Flexibility at Work: Critical Developments in the International Automobile Industry

Article excerpt

Valeria Pulignano, Paul Steward, Andy Danford and Mike Richardson (eds.) Flexibility at Work: Critical Developments in the International Automobile Industry, London: Palgrave, 2008; 200 pp.: 9781403900418 £60 (hbk)

The historical significance of the automobile industry as a hotbed for the development of managerial techniques cannot be underestimated. In the early 20th century, Ford's assembly line changed factory life forever, while the lean production techniques of the 1990s quickly found imitators outside the car industry. As the editors of the book argue 'the ramifications of changes [in the industry] have always spread widely beyond the reach of the sector' (p. 1).

The major focus of this book, Flexibility at Work, is the examination of the development of lean production techniques in the automobile industry in various countries, and the effects they had on workers' lives and on the frontier of control on the shopfloor. Its theoretical and empirical orientation closely follows labour process literature, and the analyses are based on the use of quantitative as well as qualitative data.

Although lean production was hailed, at the time of its emergence, as a technique that would revolutionise the workspace (to the benefit of the workers, that is), and create a new mentality towards the production line, many of the book's chapters quite clearly present the futility of these early declarations. Despite initial claims and its different discourse, lean production remains as suppressing as were the old Fordist and Taylorist methods, due to its inability to transcend the bureaucratic nature of the 'old' factory. It might have worked well for the capitalists; but if it has achieved anything for the workers it seems to be the further intensification of labour and the development of new managerial concepts and tools for the better control of the workforce.

The book is divided in two main parts, comprising seven chapters in total (eight, including the introduction). Although all of them are primarily empirical chapters, their theoretical discussions are satisfactory, thus creating a good analogy between theory and praxis. The first part of the book includes three chapters, which focus on a comparative analysis of the practices of multinational automobile industries (VW, BMW, GM, Fiat, and Renault among others) on their subsidiaries across the world, and on how their employment policies and managerial techniques influence the labour process. The second part, on the other hand, focuses on an in-depth analysis of the policies of car multinationals in specific national settings. This combination of comparative and national research provides the project with an interesting intellectual edge.

As the editors say in their introduction, three major conclusions can be drawn from the research presented in the book: first, that lean production has not been a panacea for the workers and the quality of their lives on the line, contrary to the declarations of its gurus. Indeed, as Pulignano and Steward claim in their chapter, under lean production 'bureaucratic forms of control have been refined rather than supplanted' (p. …