We Sell Our Time No More

Issue section: 
Issue: 
(340)

Paul Stewart, Ken Murphy, Andy Danford, Tony Richardson, Mike Richardson and Vicki Wass, Pluto; £19.99

Workers have become used to "key performance indicators", "team working", "appraisals" and a whole battery of measures that go under the rubric of "flexibility" and "modernisation". The test bed for all this nonsense was the car industry.

In Japan, where the system was first developed, "teams" weren't mentioned. US human resource managers added the word "team" to sell the idea to workers.

As one US study of the car industry puts it, "The teams in auto plants are made up of interchangeable workers, each adaptable enough to grant management maximum flexibility.

"Such teams have more in common with a team of horses - equal beasts of burden yoked together to pull for a common end (determined by the person holding the whip)."

Lean production, as it became known, claimed to produce world class performance and employee satisfaction. In fact all it consisted of was a management programme to replace traditional work practices with a system that cuts "waste" and tries to use every minute of the workers' time. The basis of this battle came with the shift from piecework - when workers were paid according to the amount of work they did rather than the time spent doing it - to measured day work.

This book focuses on the unions' official response and rank and file resistance to lean production at Vauxhall-GM and Rover/BMW. By far the best section is a roundtable discussion by shop stewards which gives a grounding to the book and allows the feel of struggle to come through.

Along the way there are a number of insights into the daily grind of trade union battles. The recognition that management is in it for the long haul and has a strategy to do workers over is refreshingly done. There is a wealth of information on the way outsourcing is used not to improve production but to break up organisation.

The book throws light on the constant danger of falling for "whipsawing", the playing off cuts or threatened closures of plants against one another. Yet at the same time the book accepts a logic that presumes multinationals can just up and leave if they like.

The politics of the book reflect years of small and large defeats in the car industry underwritten by the attacks on the conditions of car workers it describes.

I learnt much, but unfortunately the book suffers severely from being badly edited and too academic. Nonetheless, a powerful story emerges when the voices of car workers break into the text, which to the authors' credit they do often.