Technological determinism has recently emerged as the favoured theme of those who seek to challenge the centrality of class politics within the British labour movementfootnote. 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.

It is a feature of both disputes that they were marked by sharp divergences between the majority of shop stewards and those union leaders committed to perspectives which have been described as ‘business unionism’. The crux of the conflict was the character of new technology, and how far it could only be utilized on the terms set by corporate capital. In the case of the Dundee plant the leaders of the Amalgamated Engineering Union argued that the investment had to be accepted on the conditions imposed by Ford. Without the new technology, and the economic competitiveness it provided, bargaining about wages and conditions would be futile. Jobs, in short, had to be created before you could negotiate. At Uddingston the conflict between stewards and aeu leadership was over how far, and on what terms, corporate restructuring should be opposed. More tacitly in this case, the union leadership took the position that ultimately the logic of restructuring could not be challenged—and certainly should not be in a way that took the union into conflict with the law. It was futile to seek to take the means of production out of the control of the company.

We will begin here with a brief restatement of the two episodes. This will set the scene for a discussion of what is fundamentally at issue: the politico-economic status of the new Japanese-style production methods, how far they represent a historically progressive advance in production technology, and how far they can serve to underpin a new enterprise culture. We conclude by arguing that as implemented by transnational companies, and especially as applied to regional economies, the new production methods are neither socially nor economically progressive and that their introduction has directly heightened class contradictions in the regions. As a result, far from providing the material base for a new enterprise culture, they are already raising issues about the character of the state in its relation to production relations that gives a new, socially wider salience to the politics of working-class solidarity.

The Caterpillar company, the dominant firm in the world market for heavy earth-moving equipment, began its restructuring programme in 1982. Between 1975 and 1982 the firm had seen its share of the world market slip from 48 to 37 per cent with most of the loss being picked up by the Japanese firm, Komatsu. During the recession of 1980–82 Komatsu was able to expand its sales by 15 per cent at a time when Caterpillar lost 40 per cent of its sales outside the us. This was partly the result of the 60 per cent increase in the international value of the dollar between 1980 and 1984 and partly because of a genuinely higher level of productivity in Komatsu.

Komatsu’s increased productivity was seen to depend on cell-based flexible manufacturing systems, carrying very low inventory stocks, and on the gearing of its labour force between a highly motivated and trained core and very low-paid temporary workers in subcontract firms. It also benefited from cheap domestic supplies of high-tensile steel, high levels of state-directed and funded expenditure on research and development. Caterpillar began from 1982 to reorganize its plants in ways that utilized some of these production techniques: cutting inventory levels but increasing the range of items bought in from subcontractors, some of it in Third World locations, introducing cell-based flexible manufacturing and closing a good deal of its capacity. Initially between 1982 and 1984 most of the closures took place in the United States (in face of the rapid rise in the value of the dollar), although the Birtley factory in Newcastle was also shut down in 1984. In Europe there was a major push to secure employee acceptance of the changes under the slogan ‘Plant with a Future’, and most plants had considerable success in introducing the new production techniques.

This was particularly so in the company’s Uddingston plant, where the new structure was already beginning to come into operation by 1986. The shop stewards gave full support to the innovation of flexible manufacturing systems. There was a massive retooling—much of it paid for by government investment grants—and just-in-time inventory systems were installed. In September 1986 the company announced with some fanfare an additional £62 million investment programme. This announcement, and the publicity surrounding it, resulted to some extent from Scottish Office pressure—where the Secretary of State wanted to use Caterpillar as a public example that union cooperation could make a success of the government’s industrial strategy. Four months later the company announced the closure of the plant.

The closure decision was taken at the Peoria head office in face of continued pressure from the company’s stockholders to reduce operating costs and in the light of the precipitate fall in the value of the dollar against the pound. This had made it much less profitable to manufacture in Britain. The workforce occupied the plant immediately after the announcement on 14 January 1987, and did so under the leadership of a Joint Occupation Committee including the representatives of the manual, clerical and supervisory unions. Although the non-manual grades withdrew after a month, the aeu stewards maintained a majority for occupation at four successive votes till the following May—the margin being reduced to half a dozen by the end of March, but this, despite a legal injunction in favour of the company requiring the workforce to abandon the occupation. Financial support from workplaces and street collections exceeded £20,000 each week for the three-month period. From March onwards the stewards also faced fairly sustained pressure from their own union officers to end the occupation. These pressures, which reached a climax at the annual conference of the Scottish Trades Union Congress in April 1987, resulted in the ending of the occupation with very few concessions by either the company or the Scottish Office in terms of continuing employment. Despite proposals from the workforce and a private suggestion by the senior management at the plant for a management buy-out, the company insisted throughout that no similar line of production could be maintained at the factory. The Scottish Office gave verbal support to the workers, and did not dare try to evict them in an election year, but it applied no serious pressure on the company. Production was terminated at the end of 1987. The aeu leadership appeared to be motivated by a desire not to antagonize the company, and to maintain its image as a business-friendly union. It did not call on workers in Caterpillar’s other British plant to black supplies or to come out on solidarity strike, and thus made it very difficult to get wider industrial action involving other unions. It engineered an end to the occupation a month and a half before the General Election and hence took this potentially quite explosive item off the active political agenda.