She already had tears in her eyes as she rose to explain to us what was going to happen next. The day before we had walked out an hour early as a show of solidarity to fellow workers who had been suspended. So now we had to sign a form ensuring we would not do that again. It was Anne’s job to explain this and get us to sign. We already knew we would not sign and so did she. We already knew the consequences of not signing and so did she. And so the puppet show began…
Anne was my manager’s manager, a proud, professional woman who had served the Post Office/BT loyally for many years. I was an ambitious, optimistic 22 year-old Telo (Telecom Officer) who thrived on the discipline and rigour of office life and who had been saved from the wilderness by a job offer from BT after failing badly in education three years earlier. So how had it come to this?
My heart heavy, eyes already full of tears just waiting for the right trigger to flow, I walked into Anne’s office and sat down opposite her. The piece of paper and a pen sat expectantly on the table between us. Anne, looking down, started to recite the script prepared by someone from Head Office who would never actually have to say the words themselves. I felt numb, like time had stopped and I was suspended in thick cotton wool. And then she looked up and our eyes met. I don’t know who started but we were both in floods of tears.
Amazingly the puppet show continued. Anne completed her script and offered me the paper to sign. I replied, as instructed by my union, that the paper represented a breach of my rights and I could not sign. All the time the words we spoke were interspersed with the sights and sounds of two traumatised people who were both strong enough to play their part and not strong enough to stop the action. Anne explained the consequences of not signing (which I already knew, and which she knew I knew) and I confirmed I would not sign.
The show finished with me handing in my pass card and standing to leave. We hugged (not part of the script) and I didn’t want to let go. When we did finally separate Anne gave me a look that I will never forget, a look that simply said ‘sorry’.
The following three weeks were the worst of my thirty-two years in full-time work. According to the management I (along with thousands of others) was suspended for failing to comply with a management instruction. According to my union I was exercising my right to withdraw my labour as part of an industrial dispute. Although from memory, when it suited them, both sides seemed to adopt the other’s narrative.
In terms of a bigger picture, according to management this was part of a necessary policy to create a more flexible workforce now that BT was operating in the private sector. According to the union this was part of a concerted, politically orchestrated plot to crush unions in the UK. None of that mattered much to me. I was empty, sad, depressed even. That I found myself in this position without seeming to have any control over my circumstances, and now waiting at home very day relying on people I’d never met to get out of the trenches they had dug and actually engage in adult conversation so that I could get back to work. And every day seemed to take us further away from that possibility. I didn’t know it would be three weeks (I could have coped better if I’d known the end point in advance) but when the end did come the relief was mixed with bitterness, mistrust and recriminations.
The recent junior doctor’s dispute has brought these memories flooding back. My story might have been from 1987 but I can still feel its pain today. Contained within the headline narrative I am guessing there are many stories like mine of people feeling disempowered and helpless by a process that, no matter what their personal beliefs, somehow seems to be taking place out of their reach. Today social media might provide a way for some of those stories to be heard, and it is certainly being used by activists on both sides, but I’m guessing there are still thousands of people who, like me, feel like puppets.
I believe in employee representation and the theory of industrial action, as well as the history of the labour movement. But to me, particularly in the age of connection, withdrawal of labour represents an archaic symbol of failure. Failure of relationship, communication and a basic understanding and respect of each other.
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