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Skeleton Staff at Grave’s End

For all those who have to contemplate getting a summer job soon!

B. Booker, ‘Skeleton Staff at Grave’s End’,  Solidarity: For Workers’ Power, Vol. 2, No. 5 (Sept 1962), pp. 23-24

For four weeks, during my summer holidays, I had the misfortune of being a clerk in the Mutuality Club Dept. of the Gravesend Cooperative Society.

The Mutuality Club is in the fine, modern offices of the Co-op bank, in Harmer Street. When one first enters the bank, one is struck by the bright, cheerful atmosphere of the place. But the office is bare of the slightest amenities (except toilets). The Gracesend Co-op is run on a shoe-string. To illustrate this I will give some examples.

Many workers have no proper desks. They have to sit at long, low wooden benches. Chronic backache is common.

The Co-op is short of proper office chairs (i.e. chairs with padded seats and backs). Some unlucky workers are forced to sit on hard wooden seats, which further add to their misery.

There are not enough pens especially red ones which are used for checking. I was reduced to using my own!

There are no fire extinguishers in the bank offices. They are all in the office upstairs. The only exits to the street are via two doors opening onto Harmer Street. Presumably, if these are blocked during a fire, bank workers will twiddle their thumbs until rescued or burnt to death.

Rumours are going around that the main reason for these economies is that the ‘divi’ is shortly to be raised to 2/- in the pound.

For a 37 1/4 and a 4 3/4 hour week* I was paid £5.10.0. The rate is now $5.15.6. These hours were minus the half-hour tea break a day, spent in one of the dingiest rooms (called ‘lounge’) I have ever seen. The girls in the Check Office were highly honoured. They were paid five bob a week more as they ‘used machines’.

The work in the office (as in most offices) was most demoralising. It was more or less the same thing, day in, day out with only a rare change to another department, if lucky.

Most of the people I spoke to were thoroughly bored with it all. The girls were waiting to get married so as to leave. The boys (there were 3 of us) foresaw no possible future in the job. It is very difficult to get on in the Co-op unless you happen to be a Labour councillor or something. We were going to leave as soon as we found other jobs. It is absolutely false to say, as many bourgeois do, that people of ‘lower intellect’ want to do menial tasks.

There was practically no diffusion of labour in the office. Only three girls, for example, could handle a very simple telephone exchange. No attempt was made to teach anyone else to work it, in case of emergency. If one of the girls was absent – or in the toilet – when a call came through, the call would have to wait.

I saw an example of the most piddling piece of bureaucracy I have met for a long time. In Gravesend, the Co-op has recently changed its name from ‘The Borough of Gravesend Cooperative Society’ to ‘The Gravesend Cooperative Society’. Everything published before this momentous decision still as the word ‘Borough’ on it. Before one can even start to do any work, one has to scratch out the offending word. It was an offence not to do so, our secretary pompously explained to us. All this involves extra work, wastes time and is annoying. It is particularly annoying when one forgets to do it and has to go back over, say 250 vouchers, erasing ‘boroughs’.

In the four weeks I worked there, I never saw such a bunch of demoralised, fed-up people in all my life. They would have given anything to have gotten the hell out of there.

Brian Booker

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