#MeToo – Rise of Workplace Militancy, ‘Identity Politics’ or Social Justice?

Who runs the world? Beyoncé says girls do but the stats say the world is run by powerful men (largely white). So, you could say behind every ‘Great’ man stands a ‘Great’ invisible woman a few steps behind. The google worldwide walk-out on Thursday 1 November 2018 of 20,000 workers (20% of its workforce) is both a class, gender and race issue (otherwise known as ‘intersectionality’). The Tech workers are protesting lawfully under the USA National Labour Relations Act 1935 that allows for collective action “employees shall have the right to … engage in … concerted activities for the purpose of … mutual aid or protection.” Their protection is afforded under the NLRA rather than the much quoted First Amendment – ‘Right to free speech’ which would not apply unless it was treatment due to State action rather than as in this case in relation to treatment by a private USA organisation that normally has the right to dismiss ‘At Will’ for any reason.

However, this won’t be the case in other countries which have laws requiring adherence to strict procedures before withdrawing labour. In any unlawful strike it would still be a major ER (Employee Relations) and PR disaster to take or threaten disciplinary action for breach of contract. In the Google case, these are prized Tech workers of both genders, middle class and largely white. If they were a bunch of black/migrant/women cleaners in an outsourced low-waged, zero-hours transactional business there is a high risk they would simply and quickly be replaced on an individual basis and get very little media attention. So, the risk of militancy, especially outside any protective legal framework is dependent on the balance of power. Workers who wish to reverse the trend of decades by now joining unions will have greater collective power to resolve issues informally. In that sense Unions are an essential part of any effective democracy. Unions (rightly for cost and alignment with their values) don’t welcome ‘deathbed conversions’ at the point workers find themselves in a dispute with their employer: you either believe in marginalised individuals having a right to social justice via collectivism or you don’t.

However, over recent decades the decline in union membership has been accompanied by an agenda of individualism rather than collectivism. The advocates of Sheryl Sandberg’s ‘lean in’ school of thought (individual empowerment) has played its part in nudging along the ideology of individualism as has our obsession with pointing to isolated ‘heroes’ be-it ‘exceptional’ figures until they’re re-examined by the latest scandal or they simply represent ‘the first, the only and the last’ of their kind to be appointed, if from a minority group. Putting the onus on under-represented individuals to change themselves to fit the status quo fails to address the structural barriers in place. No-amount of individual positive thinking can change macro policy decisions to address significant evidence of disparity for large sections of the population. A collective, sustained and multiplicity of initiatives are required along with enabled individual actions to bring about real change to everyday lived experiences. The solutions are often very simple, we just need to change who is making the decisions and treat all people as the few privileged are being treated. [See also research by Professor Kalwant Bhopal‘White Privilege’; Research by The Runnymede Trust; Daniel Dorling’s ‘Inequality and the 1%’, to name but a few]. 

Evidence of Employee Dissatisfaction and low productivity:

Recently, I was speaking to a highly educated, talented but lowly paid young woman experiencing systematic bullying and under-utilisation by her line manager in the publishing world. She felt her only option was to continue to suffer in silence or leave as soon as her job-hunting efforts yielded a better line manager and prospects for salary and professional growth. Her sense of powerlessness and suppression of her human potential was deeply saddening.

The young woman said she did not even know how to begin to draft a grievance letter or have the confidence to raise the issue informally with anyone in a position of authority. Nor was there was any reference to independent mediation within the organisation, which can work when used appropriately and in a timely way. She was then shocked to be corrected by me on her right to join a union. A co-worker had incorrectly told her there was no point in raising a grievance unless she had the support of a union to represent her at any grievance hearing because,“They don’t recognise unions here!” and the long serving line manager would be believed over her. We have seen numerous examples of individuals who complain of sexual harassment, racial discrimination or bullying to be told at the outset it’s a case of one person’s word over another, more powerful. This is often even before any rigorous, fair, independent and transparent investigation has been commissioned.

In the case study example, being unsupported in raising her concerns was her biggest fear in case it made the bullying worse resulting in either a psychological breakdown or being dismissed for an invented case of poor performance or redundancy. She was unaware under UK employment law, there needs to be no Union Recognition Agreement in place with the employer for an individual to be a member of any registered union and have the legal right for her Union Representative accompany her and advise her on her grievance. She did not feel she could go to HR as they were only ever seen talking to management and otherwise kept to themselves on the upper floors of the building. Clearly, fear, ignorance and a remote HR department combined to reinforce the existing power imbalances. Suffering in silence or voting with your feet are not uncommon ways out for such individuals.

Research suggests that employee disengagement costs the UK economy £340 billion annually, bad leadership is eroding UK productivity (Hay Group now Korn Ferry).With 49% of workers citing poor management as the main reason they’re considering looking for a new job. Nearly half of the UK workforce (47%) will be looking for a new job in 2019, with nearly 1 in 5 people actively searching for new job opportunities (Investors in People (IIP) report in their annual Job Exodus Survey 2018). UK workers have one of the lowest levels of job satisfaction in the world ranking sixth in an international study of 23,000 employees across eight countries (Robert Half ‘It’s Time We All Work Happy®: The Secrets of the Happiest Companies and Employees – June 2017).

Case of ‘Cobbler’s Children’: ‘Do as I say not do as I do’Collective organising, some refuse to see is what big enterprises, the wealthy 1% and privileged already successfully do by political funding, lobbying, networking and donations to prestigious ‘Think Tank’s and Universities and Leadership Institutes. All this helps to shape the cult of leadership and management thinking to influence public policy to support a unitary management perspective and the ‘L’Oreal’ syndrome (because I’m worth it) as to who should be at the top of the food chain. Professional enablers are only too happy to assist them (see leaking of ‘Panama’ and ‘Paradise Papers’ regarding offshoring of wealth to illustrate how the system is ‘gamed’ to favour the few). The richest one per cent now owns more than half the world’s wealth, according a Credit Suisse report. The total wealth in the world grew by 6 percent over the past 12 months to $280 trillion, Credit Suisse reported (December 2017). Yet despite this, the rest of the population gets consistently told there is no money for essential public services that corporations and wealthy 1% rely on to provide compliant workforces.

Take also the case of Glasgow’s c600 male Refuse workers going out on strike (23 October 2018) in support of a decade-old Equal pay claim by 8,000 mostly female cleaners estimated to be worth £1bn (Cleaners in other sectors are often low paid working-class women and BME’s – Black, Minority Ethnic). Or, even the case of the Greenwich Council Cleaner who spotted a shortfall in her wages but found her complaint was not taken seriously by her supervisors saying, she “kept on at the union”to fight the case. “I never gave up” says Julie, 52, who has cleaned South Rise Primary in Plumstead, Greenwich, since 2003. She earned £722 a month as a part-timer when she spotted the shortfall, saying: “£35 a month is quite a lot of money to lose and the thing is, with school staff, a lot of them have young kids; she knew it was wrong” It took her 5 years to get a settlement for herself and her 473 colleagues back dated to 2012 (£4m). The pay formula will now apply to 5,000 staff as the settlement has been agreed ahead of the Employment Tribunal claim being heard. [BBC News – 1 November 2018]

As the saying goes, ‘Where there is muck there is profit’. So, before anyone dismisses this as ‘Identity politics’, just remember there is little difference between us as humans; we have common human desires to live fulfilling lives in reasonable safety, comfort and to be paid a reasonable wage for our labour. Equally, we all have our flaws so apologies there is no ‘Master Race’, we all need a little help to continue to evolve into our better-selves. However, our multiple identities are important in that they determine a material difference in how we are treated by those in positions of privilege and power over resources (knowledge via education, finance, influence through who we network with, access to health, employment, legal rights, etc). Identity is essentially about social justice and access to resources.

Google’s tactic of appearing to support the demands of its workers publicly to address concerns about the culture of bullying and sexual harassment could be viewed as the beginning of serious change. However, it and other technology companies have been slow to come to the table of equality and ‘plenty for all’. This is despite being hailed as a new industry, it has for too long embraced traditional ways of thinking and behaving. Further, the worker demands for a ‘better workplace’ is not confined to the culture but also to wider material issues of racial and gender representation, pay parity and progression to decision making and influencing roles. Without a system of elected, independent and trained representatives with access to their own legal advisers and resources to engage in meaningful negotiations, all this ‘show of muscle’ does is create short-term window dressing for any management discussions to be held behind closed doors within the leadership team and its Legal/HR advisors. Access to dignity and equal pay is not a gift to be bestowed by privileged leadership but a right enshrined in a fair society which our current political system is failing to deliver whilst rewarding leadership for failure.

What our leadership systematically continues to do is fail to grasp in the context of serial corporate scandals and footballer salaries for CEO’s/Board Members, the effect this has on diminishing trust in our leadership and institutions designed to regulate them. We are evidencing rising levels of worker discontent and negative impact on productivity from unexpected categories of workers. These workers in the past would never have deemed they had an ounce of militancy or appetite for public protest in them, so distant are they from lived experiences of hard-won rights of earlier generations. These rights cannot be taken for granted and forever do we need to remain vigilant to their removal by stealth.

The ways in which workers are choosing to amplify their concerns in an age of social media means discontent is reaching the ears of its customer and investor base despite accusations of ‘fake news’ being bandied about like confetti to mis-direct the very people who have most to gain from a review of the current order. People are asking “Do I want to buy this product or service, thereby giving my tacit approval of their methods”; As well asking in the context of environmental concerns “Who said I even need this product?”

In the age of Corporate Mission statements and the importance of aligning yourself to a wider social purpose, platitudes such as ‘’Don’t Be Evil’ and ‘A company’s most valuable asset is its employees’ and the like, ring like hollow propaganda slogans that no Employee Satisfaction Survey report with its ‘socially desirable’ responses or symbolic tokens of gestures like ‘Dress down Friday’, the shiny unused pool table in the corner, etc. can mask the corrosive sub-cultures that exist in pockets of all organisations – public, private or charities.

Have we not had enough banal slogans from the Trump administration and the resulting Brexit campaign arising from the UK’s EU Referendum? Have we not had enough of the ‘Accidental Manager’ fed on a diet off management slogans? (Chartered Management Institute (CMI): Are ‘Accidental Managers’ draining productivity? – September 2017)

Have we not had enough of the double-standards applied to those in positions of privilege versus the rest? Let’s just have simple consistency of treatment, honest facts and transparency without the spin.

[This is an opinion piece representing the author’s views alone]

#MeToo #RespectAtWork #SexualHarassment #Racism #Inequality #EqualPay #Brexit #Trump #EURef #AccidentalManager #CMI #EmployeeEngagement #Unions #HR #BetterWork #Dignity #Productivity #FakeNews #CustomerSatisfaction #EmployeeSurveys #IdentityPolitics #EthnicityPayGap

© Respect at Work Limited

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