Wednesday, 15 September 2010

Goodwill, bad faith and the politics of scapegoating

About twenty years ago (heck, doesn't time fly?) I worked at a portering firm at London's Heathrow Airport. The company was a British variant of an American concept called Skycaps. I joined Skycaps (then owned by Valet Services Ltd.) in the autumn of 1989 because I wanted to do something ordinary, using my hands, out and about, without responsibility over others and not in an office. Within a few months they offered me the post of Duty Manager which against my better judgement I accepted, returning to office-based work and supervising some 120 staff, but I am digressing from the main thrust of my story.

The history of portering at Heathrow had been an interesting one. Hitherto the British Airports Authority (BAA) had employed their own porters. They were unionised, well organised and pretty well paid for what they did. But on top of their wages, they would receive tips from the passengers whose luggage they carried. As no charge for portering was made by the airport at the time, the BAA porters would receive a tip from the large majority of their customers and in most cases would end up making considerably more in an average week from gratuities than they did in the form of wages. It is not an exaggeration to say I knew several who owned multiple homes.

As can be imagined, an element of greed set in. Many porters would make a beeline for the limousines as they turned up on the forecourt outside the terminal building and the modest car that had trundled in unnoticed behind containing the elderly or infirm passenger with their little bag would find itself unattended to and unfussed over.

In some instances passengers who declined to give a tip, or who offered one deemed to be of insufficient quantum, would be made to feel uncomfortable or even insulted.

In fact the BAA porters at Heathrow were no different in temperament to anybody else. Everyone likes to make a living and avarice is one of those negative attributes that all of us possess in some measure. Many of the porters did indeed make it their business to assist the less fortunate, even though they did so at some cost to themselves in terms of lost opportunity, but the reputation of the overall service suffered as a consequence of the greed of some.

The Skycaps provided the BAA management with an attractive solution. A two-bob franchise operation employing untrained staff at rock bottom wages who were not unionised, were paid only at basic rate no matter how long they worked and not at all when they were sick or on holiday, with a high staff turnover enabling summary dismissals to occur on an almost daily basis without fear of repercussions under employment law must have had the bosses positively drooling with eager expectation.

It was even worse than that. The Skycap was required to charge passengers £5 per transaction. All the money went to the airport. He was forbidden, under threat of instant dismissal, to accept tips. All the fruits of the customer's kindness would end up in the coffers of the airport management.

The old porters were not unreasonably furious. They remained in post, but their job description changed dramatically and they became trolley pushers, offering do-it-yourself vehicles to those passengers who didn't wish to pay for a porter service. There were murmurings of strike action and of legal redress but nothing ever came of it, at least for as long as I was there. They knew that they only had to give the management half an excuse and they would be out of the door entirely.

The Skycaps were for the most part a decent bunch - often semi-retired, occasionally semi-literate but more often normal people who had just fallen on slightly hard times and were grateful for anything that resembled a proper job. One or two who somehow got past the interview team - themselves complete amateurs - were downright crazy. One lad on my team who was busy plying his trade outside Terminal One one afternoon was apprehended mid-shift by a vanload of heavily armed police officers and never seen by any of us again (by all accounts he was both an illegal immigrant and a big-time drug smuggler but had still managed to acquire an airside security pass - this was of course pre-9/11).

The junior management tried their best, whilst the senior management were beyond help when it came to any kind of understanding as to how to treat their fellow human beings. As Duty Manager I was asked to sack one employee because he was "ugly" (which indeed he was, but no more so than when we had taken him on) and when I refused I too became persona non grata and took my inevitable place atop the slippery slope. Another guy, a bodybuilder, was offered a job after a successful interview only to be told when he reported for work the next morning that he didn't have a job after all because we didn't have a jacket in his size. I promise this is for real.

But it was on the question of money that the BAA's service-on-the-cheap philosophy came off the rails and that was essentially because, like the BAA porters before them, the Skycaps at the end of the day were only human. Whilst the BAA porters had got used to a certain standard of living, the Skycaps were for the most part not prepared to break their backs for three quid an hour and whenever a five or ten pound note was waved under their noses, basically they took it. Many also went a step further and "scammed" some of their transactions - removing the ticket from the luggage completely and claiming the BAA's fiver for themselves. Whilst a blind eye was turned to the former, the latter was a no-no and a high-risk strategy, and sackings took place routinely.

What has this got to do with anything much I hear you ask? Well it is a real-life tale of goodwill, bad faith and scapegoating - three concepts that I have come across myself in local politics, from which as in many other walks of life I draw heavily upon my own past experience.

The BAA management used an admittedly unsatisfactory situation to scapegoat their entire workforce and, worse, they used the greed of some as an excuse to replace it with a system based upon exploitation that would allow their own greed to flourish in its place. That was an act of bad faith, both to the outgoing BAA porters and to the slave-labour Skycaps. The Skycaps recognised that bad faith and repaid it in kind, by ignoring the rules and in some cases by actually ripping off their employers. Dishonour begets dishonour.

The old porters could have demonstrated goodwill by devising an arrangement in which the modestly-heeled and vulnerable could be protected from the negative consequences of the conduct of the limo-chasers. Such a robust demonstration of honest goodwill would have made it far more difficult for the management to use their shortcomings as a reason for effectively replacing them with non-unionised slave labour.

This for me was the worst part of it all. The scapegoating - the using of the BAA porters and their practices as a transparent excuse for replacing organised labour with a new system in which their replacements were weak and could be exploited.

As my story draws to a close, there is a twist in the tail that might be of interest to some. When I and fellow Skycap Lance Newbigging (later to become active with the ICG and to stand as a candidate) eventually lost our own jobs we worked from the outside to bring our unscrupulous ex-employers "to justice". Not only did we haul them before Industrial Tribunals and County Courts on literally dozens of occasions on behalf of dismissed former colleagues, but we got the best part of the workforce signed up with the Transport and General Workers' Union (TGWU) and forced the company to introduce proper employment contracts and improved working conditions for those still with the firm. Within a year or two Valet Services Ltd. had lost the franchise.

I believe in life that if one wishes to take a certain path then one should take responsibility for that decision and not attempt to make others the reason for it. Scapegoating of the innocent is the very worst form of moral cowardice and those who engage in it tend to end up being repaid in their own coin.

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