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Bird's Eye View

Trade Unions

new internationalist
issue 172 - June 1987

Bird's Eye view
[image, unknown]
Neither boss nor proper worker; middle management's job
can be tricky. Here Peter Stalker explains why he kept going as
a middle manager - and what happens to those who did not.

It's just after dawn on a wintry morning in Halifax, Yorkshire. Daylight is making a belated appearance over the gloomy Pennines and it is bitterly cold.

Mind you, it is bitterly cold here at any time of the year. I'm inside the cold store of the Asda supermarket slithering around, wrestling with boxes and bags of frozen food to be packed into the store's display cabinet.

'Right, Birds Eye!', barks the manager, 'Let's see you fill up that cabinet.' (Store managers always call sales reps by the name of their products; I can't now remember what his name was, but as I always thought of him as a right bastard that's probably appropriate.) I detested him not just because he delighted in shouting at the reps in front of staff and customers, but also because he made us stack the shelves with our own products - a particularly nasty job when the items are 20 degrees below zero and have a disturbing tendency to stick to the fingers.

This cut-throat competition on the shop-floor was mercifully only a prelude to taking up a job at Birds Eye headquarters as a marketing manager. Down in leafy Surrey the vital task of getting frozen food to the world was carried out in altogether more cerebral terms. The atmosphere was air-conditioned, but enlivened by having the offices built round a series of courtyards which had pools and fountains and a collection of penguins who used to spend the day skating crazily around on their own excrement.

Those of us inside were, we thought, marginally better-employed. At that time Birds Eye had about 70 per cent of the UK frozen food market (as near a monopoly as made no difference), but it had 50 or so different products. Keeping the competitive spirit alive and kicking under these circumstances was achieved, as it is in most large companies, by having 'product managers' whose job it was to compete with each other: to care about every aspect of one or two products to the exclusion of all others.

My preoccupations were rissoles and faggots*. That meant struggling with the managers of the cream cakes and the crispy cod fries for a slice of the company advertising budget as well as trying to energize the sales force in a meatwards direction.

The average rissole-eater could be forgiven for regarding them as small, round, greasy lumps of meat and rice; and would be astonished, I'm sure, at all the time, human effort, money and ingenuity that is devoted to them. But anything that becomes a focus of corporate activity then takes on a life of its own own. Rissoles, besides being a source of calories and coronaries, become pieces on a huge board-game to be moved around scoring points and picking up prizes.

Making a profit for Birds Eye Foods, and therefore for Unilever, was an important part of this game, but by no means an overriding consideration for junior management. We, after all, were earning a salary and would get no dividend.

Those of us cocooned inside the pristine offices worried about other things. We worried about status. Each rung up the marketing ladder entitled you to a certain size of desk and the presence or absence of a rubber plant. And there was a question of carpet size: the most important people had it stretch to the walls; lesser mortals only had enough to perch their desks on.

For all the air of unreality, however, there was little shelter for anyone if company sales started to fall. At one point a cold wind moved through the company and resulted in a sudden ten per cent across-the-board staff cut from the factories right through to the marketing department. The managers of Brussels sprouts and chocolate eclairs seemed to disappear almost overnight.

I never knew where they went, but I had my suspicions. The company wildlife was not confined to messy penguins. In another area there were some rather moth-eaten flamingos and under the stairs something that was either a crocodile or an alligator. I had never investigated too closely because it had never been suggested that we chop it up for sale. But I have always thought it served a rather sinister personnel purpose.

I did wonder too if he, she or it could be put to more constructive use. The manager of Asda in Halifax might, I thought, be invited down for an extensive visit to the premises - and with a natural history tour thrown in.

Peter Stalker is a Co-Editor of the NI.
* A traditional minced meat dish in the Midlands of the UK

Trade Unionists

Not everybody wants to be promoted. Here two Unilever workers from Canada explain to Stephen Dale why they won't become middle managers.

One night in 1956, the night crew at Shopsy's meat-processing plant came into work and received some unexpected news. The group was being fired for union activity.

Chuck Webster and Grant Cooper work in the same Toronto meat-processing plant - but 30 years later. Shopsy's hasn't changed much since the 1950s. But it is now owned by Unilever Canada. And the two workers are sitting in a conference room in a local hotel, part of a union negotiating team which just faced a battery of corporate bureaucrats very unlike the previous boss, Mr Shopsowitz. Today union/management relations are formal: the company follows agreements and grievance procedures to the letter, the two workers say.

Though the chances of rising from the shop floor are slim, there are openings in minor supervisory capacities. Yet Chuck Webster believes the job of plant supervisor is not worth the aggravation. 'Once you do make that move,' he says, 'you end up taking a pay cut, and you start out at the bottom as far as supervisors go. But aside from the money, you just get shit on - really! There's no incentive. The few that have gone up from the floor have done it for a few years and then said "Hey, forget it". And left the company.'

Chuck and Grant have their own reasons for staying at Shopsy's. Both say that being trade unionists gives them satisfaction that their jobs don't provide. Their union activities give them a chance to fight the management on behalf of their co-workers. And winning concessions in the confrontations with management gives them satisfaction.

With the responsibility to supply the packaging area with its meats, boxes 'and anything else they might need to package our product', Grant has contact with other workers. That contact is important to his role as shop steward. His physical surroundings are bearable. 'It's pretty loud, and it's chilly,' he says, 'but it's dry - wear a turtleneck sweater and a jacket and you're fine.'

Chuck Webster is less content. 'I'm a heavy general labourer,' he says. 'My main function is out in front of the smokehouse, the cooking facility. I'm between the wiener frank-o-matics - the thing that stuffs the wieners (hot dogs) and puts them on the trucks - and the smokehouse. The trucks are on wheels and you just push. It's anything from 800 pounds to 1,800 pounds - and you have to push it up little ramps. It's pretty treacherous stuff.'

Adding to the physical stress are some environmental hazards: a wide range of temperature from place to place, and clouds of smoke leaking from the smokehouse. Floors wet with wiener emulsion add to Chuck's constant concern about injuries. 'Most of it is back work,' he says, 'and as I have learned eventually you do start to hurt. I never had a backache before, and now I don't have a day go by without some kind of twinge. I can't deal with that for the rest of my life.'

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