A future which works

Michael Ignatieff

  • Trade Unions in British Politics edited by Ben Pimlott
    Longman, 302 pp, £6.50, September 1982, ISBN 0 582 49184 3
  • Trade Unions: The Logic of Collective Action by Colin Crouch
    Fontana, 251 pp, £2.50, August 1982, ISBN 0 00 635873 X
  • Work and Politics: The Division of Labour in Industry by Charles Sabel
    Cambridge, 304 pp, £17.50, September 1982, ISBN 0 521 23002 0
  • Strikes and the Government, 1893-1981 by Eric Wigham
    Macmillan, 248 pp, £20.00, February 1982, ISBN 0 333 32302 5
  • Governments and Trade Unions: The British Experience, 1964-1979 by Dennis Barnes
    Heinemann Educational, 242 pp, £6.50, February 1982, ISBN 0 435 83046 5
  • The Assembly Line by Robert Linhart, translated by Margaret Crosland
    Calder, 160 pp, £3.95, September 1981, ISBN 0 7145 3742 X

It is not easy to make sense of the trade unions. ‘Suicidal’, ‘mindless’ and ‘atavistic’ are, to be sure, epithets of wilful incomprehension, but even those disposed to understand sometimes find it hard to comprehend union behaviour, workers’ interests and the uncertain fit between the two. The first obvious case which baffles even sympathetic onlookers arises when unions strike in apparent disregard of the apocalyptic economic facts in their industry. During the ASLEF strike, even those loyal to the traditions of craft unionism found it difficult to see why the union should have seen fit to push the industry to the brink of collapse. It may be rational, even in a time of recession, to take on a plump multinational subsidiary like Ford’s, but it seems insane to grapple over the rusting hulk of some near-bankrupt nationalised industry. A rational explanation of union behaviour in these cases would have to demonstrate how unions manage to construe the facts of life in their industry in such a way that they can convince themselves and their members that they are defending, not destroying, their own occupation. The second case, which equally baffles outsiders, occurs when even unionised workers are seen to put up with low pay, appalling conditions or both without collective complaint. The cotton workers who have been stoically giving their lungs and their lives to the defence of an industry itself dying on its feet from mismanagement and foreign competition are the most pathetic example. If the first case – ‘suicidal militancy’ – is the bête noire of Conservatives, the second is the eternal puzzlement of Marxists. Neither side produces explanations of these cases which credit workers with the capacity to think for themselves. Conservatives like to emphasise the political and personal ambitions of the leadership – the Ray Bucktons of this world – thus failing to explain why the rank and file seem so regularly to find sound reasons of self-interest to support their leaders’ supposedly selfish causes. The catch-phrases in the Marxist explanation of why workers put up with the unbearable – the ‘divide and rule’ tactics of the employers, the ‘co-optation’ of the unions, the weight of ‘dominant ideology’ – likewise assume a passive rank and file, incapable of either speaking or knowing their own minds. It is almost an embarrassment, and certainly a puzzle, that these same numbed and divided workers can, with surprising suddenness, become militants in their own cause. Then, of course, Marxist sociology has to explain that they were secret bearers of revolutionary consciousness all along.

Three of the works under review – Barry Hindess’s essay in the Pimlott and Cook volume, and the books by Sabel and Crouch – are valuable simply for their critique of the ways in which both Marxist and mainstream sociologies of work condescend to workers’ capacity to know and defend their own interests. Crouch sets out to show that union bargaining strategy, even those hair-raising games of chicken in cash-starved nationalised industries, can be understood as a form of rational action. By and large, he argues, unions do not negotiate in blithe disregard of the facts of life in their industry: instead, they bluff because they know that these ‘facts’ themselves are negotiable, at least up to a point. Bargaining itself consists in arguing until both sides agree as to the limits which these facts impose on the pot available for distribution in wages. If, like Samson, unions occasionally pull the house of industry down upon their own ears, they can be blamed for miscalculating the facts, but not for perverse or masochistic persistence in unreason. In the opposite case, where unions’ supine claims demand less than the traffic will bear, this is not, Crouch argues, because unions are caught in the thrall of dominant ideology or corporatist co-optation, but because they have learned, from previous negotiating rounds, that they lack the strength to secure a higher claim.

Crouch does not give sufficient attention to the structural differences between bargaining in the industrial and public service sectors. In the industrial sector, even when allowance has been made for the mendacities of creative accounting, the range of potential disagreement over the economic facts of life is limited. If the cars aren’t selling, if the stock room is full, there is a starkness in these facts which is apt to concentrate minds and narrow disagreement. Where industrial companies receive public money, as in the case of British Leyland, government can concentrate minds further by ruling out further subsidy. On the other hand, in public services like the National Health, ‘what the country can afford’ is much more obviously a political rather than a market limit. Even monetarist economists are unable to prove that existing levels of public expenditure are above the carrying capacity of this economy. It is well-known that Germany and France outperform us economically, while apportioning a larger percentage of GDP to social welfare. This means, following Crouch’s own model, that the ‘facts’ of economic life in the public service sector are more open to dispute than they are in the industrial sector: moreover, every strike is a political strike, since the paymaster is the government, and those who pay are the public. This in itself makes for protracted disputes. Modern industrial relations, particularly in the public sector, is an increasingly wretched dogfight, not simply because resources are getting scarcer and scarcer, but because there is no social consensus over what scarcities count as facts before which all claims must bow. Crouch’s model does not explain either how these disputes over the facts of scarcity arise nor how they are resolved.

Despite his own disclaimers, his conception of rational action also tends to emphasise the economic and instrumental interests of workers at the expense of their moral and political interests. Certainly, there are times – Crouch shows that the Leyland dispute of 1980 is one such instance – where workers seem willing to trade political goals – control over shop-floor working practices – for the sake of economic gain. Crouch’s analysis works less well, it seems to me, in cases where economic, moral and political goals cannot be separated. The health workers’ dispute is such an instance. It is not about low pay itself, but about the dishonour which low pay does to caring work in an essential service. The ‘instrumental goal’ – more pay – is simultaneously moral and political: an improved offer would give symbolic recognition to work which serves essential needs. This is indeed why the claim seems rational to the public, fair rather than greedy. In these cases, where the moral legitimacy of the claim is what makes it a rational bargaining strategy, Sabel’s analysis of how workers assemble their world views of what is fair and just seems a more discriminating instrument than Crouch’s narrowly economic model of rational action.

Sabel is especially good at interpreting the second of the puzzles I began with: why the same workers who put up with bad pay and conditions for long periods then suddenly rise up against them. Sabel cites the example of the Italian peasant workers who came to Turin and Milan in the Forties and Fifties, disappointing their Northern craftsmen work-mates by their docility and indifference to union causes. In the ‘hot autumn’ of 1969, they astonished everyone by pitching themselves into the front line of the industrial battle. Likewise, the Portuguese workers in French car plants were so indifferent to the industrial turmoil of May ’68 that most of them went home for the month. In the Seventies and Eighties, they have become committed to the union struggles in their industry. Sabel explains both examples with the same model: militancy is a function of a worker’s integration in and commitment to the labour market. The peasant workers of the Fifties believed that their sojourn in the factories of the industrial North would be temporary. By the late Sixties, they began to realise they were stuck with factory work, and, as they did so, they understood, for the first time, that the industrial struggle of the unions was ‘their’ struggle. Similarly, Portuguese dreams of return kept them out of the battle, until these dreams perished in the double experience of the French recession and the continuing stagnation of the economy back home.

This analysis, oddly enough, suggests a way of understanding the hospital workers’ dispute. If the dispute is centrally about a claim to moral, political and economic recognition of the worth of women’s labour in an essential service, why is it occurring just now? Why were women prepared to put up with the endemic low pay in the service, and why has a new generation refused to do so? Sabel’s analysis suggests the hypothesis that the older generation, like the immigrant and peasant workers, were birds of passage in their labour market, putting up with low pay because they could count on a husband’s wage as well, and because they could adapt the ease of entry into low-skill jobs to their own purposes, leaving work when children came along, taking it up again when the children went off to school. What has changed, as the Census tells us, is the growth of single-parent families headed by working women, the increase in single-wage earners living alone, and the increase in women’s marrying age. It is reasonable to suppose that for young nurses, hospital orderlies and tea ladies increasingly living on their own or bringing up children on their own, the old pattern of rational acquiescence in low pay has become irrational. And dishonourable. From being an interlude, public-sector employment has become a career for women. A career can be dishonoured by low pay, a work interlude less so. In other words, changes in the demography of the family and in women’s place in the labour market have coincided with a transformation in how women think about their work and how they think that work should be valued by society at large. Can it be accidental that their long-simmering resentment at the exploitation of their devotion and care in the Health Service should have boiled over at a moment when the exploitation of female devotion and sacrifice in the home has been politicised as never before?

It is a paradox that this anger, which builds up from so many sources, can co-exist with relative indifference to other, equally great injustices. At no time in the Health Service dispute, to my knowledge, have the health workers made the pay of doctors an issue. It has been consultants themselves – and not hospital orderlies – who have remarked on the fact that they recently received a weekly pay increase which by an ironic coincidence was equal to the net weekly income of some 100,000 ancillary staff. W. G. Runciman’s well-known explanation of this paradoxical attitude to inequality is that workers only resent differentials between their pay and other people’s when the other people in question are doing jobs to which they themselves could aspire. Since the doctor’s world is beyond their ken, it is beyond their anger. Sabel is correct to point out that Runciman’s analysis tends, even against his own intentions, to make workers’ attitudes to inequality a function of the habits of class submission rather than a matter of rational reflection: but Sabel ought to have taken this criticism further. It is possible that many hospital workers believe doctors do make too much, but are unable to agree about how much is too much. Instead, they concentrate on those differentials between comparable grades where judgments about justice are less contestable. In other words, it may be the case that injustice persists because the essential contestability of justice in income distribution makes a social agreement on the question impossible.

Both Eric Wigham’s and Dennis Barnes and Eileen Reid’s sombre narratives of the history of government-union relations since 1964 fail to show that an almost complete lack of public consensus as to what constitutes a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work has dogged the search for a fair incomes policy just as much as the unions’ resistance to government tampering with differentials or a failure of political will. It is in this impasse over the meaning of justice in relation to income that Thatcherism prospers – in unholy and unlikely alliance with the unions’ commitment to ‘free collective bargaining’.

All, however, is not gloom in these worthy and interesting analyses of our present discontents. At least Charles Sabel has seen a future which seems to work. It is in Emilia Romagna, of all places, in the high-technology cottage industries of the Italian North, making everything from shoes to precision machine-tools, that Sabel sees a potential alternative path for Western industries hard-pressed by Third World competition. It is obvious that we are living through a depression which is simultaneously a momentous restructuring of the world division of labour, with old labour-intensive mass-production industries like steel, textiles and even cars passing to the low-wage countries of the Third World periphery, while the West struggles to find its comparative advantage in high-skill, capital-intensive ‘sunrise’ industries producing high-priced goods for a fluid and variable demand. In this revolution, Sabel argues, it may no longer make sense for developed nations to compete with the Third World in the mass-produced goods sector using the Fordist assembly-line methods so horrifically described in Robert Linhart’s account of working for Citroën. The rational solution for the West is the one beckoning in the hill-towns of the Emilia Romagna, where small, capital-intensive shops employing skilled craftsmen and designers working in tandem are taking over skilled production work which the mass-production giants of the Po valley have proved too inflexible to undertake themselves. While some are simply sweatshops by a new name, using children to produce shoes on old sewing-machines, many are white antiseptic hives using laser technology to produce parts for such giants as Boeing Aircraft of Seattle.

If this is the way of the future, it is a very different way from the supposedly inexorable de-skilling and automation of industrial labour predicted by Braverman and other Marxists as the only possible Western response to Third World competition. It is a future which may take us out of Fordist mass production altogether. Sabel’s future is seductive, but he is unclear about the politics which will get us there. It may be irrational for governments to attempt to fight low-wage competition by job subsidies and tariff barriers, but this defence of the old mass-production base may be unavoidable, even for Thatcherites, in the face of the spectre of mass unemployment. It is not even clear that cottage industry, with its premium on skilled labour and capital intensity, has the capacity to sop up the huge and growing mass of unskilled unemployed. Paradoxically, therefore, the politics of unemployment may actively retard the transition to a post-industrial cottage future. After all, it would not be the first time that the politics of managing the present blinded government to the division of labour of the future.