Degrading the labourer: the reform of local government manual work.

Author:Gill-McLure, Whyeda


The central labour problem, as identified by us academics and capitalists such as Rockefeller in the 1920s, remains that of relative low productivity (Kaufman, 2001). In the modernisation of UK public services since the 1980s, and particularly in the context of labour-intensive services funded centrally but delivered locally (and personally), public-policy initiatives have been aimed at increasing labour productivity in order to deliver standard services at ever-decreasing unit costs. The myriad of policies in this area are best understood as attempts to solve this problem and equally to remove obstacles to such solutions, identified as including trade unions, local councillors, staff and even careless service users. Thus the reform of public services requires the reform of labour management, with the express purpose of improving productivity in order to meet the wider objectives of a stable tax regime and acceptable service standards.

Within UK public services, poor performance has traditionally been seen as being mainly due to low productivity and inefficiency, and all parties and governments have set up a variety of bodies to address these faults. In general, in the UK at least, progressive public administration (the dominant trend) has been increasingly blamed along with its concomitant parts: strong trade unions, departmentalised management, compliant employers, and weak central control and direction from government. The remedies have included a variety of structural changes across the public sector, from the use of bonus and other schemes to improve productivity (NBPI, 1967; Clegg, 1980) to attacks on wastefulness and efforts to recruit better-qualified staff (LACSAB, 1993). Some worked and some did not, but the problems persisted. By the early 1980s, therefore, two major policies had been developed: privatisation and for those services remaining in the public sector, 'accountingisation' (Duncan & Goodwin, 1988).

With the reform of public-sector management came a renewal of the debate about public-sector work itself. Various kinds of Marxists had argued around the twin notions of the (un)productive nature of the work, and the nature of the value added and its extraction in the form of surplus value. The realisation of any such surplus as profit is clearly quite a different issue. Marx was clear that it is labour power that is the productive force, and so it is labour power that the proletarian sells (Cohen, 1978: 41-45). The subsequent extraction of surplus value is a logically distinct activity, since 'the form of the surplus and mode of exploitation' are distinct concepts (Cohen, 1978:83). While there is no doubt as to the longstanding nature, importance and persistence of those debates (Mandel, 1968; Johnston, I994), dealing as they do with the complexities surrounding the changing function of public-service labour in a capitalist economy, a full consideration or development of them is outside the scope of the present paper. The main aim here is more modest: to build on recent developments in this debate in order to show, through a longitudinal case study of two manual services in one local authority, the concrete detail of how public-service labour processes are affected by the changing relations between the state and private capital under neoliberalist reforms (Whitfield, 2001).

In particular, we build on Carter and Fairbrother's (1999) argument that with the ending of the state's role as 'model employer' (if, as they concede, there was ever a beginning) came an attack on public-sector workers and their unions. In essence, their point is that an employers' offensive created the conditions by which alienated and exploited labour was seen to coexist in these services with other more ambiguously placed professional and managerial cadres. Harvie (2006) extended this position by arguing that teachers, for example, add value indirectly through their product but also directly through the ideology of excellence in education. This more recent reinvention sees all relations under dominant capitalist ones as eventually mimicking dominant relations. In Harvie's view, therefore, workers are treated as exploited regardless of the exact nature of the process of their exploitation. We have, however, tried to reveal the nature of the process of exploitation in our case study, since we feel that the indeterminacy of the general relationship needs to be made more precise as the labour process degenerates into a one-way control system.

Again, whilst we are aware of them, a full discussion of the theoretical debates around the labour process triggered by Braverman's work is outside the scope of the present paper. (Braverman, 1974; Wood & Kelly, 1982; Littler & Salaman, 1982; Carter, 1997) However, we hope to make a contribution to the understanding of public-service labour processes by showing how they have been transformed in order to meet the new demands of marketisation. We also hope to show how the modern uptake of scientific management (Whitston, 1996; Dundon & Rollinson, 2004) alongside the dialectic of worker resistance (Sartre, 1967; Spencer, 2000;Tinker, 2002) within the public-service sector allows for an account of exploitation that includes both the political nuances of public policy in action, and the ways in which worker attitudes to the processes of management are redefined by local union leaders to create a containable set of differences.

The Conservative governments from 1979-1997 reformed public services through cuts in budgets, privatisation and marketisation (Foster & Scott, 1998). The underlying logic of this neoliberal strategy was that services would be more efficient, effective and economical (the 'three Es' of new public management [NPM]) if run by private firms in a competitive situation in which public-service contracts were won through a process of bidding. Whatever the theoretical model (Boyne, 1998), it had three aims: risk-free profits from the public sector for private companies; lower unit costs through the competitive tendering process, whether contracted out or in-house; and the removal of opportunities for the government's being blamed for failures of delivery once services were in private hands or directly run by local councils (Ferner & Coiling, 1991; Foster, 1993).

This paper examines the impact of compulsory competitive tendering (CCT) on the labour processes of local government workers in the OK through a longitudinal case study conducted at a Labour council, 'Northcity', between 1994 and 1999. (1) We argue that the privileging of management monopoly over knowledge of the job to control each step of the labour process is illustrated by our findings from women working in school cleaning; and that the separation of conception and execution can also be seen in the case of the male workers in grounds maintenance. In employing a historical perspective, we try to 'circumvent the rationalised discourse typical of public management reforms' (Entwistle & Laffin, 2005) in order to identify the political imperatives underlying both CCT and 'best value'; that is, to resolve low productivity and inefficiency in the sector. We do this by linking these Tayloristic (Taylor, 1911) tendencies to the wider reform of public services and labour management that is based on legislation creating structural and financial changes to the management of services, and subsequently, through NPM, to the management of labour itself (Ironside & Seifert, 2004).

We seek to show how some of this has operated in the context of two manual services: school cleaning, mainly done by female workers, and grounds maintenance, mainly done by men. The longitudinal aspect enables us to build on and develop existing studies of CCT labour processes (Foster, 1993; Coiling, 1995; Escort & Whitfield, 1995; Walsh et al., 1997). The study then links this analysis to the changing contours of industrial relations (IR) mechanisms for managing municipal labour (Levinson, 1971; Kessler, 1982; Gill, 1994; Gill-McLure et al., 2003). In this way, the study provides the background that is so essential to understanding the implications for the local government 1R framework of recent studies into best value (Martin, 2000; Roper et al., 2003; Richardson et al., 2005).

Our study shows, for example, that CCT was resisted by management (elected and appointed) as well as by unions and workers. The main mechanism for this was the 'joint working framework', designed to keep contracts in-house. This resistance has been noted elsewhere, and stems in large part from local authorities' duty to respond to social needs as well as to efficiency considerations (Geddes, 2001: 501). It is also rooted in workers' and unions' sense of a similar duty to the community, as expressed by respondents below. The special relationship of public-service labour to the 'public good' agenda has been a traditional argument used by public-service unions in both the UK and the USA since the nineteenth century (Gill-McLure, 2007). It was an argument constantly used by Northcity's unions in putting their case to the public in the local press. The need to sustain a public-service ethos coupled with the politically sensitive nature of some services (education and social services, for example) in the context of declining central funding and cost-centring certainly helps to explain the ups and downs of the political struggle presented below. It is particularly well illustrated by the phenomenon of 'budget-raiding'--an inevitable consequence of the NPM principle of charging cost centres for centrally-imposed restructuring. Budget-raiding caused a reduction in manual jobs (mostly among males) and a shift to non-standard working (mostly among females) at Northcity, thus undermining union-councillor relations as well as creating divisions within the workforce. It helps to explain the shifting alliances between elected members, managers, unions and workers...

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