Academic journal article Capital & Class

Heading for Disaster: Extreme Work and Skill Mix Changes in the Emergency Services of England

Academic journal article Capital & Class

Heading for Disaster: Extreme Work and Skill Mix Changes in the Emergency Services of England

Article excerpt

Introduction

It is now a commonplace of day-to-day work that managers acting on behalf of employers in both the public and private sectors are using the recession and attendant austerity measures in the United Kingdom to push back the frontier of control (Goodrich 1920) and reduce workers' and union rights and abilities to mobilise against wage cuts and deteriorating terms and conditions of service (Centre for Labour and Social Studies (CLASS) 2015). This is all part of the small state aspirations of Conservative government policy (Krugman 2015). This study examines some of those sectors with high union membership, strong formal industrial relations traditions, high public profiles, and which are part and parcel of the daily expectations of citizens being protected by the state from harm. The three emergency services (fire, police and ambulance) come into our lives when there is a crisis, protect us all from harm, and are now experiencing the same kind of labour management pressures found elsewhere in the economy (Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) 2015). The governments austerity policies have speeded up and enlarged those trends in emergency services management that were apparent before 2008, but only in a piecemeal and limited way.

Work is organised in ways that are supposed to ensure that those at work are set tasks to achieve in a controlled and orderly fashion explicitly linked to the service being provided to a given set of customer-users and within the context of the pro tem business priorities. This division of labour and skill mix is designed to maximise productivity and minimise labour costs within an efficient firm. Classical and neo-classical economists concern themselves with both the level of wages in exchange for labour and the use-value of that labour when managed to perform set tasks (Hicks [1932] 1963). This general position gives rise to the ceaseless set of workplace conflicts between managers acting on behalf of the employer and workers (individually and collectively through their trade unions) seeking to defend and improve their pay and conditions of service (Kelly 1999), including the use to which the employer puts their skills. This struggle over job regulation is part of the wider class struggle to recognise the nature of exploitation and the efforts to hide it from workers (Hyman 1989).

The argument is summed up, 'as the division of labour increases, labour is simplified' (Marx [1849] 1977: 225). This becomes the basis for two subsequent debates rooted in an increasingly instrumental view taken by workers of their work (Goldthorpe et al. 1968), namely that they work for wages and that is that (Marx [1859] 1971: 210). As labour diminishes into ever smaller skill differences (however much exaggerated), the advent of 'generalised labour' creates a labour market ever more flexible and mobile to suit all occasions (Marx & Engels [1846] 1976: 87). As Cohen (1988) summarises, 'capitalism increases the number of distinct jobs involved in the production of a given product, but at the same time it decreases the specialization of the worker' (p. 194). This lays the basis for both Braverman's (1974) general deskilling thesis and Polanyi's (1944) interpretation of Gramsci's works ([1929-1935] 1971) about the socialised nature of the division of labour and its attendant consequences for the creation of a working class as a class (Burawoy 2003). This includes, though frequently in a contentious manner, workers in uniforms especially as the office holders are state employees with a distinctive employment status.

Under these long-term tendencies for the development of a generalised labour problem, senior managers devise a range of solutions for controlling worker performance within the twin pressures of internally set budgets and externally created demand for the service (Marginson 1993). In the public sector, all of this applies and at times of austerity becomes both the dominant and determinant pressure generated from the neoliberal policy programme (Krugman 2015). …

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