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Managing the Modern Workplace: Productivity, Politics, and Workplace Culture in Postwar Britain

Author(s):Melling, Joseph
Booth, Alan
Reviewer(s):Richardson, Mike

Published by EH.NET (August 2008)

Joseph Melling and Alan Booth, editors, Managing the Modern Workplace: Productivity, Politics, and Workplace Culture in Postwar Britain. Aldershot, England: Ashgate, 2008. xvii + 169 pp. ?55 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-0-7546-0874-5.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Mike Richardson, Centre for Employment Studies Research (CESR), Department of Human Resource Management, University of the West of England.

The key aims and objectives of this edited collection of essays are established in the opening chapter, co-authored by the book?s editors. Developing their long-held and consistently argued views this chapter questions those economic historians that lay the blame for what they see as Britain?s comparatively poor economic performance on weak management, out-dated institutions and recalcitrant trade unionism, particularly craft unionism and the attendant problems of sectionalism and economic militancy in post-war British manufacturing industry. In challenging the narrative of these economic historians, Melling and Booth also take into consideration the array of literature on the importance of workplace culture in providing explanations for the character of labor relations and the failure or success of enterprises, industries and Britain?s economic performance. While acknowledging the publication of important studies of post-war British industrial relations and production cultures they stress that researchers have neglected ?important categories of workers and sectors of the economy.? They conclude the opening chapter with an outline of the rest of the book emphasizing the new ground traversed and fresh evidence uncovered by in-depth case studies of supervisory trade unionism in the American and British automobile industries; shopfloor bargaining at a locomotive works; the British gas industry and the economics and politics of technical change; and British retail banks and the labor process, technological change and gender.

Drawing on new evidence, in chapter two Melling provides clear insights into how companies such as Ford met the challenge presented by the emergence of supervisory unionism in American and British automobile industries between 1939 and 1970. The inclusion of the study of unionization of American foremen in this chapter seems to be out of kilter with the rest of the book; although the importance of the American experience is implied in the concluding chapter, with the reference to visits of the Anglo-American Council on Productivity to Coventry automobile works in 1949. However, comparing and contrasting the position of supervisory unionism in America and Britain reveals that the challenge to managerial authority from this category of workers in Britain was relatively weak, in no small part because of the resistance from manual unions to the separate organization of foremen.

The next two chapters focus on industries that were taken into the public sector after World War Two. Nationalized industries have been subject to strong criticism over the years for poor management, low productivity, and poor labor relations, although the way in which they were established and their limited form is not sufficiently addressed by the authors in this book. However, the case studies of the Swindon locomotive works and the British gas industry in the post war years are particularly welcome. The gist of the argument in chapter three is that the politics of production and the centrality of piecework to the effort bargain, inherited from the Great Western Railway Company, in a town with a tight labor market with firms competing for highly skilled workers, resulted in low efficiency. Crucially piecework enabled workers to negotiate and renegotiate at the shop floor level over the effort bargain. The opportunity for workers to achieve favorable rates was present due to the complexity of the piecework system, the lack of trained rate fixers and the shortage of skilled labor. The long term consequence of this well-embedded piecework system was that Swindon lost a significant part of their operation when in 1962 British Rail transferred the construction of diesel locomotives to Crewe. Here the employment of expert rate fixers enabled the company to utilize the piecework regime to keep earnings vis-?-vis effort down to a lower level than that enjoyed by Swindon workers.

Turning to chapter four, the evidence presented suggests that political control of the gas industry under nationalization did not harm the industry, in fact it may have been of benefit. Despite inheriting an under resourced and technically backward industry British Gas, under public ownership, was able to turn the industry round. Investment in research and development, increased productivity from a cooperative labor force, and improved sales, attributed to its successful modernization. This analysis flies in the face of previous adverse accounts of this state-run industry.

The penultimate chapter examines British retail banks between 1945-1970 in respect to the labor process and technical change; recruitment and retention, pay, and working hours and conditions. This is a welcome and comprehensive review that in particular records how banks in the process of automating, computerizing and fragmenting tasks relied on the employment of low-paid women. The numbers required and recruited, however, constrained higher productivity growth and retention of female staff was problematic. In order to address this problem between 1945-1955 improvements in pay and conditions were made but they were not sustained. Seemingly retail bank management lacked the technology and systems to manage staffing levels and costs effectively, although the analysis here is a little unclear. It was not until the last quarter of the twentieth century that the introduction of computerization and on-line systems provided bank management with the resources to address this problem.

The final chapter, written by the editors, deviates somewhat from this case study pattern by addressing the relationship between organized labor, business and the state, during this period, especially in respect to productivity initiatives and unions? willingness to participate in joint consultation. This is the longest chapter and the one that most directly engages in the debate set out at the beginning of the book. Here the editors employ their research, as well as drawing on the findings of the case studies, to challenge the radical and neo-liberal analyses of productivity, politics and workplace culture in post-war Britain. They conclude that the post-war Labour government missed an opportunity to take advantage of the willingness of organized labor to cooperate in reforms to increase productivity and improve the nation?s competitiveness. It may be, however, that the timidity of the leaders of organized labor in pushing for a more radical socialist agenda allowed the Labour government, in its piecemeal program of nationalization, to eschew any meaningful form of industrial democracy and with it the possibility of incorporating trade unions into the management of capitalism.

As well as academics, this book will appeal to students and anyone interested in management and labor history. I highly recommend it.

Mike Richardson is co-author of Partnership and the High Performance Workplace: Work and Employment Relations in the Aerospace Industry (2005) London: Palgrave.

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Subject(s):Labor and Employment History
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):20th Century: WWII and post-WWII