“In the last couple of years there has been a renewed interest in Working For Ford , the book I wrote over forty years ago, with many people seeing it as having contemporary significance. The journal Work Employment and Society is carrying a symposium on the book later this year and in
relation to this I came across a very interesting blogpost by Owen Hatherley – “The Line Never Stops”. Owen has generously agreed to make this available for this site, and I hope you enjoy reading it.”
SUNDAY, JUNE 13, 2010
The Line Never Stops
A post in which I basically just quote from Working For Ford by Huw Beynon. This was a chance purchase in a Glasgow bookshop a few months ago (the bookseller previously mentioned here was a big fan). It is the best book I’ve read in a very long time, a brilliantly ambitious survey both of Ford and Fordism and its particular application to Halewood in Merseyside in the late 1960s and early ’70s; it moves from the abstract and structural to the bitterly concrete with an ease you seldom get with Marxist writers today (Mike Davis certainly, a few other exceptions…Ivor Southwood’s forthcoming Non-Stop Inertia for Zero among them..but nonetheless. I presume there’s someone somewhere doing something similar in Shenzhen? ). You should all go and read it, but it’s especially interesting if read today with certain recent developments in mind. Firstly, the ‘end’ of Fordism soon after he wrote it; the representation since then of the hard union politics Beynon writes about as something macho and self-defeating; and the partly justified nostalgia for the Fordist era most eloquently represented by Judt. We find here on the one hand a kind of organisation which has ended, partly for better, partly for worse, and also something which has continued in the most malign fashion.
‘I can see the time when the bomb goes up, you know. I can see myself leading the lads off my section and just destroying this place. I can see that happening. But you’ve got to cope with the plant as it is now, you’ve got to come in every day and represent the lads…sometimes I think ‘what the hell are you doing? You’re just doing management’s job.’
Halewood shop steward
Rather than a ‘settlement’ that could have gone on indefinitely, the book depicts the era of Fordism and social democracy as a war of attrition, in which one side was absolutely bound to eventually win over the other. One of the Halewood shop stewards interviewed in the book comments ”You don’t go in there and say ‘this is a bloody war and if we don’t get it we’re going to smash you.’ We don’t say that but I think we ought to now and again. Because it is a bloody war.’ The sense of explosive tension is palpable throughout the book, the sense that something is absolutely bound to give way. The book features some of the most vivid descriptions of Fordist work outside of Celine – ‘working in a car plant’, writes Beynon, ‘involves coming to terms with the assembly line. ‘The line never stops’, you are told. Why not? ‘…don’t ask. It never stops.” While Ford or Taylor may have considered this suitable work for an illiterate and unthinking proletariat, here the Ford workers have to force themselves to temporarily become the automaton demanded by the Taylorist method – ”when I’m here my mind’s a blank. I make it go blank.’ They all say that. They all tell the story about the man who left Ford to work in a sweet factory where he had to divide up the reds from the blues, but left because he couldn’t take the decision making. Or the country lad who couldn’t believe that he had to work on every car: ‘oh no. I’ve done my car. That one down there. A green one it was’.
Beynon also uncovers how the temporary settlement between the unions and the automobile manufacturers emerged in 1930s America precisely through each side agreeing to compromise – but what they actually compromise over reveals something instructive. He quotes a GM executive, who explains that the company has no quarrel with unions as long as they don’t ‘invade basic management prerogatives’. Earlier, ‘our right to determine production schedules, set work standards and to discipline workers were all suddenly called into question…it is easy to understand why it seemed to some corporate officials as though the union might one day virtually be in control of our operations’. But as soon as the AFL-CIO – and later the TUC – made quite clear that pay and conditions were their concern rather than any Syndicalist extremism, they calmed down and institutionalised the union. The fact that the militancy of the ’70s led to a new hostility to the very idea of partnership with unions is telling – they were fine as long as they knew their place. So any intervention into, say, the use of Taylorism would be considered stepping on management’s toes – ‘they decide on their measured day how fast we will work…they’ve agreed to have a built-in allowance of six minutes for going to the toilet, blowing your nose and that. It takes you six minutes to get your trousers down’. As in the assembly line, so in the call centre.
‘Rightness in mechanics, rightness in morals are basically the same thing and cannot rest apart’.
In Americanism and Fordism, a rather odd, intriguing and occasionally disturbing partial celebration of what was then the most advanced form of capitalism, Antonio Gramsci praises the moral discipline created by the Taylor system and Ford’s sponsorship of the nuclear family, leading to a stability and sobriety which is politically useful for the proletariat itself, as it finds itself able to attack from a position where everyday life is no longer a chaotic struggle. But activism of this sort is usually remembered as a very macho thing indeed, where women were either considered peripheral or an active impediment to militancy. Beynon depicts the women workers at some of the plants as some of the most militant unionists, but for the shop stewards ‘the wife’ is usually a distrusting figure in the background, for fairly obvious reasons – ‘one senior steward claimed to have never had a Sunday dinner with his family since he took up with the union (….) The fact that trade union activity is voluntarily undertaken for other people’s benefit does cause strain in a society where self advancement and self interest are the dominant values. ‘You’ve got to have a very understanding wife in this game”.
“No man who owns his own house and lot can be a communist,”
Now that the few workers who could agree with the Halewood worker quoted as saying ‘you need two weeks to call it a real strike’ can be found in fairly ‘feminised’ jobs rather than heavy industry, this seems a relic – but what is more interesting is the suspicion the Halewood stewards have of domesticity – not in terms of ‘the wife’ in the background, but through a deep distrust of the incipient ‘property-owning democracy’, recognising that it’s a form of transparent and dangerous bribery – and it’s here that the book is at its most prescient, where it shows Ford using subtler strategies than beatings or sackings. One steward comments – ‘you see what happens to supervisors. They get made up, earn a lot more money and then the company starts encouraging them to buy a house, to get a car on the company’s scheme. I know this for a fact. Then when they’re up to their neck in debt they put the screws on them, and they’ve got no chance. A shop steward should never be in that position, where he can’t afford to go on strike pay. I’d never buy a house when I was a shop steward. I don’t think any steward should.’ What has happened since is that most of the population fell for it, with catastrophic levels of household debt coinciding, surprise surprise, with low levels of strikes and high levels of exploitation.
The disdain for the domestic here leads to one of the book’s most apposite passages: ‘the middle classes are afraid of ‘falling on hard times’, of falling into the working class, but even more afraid of the working class rising up to challenge their rightful place in the sun. In coping with this, they have tended to interpret the working class through their own, specifically middle class, images. They find the ‘warmth’ of working class communities attractive. Homely workers are nice. It’s when this ‘warmth’ comes on to the streets that it causes problems’. Over the last few decades it’s this Uses of Literacy version of the working class that has dominated the media – a friendly, simple people, whose placid lives were upended by town planning and immigration, who only occasionally converge with the force that scared the middle classes witless in the 1970s. Finally, Working for Ford reminds that the process of decentring industry, moving it to the peripheries and the areas where abuses could not be seen, was something practised by Ford long before Post-Fordism took it and ran with it. Halewood was built in the first place because, with its history of casual labour on the Docks, its workers were considered easily exploited, unlike the unionised workers at their Dagenham plant. The book profiles the hyper-exploitation of these early days at Halewood, before unions instituted some sort of order. One worker claims ‘I didn’t have any relations with my wife for months. Now that’s not right is it? No work should be that hard! They wouldn’t stop that fucking line. You could be dying and they wouldn’t stop it.’ It hasn’t stopped yet.
Below are comments that were written in reply to the blog post by Owen
“A shop steward should never be in that position, where he can’t afford to go on strike pay. I’d never buy a house when I was a shop steward.”
The difference today is that Ford employees (or any other production workers for that matter) don’t want to buy houses because they are so scared their jobs will disappear, and the odds of even making even close to the same money somewhere else are next to nil.
As bad as the production line seemed to those doing these repetitive, monotonous tasks under Fordism, the alternative (or lack thereof) now seems worse. When I was a child growing up near Buffalo, NY, our neighbour was laid off from the steel plant when it closed in the early 1980s. He drifted through a series of low-paying part-time phases of employment but never worked a steady decent-paying job for the rest of his life. Fear of never finding work again makes striking almost off the table- it is impossible for the workers to gain the upper hand when production can almost always be moved somewhere cheaper.
It’s funny in a way that the Taylorist/Fordist method could be seen as oppressive when reviewing the opportunities left for workers in a post-industrial economy. I remember people fighting to get interviews for almost minimum-wage jobs at call centres that had sprung up in vacant factories. The work is certainly not much more clever or intelligent than an assembly line, yet at the same time so low-paying the possibility of buying a house (or doing almost anything) on the wages is pretty much non-existent (even in Buffalo). The idea of setting up a union at a call centre is pointless, as there is so little investment on the part of the owners there is very little incentive not to just shut the office down and move elsewhere. What a sad dead end we have reached.
Thanks for this – echoed many of my own thoughts on rereading this book recently, especially the sections on domesticity.
owen hatherley said…
Mark – yes, that’s true enough, and in some parts of the ex-industrial UK things are like that – but having a more serious Welfare safety net than the US (the dismantlement of which was achieved with the partial assistance of those it once helped), plus the expansion of the service industry and local govt jobs means that things are fairly different here.
There’s a huge amount of people who have completely bought into the fantasy of ‘property-owning democracy’ – the way in which house prices are a national cult is not solely limited to the middle classes by any means. The Right to Buy council housing was an astoundingly astute policy, both in destroying public housing, reinforcing an ideology of privacy and privatisation, and in tithing many of those who bought (and then sold, then bought again) into a lifetime of debt. In every respect, it served to very effectively prevent any kind of collective political consciousness, which is one of the reasons why we’re so screwed – people couldn’t see that they were being tricked, precisely because they wouldn’t see these things in the distrustful terms the Halewood stewards (or at least those quoted in the book) did.
If only the average person were half as astute as those stewards!
owen hatherley said…
But then re: Taylorism…I’ve written a fair bit about it elsewhere, and in some ways it’s more interesting a phenomenon than simple machine-enslavement; the way it prefigures robotics suggests a method that had as its destination the abolition of labour completely; which I suppose is what happened at many Ford factories. A saner economic system might have used that method and that technology for something more constructive than robots building cars and humans marshalled into the (still decidedly Taylorist in their organisation) call centres.
Interestingly, the line never stopped, until it as good as killed Ford and GM.
One of the consequences of never stopping the line was that their quality control was dire, and that dodgy cars would pile up and have to be expensively and imperfectly reworked by people with exactly the multiple skills they were trying to engineer out of the main line. Another one was that tooling-up to make one kind of car and one only with minimal user skill meant that it took a year to 18 months to change anything. Toyota took a very different approach – at one point they were actually paying a bonus for anyone who stopped the line.
I spent a significant chunk of last week listening to call-centre software vendors talking in terms that would have been very familiar to the Halewood workers, FW Taylor, or Friedrich Engels. It really was as if lean production, neo-craftsmanship, social democracy, etc, had never happened.
Call centres are interesting social institutions because they combine being really dreadful workplaces, being drastically inefficient, and providing a really horrible customer experience. It’s a sort of strange attractor of all-round crapness, an evil Nash equilibrium.
A telling point is how crappy the tools are – the UI for the latest product from the company I was being propagandised by would have been laughed out of Google, and not even shown at Apple. Compulsory software is always dire because there is no selection pressure to be less dire, of course.
(Captcha: Carph. Carping or Carphone?)
owen hatherley said…
Well, yes – although just-in-time is every bit as bonkers as Fordism in its own way, and while the Line may get stopped in car manufacturing, perhaps, it sure as hell doesn’t in call centres.
My Mum (it’s family history week here at SDMYABT), who currently works as a radiologist’s assistant, recently tried to get promoted; one of the things she had to do was compose an essay on lean production/Toyotaisation and its possible application in the NHS. I shit you not.
it sure as hell doesn’t in call centres
I can certainly imagine the NHS benefiting from poka-yoke design. Apparently doctors don’t use things like checklists.
(captcha: prebedyl. a pharmaceutical product, or a model village in Wales?)
Making your mind go blank—
To a far far lesser extent, this is precisely what let me survive four years of six month contracts fixing indexes, checking footnotes, confirming proper names, checking stylesheets, and so on, with ever tightening deadline pressures.
Everything had to become just a matter of patterns and routines and racing against myself to be faster. I couldn’t let myself really read anything I was working on.
Now that I cannot stop thinking about what I am doing, I find doing it increasingly difficult.
Thank you for sharing a nice article.
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