So good, that it’s bad

So good, that it’s bad
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First Published: Thu, Sep 17 2009. 08 55 PM IST
Updated: Thu, Sep 17 2009. 08 55 PM IST
Recently you may have noted that hundreds of domestic airline flights in India were delayed or cancelled. Thousands of passengers were stranded at airports nationwide. Meanwhile struggling airlines lost even more millions.
And this was just a regular day in Indian civil aviation. Imagine what happened when last week, on top of all this, the pilots flying for a prominent airline all mysteriously “fell ill”.
Dozens more flights got cancelled and thousands more got stranded. Several millions of office-goers called in to say that “they couldn’t make it because they were stuck at the airport”, and then stood in long lines and jostled at the counter for tickets to Quick Gun Murugun.
The issue quickly became a national media spectacle and it brought the whole issue of worker agitation and striking back into public view.
Now I am no labour relations expert, but by virtue of having spent two years in junior college in Kerala, I have first- hand experience of striking. The very first day I went to college, our teachers were on strike. Then the college management shut shop to protest the above strike. Then students went on strike to protest lax management. At which point the government intervened, so the opposition called for a hartal during which they burnt buses, so the bus operators went on strike. Et cetera.
It was around this time that I first heard of the virtuous Japanese shoe factory strike. The story goes like this: Japanese shoe factory employees decide to go on strike. But there will be no shutting, or burning, the plant down. Instead they will make only left shoes. So, output is maintained, but the company can’t sell anything. (Except to one-legged buyers missing the right leg. A niche market.)
This was supposed to be an example of constructive striking. Of how to oppose without damage. I couldn’t help but be reminded of this story when the pilots went on strike. Intrigued, I began to Google up other virtuous ways in which employees could agitate.
Intensive research pointed to three interesting concepts: the Good Work Strike, Bill Fight and, my fave, Work To Rule method.
The Good Work Strike
The good news is that this strategy comes with loads of great positive public relations. The media loves the hardworking underdog as opposed to, say, the malingering overpaid whiner. (But not as much as the tweeting minister.)
The bad news is that you really need to work hard to make this effective.
The idea of the Good Work Strike is to work with super efficiency, but in a way that annoys management. The Japanese shoe guys would belong in this section. I also remember this factory—in Chennai, I think—where all the workers decided that they would continuously keep coming in shifts round the clock. As against the usual two shifts of 8 hours. This meant keeping the factory open 24x7. Which is basically overtime payments for everyone from security guards to office boy. Management, puzzled initially, was chastened soon.
Thus you use good to fight evil.
The Bill Fight
This is a subset of the Good Work Strike, but I think it merits a listing on its own. The Bill Fight is when workers, especially in the service industry, are extra generous to customers as a means of hitting back at employers.
For instance, waiters could double, or triple, wrap your bacon-wrapped prawns, serve soups seven by three instead of two by four and, of course, mis-hear: “Oh. You asked if we had a cigar humidor… I heard one lobster thermidor each. On the house!”
A real-life example is how workers at a French hospital decided to drop all paperwork and just help patients. Several times the usual number got treated. But the hospital had no means of billing anyone.
Workers 1 - Boss 0.
The Work To Rule method
I love this one. This is where workers express how miffed they are by working EXACTLY according to rules. And I mean to the last letter and punctuation mark. Best illustrated by this French (again) strike from decades ago: Engine drivers apparently had the power to stop the train at any bridge, before crossing, and check it for worthiness. If they had doubts they could escalate it to management.
Since the nationalized railways had banned strikes, the drivers stopped at each and EVERY bridge, inspected, complained of unworthiness and waited. After a while? Trains backed up everywhere. Le total pandemonium.
Of all the virtuous means of striking, I think Work To Rule is the most amenable to cubicle adaptation. For instance, you make a spelling mistake in the annual report and print 10,000 copies that say “Jai Hind Steals Ltd.”
When the boss tells you he never wants to see your face again, you can immediately implement Work To Rule. By doing exactly that.
Stay at home. Rules are rules, no?
Got any other ideas for virtuous agitation? Mail us. Just in case.
Cubiclenama takes a fortnightly look at the pleasures and perils of corporate life. Your comments are welcome at cubiclenama@livemint.com
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First Published: Thu, Sep 17 2009. 08 55 PM IST