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New Left Review I/174, March-April 1989


John Foster and Charles Woolfson

Corporate Reconstruction and Business Unionism: The Lessons of Caterpillar and Ford

Technological determinism has recently emerged as the favoured theme of those who seek to challenge the centrality of class politics within the British labour movement [*] We would like to thank R. Bellamy and C.C. Prendergast for their comments and the esrc for grant no. F09250171.. This somewhat uncharacteristic perspective is used to argue that new production technologies are directly creating a new political environment. Production processes, it is asserted, are becoming smaller in scale, more individualized and flexible, and, critically, their superior productivity depends precisely on harnessing the creativity of the individual within the dynamics of the small group. It is argued that this has a potential for ideological transformation which has been seized by the present government. It is Thatcherism, not the labour movement, which has placed itself in command of technological progress and used it to stabilize, in a mass way, its new enterprise culture. As a result, the very survival of organized labour is at stake. Unless it now responds positively, the contemporary trade union movement will disappear as quickly as the giant factory complexes of Leeds, Sheffield and Manchester. One feature of this argument is that it has remained highly abstract. It has simply assumed connections between the way people work, or are supposed to work, and the way they think. This article seeks to make an initial examination of some concrete circumstances. It takes two instances where employers had introduced, or sought to introduce, new Japanese-style or ‘post-Fordist’ technologies, and, as part of this, to transform the social context of industrial relations. Both instances occurred in the same setting: the regional politics of Scotland in 1987–88. Both involved American multinationals in which managements were seeking to restructure production globally in face of Japanese competition. At the Caterpillar plant at Uddingston this was marked first by the introduction of Japanese-style working practices and then, equally suddenly, by the plant’s closure. At Dundee, Ford sought to open a new plant that would operate outside the collective bargaining structures of the rest of the company in Britain, and which would introduce working conditions quite different from those prevailing in Dundee and within Ford plants elsewhere.

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