Letters - 21 May 2021

A BYM worker’s question to Hot drinks are served

A BYM worker’s question

‘Quaker decision-making – which is seen as a form of discernment, a process of coming to see the right way forward for the group – can be slow’, as Woodbrooke’s Rhiannon Grant has said, ‘but tries to include all the voices equally…’ Does that include the voice of workers at Britain Yearly Meeting (BYM) and the Quiet Company? 

I am a BYM staff member and an officer with Unite, the union at Quakers in Britain. I can’t speak for all staff, nor union members. But I am breaking silence to say that I see a communication gap between Quakers and the people they employ.

Long-term, Friends may hope Quakers can be a pattern or example as an employer. If so, there are lots of labour-related questions Friends might appreciate a dialogue with workers on. Should we use agency staff? Are temporary contracts too precarious? How do we protect staff from bullying and discrimination? How do we ensure internships aren’t exploitative or elitist? Should the Quiet Company be a cooperative? Would a less hierarchical staff structure better reflect Quaker values? Should we adopt the four-day week? These are just examples.

But I am moved to write because of immediate concerns for workers. We’ve lost many colleagues to redundancies, squeezing the work, and BYM is pressing ahead with restructures. Some parts of the organisation are being expanded while others have been directed to cut staff costs. Areas of work are being deleted and jobs are at risk.

This is not intended as a damning exposé. And it is not an attack on Friends. It amazes me how hundreds of Quakers discern difficult decisions and it’s an act of service to grapple with them. Rather, I think it’s a structural problem: Friends don’t hear a worker perspective.

There are certainly a lot of challenges for Quakers to navigate as an employer in 2021. Income has shrunk. BYM and the Quiet Company have had to claim hundreds of thousands in job retention funds. Staff have made sacrifices in the hope of protecting jobs: dozens have accepted voluntary redundancy; many have reduced pay or hours; the union agreed to forego an annual cost-of-living increase and to a permanent reduction in redundancy payments. In the face of all these pressures, we need a positive relationship between workers and the employer.

The union’s principal role is to consult and negotiate with ‘The Employer’ about issues that affect workers. When we say ‘The Employer’, whom do we mean? In one sense, if you count yourself a Quaker in Britain, you employ us. Indeed, often when formally consulted about changes such as staff cuts, workers are told that the decision can’t be altered. The reason? It’s what Quakers want.

So do we then raise this with the recording clerk, trustees, Meeting for Sufferings, or another committee? It can be quite opaque. I’m not requesting a Quaker-civics lesson; I’m asking what kind of employer-worker relationship Quakers want.

There’s nothing wrong in an organisation led by Quaker discernment – it’s a strength. I’ve had positive experiences exploring challenges with Quakers on various committees, so I know the process can be powerful. But more often when workers do send feedback ‘up’ the food chain, it doesn’t reach Quakers. When managers ask Quakers to make a decision that affects workers, Friends often don’t hear from us. What if we want to be in the room (or the Zoom) where it happens? Or are workers best when seen and not heard?

Many workers have said they’re not confident Quakers know what’s happening – that key work on peace, criminal justice and sanctuary is being dropped. That’s alarming for staff who care deeply about their work, and for the union which wants to protect jobs.

The reason I’m writing this in the Friend is that, when workers raise this kind of concern internally, it meets with inertia or defensiveness. In the words of Roger Cowan Wilson’s 1949 Swarthmore Lecture: ‘A wise management will consult and inform subordinates and will attempt to draw them into policy-making.’ Our management do ask workers for feedback, but to me policy-making is located somewhere remote.

Staff surveys consistently show the employer handles change poorly, but the same patterns recur, which is not good for trust or morale. Workers have felt hurt and bewildered by the current wave of changes, mid-pandemic.

It can also be confusing for Quakers – I know Friends who, despite taking pains to engage with the life of the Yearly Meeting, feel disconnected from key decisions.
It does not appear much easier for BYM’s managers, who are in the invidious position of either delivering on what they promise Quakers, particularly trustees, or listening to workers’ concerns.

Perhaps BYM’s leadership are, as Wilson had it, ‘much too anxious to abolish tensions, whose right preservation is the very essence of true living’.

Surely this gap can be bridged. As Quaker employers, BYM and the Quiet Company could follow the example of organisations which include worker representatives on their boards or at Sufferings. We could use participatory and restorative approaches to connect Quakers and workers.

Perhaps we can learn from the John Lewis model. Or perhaps there’s a fresh and ‘distinctively Quaker’ approach that would allow Friends to hear the workers’ voice.

That is, if you want to…

Ellis Brooks
Writing in a personal capacity

The role of BYM trustees

I thank Eric Walker for speaking my mind on the role of Britain Yearly Meeting (BYM) trustees (30 April). Do we have a premises committee which can address the contributions towards discernment expressed by other correspondents, rather than this being handled by BYM trustees? How we debate ‘Quaker statues’ without displacing immediate racial justice questions is a matter of right ordering, not the application of charity law. 

We need to recognise that the concept of distinct trusteeship does not rest comfortably with our testimony to equality through being open to the participation of all our membership in the governance of our Society.

We express this through our Area Meeting (AM) structure, and a range of specialist committees which support our national and local witness.

As a trustee of our Area Meeting, I see our role as facilitating and sustaining our constituent local meetings in the exercise of stewardship of their outward affairs. Only in very particular situations do we need to act on behalf of the AM (and then report fully to the AM in session: this is the primary body [Quaker faith & practice 15.04] which appoints us).

At the Yearly Meeting (YM) level, we see some of the Quaker Peace & Social Witness staff working directly with trustees without comprehensive discernment around its future structure and direction: specialist sub committees are being laid down and staff are facing redundancy before AMs have been consulted or YM enabled to devote a session to this topic. A settled Statement has been linked to Quake! As I write we are invited to question and answer sessions – individual Friends attending, with no indication of openness to further discernment.

This process does not reflect the gospel order which has evolved over past centuries. I hope that our staff and trustees remain open to light which has been tried and tested as well as new, and that we are all ready to approach new ideas with discernment even when, as at present, these can only be expressed and broadly shared electronically.

Anthony Wilson

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