Books: A Point of View: On Strike |
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On Strike : on the postal workers’ down-bags

(S06E02, broadcast 30th October and 1st November 2009)

"The power of industrial inaction"

Nowadays a strike is usually called industrial action but I’ve never much liked the term, because any proposed industrial action aims to produce industrial inaction, and usually it’s better to have a word for something that evokes the something instead of its opposite. Besides, the word ‘strike’ is short if not sweet, and it sounds like a blow, which is what it is meant to be.

At the time I write this script, the postal strike, after a brief lull, has once again hurtled into action, or inaction, and the chance is getting low that your Christmas cards will make it through to your maiden aunt in that little town where the train has been replaced by a bus, the local shops by a supermarket she can’t walk to, her hip by a stainless-steel gadget, and that nice man Nicholas Parsons’s smiling face on the telly by Russell Brand’s petulant snarl.

In fact she, you and I might already be hoping that somebody will reinvent the pony express. A few days ago I got a letter from someone I sent a letter to months ago. She said she had only just received my letter. But her letter was dated from weeks ago. For at least part of the total period, the Royal Mail was theoretically not on strike.

All too often, the Royal Mail feels to me as if it is on strike even when it isn’t. Whose fault is this? All I can suggest is that in matters of industrial relations, often a way of saying lack of industrial relations, we should be slow to point the finger. Not necessarily as slow as it takes a letter to get there, of course, but still slow. Maybe the fault goes deeper and further back than we think.

Last Sunday I happened to be on Andrew Marr’s television show when the chief executive of the Royal Mail, Adam Crozier, was one of the guests. For a man in his position, he seemed refreshingly normal. Some of his predecessors in the post, however, might as well have been wearing flying helmets and flippers. You might remember that the Royal Mail’s top management once took the inspired decision to change the name of the Post Office to Consignia. They might not have realized — or, even worse, they might have realized — that their new word Consignia, meant to be equally unintelligible but universally awe-inspiring to people of all nationalities, sounded very like the Spanish word consigna, meaning ‘left luggage’.

But they certainly realized soon afterwards that the British public disliked the new appellation, so they thought hard and changed it again, at huge expense. They didn’t change it back to Post Office, they changed it to Royal Mail plc. To do this, they had to ask the Queen. Kindly she said yes, instead of saying that on the whole, when organizations whose names were prefaced by the word ‘Royal’ were concerned, she would prefer it if the management could restrain itself from faffing about, because she had her own brand name to consider.

I might say here that Mr Crozier struck me as someone who might be rather better than some of his predecessors at listening to other voices. But the damage may already have been done, over the course of years. When industrial relations go sour, they tend not to be fixed without a blow being struck, and what you think about that tends to determine your politics.

My own politics, in this matter, remain where they always were, on the old-style left. I think it’s up to management, and always has been. If the managers can’t manage to sort it out, preferably in advance, then they ought not to be managing. But quite often they haven’t been. They’ve just been sitting there, failing to notice that the workers have begun to arrive at work facing backwards, ready to walk out.

When there is dignity in labour, workers usually want to work, even if the task is a drudge. They should beware of any outrage expressed on their behalf by false friends on the playtime left who have never done a hand’s turn. While it is a fine thing to be an artist, it is an even finer thing to be a doctor or a nurse, and can be just as fine a thing to stack shelves or clean lavatories. One of the few virtues of the old Soviet Union was that it respected the dignity of the workers. It also slaughtered them by the million, but that was an effect of totalitarian rule, not a sign of any innate conflict between management and labour. To the extent that there is such an innate conflict, modern history has consisted largely of the long process of resolving it.

Back in the nineteenth century, the future prosperity of my homeland, Australia, was ensured partly by the energies of people who had been transported to the colony because they were machine-breakers. Those victims of progress were some of our first trade unionists, having discovered the hard way that a free market, though necessary, will never produce justice by itself. In the twentieth century, it wasn’t just the Soviet Union that responded with force to any signs of independence from labour. In America in the 1930s, Detroit auto workers were beaten up for going on strike, and some of them were shot. Unions in the free countries had to battle every inch of the way for workers’ rights.

Admittedly it was very easy for unions, once they had consolidated their power, to become corrupted. Jimmy Hoffa of the Teamsters union was unusual only in being such a silk-suited hoodlum. Less spectacularly dressed, in Britain after World War II, there were honest union leaders who led their members into a Luddite cul-de-sac and the country into stagnation. In the time of Harold Wilson, trade union leaders like Jack Jones and Hugh Scanlon were practically in residence in Downing Street, and later on the grief was by no means universal when Mrs Thatcher broke the power of Arthur Scargill.

She could never have done it if the nation had been behind him, but in truth he never even had all the miners behind him. The idea was ripe by then that there had to be a balance. If the managers couldn’t manage, there was even less hope in the unions doing the managing instead. I myself can well remember when the print unions ruled Fleet Street through what were called Spanish practices, and phantom workers drew real salaries. Strikes were endemic. Too often writing a column on Friday for a paper that failed to come out on Sunday, I found myself in the uncomfortable position of being grateful to Rupert Murdoch, when he broke the grip of the union bosses.

Not that he or any other boss is an attractive prospect if his workers have no choice but to obey him. There has to be a concord of management and labour, and the lesson was taught most sharply by what happened when the Nazis brought Germany to ruin. As the great German historian Golo Mann pointed out, the division between management and labour was the crack through which Hitler had got in. And when the war was over, those few labour leaders who survived the concentration camps emerged convinced that for industrial harmony the workers needed more than their rights and conditions, they needed a seat on the board.

The workers must feel that they are in on the planning for how the job is done. When Japan was being rebuilt after that same war, the workers on the production lines were rewarded for their ideas about efficiency. The idea that they should be rewarded came from American advisers who took the chance to transplant the hopes of the New Deal, free from the inflexible old capitalist orthodoxies that had hampered them at home.

A labour—management concord was the solution in Germany and Japan and one way or another it will be the solution here: it’s just slow to come. Making the slowness slower, alas, is the still lingering twin effect — weaker now but not dead yet — of a conservatism that thinks the workers are out to wreck the nation and a radicalism that would like to see the nation wrecked, as if some kind of purity could ensue if people no longer had to work for a living.

But everyone has to work for a living, except those who contrive to get paid for preaching otherwise. The trick is to support the true and essential human feeling that work, any work, if well done and properly managed, has dignity. And if it doesn’t feel like that, then the managers should be fired first, before the workers are. When new technology comes in, some workers are bound to lose their jobs, but if they have no new job to go to, then the highest managerial layer of all, which is the government, is at fault.

In the liberal democracies, and precisely because they are so productive, this conflict in the centre, about how to manage work as the nature of the work changes faster and faster because of its own success, is the main theme of all the domestic politics that matters. And like it or not, at the centre of it all, at the centre of the centre, is the worker’s right to stop work if the work has been dehumanized to the point where it is not worth doing: the right to strike.

Ideally it shouldn’t need to be exercised, and there must always be some people, of course, who are never free to do so. One of those is the Queen, but she must sometimes wish she were. You can imagine her getting a phone call from the managers of, wanting to change their name back to the Royal Navy. ‘Couldn’t you have put all that in a letter?’ she says. ‘Well, no, come to think of it, one supposes not.’


Two hundred years after the industrial revolution began to transform the world, the relationship between management and labour remains one of the permanent points of dispute in a developed society. In fact if it doesn’t have that point of dispute, it probably isn’t developed. (In undeveloped societies, it isn’t a dispute, it’s a one-sided battle.) As someone born into the industrial proletariat, I have never forsaken my solidarity with the workers, and still count myself as left wing in politics, however conservative I might be in matters of culture. But the solidarity is mainly notional, because although I work quite hard when it suits me, I have no capacity at all for working when it doesn’t suit me, which is practically the first requirement in the ability to hold down a job.

People who enjoy their work, and will therefore work night and day unless somebody stops them, have a bad tendency to look down on those who don’t enjoy their work. But on the part of those who fancy themselves to be imaginative, it’s a failure of imagination not to realize that only a few people are blessed with an all-consuming purpose that they would pursue even if they were not paid. Most people have to clock on in the morning, and live with the knowledge that their time is being used up. To make them feel that their efforts are worthwhile is the whole art of management. In the years running up to World War II, management in Britain had not been very brilliant. Strikes were frequent, and when the war started the strikes did not stop. Even in the vital aircraft factories, the workers would down tools for more pay. Churchill was outraged when he heard about it, but it was a bad failure of imagination on his part. He thought that assembling the structure of a Wellington bomber’s left aileron ought to be as satisfactory for those doing it as reading vital documents half the night was for him. But they were two different kinds of activity.

British resistance to Hitler saved the world from barbarism, but after the war it turned out that the nations who lost had learned their lessons better. The Japanese car industry, in particular, achieved an industrial-relations revolution by encouraging its assembly-line workers to participate in quality control, and rewarding them for their contribution. The result was an irresistible export drive. By the time the British car industry caught on, it had been almost wiped out. The American car industry suffered a similar humiliation, spiced by the knowledge that many of the quality-control precepts used by the Japanese had been developed by American engineers and introduced into Japan after a lost war had reduced that country to a tabula rasa on which some of the dreams of the New Deal could be made actual. The key man, W. Edwards Deming, is revered in Japan to this day. There is a statue to him, but perhaps his lasting memorial is one that not even he foresaw: the principles of quality control — be precise, keep it clean, be consistent, involve the workers — so vital to the pressed-metal industries, were even more fundamental to Japan’s initial dominance in what we now know as the electronics revolution. That’s to give the word ‘revolution’ a lot of prominence; but in the context of industry, rather than of politics, the word seems appropriate, because an industrial revolution really does change people’s lives for the better in the long run, even if, in the short run, the fate of a wage-slave might not seem sufficiently distant from that of a victim of the guillotine.