Socialist Worker

Car workers: being driven to destruction

A new book looks at car workers’ struggles against ‘management by stress’. Simon Basketter spoke to the authors, and former and current car workers, about these ‘lean production’ methods – and how to fight back

Issue No. 2180

Working on the assembly line at the Vauxhall car plant in Luton (Pic:» Jess Hurd/ )

Working on the assembly line at the Vauxhall car plant in Luton (Pic: » Jess Hurd/

“They call them the Area Improvement Team. All they do is go round trying to shave seconds off jobs. Their job is to take a second off here, a second off there. They don’t take it completely out of the job and make you work a second harder. Oh no, they’re cuter than that.

“What they do is, they give that to someone else. Someone’s got a second shy on his job, you can have this second, do you understand me?

“Then they find another second to give to the other fella, to try and make up at some point in the process. It’s like, a second off every job and they’ll eventually be able to take a man out, half a man out, or put another job element on somebody else.”

These are the words of a car worker speaking at a recent meeting organised by Oxford Trades Council. He is describing the management methods known as “lean production”, developed by Japanese firm Toyota after the Second World War.

The techniques were introduced across the global car industry in the 1980s, and are now seen as the basis for the modern management obsession with outsourcing and teamwork far beyond the motor industry.

The point of lean production is to increase the amount of profit the company gets out of each worker. In other words, it is about making people work harder.

In traditional car plants, workers worked “productively” for 45 seconds each minute. In the typical lean production car plant, workers are engaged in productive activity for around 57 seconds a minute.

So assume a ten second per minute increase applied to a plant of 2,000 workers. That means 2,667 extra work hours are performed over the course of an eight-hour shift.

This is equivalent to hiring an extra 333 workers. Or, to put it another way, this is equivalent to each worker performing the equivalent of more than an extra day’s work every week.


As one car worker explains in a new book We Sell Our Time No More, “Lean production has always been lean and mean. And that’s exactly what it is – it’s doing more with less.

“People like to articulate lean production as, ‘Oh that’s just the way we do the work right now.’ But they don’t look at the human side, the physical side and all that it brings. You know, repetitive strain injury and stress.”

Paul Stewart is professor of sociology of work and employment at Strathclyde University. He says, “Initially, the introduction of Japanese management techniques was treated as a matter of course as a good thing, even by some in the labour movement.

“In reality it came from the need to reduce costs and increase outsourcing through worse working conditions. Every car plant in the UK that introduced lean production either closed or was transformed out of recognition.

“Across the labour movement the actual effect of lean production is an enormous increase in the levels of stress and work.

“One direct result of lean production is a transformation in the type of injuries car workers suffer from. The changes in work practices push people to the brink, and that has a direct relationship with injuries at work.

“Importantly that is not just physical stress but mental stress too. Things like depression at work are obviously things people don’t like to talk about.

“One major issue is how unions respond. If we understand that this is a thought-out strategy we will be better able to deal with it. The key question is how we organise in response.”

As one US study of the car industry put it, “The teams in auto plants are made up of interchangeable workers, each adaptable enough to grant management maximum flexibility.

“Such teams have more in common with a team of horses – equal beasts of burden yoked together to pull for a common end (determined by the person holding the whip).”

One consequence of the outsourcing of work that has come hand in hand with “lean production” is that previously a worker unable to work on the production line due to injury could be moved to another part of the plant. All those jobs aren’t part of the company any more.

Another part of “management by stress”, as lean production is also known, is to make workers continually share their thoughts about the production process. In theory, the payoff for workers’ increased effort is what management calls “multiskilling” – where a worker learns all the jobs in a team instead of just one. But this is really a form of deskilling.

The company creates a layer of small-time supervisors who work longer hours but get to be “team leaders”. They push management’s agenda in the workplace and bypass the union.

According to one worker, “I have a family and a mortgage, as have many other people. This is the reason I have not walked out of this shit pit.

“The team leaders think they are gods with the management and treat you like shit. The only answer you get from them is ‘if you don’t like it, go elsewhere’.”

Tony Richardson, who worked for British Leyland, Rover and BMW until he retired in 2005, says, “It is about management introducing dramatic changes that we suffer the consequences of.

“There need to be lessons learned about whether changes have to be accepted, and how to fight.

“It is taken for granted that modernisation is necessary. It is accepted in the media and in the unions. Nobody ever stops to ask what it will mean for you and me.

“The effect of lean, put simply, is that I don’t have an extra few minutes of each hour of my working day. That means someone has taken it from me.

“Underlying it is the idea that you are the bosses’ property. The whole idea to is to get workers to accept more being squeezed out of them.

“But, importantly, one of the lessons of the motor industry is that the plants that stood up and fought suffered a rough time – but the ones that didn’t, or accepted things too quickly, were the ones that closed.

“Management keep coming for you. They always want more, they keep grinding away at you.

“What every worker has to remember is that being flexible means squeezing that extra bit out of us.”


In the car industry there has been the constant danger of falling for what is called “whipsawing” – the playing off of cuts or threatened closures of plants against one another.

As Tony says, “The important thing is that this doesn’t just do for one plant. The logic is that if one place accepts it then everyone will be played off against each other until they accept it.

“Part of the problem was the effect of having accepted the idea that we had to be competitive. It did make it harder to fight.

“The solution to having plants or sectors played off against each other is to unite together as worker and worker.”

One Unite union convenor at BMW Cowley said, “It is clear they are using the recession to bully people. The threat of job losses is to make people work even harder. But the root of the attacks comes from the production methods designed to get more out of workers,

“The problem is what you do about it. Ever since the Miners’ Strike the union leaders have seemed to decide that there was no way to fight, and instead pushed partnership. Far too often there simply is no leadership or direction from the top of the union.”

Another BMW worker, who has recently become a steward, said, “It’s the Victorianisation of work. The propaganda key words are the way of slipping in attacks.

“They are killing us through management techniques. I think the thing is that they get away with it by making people scared. They divide the workforce and push at those divisions.

“It is important to start thinking about how we rebuild. There are people who talk brave on the floor but don’t want to go any further because they are scared. They are scared for their homes and their families. I am too.

“I’m not fully convinced in our situation a strike is the best way forward, but the reality is that management don’t listen unless we hit them where it hurts.

“If management saw that we were organised and united and determined to stand up to them then they would be terrified.”

We Sell Our Time No More: Workers’ Struggles Against Lean Production in the British Car Industry is by Paul Stewart, Ken Murphy, Andy Danford, Mike Richardson, Tony Richardson and Vicki Wass. You can order it from Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop, for £19.99 on 020 7637 1848 or from »

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Tue 1 Dec 2009, 18:34 GMT
Issue No. 2180
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