inevitably is also about political policy over global warming.

Leaders have to choose where to stand and fight

There can be little doubt that Brown and Campbell have thought about and discussed the Postal Strike, and the events this week around the perimeter of Heathrow Airport. For whatever reasons, they have made deliberate decisions to say nothing. Silence is significant.

The press has shown minimal interest in the first of these stories. But it was for its duration particularly interested in the second. A Daily Telegraph piece about the protest resulted in as many on-line replies I have ever come across in reply to a news story.

What happens next? One day after the protests, the story is off the news agenda. Try finding follow-up reports after the one-week protest ended on Sunday August 19th 2007. The most comprehensive account I could find appeared in The Guardian in a slightly truncated form of the blog by environmental activist George Monbiot.

This week, David Cameron chose to target possible closures of local hospitals. Ming Campbell was busily drawing attention to the tricky matter of troop withdrawals from Iraq. David and Ming have chosen where they wish to fight for the moment. Gordon Brown keeps his powder dry, and his position secure, garrisoning his political forces behind the barricades of impressive opinion polls of recent weeks.

What conclusions can we draw?

If we shift the military metaphor to that of a military game, the chess concept of Zugswang comes to mind. In chess it sometimes is worse for you if you have to move, better if you your opponent has to move. It’s like meeting another car in a narrow lane without passing spots. Someone has to reverse out of there. If that retreat is not acceptable to either, you have a stalemate or no result.

The point is, each player is reluctant to move. But in chess the rules of the game force one player to move or forfeit the game. A player in Zugswang moves, and if the opponent knows how to continue, there is a forced win (or more subtly a forced weakening of position).

The lack of action on either side suggests there is a zugswang-type position building up. Cameron watches Brown. Brown watches Cameron. Neither can find a satisfactory active move. Tick follows Tock follows tick.

Why might this be so? The specific contexts of the two examples have to be explored more deeply. The outlook for the Post Office Union looks bleak. Mr Brown seems have accepted the broad strategy position for its modernization developed under the Blair regime. Either that, or he may be biding his time before making an intervention. Cameron wishes above all to secure the moderate political ground, but it requires a leap of imagination that I for one am incapable of making, to find a way in which he could offer strong support in favour of the Union position. There are too many ways in which the stance could be claimed to be anti-progressive.

However, the Heathrow protest is rather different. Mr Cameron would like to be seen as a strong supporter of environmental causes. In this case, it could be seen as a progressive move to find some common cause against the Government’s transport policy. His advisors will be assessing the significance of the volume and tenor of responses to the Daily Telegraph article mentioned above.

According to Monbiot

We haven’t prevented runaway climate change by camping beside Heathrow and surrounding the offices of BAA, nor did we expect to do so. But we have made it harder for … unheard people to be swept aside, and harder for the government to forget that its plan for perpetual growth in corporate utopia is also a plan for the destruction of life on earth

He may well be on to something.

With grateful of acknowledgement for the image Silence of the lambs from Flickr. by Victoriano Great photograph.


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