Friday, September 11, 2009

The big squeeze


By Andy Brooks

We Sell Our Time No More by Paul Stewart, Ken Murphy et al, pbk, illus., 272pp Pluto Press London £19.99

First of all a word of warning. Despite the snappy title this is not a rank-and-file saga about struggle on the shop floor but rather an academic study of the problems facing workers in the face of a renewed employers’ assault on their terms and conditions.
Written by a team of academics and some union officials this book is packed with historical analysis and useful statistics based on research covering two decades. More precisely this book is a detailed analysis of the unions’ response to “lean production” in the British motor industry. Two of the main contributors, Paul Stewart and Ken Murphy, are pillars of the Automotive Workers’ Research Network. Ken Murphy worked for General Motors for over twenty years and Paul Stewart is Professor of the Sociology of Work and Employment at Strathclyde University in Scotland.
Lean production, devised in Japan and pioneered by Toyota, claims to be an approach which produces world class performance and employee satisfaction. In fact all it consists of is a management programme to replace traditional work-practices with a system that cuts “waste” and tries to use every minute of the workers’ time in the productive process in methods which they call “team work”, “quality circles”, “flexibility” and “just-in-time” production.
It’s a very old game called squeezing as much as you can out of the worker and paying as little as possible in return. In the past organised labour not only regulated pay and conditions but also managed to win significant improvements on the shop floor. Now with the unions crippled by anti-union legislation management has been able to pump up production and impose draconian cuts in pay and conditions.
The book focuses on the unions’ official response and rank-and-file resistance at Vauxhall-GM and Rover/BMW using survey data and discussions with shop-stewards on the front-line. This book is an invaluable aid in the struggle for union officials in manufacturing and beyond as well as providing an important resource for students of industrial relations. It can be readily obtained from any high-street bookshop or ordered from your library.