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December 2011
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Regards to Mavis
By Leslie Robins

Although industrial disputes are often in the news, we seldom hear much about what happens behind the scenes. Working under cover I am now able to lift the lid off the murky world of industrial relations.
In this instance George speaks for the employer whilst Fred is the Union man. They hate the sight of one another, but tradition requires that all discussions be conducted in an entirely bogus atmosphere of bonhomie and so their meetings begin with an exchange of courtesies.
“Morning, George! How’s yourself? Jane and the kids well?” “Fine thanks, Fred. Mavis too, I hope? Good. Now what can I do for you?”.
“It’s serious, George. I’m reliably informed that last Thursday on the 6:49 from Paddington to Bristol a buffet car attendant made toasted cheese sandwiches for three passengers. Now that, as you know George, is a job for an Assistant Cook Grade III.”
“Is it? Seems straightforward enough to me. “
“Now that’s where you’re out of touch with reality, George old son. Selecting a suitable week-old loaf from the fridge, trimming the mould off the crusts, knowing just when to take it out of the machine before it’s burnt to a cinder, and all this in a train travelling at 90 miles an hour – it’s highly-skilled work, I assure you.”
“Can’t see it, Fred. I’ve got one of those machines at home. Simple to operate and very reliable.”
“So you don’t agree that this is an outrageous, contemptible and completely unacceptable abuse of working practices?”
“No, I don’t.”
“You disappoint me, George. I shall have to report your intransigent attitude to my members. You haven’t heard the last of this, believe me.”

Back at the office Fred arranges for the usual press release to be issued. ‘Employer reneging on previous agreements. Members incandescent with rage. Union ready for negotiations at any time, etc.’ But after making further enquiries he is mortified to find that the cooks are quite happy in the kitchen car and don’t want to leave it for this footling extra job. It’s a set-back for Fred, but he isn’t going to admit it, least of all to George.
“Afternoon, George! Been thinking about this toasted sandwich business. You know me, George – I’m a reasonable man, always ready for compromise. Why don’t we pay the buffet car attendants an extra quid for every sandwich they make and leave it at that?”
“No can do, Fred – that’s more than we make on these things in the first place. We’d have to take them off the menu altogether. But we could run to 10p a time, I suppose.”
“10p? 10p? You must be out of your tiny mind, George. “
But George has made a tactical mistake and the battle lines have now been drawn.
Over the next 12 hours offers and counter-offers are traded across the table, with differences shading into three decimal places.
George eventually agrees to pay 15.322p per brown bread sandwich and 15.922p for a white one, the profit margin on the latter being slightly higher. The deal is sealed with a handshake that could so easily turn into a Karate chop.
Bleary-eyed and unshaven, our two friends stumble out into the dawn.
“Cheers, George – all the best to Jane and the kids.”
“Cheers, Fred – regards to Mavis.”

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