Speaking for the voiceless

When I started out as an industrial reporter in the early 1990s, there were two sides to almost every story about working life: the employer’s side and the union’s side. The two never agreed with each other. Usually, they differed over a point of interpretation – about whether a pay offer was ‘generous’ or ‘derisory’, for instance. Yet frequently they differed over facts, too – about workload or previous commitments, morale, or the existence of ‘new plans’.

The reporting of working life was a matter of ‘he says versus she says’; work was delivered and consumed as a narrative of contention.
All journalism is fundamentally about conflict, but it did not take long to see the limitations of this format. The role of the journalist was to set up two opposing viewpoints: one black in the red corner, one white in the blue corner, and hope that somewhere in the garish clash, the grey truth would emerge. What it led to was cornered platitudes – the most popular and stupid of which was that the truth was normally ‘grey’ and lurked ‘somewhere in the middle’.

Cliche was written in to the entire system of workplace journalism even before anyone opened their mouths – work became newsworthy at the moment a union official started complaining about something. On good days, I felt this system produced a view of work that, while not exactly fine-grained, was at least broad, and sometimes entertaining. On bad days, it was nothing more than a cynical game.

But what has the decline of unions in both numerical and cultural terms done for the task of describing work? I suspect there are very few journalists who think it has had a beneficial impact.

In the private sector in particular, there is typically just one side now. That side pays great attention to how it presents itself. Its messages are as pampered and pumped-up as a Hollywood matriarch – and frequently just as bland, too. But in the absence of any opposing viewpoint, those messages escape having their credibility seriously tested. In short, employers nowadays tend to get away with it.

When a company has something it wants to say, it will go to extravagant lengths to ensure journalists hear it. But when a journalist wants to know something, and a company is not keen, silence – professional, courteous, but total – is the preferred response. The relevant people are always out of the country, in meetings, or ‘windowless’ until mid-century. Without strong unions, it is the corporate view of everything from job evaluation to change to performance-related pay to psychometric testing that becomes the default consensus.

The fundamental trouble is that in an increasingly non-unionised world of work, gaining access to those who are in a position to confirm or contradict what employers say is very difficult. Journalists depend on organisations. Only in exceptional circumstances have they got time to phone-bash for hours in the hope of getting a worker’s mobile number, or hang around outside workplaces persuading ‘real people’ to talk to them. The result is that the vast majority of employees are effectively voiceless.

The absence of the employee voice in the whole noisy squabble around work ought to be a cause for concern. Unions still occasionally claim to be that voice, but it is a difficult view to sustain when 81 per cent of private sector employees are not members.

In any case, the resolutions submitted to union conferences often seem terribly remote from the daily worries of employees – and not just the 80 subscription to the Cuba Solidarity Campaign. In recent years, unions have developed a heavily rights-based approach to employment, which can seem more of a theoretical than practical assistance to people at work.

In limited ways, civil society organisations try to fill the gap. There are excellent institutes and think tanks that reflect on work at a national level, and sometimes feel inclined to interrupt the tales of glossy, benign progress that employers like to tell. In a one-sided workplace, they represent the closest thing to context a journalist can hope for.

Yet many such organisations would admit that a steady stream of surveys and reports is a feeble substitute for a voice reflecting the direct employee experience of work. The fact that journalists are now so reliant on third-party commentators is a perpetual reminder that there is a silent majority out there that rarely gets to have its say.

From the reporter’s perspective, the main consequence of the rise of the voiceless worker is that a lot of the life has been drained out of the story of work. Without points of conflict, subjects lose their sense of journalistic theatre, which perhaps explains why only the Financial Times, the Times, the Observer and the BBC still maintain full-time labour/industrial/employment correspondents. Where there is only one
side to a story, there is often no real story at all – a state of affairs that generally works to the employer’s advantage.

But the flipside of this is not quite so welcome for employers. Whenever there is a fleck of dissent on the anodyne, consensual, plastic vision of working life – whether from employment tribunals, weblogs, strikes or whatever – it tends to attract loud and disproportionate coverage.

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