crisis and re-structuring of production: the landscape of future struggles

a workshop at From meltdown to upheaval, LARC, 62 Fieldgate St on 11th September

We want to start the work-shop with a quick round talking about recent changes at our work-places and debate both particularities and common tendencies. We then want to discuss how these conflicts about re-structuring could be debated in a more open and political manner within the working-class left. We hope to come up with a common plan to produce a small series of work-place reports for the wider debate and publications. Below you can find a preliminary thesis about the general significance of re-structuring within the crisis regime.

The cuts appear as financial numbers on the superficial level, but they trickle down into work-places, changing relations and conditions on the way, engendering conflicts. Behind many of the recent struggles – from the Post Office strike to the Leeds refuse dispute – management brokered ‘modernisation’ in exchange for less wages or job cuts. ‘Modernisation’ comes in two forms. We can see the blunt forms: longer working-hours, cutting wages, introducing productivity schemes, casualisation, introduction of new lower ranks of employment, re-shifting of departments with ‘rationalising’ results. These attacks dominate in certain sectors, such as education or hospitals (e.g. outsourcing and centralisation of departments in Homerton Hospital). We see as a second form the actual material change in the division of labour mediated through new ‘low-level productive investments’: introduction of ‘central collection rubbish bins’ for refuse workers in Brighton, to new check-out systems at Tesco’s, to increased technological control over bus drivers, to new sorting machines in the postal distribution system. Over the last decade Taylorisation and technological control increasingly sped-up and ‘industrialised’ labour in the ‘service’-sector – a sector which the wider left used to mystify as the sector replacing industrial labour – and replacing working class with customer relations on the wider social terrain.

At this point we should also mention the impact of the ‘last boost’ of internationalisation of production on the situation in the UK: during the last years we could see the emergence of an actual – not continental – global car production. One of the indirect outcomes being the closures of the Visteon plants. Other sectors intensified these tendencies under the pressure of crisis, e.g. American Express closed its major call centre in Brighton.

We have reached a global scale of social production, only excluding certain personal services – though medical tourism is another boom island in the sea of recession. Around the ‘epicentre’ of re-structuring– there are current conflicts about re-adjusting contractual work-relations and the labour market after the end of neo-liberalism and cheap money. As we have mentioned earlier, capital has to disguise the increased social cooperation by creating artificial or formal boundaries: creation of new professional hierarchies, different forms of employment contracts etc. In the last three decades this happened through privatisation, temp work, outsourcing, self-employment – but this required cheap credits for smaller private enterprises or the self-employed. The current crisis has shaken up these neo-liberal forms of employment, loan-backed temp contracts and micro-financed outsourcing are now running dry. In the coming months there will be a lot of legal re-shuffling of employment relations, e.g. in London Hackney Homes and Hackney Street Cleansing announced that they would take back on a lot of sub-contracted work. This process will create new conflicts about standards.

The ‘process of modernisation’ becomes the main focus in which to analyse the changing relations between management – unions – workers. We have to collectivise the conflicts arising around these measures, free them from the privacy of company walls and work-place boundaries, develop a language to describe them as what they are: a political attack on the class. We have to denounce these changes in the context of their results – more work, less workers, new divisions – but also discover the potentials to turn the new social cooperation and technological means into working-class weapons of the future.

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