Friday, February 12, 2010

Gone postal

'Roy Mayall', the pseudonymous postie who has been justly laying into an atrocious C4 Dispatches documentary, has a very interesting article in this week's Socialist Worker. You might recall him for some of his acuminous prose during the recent strikes, and he now runs a blog called - well, you could guess couldn't you? - Going Postal. He has been a wonderful guide to the machinations of Royal Mail management, and the consequent breakdown of industrial relations within the postal system. The article concerns his popular new book, Dear Granny Smith, which is an attack on the 'modernisation' procedures being driven through by management, and by the government, and the ensuing culture of overwork, bullying, stress, casualisation and poorer performance that results. I think the issue is something that every working person is confronted with. Consider this passage, for example:

Thirty years ago being a postman was one of the best jobs in the world. You were up at the crack of dawn, out in the fresh air, someone that everyone knew and recognised, serving a responsible role within the community, not only as the carrier of mail, but as a kind of watchman for the health of the community too. Someone who always knew what was going on.

These days the job is all relentless pressure, to work harder and faster, to do more duties, to carry more weight. No one has time for community values any more.

A new breed of bullying manager has entered the workplace, arbitrary and aggressive, imposing the new work rates with sadistic pleasure.

All of the joy has gone out of the job.

Though most workers are probably unable to look back to such Halcyon days, the trend of increasing regimentation, bullying, bigger workloads and absolutely despicable, overbearing managers is something everyone faces. A few years ago, I worked for a call centre that was suffering from low returns that was in large part due to poor equipment. Poor equipment meant fewer successful calls, and more chances of failing to deliver on a contract. It meant losing business. The company attempted to get to grips with the situation not by investing in equipment, which would have been costly, but by regimenting work more thoroughly, which promised to raise more money by - in the marxist lexicon - intensifying the rate of exploitation. The company put in place a number of managers at various levels to do this. They did their best to come up with things that workers commonly did that they believed hindered productivity, and drew up a list of rules, including the following:

If you are more than five minutes late for your shift without calling then you will be sent home ... [Employees] who are constantly late as well as those who cancel and no show regularly will no longer be booked for work ... [Employees] should not be leaving their station unless it is break time. If for any reason you do need to get up from your terminal please let your Supervisor know the reason you need to leave your desk [note - this meant you had to ask to go the toilet] ... Mobile Phones must be switched off while you are working. If your phone rings while you are working you will be sent home and not paid for the rest of the shift ... eating is not permitted while you are working, if you are caught eating then you will be sent home and not paid for the rest of the shift.... Please make sure you sit in the seat that has been allocated to you. This is on the shift plan. If you need to move for any reason please check this with your Supervisor first.... You must not chat to other Interviewers between calls. You should be concentrating on the next call you make and not distracting yourself and others talking to other people....

And so, predictably, on. I have seen similar documents in almost every company I've worked in, though in most cases the new dispensation was successfully resisted. The people who actually came up with this shit, I should point out, were largely self-important supervisors who earned only slightly more than those making calls, but whose relative autonomy and authority gave them an exaggerated sense of their importance. They were selected for such qualities, because management systematically weeded out those they regarded as being too 'soft' from managerial roles. At any rate, this sort of thing was possible because call centres are like most private sector companies in being unorganised, and like many service sector companies in relying disproportionately on young, temporary and casual staff. Ideally, such companies would seek the discipline and performance of a full-time crew, with the flexibility and pay structure of a temp crew. This is a model of working that has spread through substantial sectors of private sector employment, and it is taking hold in parts of the public sector, as the instance of the Royal Mail demonstrates, and it is being accomplished through a series of set-piece battles with organised labour.

This is part of a conjunctural process that needs to be understood. There used to reasonable amount of research done into the capitalist work cycle. We have a legacy of classic texts such as Harry Braverman's Labour and Monopoly Capital, and Richard Pfeffer's Working for Capitalism, the latter building on the insights of the former. They investigated the rhythms of the working day; the de-skilling of workers and the way in which they are carefully denied an understanding of how their role fits into the broader production process; the narrow margin for controlling what one does and how one does it; the Sisyphean repetitiveness of the work; the minor moments of accomplishment puncuating the daily grind; the micro-aggressions of managers; the openly racist way in which jobs are allocated, etc.. I could be wrong, but I think all we've had lately is the anecdotal musings of a rich, middlebrow philosopher named Alain de Botton. We hear an awful lot about consumption, but next to nothing serious about labour. This is an accomplishment of neoliberal ideology, and it is perverse. We live in an era in which work has been intensified, and management are all the more arbitrary and abusive because those are the qualities that the bosses need. We have a situation where workers are constantly refusing to take sick leave because of the well-grounded fear that they will be penalised for it. We have management regularly driving staff to suicide - this happens quite a lot in Royal Mail, by the way. France Telecom isn't necessarily the outlier that people might assume it to be. The process of de-skilling labour, breaking it up into isolated and repetitive tasks, has been advanced into new terrains. We have young people working for free on government initiative, in the hope that this will lead to paid work. We surely need now more than ever to have detailed, reliable studies of working under capitalism, the activity that most of humanity spends most of its waking life doing.