A long time ago in a faraway land, a friend mentioned a young colleague’s name for promotion, citing this person’s problem-solving abilities and agreeable attitude.
“But he’s a clock watcher,” his boss said, closing the discussion right there (implying by a terse choice of words that my friend was a poor judge of character).
The term “clock watcher” cuts both ways in industrial relations circa 2015. The management clock watcher keeps a close tally on when employees arrive and leave, how long they take for lunch and what they get up to in working hours. The latter is much to do with monitoring at-work internet use and whether or not employees are using Facebook and Twitter for productivity, or sharing pictures of the cat stalking the goldfish.
The worker bee clock watcher is said to be showing a lack of interest in the job by watching the time closely, less he/she miss the 5.14pm bus. These are the workers said to take an hour to complete a task the ambitious, slightly manic worker bee completes in 20 minutes. But not all clock watchers deserve the derogatory tags – malingerer, idler, slacker, do-nothing or goldbricker.
Some might be in the wrong job, out of their depth, bored, dealing with personal issues or just worried about their job security, hence the punctilious, work-to-rule approach.
Numbers tell the story
As you can tell, I like numbers, because they so often tell a story. I may have misled you a little last week, however, using the now-redundant British definition of a billion to emphasise the parlous state of affairs in Greece. But I usually get it right.
The number that got my attention in the Sydney Morning Herald’s Good Weekend was that 51% of Australian workers were members of a union in 1976. Forty years later, the proportion of workers in unions is just 17%. The young people from my work life I keep in touch with are usually on contracts, the terms of which tend to favour the employer. As a result, those on contracts know when they are due to expire, and make sure they have something else lined up in case the contract is not renewed.
So what happened to the 40-hour week, the fair boss and the loyal worker; a time when in order to sack someone, you needed a reason, rather than just not renewing a contract?
First we need to roll back to the mid-1980s and the Wapping Dispute in the UK, when Rupert Murdoch broke the back of the printers’ union and revolutionised newspaper production. In the process, News International sacked 5,500 workers who had voted to go on strike and consequently set off a year-long industrial dispute. (The journalists and others who refused to go to Wapping became known as the refuseniks).
This happened in the same decade Margaret Thatcher introduced tough legislation to limit union powers. If you want to delve into the history of this, some hard core unionists maintain their rage by keeping an archive on what Wapping was about, how it unfolded, who won and lost and where we are today.
The old school printing and compositing trades were always going to get run over by technology. You could see it coming in the early 1980s as newspapers began phasing out the old system of creating news (telex, typewriters, hand-subbing, and “hot metal” typesetting and compositing). New graduates took to the “new” system, cumbersome word processors (see photo) linked to photo typesetting. Prior to that, the job called for someone who could make up type using lead slugs produced on a linotype machine. If you visit The Courier-Mail building in Brisbane, there is one of these machines and the last front page produced by this method on display in the lobby.
Printers had their own union and stern rules about demarcation. Technology and attitudes changed and Wapping allowed it to change quickly. Lead composition and photo typesetting were replaced by computerised news production and pagination, where journalists and sub-editors controlled the process at their desks.
Today’s journalists have Windows PCs, smart phones and Facebook and Twitter accounts. The modern journalist is a genuine multi-tasker − reporter, writer, editor, researcher, librarian and secretary all rolled into one, feverishly writing stories for tomorrow’s print edition and the online edition, while doing their own PR by building a profile on social media. Journalism has always been one of those jobs where it is hard to say “quittin’ time”. There’s always one last phone call to confirm the last piece of information so you can file tomorrow’s story and catch the 7.30 train. Some jobs are just like that and some workers always work until the job is done. I think it used to be called conscientiousness.
Nevertheless, our ancestors fought for a 40-hour week; an eight hour day with a lunch break and morning and afternoon tea breaks.
The 40-hour week was enshrined in international law by the early to mid-20th century, ridding industrial Britain’s factories of its 10 to 16 hour days and banning the use of child labour.
People were attuned to the 40-hour week in the 1960s and 1970s. If you are my age you probably miss those days – the chance to go for a walk in the fresh air at lunch time, eat a pie and a cream bun in the park and head back in time for a quick game of table tennis.
And don’t even say the word ‘intern’
The “flexible” work week came about, I suspect, because of the recession we had to have in 1991 and 16 years later the GFC. Suddenly, Australians could not take their jobs for granted. People starting working longer days, showing willing, you know? Eating lunch at the desk and going to seminars (in their own time) with titles like Work Smarter, Not Harder.
Big listed companies started hiring consultants from the US who came into perfectly sound Australian companies with a chainsaw and showed the board of directors how the same work could be done with 25% fewer people.
In 1992 Paul Keating introduced compulsory superannuation, so that wage increases sought by unions became rolled into employer-funded savings for their future. Other changes which stripped unions of power and relevance included the push to amalgamate unions and the Secondary Boycott legislation which effectively banned trade union members from going on ‘sympathy’ strikes.
One of my former work mates used to refer to industrial relations in these times as “getting my enterprise for a bargain”.
The OECD Better Lives Index observed last year that 21% of Australian men work 50 or more hours per week (compared to 6% of women). Corporate consultants will tell you that many executives routinely work 80 hours a week, driven perhaps by their employer’s need for more productivity in these tight economic times.
The only weapon left in the workers’ arsenal, probably, is to work to rule. If yours is an unhappy shop and you think your employer is getting your enterprise for a bargain, just slow down and work strictly to the legal conditions of your award/contract. Watch the clock, in other words.