Monday, 8 March 2010

We Sell Our Time No More

Book Review: We Sell Our Time No More: Workers’ Struggles Against Lean production in the British Car Industry. Paul Stewart, Mike Richardson, Andy Danford, Ken Murphy. Tony Richardson and Vicki Wass. Pluto Press 2009. (£14.99 Direct from Pluto)

I had a call recently from the fund raisers at Keele University, where I studied Industrial Relations, some years ago. When they asked for some loot I replied, “Why should I support an institution that has turned a world class centre for the study of industrial relations into a mediocre business school? As far as I am concerned human resource management is one step away from the return of slavery.” The caller didn’t stay long.

So you can see where I am coming from. “We Sell Our Time No More”, is a quote from a T&G convener at Vauxhall-GMs Elsmere Port Plant, PeterTitherington; “Under the piece work rate system we directly sold the fruits of our labour. Under Measured Day Work we sold our time. Under lean we sell our time no more. Under lean, management determine our labour input and our time with a vengeance. Or at least that’s their aim.”

Given the state of academic IR this book is a bit a rarity a few years before Keeles destruction without any sense of irony the LSE (founded of course by the Webbs' amongst the earliest students of modern IR) had put their IR into management! Against this tide of destruction this work is a welcome demonstration of the importance of the discipline.

The research for the book was coordinated through the Auto Workers Research Network, established to study the impact of ‘lean production’ on the health and working conditions of car workers by Paul Stuart (co-author of the Nissan Enigma- flexibility at work in a local economy- with Philip Garrahan in 1992). The book contains details of the introduction of these new management techniques into the industry and the trade unions response to them at Vauxhall-GM and Rover/BMW. The most substantial part of the book are the round table discussions with shop stewards and the challenges they have faced in struggling against some of the idiocies of this management methodology.

There is one area I tend to disagree with in that it plays down the importance of the deskilling effect of the introduction of new technologies and the better management information it provides. This is a minor criticism in what is a valuable book. The book reminded me of the 1960’s study by Goldthorpe and Lockwood of affluent workers in Luton (The Affluent Worker in the Class Structure) that contributed to the ‘embourgeoisement thesis’. The idea that we are all middle class now!

There is no doubt that as part of the neo-liberal roll back of the gains workers have made HRM and lean employment methodology are now not just an issue for manual workers they have penetrated into all areas of work including into the public sector. Indeed in education the parceling up of work and the introduction of short term contracts is leading to the proletarianisation of previously ‘middle class’ models of employment leading to de-skilling and de-professionalization with the collapse of any worker autonomy.

When I studied IR one of the most useful concepts was that coined by American Carter L.Goodrich back in 1920. In his study of British Coalmining – A Study in British Workshop Politics he coined the idea of the frontier of control. There is no doubt that with lean methods and HRM management that frontier has been driven in managements favour. In the name of 'flexibility' (for whom?) there has been a transferring of costs on to workers much to the detriment of their health, wealth and general well-being. This book helps us understand how that has come about and contributes to the battle to drive the frontier back.