Friday, February 15, 2013

Working For Ford

Don't know about you but I'm a self-service till refusenik. I loathe them. To me they represent the final triumph of capitalism. Not only are you expected to do unwaged labour but into the bargain you are robbing some poor old biddy or school-leaver of a job opportunity. Add up all that time you spend obligingly scanning items during your weekly supermarket splurge and you've put in a substantial shift for the retail giant of your choice. I will happily queue for an hour to be served by a human being rather than provide free labour for Tesco, Sainsbury, et al.

Dubious corporate strategies to maximise profits at the expense of labour are nothing new, of course. To improve production in the mass manufacture of cars Henry Ford introduced the moving assembly line into his factories. In the process Ford de-skilled labour, weakened unions, encouraged worker identification with the company brand, and empowered managers and planners. The classic text on Fordism is Huw Beynon's Working For Ford published by Penguin in 1973 (see pic).

As well as investigating the history of Fordism Beynon, an academic sociologist from Ebbw Vale, closely studied workers at the Ford plant in Halewood, Merseyside. The verbatim interviews printed in his book are replete with fruity language, sexism and a deep sense of alienation. The daily work the men and women carried out was tedious, boring, dehumanising. In contrast to this was the sense of solidarity and excitement the workforce felt during the great Ford strikes of 1969 and 1971. Beynon was keen to understand the structural dimensions that prevented Ford Man from becoming a fully fledged revolutionary.

The odd (and ironic) thing about reading Beynon's Working For Ford in these Post-Fordist and Post-industrial times is the vague sense of nostalgia one feels for the political certainties and familiar industrial landscapes of that particular era - however unpleasant they might actually have been. It's all call centres, short-term contracts, cup cake emporia and self-service tills now, isn't it?

*Coincidentally Huw Beynon is giving a talk in Cardiff on February 28. Details here.