Ghosts of the Past Return…

I’m going to tell a tale that I had hoped would never need retelling. It involves the history of right wing Conservative government, Trade Union efforts to protect workers rights and jobs, alongside opportunistic management hoping to cash in on the situation. You may ask “What has prompted this unusual post from me?” Today I saw a tweet from my Union confirming that for the first time since 1987, there would be a national strike of Telecoms workers.

Let me underline the time line here – first strike since 1987! That ought to tell something straight away. Contrary to what most of the press and, especially the likes of the Daily Mail and The Express, want you to believe – Most Trade Unions do not seek strife. I can remember lots of years from 1972 through to when I retired in 2017 when both the union and the management politely rattled sabres in early discussions before seeking a deal that both looked after the rights and pay of the workers and also allowed the company to move forward and gain more earnings for shareholders. Of course, back in 1972, my company was actually a publicly owned company – Post Office Telecommunications. That fact should not influence what I have to say although it’s probably fair to attribute the relative peace and calm in the early years to a certain ‘Civil Service’ approach to a nationally owned company.

Then, after a long fought battle in which the case was well made for keeping The Royal Mail and British Telecommunications as national companies, privatisation was carried out by the Conservative government in 1984 – With money to be made and the public duped into buying something they already owned, the city loved it because the majority of the new shareholders sold their shares immediately for a short lived pittance πŸ˜’ The workers were also offered shares as part of the deal – some refused to take them on principle but I took mine because sometimes, the best way to fight is to take advantage of an enemies weakness. I still have them. I viewed it as a battle lost in an ongoing war.

1987 was a year when a Conservative landslide emboldened managers all over the UK. The battles with the Miners in 1984-85 where the police were widely used as political pawns by a rampant Conservative government made them feel that they could do whatever they liked to crush their employees. So, when the Union entered into the annual pay-bargaining with BT management that year, they did so using the usual initial tactic of an overtime ban. It’s intended to limit the effect of the action so customers are unlikely to be affected in the short term. That’s part of the Union playbook. In these industrial dispute situations, both the Union and the Management have playbooks that take them through escalations until they reach a level of pain that one or the other can’t sustain – at which point an agreement is struck. Both the Union and the Management usually know each other’s playbooks pretty well!

I cannot recall a point in all of the period from when I joined the company until 1987 when anything went beyond an overtime ban and, possibly, a couple of token 1-day strikes with an associated march to advertise our grievance. We even went through a protracted period of fighting for reduced hours in that period. My memory may be a little lacking but I can certainly not recall any extended periods of industrial action by us. As an aside and to illustrate what sort of union we were then, a Policeman shepherding one of our marches confided that he loved walking with us because there was never any trouble! I believe the CWU is still the same ‘negotiate first’ union that it has always been.

1987 was a watershed moment. When the Union, as usual, announced an overtime ban, the management decided to throw the playbook out of the window. The following morning, as we turned up for work, we were met by managers at each building presenting us with a document to sign before we would be allowed in. The basic tenet of the document was ‘Work as instructed or hand in your passcards’. It was a huge mistake by the management! That day I saw members who I would have had to argue into taking industrial action, throwing their passcards on the table in disgust and walking out of the building. By the end of the morning it was a huge problem, for the Union of all people – I can remember one of the senior London Officers saying “We’ve got a Tiger by the tail – How do we control it?”

This Strike – it was never a strike in reality although the press liked to call it that – Was a management inspired lock out that ground on for 3 weeks until the management and the union were able to mend the fences that were broken by the arrogant management behaviour at the start. The management got some improved flexibility of hours in customer facing roles. The union got reduced working hours for the vast majority of members with many getting a 9 day fortnight.

Looking back, it was an absolute tragedy for all the staff who found themselves locked out. Many had mortgages and young children. But they stood firm against a despicable act by management, many of whom subsequently were quietly shuffled out of their jobs – the price of failure?

To put some perspective on the aftermath of those events. Both sides looked over the edge of the precipice. Neither liked what they saw. It resulted in 35 years of relative peace with sensible approaches taken by the Management and the Union to resolve disagreements. I guess it should come as no surprise that, when we have another rampant right wing Conservative government, once more my Union finds itself forced into an industrial action situation 😟

If you don’t agree with my thoughts on this, that’s your prerogative. I’ve told it as I saw it from the inside. I just wish we weren’t going through this again!

2 Comments

  1. I can really hear what you’re describing and your current concerns, Martin. We are a “union” household, as my husband was the local chairman (Los Angeles) of the United Transportation Union and held his position for around 30 years. Railroads are federally prohibited from striking, as labor must be given permission to strike. So negotiations were always ongoing for one thing or another, but often cooperation from both positions was evident. I really feel for you! I feel like everywhere we turn there are forces committed to breeding chaos. It seems there are forces that thrive on it, actually. The undoing of work that has been done to cultivate cooperation is a reason to be very bothered. You have to wonder where it ends. This was a very interesting read, Martin. Thank you.

    1. Fortunately I’m only watching from the side lines this time Debra . But as a retired member I’ve seen this building up over the last couple of years πŸ™„ Industrial action is always a last resort. Often it achieves little but sometimes it is a catalyst for changes that reverberate across the national workforce. The working hours reduction we achieved opened the door for other workers to get their hours reduced. At the time many people still worked a 48 hour week. We had driven our hours down to 40 over time but this saw our working week reduced to 36 hours – usually worked as a 5 day-4 day bi-weekly pattern. One amusing thing was that the day off every other week was recorded on our timesheets as Non-Scheduled Duty – the intimation being that we were on duty but not required to be at work. It always struck me as an attempt by the management to brush our hours win under the carpet so it wouldn’t be noticed πŸ˜… The guys called it a Scheduled Day Off and eventually it came to be recorded as an SDO instead! All ancient history now.

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