Ken Tarbuck   |   ETOL Main Page

Ken Tarbuck

Review: Tony Cliff, The Employers’ Offensive

(Spring 1970)

From Marxist Studies, Vol. 2 No. 2, Spring 1970.
Scanned and prepared for the Marxist Internet Archive by Paul Flewers.
Minor spelling errors have been corrected without indication.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Tony Cliff,
The Employers’ Offensive: Productivity Deals and How To Fight Them,
Pluto Press

Tony Cliff has done a very thorough and well-documented job in exposing the dangers and pitfalls inherent in the present wave of productivity deals that is being unleashed. This is a book of over 200 pages, the bulk of which deals in some detail with various aspects of productivity bargaining. As the ‘blurb’ on the front says: ‘A concise and thorough explanation of the many pitfalls which exist for workers under the guise of productivity bargaining. A book that every trade unionist ought to read.’ This is an opinion that I would agree with.

Cliff deals with measured day work, greater flexibility in the deployment of labour, job evaluation, time and motion study, redundancy and much more besides. This gives one an idea of the scope of the book. In particular his exposure of the so-called ‘science’ of time and motion study is a very valuable addition to any shop stewards’ armoury. His quotation from the ‘father’ of time and motion study is a gem:

Now one of the very first requirements for a man who is fit to handle pig iron as a regular occupation is that he shall be so stupid and so phlegmatic that he more nearly resembles in his mental make-up the ox than any other type. (F.W. Taylor, Principles of Scientific Management, 1911)

It is precisely the hope of the bosses to reduce their employees to this bovine state by productivity deals, not in such a crude or blatant manner perhaps, but nevertheless they want workers who are amenable as oxen.

One of the other valuable features of this book is the large number of workers who have given evidence directly to the author, as well as his quotations from official documents and agreements. Many of the comments in these items from shop-floor workers are revealing in more ways than one. Firstly, many of them reveal the worsening of conditions where productivity deals have been in operation, and secondly they show that the workers may have to work like oxen, but they don’t think like them.

The picture emerges of an overall offensive by the employers to prop up sagging profit rates, at the expense of the workers. Peter Jay, who gave a lengthy review of this book in The Times Business Section, tries to pass off the evidence presented as so much ‘drivel’, but it is noticeable that he makes no attempt to challenge even one item of fact in the whole book. This either means that he has not done his homework or could not come up with anything worthwhile. However, the fact that The Times chose to pay so much attention to this book means that it views the contents seriously, and so should every worker.

Cliff has made an excellent job of cataloguing the many pitfalls in this field for the unwary worker. However, when he comes to attempt to prescribe an answer he is not so successful. Quite correctly he says:

In productivity bargaining the traditional form of negotiations – workers making demands on their employers for better wages and conditions – is reversed. Now it is the employers who are demanding changes, and in doing so try to force the workers into taking a purely passive role and simply responding to these demands. (p. 211)

This sums up the position very well indeed, but what is Cliff’s answer?

Now comes the 64,000 dollar question – how do we fight a productivity deal? I hope no one who has read this book so far will be in any doubt where I stand on the question of productivity dealing – bitterly and unalterably opposed to it. But this does not in itself solve the problem of developing a strategy for fighting them. Any fool can denounce a productivity deal and say we should have nothing to do with it. It is an entirely different matter to lead a group of workers in successfully resisting such a deal. (p. 215)

That is clear and to the point, and eminently sensible, because it is not an easy task to fight the present methods of employers’ attacks, when they are so well gilded with what seems to be large increases in pay. But we turn over the page and Cliff says this:

We must always start by opposing the productivity deal completely and then later, if necessary, retreat to a position where we try to get the best out of the deal we can. (p. 216) [!!]

And on the next page we have:

... any steward has to remember the first rule of negotiation – the girl who starts by saying ‘No’ gets a higher price for her virtue than the girl who talks money at the outset. (p. 217)

In other words if you cannot beat them join them! Despite all the good intentions Cliff is unable to come up with a coherent counter-strategy. True enough that he has some very useful ideas about [1] productivity deals should be dealt with once they are entered into, but he presents no overall strategy which will take the workers on to the offensive before the bosses make their move. This is the missing link, since right here and now this is precisely what workers need. The rising tide of militancy will be beaten back unless such a strategy is adopted. The only concrete answer that Cliff comes up with is to sell the ‘rule-book’ as dearly as possible, despite his good intentions and protestations. That is exactly what the employers want. He explains this himself in earlier sections of the book, so that his alleged answer is a let-down.

However, despite the grave shortcomings of the last chapter, this book is still worth buying, because it can supply a great deal of ammunition to those who care to extract it from its pages.


1. The word ‘how’ seems to be missing here – MIA.

Ken Tarbuck   |   ETOL Main Page

Last updated: 14 October 2014