Ikenna Azụbụike Ọnwụnabọnze reports on the antiracist action of Royal Mail workers in the Bootle and Seaforth Delivery Office and reflects on the necessity of collective action as the CWU announced the result of its ballot for a strike action yesterday.
First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out; because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out; because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out; because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me, and there was no one left to speak for me.
I suppose, like any other poem, different kinds of interpretation can be given to Martin Niemöller’s poem, titled: ‘When They Came for Me’. But for me, it is one that speaks to the diversity and yet the collectiveness to our shared humanity. It speaks to the importance of collective action in our struggle to make the world a fairer place – be it the fight against racism, for gender equality, or LGBTQ rights. Ultimately, it speaks to what we can accomplish if we stand together – my sister, hold my hand; my brother, I got your back. This has become especially meaningful in light of the nearly unequivocal support for strike action, and the antiracist solidarity walkout of Royal Mail workers earlier in the month.
The roaring success of the CWU ballot
Of the 75.9% turnout, 97.1% voted ‘Yes’ for industrial action in the recent ballot, giving the CWU a stronger position in their fight for the continuous protection of its members’ employment terms and condition and the 503-year-old business at large.
The result put the Tory government and their Trade Union Act to shame, as it smashed its 50% turnout threshold by 25.9%.
In a similar vein, the turnout for the Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) Regulations (TUPE) that would have given Rico Back the power to break Parcelforce out of Royal Mail Group and possibly continuing along the same line for other parts of the business, smashed the record by 19.4%, delivering a 94.6% ‘Yes’ vote.
It is an unequivocal statement that the workers have collectively lost all confidence in Rico Back’s management as the result of the vote is, according to the CWU General Secretary, Dave Ward ‘a damning indictment on the way [Back and his team] are running the business’ and the plans they have for the future of Royal Mail.
This is a clear message to Rico Back and his team that breaking up of Royal Mail Group is a ‘plan we are not going to accept under any circumstance’ said Ward. And that the Four Pillar Agreement, every aspect of it, must be honoured.
It is also a call for the senior management of Royal Mail and other stakeholders to reassess their commitment to the future of Royal Mail Group and in whose able hands the organisation’s future will be better secured.
Recent events, such as crashing out of the FTSE 100, and the unprecedented drop of the share price since it was floated in 2013, are strong indications of Rico Back’s strength and knowledge of the business. It proved Back’s critics right of his incompetence while validating the employees’ fear of an uncertain future of the business under him.
Antiracist solidarity in Bootle
When I read about our colleagues in Bootle and Seaforth Delivery Office (DO) who set up a picket line to protest against a racist remark directed towards a Muslim colleague, my spirit was further uplifted.
This colleague was said to have gone home on compassionate leave following a question put forward by a work area manager after assigning him a task. The manager was alleged to have asked the colleague ‘do you like women?’, a question that feeds into a negative stereotype that Muslim men are misogynists and one that is highly inappropriate and unprofessional.
A manager in any organisation is supposed to have a modicum, at the very least, of understanding about the diversity of people in the workplace, at least workers would reasonably expect. They are expected to acknowledge these differences and put aside their personal opinions. A workplace is also a social space where different traits and manners, identities and beliefs converge, bound by a contract to fulfil the obligations of work. That one is gay or straight, black or white, atheist, Muslim or Christian has no bearing in the way work should be performed.
As such, professionalism is nothing else but to adopt concentrated attention on the very purpose that brought people together in that shared space and act accordingly. It means to conduct oneself in a manner that shows that one is competent, reliable and capable of treating everyone else with respect. It entails putting aside all of our personal judgments and opinions about others and focusing on the very purpose that brought everyone there. While this applies to everyone, its onus rest particularly on the managers whose essential job’s requirement is possessing this understanding and interpersonal skills. When this rule of professionalism is adhered to, the performance of work and interpersonal relationship, within the context of work, becomes manageable. With this, in my opinion, the manager’s question (‘do you like women?’) to the member of staff falls short of this expected professional standard.
Speaking specifically of the Bootle and Seaforth DO’s management, their refusal to take action may be out of sheer ignorance. If at all such excuse can be accepted, it cannot be sustained beyond the first day after the staff members walked out in protest, a call for management to take immediate action. Despite staff protest, the management let the dispute to escalate beyond the particular office where this happened and into its second day. Their further move of riding the horse of guilt in accusing the staff members, who rightly took an anti-racist stand, of delaying customer’s mail, is nothing but defiant obstinance that feeds into what the employees’ trade union, CWU, has already accused the management of, ‘a culture of bullying and harassment’. The people in charge of Bootle and Seaforth office should be very ashamed of themselves. In this very case, would one be too wrong then to translate their inaction as tacit support for racism and discrimination in the workplace?
Some people might wonder why such ‘simple question’ will be seen as problematic or interpreted in a particular way. I argue that there can’t be any such spontaneous reaction without precedence, be it interpersonal relation or from a broader social context. Of course, there is always a context – even though the understanding of what transpired hasn’t been made abundantly clear, one can still extrapolate from the information provided to understand why. And since the workplace does not exist in a vacuum but within the society, stereotypes that already exist in the wider society can creep their way in. Permit me to elaborate this point with a few examples of my own experience, both in and out of the workplace.
Racism is beyond occasional ignorance
For instance, the erroneously negative association of black people and crime in the UK is pervasive. For me as a black man in the UK, it is almost as if the police will not take their eyes off me. My offence? Me, it seems. A policeman has followed me for over 3miles, from my street I drove out of only to stop me to say their reason for stopping me was because there was a burglary from the street I drove out of. If such action must be taken, having followed me for over 3miles, you would think they would have checked my reg number and be sure that I, at least, had a reason to be where I drove out of – the street where I live.
On another occasion, a policeman and a policewoman walked right into my flat sat on my couch and profiled me. Why? That there was a rape incidence somewhere around my neighbourhood. I inquired if the person they were looking for was a black man? They exchanged look and the policewoman responded ‘no.’ ‘So why are you profiling me?’, I asked. Was there any record of sexual harassment, rape or any such record on my file? Her colleague said they ‘have to do this to everyone so we know we have all ground covered’. I did not ask, but I doubt they did that to everyone in my block, let alone the entire neighbourhood. So what was my offence? Me!
To cite another incident that happened at Homebase hardware store, Craigleith, Edinburgh, where I walked in to purchase an electric chainsaw. Caught up in the multitude of choice and different prices, I start to check the displayed samples to weigh which one to go for. A sales assistant came to ask if I needed assistance, I thanked him and said ‘I am trying to decide on which one I can afford. But thanks anyway.’ Shortly after he came back again and asked the same question. I told him I am okay and would let him know if I need his help. Not long after this, he came back, for the third time, and asked me the exact same question. I looked him in the eye for a few seconds and looked away, offering no response. He stood there; I ignored him and continued weighing the differences of the chainsaw boxes and which one to go for. Then in a sterner voice, he asked me again ‘I am asking if you need any help.’ I saw no need in responding to this. He left and came back with who I assumed was the store manager. His response following my complaint was the sales assistant did not do anything wrong and that he knew because ‘[He] was watching you on the CCTV.’
However, I was not sure how to react. Whether to buy the item or not. The dilemma then was this: if I walk away from there the indifferent onlookers might jump to a wrong conclusion, giving more impetus to the existing stereotype. If I proceed to buying the item, I will definitely not feel good. With my powerlessness, I cupped my head in embarrassment and defeat and proceeded, without saying another word, to the checkout counter, paid for the chainsaw and left.
In my earlier years working with Royal Mail, a manager has walked up to me while I was putting a headphone in my pocket and demanded I show him what I had in my hand. This happened on two different occasions by the same manager. Years later, another colleague, of the same extraction as myself, complained the exact same thing to me; of being harassed in the same manner by the exact same manager. This colleague demanded apologies from him but none came.
These very incidences happened under the unblinking gaze of myriads of CCTV, of different shapes and sizes positioned strategically to monitor different angles and direction in the mail centre. All of that for some reason weren’t enough, this individual took it upon himself to ‘keep a watchful eye’ on us. As a novice then in the business, and new to the country, I had at the time wondered if that was how the place operated. Perhaps a random check of some sort to ensure security. But once, twice? I did wonder at the time whether this individual had any shame for his actions or remorse, no matter how minute. The number of times this incident repeated itself speaks to that.
When this colleague related this issue to me, I felt incredibly guilty for not addressing the issue when it happened to me. If I had, and hopefully it got properly dealt with, such treatment of staff will, arguably, not repeat itself again. But I regrettably did not. I am sure that my colleague and I are not alone in these experiences, neither is this particular individual the only person who behaves this way.
I am not cataloguing these experiences just for the sake of it or using this as an opportunity to share my experiences. These are just a few examples to buttress my point that the Bootle case with the manager cannot be treated in isolation, but must be viewed from the broader context. The people on the receiving end of these stereotypes are left struggling daily to distance themselves from it.
Racism is cruel. What people feel in the face of these treatments, in most cases, is powerlessness. I have learnt my own lesson of not keeping quiet; to confront any such action forthwith. I will urge the entire management of Royal Mail, too, to be decisive in their action and not merely pay lip service to the fight against racism and harassment. I recommend if it is not already in existence, that they set up an advisory board on these issues that will offer immediate advice following a due assessment of such incidence. We must continue to root out such ideas and work together to make the workplace a safe and inclusive environment for everyone.
I applaud greatly our colleagues who stood up firmly and decisively against the inaction of the Bootle and Seaforth DO’s management; the local CWU representatives, too, for their support. Because to fight racism and other workplace mistreatment, we must be reaching out and supporting each other in collective resistance – so that ‘when they come’ for you, there will be someone there to speak for you.