Colin Humphries


Men of metal

(April 1986)

From Socialist Worker Review, No.86, April 1986, pp.32-33.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Working in Metal
Chris McGuffie
Merlin £17.50

CAPITALISM is continually changing its production methods. That involves a corresponding transformation in the working class. Old workforces with established traditions and forms of organisation give way to new workforces with different ways of working and organising.

This has happened in Britain on a huge scale at least three times in the last century. At the turn of the century there was the relative decline of the industry of the industrial revolution, textiles, and the rise of heavy industry. In the inter-war years there was the relative decline of heavy industry and the rise of light engineering and motors. Finally, in the last two decades there has been the relative decline of heavy industry, mining and railways and the rise of mainly white collar work in the so-called ‘service’ sector.

This book looks at the second series of changes. They led in a period of about 20 years to a doubling of the output and the workforce in engineering and other metal industries. Their work was quite central to the whole capitalist system by the time the First World War broke out. The metal workers of Berlin and the Ruhr, of Petrograd, of Turin, of Glasgow and Sheffield, of Pittsburgh, were to occupy a central role that would have been unimaginable a generation earlier.

But, the author argues, the changes which took place have been subject to two great confusions.

The first was ‘the myth of national peculiarity’, of the ‘relative failure of managerial and scientific endeavours in Britain and France’, of ‘an aristocratic ruling class’ and a ‘traditional social structure’. This is a myth which has been much pushed in this country by Marxists associated with New Left Review (although they are not referred to in this book). McGuffie shows that, in fact, the British industrial capitalists were far from amateurs.

What was true was that the slow, organic development of heavy industry in Britain enabled there to be an equally slow absorption of the techniques of management – including an understanding of the production process as a whole – by both the owners and the lower level supervisors.

By contrast, in the US until the last decade of the nineteenth century, the owners tended to leave the details of production to an, independent ‘petty bourgeoisie’ (the author’s term) of contractors who controlled the workforce. They had to develop a whole new system of formal training in management and engineering methods to assert their own control and achieve maximum profits from the high investments of the 1890s. In Germany, equally formal methods had to be used because of the late industrialisation of the country and the shortage of personnel to run the huge new factories.

It was not ‘amateurism’, but rather a much earlier element of professional competence which resulted in a less formal approach in Britain.

The second confusion concerns what happened to the skills of the workforce. Some people have argued that the expansion of the workforce turned and raised the skill levels of the workforce by transforming unskilled labourers into skilled and semi-skilled workers. Others have argued that ‘craft’ workers saw their skills degraded as they were transformed into a homogeneous, semi-skilled mass.

McGuffie argues that neither account grasps what really happened, because they misunderstand what the skills of a ‘skilled’ worker were.

In Britain the all-round craftsman, understanding and overseeing all the elements of the production process, was already on his way out at the beginning of the nineteenth century. By the mid-nineteenth century he had disappeared everywhere in the metal and engineering industries except in machine building.

In his place were workers whose ‘skill’ consisted in being able to do only one small part of the overall process, but to do it very quickly and ably. This was shown by the fact that workers often had difficulty using the ‘skills’ they had learnt in one firm for any other firm and by the way those who aspired to all-round skills could only get them by moving from firm to firm, learning a different specific skill in each.

This was obscured by the way the unions used the craft ideology in their efforts to reduce the influx of cheap labour into the plants. They talked about the need for apprenticeships, craft training and so on. But, in fact, apprentices were cheap labour, used for the most menial of jobs for several years before eventually learning to do a specific ‘skilled’ task. The ‘skill’ they then learnt was that of doing one particular job very quickly, rather than any all-round craft knowledge.

Where the unions were successful in exercising control over entry into the workforce, they did ensure that such specific tasks were done by adult union members on full wage rates and not by teenagers working on low wages. It was these successes which were challenged by the pressures towards dilution and Taylorism which provoked the great engineering struggles of World War One and after.

In Germany and the US the later and faster growth of the industry created a shortage of such workers, such as never existed in Britain. This could only be catered for by an enormous effort to train a mass of immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe to accept the discipline of factory work and to learn specific techniques.

In each case, however, it is wrong to see the metal and engineering workers of the turn of the century as ‘craftsmen’ and ‘labour aristocrats’ who were then replaced with the growth of semi-skilled work. Rather, many of them were already doing work which could have been done by the ‘semi-skilled’ but for union opposition.

This suggests that the real ‘labour aristocrats’ were those who controlled the way in which the different specific parts of the labour process slotted together – supervisors, foremen and contractors, rather than ‘skilled craftsmen’.

There was not a change from a ‘golden age’ of craft production to a new era of semi-skilled production, as some writers seem to imply – any more than the changes in the working class today involve further such changes. What there was, however, was a concerted attempt by management to increase profitability by breaking union controls over the supply of labour and the speed of production.

It was here that techniques such as those associated with the American, Taylor, played a vital role. He insisted that new production methods had to break each task down into as many single actions as possible, each performed many hundreds of times a day by a single worker who could quickly acquire the necessary ‘skill’. This replacement of one set of specific skills by a new set would break any resistance from the old workforce.

But such changes could only work if management themselves had enough detailed knowledge of the specific techniques to make sure they were done at maximum speed and the ability to integrate them all into a single production process. That put a premium on increasing the skill levels of all levels of management. To this end the educational system had to be extended to provide both an ‘NCO class’ of supervisors and junior managers which had some years of secondary education and an ‘officer class’ of top and middle managers that had higher technical education.

McGuffie’s book confirms the basic account of the degradation of work provided by Harry Braverman’s classic, Labour and Monopoly Capital. But it challenges the tendency of Braverman and his followers to romanticise a golden age of skilled labour. And it extends the analysis to show changes in both the character of management and the educational system. It is useful reading for anyone who wants to come to terms with the changes in the material basis of the class struggle in the last century.

Last updated on 11 April 2010