By Martin Upchurch
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Losing control of work

This article is over 8 years, 11 months old
Issue 383

An examination of the contemporary British workplace reveals that all is not well. Workers tell a story of increasing pressure to meet targets, longer working hours and constant surveillance. Performance targets set by managers are becoming ever less attainable, with bullying and harassment becoming the norm. A recent survey by Unison found that one third of employees have been bullied at work, double the figure in 2001.

The government’s 2012 Skills and Employment Survey reports that most of the increase in work intensification is connected to computerised technology, which rather than liberate creative “knowledge workers” has instead been used to make work routinised and stadardarised. This has been accompanied by a long term general decline in the ability to exercise control over how work is organised.

The pressures to meet targets are consolidated by trends to link performance to pay. Employers, encouraged by consultants, are targeting the “bottom” ten percent. As Jack Welch, retiring CEO of General Electric, stated in his final letter to shareholders, “we must remove that lower 10 percent, and keep removing it every year – always raising the bar of performance.” This trend burrows deep into all type of work. For example, office and technical staff are tested on soft concepts such as “attitude” and “leadership” and teachers are measured against pupils’ grades.

Similar processes can be found in social work. Targets are set for child adoption and protection, irrespective of the need to make professional decisions. One result is an increased sense of alienation, with workers working more intensively to meet targets. The Skills Survey also reports an increase in “fear” at work, especially in the public sector. Fear of unfair dismissal and of being victimised is particularly prevalent. So if this is the “new normal” of the workplace, we should ask first why this has occurred and also what can be done to resist.

Marketisation has sunk ever deeper roots. Austerity programmes mean that private sector management techniques have been copied in the public sector. Individual managers are forced to apply market logic to their teams, alternating efforts to constantly reorganise work routines with expectations of working beyond normal hours for the same pay and covering for recently dismissed colleagues.

Many commentators have thrown up their hands in despair at the implications of changes in the world of work. In doing so, they often obscure the real causes of the crisis of work. Most prominent is Slavoj Zizek, who separates public and private sector workers – arguing that public sector strikes over pensions defend the privileged – as well as the employed from the unemployed. Guy Standing similarly differentiates workers according to status, describing the emergence of a separate “precariat” class in permanent tension with a full time “salariat”.

It is true that precarious forms of work, expressed through contract terms or feelings of insecurity, have increased. But it is not the case that precarity is confined to casual workers in the private sector. It is a central issue for all workers including those in permanent jobs. The growth of the “new normal” workplace is something which is universally located in changing political economy. The fight against precarity is best fought within workplaces rather than outside them.

While workers may feel threatened as individuals, such feelings of fear and unfair treatment are felt universally by all workers. The task facing us is to generalise the experience of individual fear and to collectively mobilise around grievances over discrimination, targets and stress. There are now some signs of unions beginning to grapple with the new workplace. The CWU, for example, has for a number of years involved itself in local battles driven by the rank and file over workload pressures and management bullying. In the militant BESNA dispute, rank and file electricians forced the employers back from a contracting culture, finally bringing the Unite leadership into support. College lecturers in UCU campaign for permanent positions and organise staff on short term contracts. The RMT have taken on board the plight of contracted out cleaners.

The teaching unions’ dispute focuses on workload pressures, monitoring regimes and resultant stress. After heated argument between lay activists and the union leadership successful regional strikes are building up to a national dispute. In this new arena of struggle it will simply not be good enough to condemn the bureaucracies of the unions for inaction or to call for separate action outside of the mainstream unions. What is necessary is concerted pressure from below within workplaces to transform union agendas and to fight the reality of the new workplace.

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