Frat Cain


All or One?

(February 1965)

From Labour Worker, 15 February 1965.
Transcribed by Ian Birchall, Nina Kidron & Richard Kuper.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Very few factories are automated from the word “go.” There are still fewer that never introduce a new machine or method of work. The overwhelming bulk lie somewhere in between, introducing technical improvements, more productive machines, bits and pieces of automation, as part of the normal processes of investment and competition.

Once introduced, these piecemeal innovations have to be absorbed into the works. If they are more productive than the equipment they displace – as they almost invariably are – pressure will build up on the bosses’ side to speed up work further down the line where the bottleneck now appears to be, or to get the workers who seem now to be holding up production to work longer hours. If the new machines amalgamate jobs and create redundancies, the management will try to propel the ones affected out of the gates or, if that looks like creating trouble, into another shop or section where, perhaps, bonuses are less and conditions worse.

Over the years, shop stewards’ committees have worked out methods of dealing with such problems. There have been strains. Occasionally they find workers resistant to fighting redundancy, or willing to kill themselves with overtime (even compulsory overtime). But in most cases they find it relatively easy to prove that the interests of all lie with the few, and no trouble at all to convince the few of their dependence on the many.

Not so with the impact of partial automation or piecemeal innovation on works rate structures. Here shop-stewards are torn between two utterly opposed principles, both strongly embedded in workers’ attitudes, and both well tried in building up factory organization. Or so it seems. One is that the boss should not get all the advantages from the higher productivity, but should be made to share it with the man doing the work. The other is the tradition of factory solidarity, reinforced by the fact that adjustments to the new equipment are usually effected further down the line by other workers.

It is a difficult choice. Shop-stewards can’t be expected to give up lightly one of their best – and best-tried – arguments for pay increases. Nor can they be expected to ignore the strong feelings of the men working the new machines. On the other hand, they can’t afford to allow sectional interests to flourish in one part of the factory and problems in another. No wonder few committees have worked out a plan.

Yet there must be one. Partial automation is becoming the rule in industry. Traditional rate structures are bursting at the seams and committee meetings are becoming acrimonious.

Nor can there be any doubt about the sort of plan needed. Any innovation affects the whole factory. Innovations tending towards automated flow-production, as most of them now are, affect the whole factory even more. Right, no work on new equipment without increased rates. But together with that, no work without these increases covering the whole labour force. A factory rate over the odds now; an industry rate tomorrow. And who knows what the next day will bring!

It’s not going to be easy. In this the boss often has a strong ally in the individual machine operator who sees chance slip by. Isn’t he the one delivering the increased production? What have the cleaners got to do with it? And shop-stewards’ committees might find more than one revolt on their hands.

But choose they must. All or one?

Last updated on 18 February 2017