Did Manual Workers Want Industrial Welfare? Canteens, Latrines and Masculinity on British Building Sites 1918-1970

Article excerpt

Twentieth century employer welfarism--that "ragbag" of fringe remunerations and non-money wages (1)--has, by and large, been judged pejoratively: damned for being a "sugared pill" sufficiently appealing to steal away workers' class allegiances or so important to them that its threatened denial promoted disciplined workplace conformity. (2) Perhaps this is to misconstrue the social relationship between employer and employee, welfare and work: arguably a greater balance always existed in paternalistic practices between "coercion" and active "consent". (3) Critically, however, neither overview sits easily with an alleged, albeit relatively unexplored, worker antipathy to welfarism or indifference to poor working conditions, where primacy was continually afforded to "money wages" and little else. In these terms welfarism, as either a coercive or consensual strategy, was largely misplaced and can best be explained in terms of employers misinterpreting worker priorities. (4)

Yet trade union pressure for welfarism increased through time: indeed, the greater prejudice against giving welfarism a "fair trial" came rather from company directors and managers. (5) Wrigley notes that when, during the Second World War, joint workplace committees were established in British industry to improve productivity, "as much of as a third of their time was spent on discussing welfare and other matters" (6) --a scenario more suggestive of employer past neglect and worker interest, than coercive imposition. Nor apparently was this simply wartime bonhomie. An analysis of joint consultation foci in the post 1945 period suggests a continuing workplace preoccupation with "tea, towels and toilets". (7)

Did workers themselves, therefore, want welfarism, and if not, why not? This article tests the attitudes of operatives in the construction industry, from the introduction of national collective bargaining shortly after World War One through to the period of alleged modernization in the 1960s. The views of building operatives offer an interesting pointer because construction was reputed less for its pristine provision than its "primitive" welfare conditions: here perhaps we can find a baseline marker against which attitudes in other industries may be set and judged. Construction was almost exclusively an all male world. Inherent within was a philosophy that placed little productive value on improving working conditions, and instead stressed worker self-reliance. Yet construction operated, too, within an industrial relations system reputed for its capacity "to play fair", (8) where the building unions increasingly demanded reform and a broader industrial-political discourse existed championing the cause to "hu manize" British industry.

The article takes as its starting point the construction of a positive masculine site identity, based on skill but also on physical endurance and hardship. Welfarism, it will be argued, frequently worked against the operatives' cultural understanding of what site life meant. Union representatives, however, viewed this site life through different filters. Moreover, the socio-industrial constructs of "conditions of work" issues changed through time. Only in such inter-locking contexts (for example, workplace control, status, respectability and toughness) can the negative attitudes of operatives to welfare and fringe benefit provision be understood.

Site identity, manliness and welfare

The discourse on the building industry as a "Cinderella" sector with poor welfare provision is well established: contextually, the "tough working conditions taken for granted in a coarser nineteenth century world", by the inter-war period "began to look anachronistic". (9) Writing in 1948 the Labour economist, David Hall, characterized this state of affairs as "well known" for being "fairly, sometimes very bad":

Work takes place in the open air, often on remote sites and in bad weather--if it is not stopped altogether, thus leading to the age old curse of the industry, broken time. …