The 'New Industrial Relations' and Class Struggle in the 1990s

Article excerpt

ANYONE SCANNING the latest industrial relations survey data might be forgiven for assuming that workers in British manufacturing industry have forsaken class struggle for the principles of peace and cooperation with their employers. For example, the WIRS surveys identify a decline in both strike and non-strike action in manufacturing, from almost a third of establishments being affected in 1979-1980 down to just 10 in 1989-1990 (Millward et al. 1992). Employment Department and OECD data suggest that by 1994, the UK had sixth lowest strike rate of the 22 OECD countries, whilst the rate in Britain's traditional industries was 89 lower between 1990-1994 than the previous five year period (Sweeney and Davies 1996).

In conjunction with this, we have managerialist advocates of new modes of work organization and labour deployment, such as lean production control and teamworking, which are held to have an 'enriching' and 'empowering' impact on the shop-floor. The new management techniques might represent instruments of efficient capital accumulation but they are also assumed to provide workers with new skills, new responsibilities and greater personal control over the labour process. Thus, according to this view, contemporary shifts in the nature of the capitalist labour process encourage a progression from lowtrust to high-trust labour relations characterised by worker loyalty and commitment to the firm (see for example, Imai 1986; Fukuyama 1995 and Womack et al.1992).

In contrast, the few studies that have researched the concrete impact of the restructuring of work and employment relations on the shop-floor have, with few exceptions, discovered a different picture. For many workers in British industry, this can be a disempowering and exploitative process designed to maximise the extraction of surplus value by weakening shop-floor controls over the labour process, maximising labour utilisation and intensifying work rates (see for example, Delbridge et al. 1992; Garrahan and Stewart 1992; Turnbull 1986). Some of these critiques account for the absence of traditional conflict in conditions of heightened labour exploitation by emphasising the impact of different ideological practices, deriving from changes in the labour process, which contribute to a framework of consensus. For example, Garrahan and Stewart (1992) present teamworking as a critical social form in which workers' consent to domination and exploitation is secured through the processes of self-management and peer pressure. Similarly, Delbridge et al. argue that teamworking and internal customer relations on the shop-floor act to `obscure and mystify, or at least take attention away from, the labour-capital relation of exploitation' (1992: 105).

One unifying implication of these conflicting arguments, therefore, is that the new management techniques may constitute a significant determinant of the low level of industrial action in contemporary manufacturing-whether mediated through a process of concrete 'empowerment' (managerialists) or ideological 'disempowerment' (labour process critics).

However, to what extent have contemporary employment relations really changed? Can the typical workforce of the 1990s be characterised by a new commitment to the employer and capitalist enterprise, or at least, a new malleability and acquiescence? Is it really subject to total management control? This article casts further light on these questions by providing an ethnography of the politics of production which shape the `management of change' at a UK brownfield manufacturing plant. The case study firm operates in the autocomponents sector. Following intense global competitive pressures and the cost-cutting interventions of its major customers, the company introduced a series of labour intensifying practices including stock and buffer reductions, strict bell to bell working, teamworking and management-led continuous improvement. These changes caused considerable shop-floor resentment at the loss of control over such matters as labour deployment, skill levels and work rates; most workers perceived them as concrete mechanisms of labour subordination rather than sources of 'empowerment', or for that matter, `ideological disempowerment . …