THE best reality show on air over the past month, at least in any meaningful sense of the term, has not been Big Brother or Celebrity Love Island . It has been Radio 4's The Workaday World , presented by Sir Bill Morris.
Over four programmes, a beautifully constructed montage of voices has provided a sustained discourse on what it means to work today, yanking the focus away from the abstract platitudes of management-speak to the daily realities of the job for real people: hospital porters and bankers, window cleaners and musicians, call-centre workers, partners in law firms and the first woman lighterman on the Thames.
Part of the pleasure is authenticity and immediacy: the voices of real people talking about individual issues, radio at its best. But an essential part of The Workaday World 's appeal is Morris's sympathetic linking narration.
Morris, general secretary of the TGWU until 2003, says he never anticipated the level of response and is characteristically modest about his part in the series' genesis. The approach to present the programmes came out of the blue, he says, and despite being used to the spotlight at the T&G he had misgivings about doing radio, and these were only allayed with the final result.
In fact, it was an inspired choice. Morris says with a grin that he has no intention of starting another career - 'retirement is pretty fulfilling too', not to mention cricket - but he's a natural, at once instantly recognisable and distinctive, but also completely representative. Like a good pianist accompanying a singer, his unobtrusive commentary inflects the whole performance, so that the arresting individual stories are unified by his lifetime's observation of work, 20 years of that from the vantage point of a full-time union official.
The series is good at drawing out the paradoxes of work: the fact that statistically most people still do nine-to-five jobs with tenure, yet work intensification means that the indices for burn-out and insecurity are going off the scale the rhetoric of teamwork alongside the Darwinian struggle for individual survival the deeply schizoid effects of technology. George Cox, previously of the Institute of Directors, notes that time after time we can see what technology does, but hopelessly misjudge what it means. A banker reflects: 'Computers don't make work more productive, just more busy.'
One of the strongest themes in the series is the idea of work holding meaning. This has little to do with status or pay. In one juxtaposition, two people talk on either side of a plate-glass window in Canary Wharf. On one side is a high-flying banker, on the other a window cleaner (or 'vision technician', as he ironically refers to himself). But it's the banker who feels alienated ('Sometimes I feel I'm in a sweatshop') and unsure of her contribution the window cleaner surer of his worth and more confident of giving his best: 'My side of the glass is greener.'
Meaning depends on being able to see the big picture. Morris tells the story of the gardener at Nasa who, on being asked by the visiting president what his job is, replies: 'Putting a man on the moon'. This is a very Morris story. He thinks that too many people are preoccupied with the next job at the expense of getting the full meaning from the present one. If more people were allowed to see the context of their work, he says, the world would be a happier, less frustrated place - and the jobs would be done better.
Morris's own career is a remarkable illustration of his own precepts. He describes himself as 'incredibly lucky', but most people would say he's just got back what he put in. He says the T&G job was so fulfilling he would have done it even if it wasn't paid - even the earlier years in the motor industry. Now, 50 years after arriving in Birmingham as an immigrant from Jamaica, he is a director of the Bank of England, among a clutch of other public appointments. He describes his job thus: 'We help to set interest rates. Not directly, of course, that's the MPC's job. But we have a statutory job to oversee the MPC. It's extraordinarily interesting. Interest rates touch the lives of every individual in the country. Attending court and understanding the analytical stuff is one of the most satisfying contributions to public policy that anyone could make.'
Morris admits that his view of work is a romantic one. Yet he is well aware of its dark side, too. One programme dealt with the miseries and inhumanities of work, and here too the micro-narratives poignantly illustrate how little, under the soothing HR platitudes, work has really changed. Individuals are still brutally sacked and exploited. Call centre workers speak of the tyranny of targets, being monitored when they go to the toilet, of being treated not as people but as extensions of their VDU. One worker comments sadly: 'I'm not as nice a person as when I started here.'
Noting the indignities, Morris regrets one large omission in the stories told by the programmes. 'Not a single one of these unhappy people mentions a trade union or joining one,' he laments. 'For me, that raises fundamental questions about the position of the unions in today's economy. The issues have multiplied, but people no longer see unions as a recourse or as advocates. There's been no fightback over the abuses in the call centres, no fightback over Rover and Jaguar, or over pensions. There's a huge amount of rethinking to do.'
The unions' mistake, he believes, was to focus too narrowly on their members and the pay packet, surrendering the right to speak for the whole community. The collapse of communities around mining, steelmaking and shipbuilding and the failure to make inroads in the technology industries has hit the movement with a double whammy - or a treble one, since the individualisation of work is now so complete that 'the only thing call centre workers have in common is that they are all equally abused'.
The unions still have a part to play, Morris insists, this time in speaking for the invisible and silent workforce - the twilight shift, the cleaners, carriers and shelf-stackers that actually make the new, 24/7 economy work. In this respect also, the fundamentals of work have not changed. Another series, perhaps?
The Observer, 3 July 2005