Lean times

 

 

Workers in a lean world: unions in the international economy, by Kim Moody (Verso)

Three snippets give an indication of the material Kim Moody covers in his latest book:

 

  • Workers on the General Motors assembly line used to work for 45 seconds out of every minute. Today they are in motion for 57 seconds a minute.

     

  • At the Opel car plant in East Germany internal contracting has resulted in 700 workers being employed by 28 different contractors. In the VW plant in Argentina workers from 24 different firms work side by side in the same facility making the same cars. The contract labour hire firm Manpower Inc has replaced General Motors as the USA's largest employer.

     

  • More then half of Australian companies use video and electronic surveillance of their employees. Monitoring phone calls, internet and e-mail usage is normal.

Lean production, a model inspired by Japanese manufacturing capital, has become an international phenomenon. Its beachheads were General Motors New United Motor Manufacturing Inc (NUMMI) plant in California, CAMI in Canada, Opel in Germany, Nissan's Sunderland plant and Renault's Cleon plan. The centrepiece of the system is the introduction of teams, and its features are restructuring work methods, downsizing, work intensification, flexibility, outsourcing, and overtime.

Two examples stand out. The Renault blue collar workforce at Boulogne-Billancourt was 35,000 when the plant was closed down as a precursor to introducing the lean system. When it re-opened at Cleon it employed 5,567 workers, with much of the parts production moved to other plants. After GM introduced the NUMMI system in the mid 1980s, each vehicle took a total of 21 hours to produce compared to the average 43 hours under the old system. Moody's colleagues at Labor Notes, Mike Parker and Jane Slaughter, named this system 'management by stress'.

Team work streamlines production by drawing on the knowledge of the workers to do the streamlining - the 'deliberate gathering in of all the great mass of traditional knowledge, which in the past had been in the heads of workmen', just as it was advocated by the early 20th century advocate of 'scientific management' FWTaylor.

The sad fact is that many workers see no other alternative but to assist their employers compete to bring wages and conditions down in order to compete against workers in other plants. One GM worker described it:'Given an opportunity to Ôbid' against outside suppliers to keep work, many members spent countless hours analysing the work process to develop innovative proposals to reduce cost and improve quality and service.'

The pattern is to get unions to first agree to co-operate in modernisation then turn on the union demanding increased flexibility, a list of lean production style changes, contracting out, downsizing, increased workloads and new work schedules. In the developed world union leaders have embraced a new 'realism' of competitive business considerations. Co-operation with management is the means to that end, and partnership with national or regional capital is the road to employment stabilisation. As a strategy this has demonstrably failed. The results are increased unemployment, casualisation, lower real wages, lower living standards, increased income inequality and pervasive uncertainty about the future.

Moody calls for a new international social-movement unionism, arguing that it has already been born in Korea, South Africa, Brazil and the more industrialised parts of the third world. New layers of union activists have also emerged in the United States in a number of localised union campaigns, in starting the Labor Party in 1996, and in the new AFL-CIO leadership. Critical to the new unionism is the fight for union democracy and leadership accountability, membership activation and involvement, commitment to union growth and recruitment and to reaching out to other sectors and organisations of the working class.

What Moody doesn't consider is how such a social-movement unionism might connect with, or in the case of the US, develop with a political party of the working class. This a book about the political economy of the working class, but not about politics. Political parties, other than governing labour parties, the Democrats and the formative American Labor Party, are not discussed. The need for working-class socialist political parties is not raised. There is also some skimming over the difference between union leaders, working class leadership and political leadership. At times they are treated separately, at other times interchangeably, indicative of a lack of clarity about the role of each.

If the argument of the book - that lean production and market regulation are the cause of the race to the bottom - then any effective alternative must be based on rejecting accommodation to those forces. The repackaged social democratic claims of a third way, a way of ameliorating class division in order to produce mutually acceptable change are illusory. To endeavour to convince workers and union activists of the possibilities that improved living standards can result from this collaborative practice is to build false hopes and turn a blind eye to what is really happening in the workplace and in working class communities across the globe.

Tony Brown