Academic journal article Capital & Class

Degrading the Labourer: The Reform of Local Government Manual Work

Academic journal article Capital & Class

Degrading the Labourer: The Reform of Local Government Manual Work

Article excerpt

Introduction

The central labour problem, as identified by us academics and capitalists such as Rockefeller in the 1920s, remains that of relative low productivity (Kaufman, 2001). In the modernisation of UK public services since the 1980s, and particularly in the context of labour-intensive services funded centrally but delivered locally (and personally), public-policy initiatives have been aimed at increasing labour productivity in order to deliver standard services at ever-decreasing unit costs. The myriad of policies in this area are best understood as attempts to solve this problem and equally to remove obstacles to such solutions, identified as including trade unions, local councillors, staff and even careless service users. Thus the reform of public services requires the reform of labour management, with the express purpose of improving productivity in order to meet the wider objectives of a stable tax regime and acceptable service standards.

Within UK public services, poor performance has traditionally been seen as being mainly due to low productivity and inefficiency, and all parties and governments have set up a variety of bodies to address these faults. In general, in the UK at least, progressive public administration (the dominant trend) has been increasingly blamed along with its concomitant parts: strong trade unions, departmentalised management, compliant employers, and weak central control and direction from government. The remedies have included a variety of structural changes across the public sector, from the use of bonus and other schemes to improve productivity (NBPI, 1967; Clegg, 1980) to attacks on wastefulness and efforts to recruit better-qualified staff (LACSAB, 1993). Some worked and some did not, but the problems persisted. By the early 1980s, therefore, two major policies had been developed: privatisation and for those services remaining in the public sector, 'accountingisation' (Duncan & Goodwin, 1988).

With the reform of public-sector management came a renewal of the debate about public-sector work itself. Various kinds of Marxists had argued around the twin notions of the (un)productive nature of the work, and the nature of the value added and its extraction in the form of surplus value. The realisation of any such surplus as profit is clearly quite a different issue. Marx was clear that it is labour power that is the productive force, and so it is labour power that the proletarian sells (Cohen, 1978: 41-45). The subsequent extraction of surplus value is a logically distinct activity, since 'the form of the surplus and mode of exploitation' are distinct concepts (Cohen, 1978:83). While there is no doubt as to the longstanding nature, importance and persistence of those debates (Mandel, 1968; Johnston, I994), dealing as they do with the complexities surrounding the changing function of public-service labour in a capitalist economy, a full consideration or development of them is outside the scope of the present paper. The main aim here is more modest: to build on recent developments in this debate in order to show, through a longitudinal case study of two manual services in one local authority, the concrete detail of how public-service labour processes are affected by the changing relations between the state and private capital under neoliberalist reforms (Whitfield, 2001).

In particular, we build on Carter and Fairbrother's (1999) argument that with the ending of the state's role as 'model employer' (if, as they concede, there was ever a beginning) came an attack on public-sector workers and their unions. In essence, their point is that an employers' offensive created the conditions by which alienated and exploited labour was seen to coexist in these services with other more ambiguously placed professional and managerial cadres. Harvie (2006) extended this position by arguing that teachers, for example, add value indirectly through their product but also directly through the ideology of excellence in education. …

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