Managers and Managerialism in the Post-Privatised Utilities: 'Throwing the Baby out with the Bath-Water'

Article excerpt


The concern of labour process theorists has been with the changing nature of managerial control and the ways in which the dynamics of the contradiction underpinning the waged labour relationship is played out between labour and management within the wider political economy. Edward's (1979) unilinear approach suggests that evolving control configurations are in response to the changes in the contours of capitalism, while Friedman's (1977) conceptualisation argues for multiple control strategies, and Burawoy's (1979) emphasis on 'game playing' shifts attention to the complexity in worker resistance. Further elaboration of the theme of control and resistance is the infusion of gender relations and the ways in which the politics of domesticity shape women's work experience (Cavendish, 1982; Pollert, 1981; Westwood, 1984), while Gollinson (1992) shows that male workers draw on humour and masculinities to reject managerialist ideologies. The concern for the changing nature of control is also reflected in O'Connell- Davidson (1993) study of the impact of privatisation on employment relations in the water industry, and Ferner and Colling's (1993) analysis of industrial relations in the electricity industry. However, there has been less interest in another feature of control, the relationship between management and capital or 'control from within', and the way power influences the interplay between capital and the managers within the different functions characterising the managerial hierarchy. As Armstrong (1991) argues 'management [is viewed] as a black box with the articulation of capital interests through managerial hierarchies as non-problematic' (Armstrong, 1991,6). However, inter-professional rivalries (Armstrong 1984, 1986, 1987) generated by the quest for power and influence, the cost of trust to ownership, and the imperfect alignment of some managers' interests with ownership characterise this problem, a trend that has been sharpened by privatisation. Illustrative of this is Walsh's (1995) critical examination of public sector management, which points to the limitations of commercialisation as the panacea to the managerial problem. In studying the management function, this paper examines the problematic character of control within the managerial hierarchy in a period of crisis and change, how it is regenerated and how managers grapple with relations of power, issues that should be of interest to readers of this journal, to socialists and to trade unionists.

The aims of the paper are, first, to focus on what managers do in the control function in two privatised companies and to relate managerial practice to corporate discourse about efficiency and business innovation. Secondly, to trace the pattern of staffing policies to privatisation, and to question the viability of such policies in the post-privatised era. Third, to focus on the changing composition of staff and the impact of the longer-term trend to reduce operational staff, particularly engineers. Fourthly, there will be a focus on training practices, skill repertoires and recruitment for managerial, technical and engineering groups. Finally, the paper will highlight the ways in which these issues become the centre-piece of organisational politics for the managerial groupings and will reveal the interplay between cleavages, fissures and realignments as managers vie for power.

Theoretical Overview

Insights from a number of different theories will be drawn upon to give meaning and coherence in the substantive sections. For instance, managerial action will be located within Armstrong's (1991) radical and reformulated agency concept, a departure from the narrow functionalism and utilitarianism of agency theory, when using the notion of contradiction, he argues that change driven by power and the cost of trust underpins the dynamic nature of the principal! agent relationship. The research suggests that corporate discourse about efficiency is one expression of how this contradiction is played out by managers in the agency role, when, depending on the nature of their function, they are often engaged in action that may be at variance with the principal's interests. …