Tales from the Luas: conflict in the workplace.

I was sitting on the Luas to Tallaght yesterday and overheard a remarkably interesting conversation amongst four young women. They were on their way to college as they briefly spoke about having to do exams and late submissions for assignments. The main conversation, though, revolved around the experience of one girl, who was having difficulties in work. I sense she was working part-time in retail, perhaps a clothe’s shop of some sort because she mentioned ‘doing sales‘, ‘working on the till‘, ‘dressing a manican‘, and ‘stocks in the stores‘.  She was complaining about her manager who has been giving her a hard time over the past few months. The conversation struck on several important aspects of what are, arguably, the main issues in the ‘sociology of work’: representation, grievance, time, identity, conflict and discrimination.

Firstly, the student (let’s call her Jane for the sake of a good narrative) began having difficulties with her manager (let’s call her Sarah) when she found out that she was only eighteen. I was also surprised because she looked a lot older. She recalled how she told her manager she was out for her birthday at the weekend. The manager was ‘shocked’ when she realised it was an ‘eighteenth‘. But immediately Jane noticed a change in Sarah’s body language, and behaviour. Sarah started ‘talking down to her‘ as though she was a child. She started giving her ‘shitty jobs‘, and stopped asking her to do more ‘important jobs’. Jane and Sarah began to fall out and within a few weeks they had an argument. Jane felt she was being treated badly and started to ‘stand up‘ to Sarah.  So, the problem in her work started with discrimination, and the observable implications of this discrimination was issuing work practices that the employee did not feel ‘obliged to do‘, and indirect forms of ‘bullying‘.

Secondly, Jane was more upset about not knowing what to do about the situation. She made a complaint, but felt it was not taken seriously. Her sister advised her that she should record all the verbal bullying. Sarah had told her to go home on two occasions, after Jane began to ‘question her authority’. One night, she was requested to dress down the manican, but whilst doing it Sarah intervened, Jane responded “I know what I am doing“. Sarah then told her that ‘she will bring her into the office, and give her a stern talking to if she answers her back again‘. She then told her to ‘get out of my face and pack your bags‘. Jane was worried about making another complaint, and did not really know who to complain to. She felt that she had ‘no one to go to‘. I was restraining myself from asking her whether she was in a trade union or not. But, she was going to take her sisters advise and write down everything that happens over the next couple of months.

Thirdly, she was frustrated that ‘work was overtaking‘ her life. She feels like it is the only thing she ‘thinks about‘. She cannot sleep properly, and feels angry all of the time. It is disrupting her studies and cannot understand why it is affecting her so much. She dreads going into work but needs the money. However, she used to like the job , the only problem is her manager. She then described (in a shocking amount of detail) what she would do to her if she bumped into her in the middle of the night, ‘I dont care, I would go to prison, I hate her so much‘. She concluded that her manager is jealous, she is jealous that Jane is only 18, in college and able to do everything Sarah can do. A friend at work claims that Sarh is fearful of her own job promotion, and thinks Jane will get promoted above her in a few years. She considers Jane a ‘threat‘.

I was fascinated by all of this as it neatly captures the importance of work for both personal identity, and our entire life experience. It illustrates the problems around work place representation in the non-union, and non progressive HR sector. I have no doubt that thousands of such conflicts take place every day amongst the Irish workforce and go unresolved and undocumented. It also interested me as I have just finished writing a module descriptor for NCI on ‘The Sociology of Work’ and the issues fresh in my mind. Labour is a productive activity that almost everyone carries out, in a variety of forms, and in a variety of places and in a variety of different relationships. Yet, it is of little academic interest to most scholars in the social sciences. An irony, given that it is the most ‘social’ activity most people carry out in their day to day lives.

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