Workplace bullying: winning respect at work

Submitted by Matthew on 14 January, 2010 - 11:23 Author: Ira Berkovic

“Work is, by its very nature, about violence — to the spirit as well as to the body... It is, above all (or beneath all), about daily humiliations. To survive the day is triumph enough for the walking wounded among the great many of us.” Studs Terkel.

Bosses have always used harsh discipline and authoritarian measures to keep their workers in line. In a context of economic crisis, management bullying has intensified as bosses claim that harsher sickness and absence policies, staff cuts and workload increases are all necessary parts of the belt-tightening demanded by the “new austerity”. What is “bullying” and how can we fight back?

A National Union of Journalists study estimates that 25% of adult workers have been bullied within the last five years. A University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology study undertaken earlier this decade found that 11% of workers had been bullied within the last six months. Clearly it is a big, widely perceived problem, and for this reason alone, it is worth looking at in more detail.

Some managers are pleasant and friendly. Some workplaces, often thanks to years of trade-union effort, are fairly civilised. But the capitalist system of production for profit breeds bullying like a swamp breeds plague.

However much the manager wants to be decent, her or his job is always to grind enough out of workers to yield the company a competitive profit. The manager may be bullied herself or himself to keep them to that priority. If the company doesn ‘t want to make profit a priority, then sooner or later capitalist competition will force it to do that.

The public services are being pulled into line with private-sector norms by contracting-out and by deliberate government moves to introduce private-business-type management into them.

Management bullying may take the form of a systematic clampdown, planned from the top; or of seemingly quirky and individual bossiness.

What exactly does “bullying” cover?

While definitions vary across different organisations, most agree that workplace bullying can involve verbal or physical abuse or intimidation used by employers against workers, as well as subtler forms such as the setting of unattainable targets and the placing of unreasonable expectations. Bullying can be used to create an atmosphere of fear and demoralisation in a workplace, against which workers feel powerless to speak out.

But we are not powerless. While establishment thinking tells us that bullying is an individual issue to be dealt with one-on-one, through “official” channels or even through litigation, we believe that — like all workplace issues — bullying is a class question and should be fought collectively.

Workers ‘ Liberty members in various trade unions are discussing the possibility of launching a cross-union campaign to equip workers with the ideas and tactics to stand up to the bosses ‘ clampdown.

The solidarity of workers across sectors, unions and industries — as well, crucially, as solidarity within a workplace — is vital. As one trade union activist involved in a successful workers ‘ campaign against bullying in East London put it, “the campaign was built through lots and lots of meetings. There was never any doubt from membership that it was a collective issue. Even the people who weren ‘t directly affected by the bullying were firmly behind it. They wanted to stand up for their colleagues. There was a very solidaristic atmosphere, which was difficult for [our bosses] to understand. They ‘d never encountered that before.”

Unfortunately, not all trade unions see it that way. Public sector union Unison ‘s “Bully Busters” campaign focuses almost entirely on winning compensation for union members once they’ve already been forced out of their jobs due to bullying. But to beat authoritarian bosses and management clampdowns, collective organisation and resistance needs to take place right where the problem is; in the workplace. And if trade unionists are worried that standing up to bullying bosses might leave their unions isolated in a given workplace, they should take heart. The same east London worker:

“The bullying wasn’t just about individual managers being unpleasant to individual members of staff. It was a specific tactic used by management to drive out the longer-serving, better unionised staff. Unfortunately for them, though, it had the opposite effect; we started the dispute with 33 union members and ended up with 54. All the members of other unions joined our union because they could see we were the ones prepared to stand up to management.”

A cross-union campaign to stand up to the bosses ‘ clampdown could provide workers with the confidence they need to resist management bullying, as well as putting in place networks of workplace activists that could be mobilised to stand up to other elements the bosses ‘ attempts to make workers pay for their crisis.

Walthamstow Academy: when workers stood up to bullying bosses

In March 2009, a two year-long campaign against management bullying at Walthamstow Academy resulted in a strike ballot.

As a leading NUT activist put it in a press release at the time, “there have been complaints from members [about management bullying] for a long period. We have had many meetings at the school, conducted surveys, engaged the employers, the United Learning Trust, in many discussions, both at the school and at their HQ in London. The result has been that the NUT has grown from 35 members at McEntee [the name of the school prior to it becoming an Academy] to 52 members now.

“Whatever we tried, the complaints from members about bullying emanating from the management style of the head teacher continued. No one should underestimate the devastating effect that a bullying head teacher can have on individual staff. Threats of procedure, criticism, victimisation, and recrimination destroy confidence ,and without confidence performance declines and stress related illness beckons.”

Despite constant time-wasting and delaying tactics from management, the workers in the school maintained their commitment to dealing with the issue collectively at workplace level rather than through atomising processes of arbitration and tribunal.

Before the strike took place, the headteacher resigned her post and the management offered the NUT a resolution to the situation that the union felt satisfactorily addresses the problem. Their experience shows that workers are at their strongest when they act collectively, and that even the threat of collective workplace action can make it very clear to a bullying boss that they are not welcome in a workplace.

We need a national rank-and-file campaign

The London Transport Region of the transport union, the RMT, has policy on this issue:

"In many workplaces, whether private companies or public services, employers are persecuting workers with increasing harshness. Employers are doing this through:

• strict and punitive sickness absence policies;

• petty discipline clampdowns;

• cutting staffing levels and increasing workload;

• “performance management” and numerous targets which are arbitrary and/or very hard to achieve;

• constant pressure, scrutiny and micro-management;

• harassment and discrimination.

This constitutes management bullying of workers, and along with matters such as pay, hours and pensions, is a major issue for workers.

Workers facing this bullying need the support of strong trade union organisation. We want to give workers effective representation and to boost their confidence to stand up for themselves. We also want to encourage and support workers in fighting back, and to raise the profile of this important issue. To do this, we need a national, cross-industry, rank-and-file-led campaign to resist management bullying.

We therefore resolve to initiate such a campaign on a broad basis, linking up trade unionists from different industries, unions and geographical areas. We ask union branches and other rank-and-file bodies to sign up to this call. The signatories are committed to supporting each others ‘ work on this issue, and to working together to provide information, resources, training, events and actions to stop management bullying."

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