FLEXIBILITY IN MANUFACTURING ORGANIZATION AND SUBJECTIVITY AT
THE WORKPLACE LEVEL
A First Approximation to the Issue from a Study of the South
African Automobile Assembly Industry
(Sociology of Work Unit and Department of Sociology, University
of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg)
Presented to the South African Sociological Association Congress,
University of Natal, Durban,
7-11 July 1996
Sociology of Work Unit
University of the Witwatersrand
Private Bag 3 PO Wits 2050
Tel. (011) 716.2908 Fax (011) 716.3781
To the comrades of Autonomia, and to Antonella, for all that 7,500
kms. could not break
"(...) come l' occhio corporale che vede tutti gli obietti
fuori di se' ed ha dello specchio bisogno per vedere se' stesso".
(...like the human eye, which can see everything outside of it but needs
a mirror to see itself).
(Giovanbattista Vico, "Scienza Nuova")
"Autobiography is the wound where the blood of history never dries".
(Gayatry C. Spivak)
"Why ain't I rich? (...). Well, Case, all I can say to that (...) is
that what you think of as [the Company] is only a part of another, a, shall
we say, potential entity. I, let us say, am merely one aspect of
that entity's brain. It's rather like dealing, from your point of view,
with a man whose lobes have been severed".
(William Gibson, "Neuromancer")
Preliminary Note and Acknowledgments
This paper is an attempt at assessing the first results of a research I
am doing for my PhD on "Flexibility and Changes in Forms of Workplace
Subjectivity: A Case Study of the South African Automobile Assembly
It contains some findings from my fieldwork at SAMCOR in Silverton, Pretoria.
A second part of this research will be conducted at Mercedes-Benz South
Africa (MBSA) in East London.
Since to say that any paper is a "work in progress" for something
else has become a commonplace, and since I will not be able in the next
future to acknowledge the innumerable contributions to this project, it
does not seem untimely to me to recognize some of them now.
I maintain an outstanding intellectual debt with the Department of Politics,
Institutions and History, University of Bologna, Italy and with its Director,
Anna Maria Gentili, whose intellectual stature, critical encouragement and
personal friendship have invaluably assisted me so far. The Department of
Sociology at Wits University and my colleagues at the Sociology of Work
Unit, particularly my supervisor Glenn Adler, Eddie Webster and Ian Macun
have supported me with an unparalleled cordiality and hospitality. In the
case of some of them (Marissa Moore, Elsa van Huyssteen, Graham van Wyk)
this has been coupled with an enduring friendship.
Gavin Hartford and Tony Kgobe (NUMSA) provided me with access to their
collections of documents. Chris Lloyd and Tony Ehrenreich (NUMSA) greatly
assisted me in dealing with the union.
Many of the topics in this paper have been discussed in various forums.
I would like to thank all the participants in the "Globalization Working
Group" (Patrick Bond, Matthew Ginsburg, Darrell Moellendorf, Greg Ruiters
and Frank Wilderson) and those in the "Aut-Op-Sy" Internet Discussion
Group, particularly my co-convenor, Steve Wright (Monash University, Melbourne),
and Harry Cleaver (University of Texas, Austin), Michael Hardt (Duke University,
Durham), Massimo de Angelis (University of East London, London UK), Harald
Beyer-Andersen (Bergen, Norway), Curtis Price (Baltimore, USA) and John
Hutnyk (London). Thanks also to Heinrich Bohmke and Ashwin Desai (University
of Durban, Westville) and to Rehad Desai.
To my comrades goes the dedication of this paper. For my family, no dedication
would be enough.
1. The Eye and the Mirror. On Subjectivity, the Labour Process, and
the Case of South African Automobile Manufacturing
"Always in your stomach and in your skin there was a sort
of protest, a feeling that you had been cheated of something that you had
a right to".
a) Flexible Structures
(George Orwell, "Nineteen-Eighty Four")
Turin (Italy), July 1962, Piazza Statuto. After the conclusion of the wage
bargaining round at FIAT, hundreds of workers and members of the small UIL
union federation put the offices of their union under siege accusing the
organization of betrayal for having signed a separate agreement with the
management during a strike. The intervention of the police provokes a massive
riot (Lanzardo 1979; Wright 1988: 131).
Mannheim (Germany), 22 May 1973. The workers, mainly migrant, of the John
Deere Agricultural Machinery Works go on strike over the introduction of
a new piecework and overtime system, occupying the plant. The action goes
rapidly out of the control of the union and it is ultimately broken by the
combined violent intervention of the police from outside the plant and the
company's werkschutz inside (Roth 1974: 11-19).
East London (South Africa), 16 August 1990. Workers from F and A Sites at
Mercedes-Benz South Africa (MBSA) start toyi-toying demanding NUMSA's
in the plant to withdraw from the newly established National Bargaining
Forum for the automobile industry and the initiation of a new round of wage
plant negotiations. The factory is occupied and a sleep-in begins. Opposition
rapidly grows towards NUMSA's national and regional leadership and against
leading shop stewards in the plant. Interventions from NUMSA, SACP and ANC
to end the strike are not successful. The strike ends after nine weeks with
the violent eviction of the occupiers by the police and the dismissal of
more than 500 workers, sanctioned by an agreement between NUMSA and
(Von Holdt 1990).
These three events take place in various historical phases and in totally
different social, economic, institutional and cultural contexts. A major
character of the first two is a mass workforce employed in Fordist production
methods in two industrialized countries pursuing to various degrees Keynesian
full employment policies. The third case concerns factory workers in an
industrializing peripheral country with high unemployment rates and incomplete
processes of proletarianization. To this are combined pressures for flexibility
and competitiveness to enter world markets in a context of economic
and redefinition of Fordism worldwide. In the case of 1960s Italy we have
a society interested by massive internal migratory processes challenging
union organizations well established at the point of production, but in
search for a role in still unstable collective bargaining structures.
that was the Christian Democrats' de facto one-party rule to the
exclusion of Communist-oriented political and labour organizations, what
worked as an obstacle for political interest intermediation and as a trigger
to social conflict. As far as 1970s Germany, migratory processes of an even
wider scale and a shifting class composition put similar pressures on the
unions, but in a different institutional setting defined by co-determination
and productivity pacts in the production sphere and by the rise of
sponsored tripartite neo-corporatism in social and political bargaining
In 1990 South Africa, the legitimation gained by the union movement as a
key player in rebuilding collective bargaining at a central level is matched
by the permanence of what has been called the "apartheid workplace
regime" at a factory level. This was manifest in authoritarian styles
of management, abusive and discriminatory practices by middle level supervisors,
permanence of substantial wage differentials, lack of recognition of skills
of the African workforce and a racially-biased grading system (Von Holdt
Yet, each of the above mentioned examples has been analyzed by sociologists
and labour movement analysts as manifestation of forms of collective
and action at the point of production. Those can be assumed as challenging
assumptions commonly held in various ideological fields concerning the
of worker behaviours and attitudes, class consciousness, their relationships
with formal organizations, or the role of collective bargaining in restraining
adversarialism in industrial relations. In particular, what the three cases
have in common is their nature as unpredictable events, unintended consequences
at the culmination of broader social, economic and productive changes. Along
the conceptual coordinates that I will develop in this paper, they can be
defined as eruptions of subjectivity.
In particular, I will deal with the South African case, focusing on automobile
industry workers in a specific location: the SAMCOR plant in Silverton,
Pretoria. My aim is to provide some elements for future debates and research
trying, firstly, to link the analysis of concrete manifestations of industrial
conflict to changes in productive structures and processes in their
economic and ideological dimensions. Secondly, the nature of the
in its specific sphere, not mechanistically reducible to macro-structural
determinants, will be explored to grasp the ways in which industrial change
provides opportunities and constraints for the people involved to define
or modify meanings attached to it. This requires an investigation of patterns
of construction of cooperative vs. antagonistic collective selves. Thirdly,
I am interested in understanding the ways in which all this is related to
different forms of identification responsive to intra- and extra-workplace
determinants in the definition of strategies of acceptance, adaptation and
resistance to the changing environment.
Given this nutshell for research, subjectivity can be defined as a process
through which collective social actors elaborate, according to a set of
norms and assumptions in a given situation, their experiences in order to
articulate responses to an external environment. Relationships between changes
in workplace organization and worker responses have constituted one of the
axes of development of industrial sociology as a specific field of study.
Underlying contesting perspectives and paradigms there has often been a
view of production under capitalism as an area of disarticulation of individual
lives and meanings and of new articulations around the specific organizational
spatial and temporal requirements of the factory life. The nature of the
labour process as implying a fundamental estrangement of the worker from
the workplace social environment has nurtured various contrasting theoretical
preoccupations (Miller and Rose 1995).
>From one side various schools have been concerned in creating the workplace
as a reconciled public space through analyses of job satisfaction and job
enrichment ranging from critique of Taylorism from a "human relations"
perspective in the 1950s to studies on "quality of the working life"
in the 1970s. From another side, orthodox Marxist approaches were concerned
with maintaining the viability of a notion of class consciousness as organically
linked with its organizational expressions. This implied the task to find
a balance between militancy and acceptance in most industrialized countries
whereby the revolutionary potential of the working class was increasingly
questioned by new forms of social conflict and by the theoretical discovery
of new emancipatory subjects. This influenced the post-Braverman labour
process debate in the 1970s-1980s around the nature of control in the workplace
and of its multifarious articulations aimed at distorting working class
identity translating it into acceptance and/or consent towards social relations
These perspectives, however, neglected the need for a theory capable to
explain the nature of the production process in managing worker identities,
responses and expectations as forces simultaneously modifying the structure
itself of production, through the autonomous definition of new arenas for
confrontation over power and control. Indeed, in workplace practices the
uncertainty this creates is becoming a component of any managerial strategy
for restructuring which wants to be comprehensive and consistent. In fact,
the relationship between subjectivity and the organization of production
seems to be all the more relevant in the present phase, when the workplace
is confronted with contradictory dynamics. From one side, the impact of
globalization and the quest for competitiveness is coupled with the crisis
of workers' parties and unions as antagonists to capital on behalf of societal
and production alternatives premised upon the role of the industrial working
class. This can obscure, albeit not eliminating, the character of the workplace
as a site for the development of class consciousness, what requires the
development of new concepts and tools of analysis. From another side, the
importance of the "human factor" in production is asserted in
totally new ways by the advent of ideologies and practices inspired by
Among the various definitions of this concept, some common patterns can
be drawn which can be useful for this discussion on manufacturing organization
and subjectivity (see Streeck 1987). These mainly relate to the development
of multiple skills, of a more holistic view of the labour process than what
was allowed by Taylorism, of worker adaptation to changing product cycles
and shorter set up times, of greater cooperation as a consequence of delegation
of authority to the shopfloor in quality control, and of the capacity to
manage the production flow with the aim of the elimination of inventories.
>From a managerial point of view flexibility combines, in an often uneasy
way, the element of strategy with that of dealing with uncertainties in
the configurations of demand requiring rapid adaptation of resources (Sethi
and Sethi 1990). In other words, planning for flexibility seems to require
a closer interaction between management and the employees in the appropriation
by the former of capacities and knowledge of the latter, while at the same
time maintaining the higher possible degree of control in the range of possible
behaviours. But this also implies, in contradiction with the concept of
"planning" itself, a greater susceptibility by the organization
to unpredictability in subjective responses on the shopfloor.
In general, this seems to be a resultant of a shift from an understanding
of the nature of work as execution of segmented, prescribed tasks to a
where the activation of communication and social cooperation in the workplace
rises to prominence (Kenney and Florida 1993). Social knowledge of the
process and social practices premised upon it seem to redefine in this way
the continuum between control and autonomy in the socio-technical environment
of the factory taken as, according to a classical observation: "(...)
organs of the human brain, created by the human hand; the power of
knowledge, objectified. The development of fixed capital indicates to what
degree general social knowledge has become a direct force of production,
and to what degree, hence, the conditions of the process of social life
itself have come under the control of the general intellect and been transformed
in accordance with it. To what degree the powers of social production have
been produced, not only in the form of knowledge, but also as immediate
organs of social practice, of the real life process." (Marx 1973: 706,
emphasis in text).
The extent to which the development of a "general intellect" on
the workplace based on worker knowledge, communication and cooperative practices
is prefiguring a demise of Fordist models of organization, or even of mass
production itself is still part of an intense debate. The existence of a
general trend to flexibility as the outcome of industrial restructuring
in the form of the differentiation between a "core" multiskilled,
relatively autonomous workforce and a "periphery" made up of lowly
skilled, subordinated and unstable labour has been severely questioned.
Critiques point to its neglect of continuities in traditional forms of
control and in labour market segmentation. This makes in this view the
of such a new labouring subject a purely ideological exercise (Pollert 1988).
Hirst and Zeitlin (1991) clearly differentiate flexibility from the notion
of "post-Fordism". The former is determined by actors' strategic
choices which can influence muting relationships between employment, technology
and organization, defining continuities and ruptures presiding over new
forms of identity and conflict requiring new institutional forms of regulation.
The latter is regarded as the view of a cumulative, mechanist evolution
from Fordism and its associated forms of identity.
The role that unpredictability and conflict will continue to play, facilitated
by the articulation of the flexibility discourse with the updating of older
practices of domination, such as subcontracting and "greenfield"
approaches to union bashing, has equally been stressed (Holloway 1987).
Others point to the ideological bias of flexible specialization in its inability
to define a comprehensive new model of organization of labour (Clarke 1990).
In the South African context this debate has been received with some delay.
Only recently contributes which problematize the selective and uneven nature
of industrial restructuring in South Africa have appeared. Poor educational
levels combined with the lack of a consistent system of certification, backward
attitudes on management's part, dependence on foreign capital goods, and
a history of import substitution and protection not conducive to quality,
high value added and competitiveness have been stressed as major problems.
In this light, introduction of new technology and new forms of production
organization is mainly regarded as affecting intensification of work,
of tasks with no formal upgrading of skills, and no significative trends
in the organization of work in the direction of the development of
cooperative management systems, apart from notable but isolated experiments
(Ewert 1992; Kraak 1996).
b) Flexible Subjects
However, in assessing the relationships between flexibility and workplace
subjectivity, a discussion on whether organizational and production flexibility
is ushering in a new model of post-Fordist, post-mass production can be
misleading. In fact, the activation of subjectivity, with its unpredictable
effects, in the workplace as a part of managerial strategies of restructuring
aimed at emphasizing communication and cooperation can be analyzed as a
qualitative shift in labour process even without teleologically postulating
a determined outcome to restructuring. That means that the "general
intellect" can be assumed as a trend even in those cases where flexible
methods of production are mixed with more traditional forms of control and
authority in work organization. And this seems supported by the case study
of this paper.
The impact of competitiveness, the permanent threat of unemployment, and
dilemmas facing the unions as simultaneously defenders of workers' rights
and partners in productivity improvements can contribute to define highly
complex paths of identity formation and subjective responses. As a result
we can have a continuum of resistance, acceptance and consensus whose practical
manifestations are highly dependent upon particular factors and events.
The inherent ambiguity of the notion of flexibility helps to explain this
result. In fact, flexibility cannot be merely regarded as a productive and
organizational strategy harnessing workers' subjectivity for the attainment
of increased productivity. As a factor stimulating a redefinition in worker
subjectivity, with its promise of an increased control over production,
flexibility can also make more evident and unbearable the persistence of
hierarchies and inequalities associated with the "apartheid workplace
regime". In this way, a strategy designed to promote workers' involvement
can have effects ultimately opposed to its stated aims. The relationship
between flexibility in manufacture and subjectivity on the workplace is
ultimately a recursive one. We cannot envisage in it a unilinear cause-effect
mechanism. Each element of this couple dynamically influences, and it is
influenced by, the other. Whether subjectivity ultimately inhibits or enhances
the introduction of flexible production methods is largely unpredictable
for planners in work and production organization.
This unpredictability is what should allow us to go beyond a managerial
point of view in analyzing subjectivity, towards a broader, interdisciplinary
framework. This must be capable to combine both an analysis of subjectivity
as a process related to stuctural determinants and its relationships with
events of mobilization and conflict whose mere manifestation in the for
of overt industrial action cannot automatically be seen as necessary outcome
of that process. They constitute at best a partial crystallization of
construction, or something which is "passed through" by it a
way (see Deleuze and Guattari: 1987). But in mobilization we have, nonetheless,
the public sanction of what could have been potential and implicit new
of meanings and identifications, a different morality and culture of solidarity,
where these new "planes of consistency" are built according to
the internal and autonomous rationality of mobilization, its pace, and the
need to maintain visibility and cohesiveness.
In this way, multiple processes of construction of subjectivity in the everyday
relationships between workers and managers underpin overt industrial conflict,
providing opportunities and constraints in relation to the control of the
labour process, symbolic appeals and narratives of the factory life, experiences
of common problems at the level of work groups (Weir 1988). But this is
not sufficient in itself to historically "justify" the event of
Here is where a notion of subjectivity requires a departure from the kind
of orthodox Marxist-Lukacsian understanding of class consciousness based
on a dialectic of "false" and "true", with the former
associated with the everyday acceptance of workplace capitalist domination
and the latter with the culminating moments of organization and struggle
(Lukacs 1971). But it also requires a criticism of notions of class
which, albeit recognizing its dynamic and processual nature, attach to them
a teleological meaning, implying that conflict takes place only at a determined
higher stage of subjectivity formation (Mann 1973).
The case of MBSA is illuminating. To analyze, and for me it is an issue
for future research, the way in which a factory, otherwise notable for the
weakness of its union organization and the absence of a tradition of militancy,
could be the scene of the harsher and most prolonged cycle of labour conflicts
in the history of the South African automobile industry would require a
much more complex picture. As Dipesh Chakrabarty (1989: 12) noticed, working
class consciousness cannot be assumed as "transcendental to the field
of events". The process through which a collective subject can define
itself in relation to conditions of production and domination requires an
analysis of discursive formations in particular cases, which makes the emergence
of subjectivity possible. An emphasis on the mediation of social constructs
of culture and identity over the relations of production seems here to be
In Charles Sabel's (1982) model, changing divisions of labour as a consequence
of technological innovation and competition create, through the differential
reproduction of skills and the permanence of archaic forms of control, different
"world views". These can be shared at the level of work groups,
as an objective demarcation of capitalist control of the labour process
(see also Zetka 1992), or they can be split even inside a single individual
between his vision of his job (his "career at work") and its broader
social and political expectations. From this point of view, acceptance and
resistance acquire a significance not necessarily related to the development
of a class imagery and language, but they primarily refer to a social
of subjectivity as a set of normative and regulatory ideas and the perception
on whether workplace life is responsive to these ideas.
"Regulatory ideas" can be assumed as entailing views about fair
employment relationships, wage levels compatible with the subsistence of
the household, notions of human dignity, limits to the exercise of power.
These can change in relation to various factors, which may include modification
in the organization of the factory social relations, interactions with other
actors, the level of organization, the nature of institutional regulations,
and various determinants external to the workplace. Among these latter we
can have the differential appeal of traditions of resistance, communitarian
and family values, ethnicity, language, religion, and the persistence of
non-capitalist forms of accumulation. In explaining conflict in a
way one must be able to grasp in the narrative reconstruction of collective
action the subjective experience of contradictions between the quest for
stability in these broader spheres of social relations, and the instability
in individual workers' lives generated by industrial change (Post 1978:
148). The resulting dynamics may not be easily locatable in an understanding
of consciousness as merely stemming from objective positions in the division
The notion of "regulatory ideas" can remind to some extent that
of "moral economy" (E.P. Thompson 1971) if we limit it to a set
of relations between dominant and dominated groups as a continuous and unstable
reassertion of usages and traditions. The absence in South Africa of a strong
tradition of negotiated settlements in the workplace requires a different
interpretation. Instead of the re-creation of the conditions for stable
relations, "moral economy" can acquire here the significance of
expectation about the future character of a transformed workplace. The nature
of this expectation as a regulatory idea in defining current responses to
managerial initiatives is what underlies the notion of subjectivity as a
process in response to external challenges.
In this perspective, collective action and conflict cannot be simply seen
as the culmination of a process of cognizance of capitalist domination and
of the radically opposite nature of interests involved. It must be rather
explained, as some attempts tried to do in totally different contexts (Kerkvliet
1977, Humphrey 1982), in terms of violation. In this case it is violation
on the part of management, through restructuring of rules of employment
relations which could still provide the labouring subject with a meaning
and a sense of its daily activity in relation to the multiple internal and
external determinants concurring in shaping his/her subjectivity. In other
words labouring subjectivities are constructed in the labour process through
an identification which, in asserting a new model of regimentation to industrial
space, time and authority, violates what has been a pre-existing process
of subjectivity construction. But this violation cannot be simply seen in
terms of obliteration or alienation of subjectivity. Its wound, once re-elaborated,
becomes part of it.
As James Scott (1990: 106-107) noted, in the acceptance of the dominant
values can lie a particularly insidious threat, because that implies sacrifices
and expectations for the sake of a promise contained in those values, but
that is usually betrayed. And, I would add, reactions to this betrayal are
all the more threatening in so far their previous concealment behind dominant
values can make them totally sudden and unpredictable. In this way, it can
be understood how the potential for resistance is contained in formal practices
A particularly relevant question is that of the extra-workplace influences
on workplace subjectivity. In fact, as an integral part of the definition
of the workplace "moral economy" the shared perception of injustice
under apartheid plays a fundamental role. These perceptions are important
not only in the sense of the factory as an articulation of the racial social
order, but more generally, apartheid may be seen by workers as violating
the norms of workplace power relations between employers and employees based
on equal opportunities and mutual recognition. In this way, the racial state
form acted in black workers' eyes as a factor invalidating the promises
of industrial work and modernization. If this is plausible, the perception
of an acceptable balance of forces in the workplace comes to depend on workers'
aspirations for a society free from racial domination. The motifs of workplace
and community resistance are here strictly interlinked, and the idea of
a moral economy at work lays the moral bases of protest. The communitarian
ethos of the workers' residential location can moreover "laterally"
reinforce the autonomous constitution of subjectivity in the workplace by
defining an opposition between collective values based on dignity and human
rights and a capitalist labour process dominated by the individualist forces
of greed and profit (Adesina 1989).
Conflict can here be understood as an event whereby from the rupture of
the unstable pattern of norms and mores presiding over the reproduction
of everyday life under capitalism, the antagonistic nature contradictorily
embodied in the same norms and mores is unleashed. The ensuing process of
convergence of a plurality of cultural processes and identifications in
defining collective action can be assumed as the definition of a new set
of social practices whereby, through the daily experience of the struggle,
the nature of social relations of production becomes increasingly visible
(Fantasia 1988). The conclusion is that it is the struggle which creates
consciousness, and not the other way round.
But this is also a moment when, to recall the quotation from Vico at the
beginning of this paper, the collective subject shaped through struggle
recognizes the factory social relations and their inequality as a product
of its own daily activity, as the eye can recognize itself only through
a mirror. Collective subjectivity in mobilization is the mirror through
which the subject can ultimately recognize itself. The dilemma of the subject
is that it cannot make history and elaborate it at the same time. Conflict
implies the emergence of a spatial-temporal suspension, a parallel and separated
public sphere, a discursive "space of appearance" (Arendt 1958)
where past expropriation and subordination become visible, and labour is
restored to a dimension of activity generating solidarity.
Narratives of the 1990 Mercedes-Benz strike/sit-in are, from this point
of view, impressive. In that case, more than 500 workers deliberately faced
mass dismissal, openly defying a national agreement, in the absence of support
from NUMSA's officials and leading shop steward for their demand for plant
level wage bargaining. The deployment of a whole symbolic apparatus in that
case marked the suspension of established rules, the interruption of factory
routine and the reversal of existing authorities. That allowed the strike
to take a self-sustaining momentum facilitating the emergence in the struggle
of a sense of collective solidarity based on sharing rituals and practices
of conscious subversion. The cultural repertoire of the strikers was diverse,
involving a very wide display of symbols of anti-apartheid struggle:
"The workers elected marshals who were stationed at each
of the company's points of access and exit who regulated who entered the
company premises and who did not (...). The marshals were dressed in
uniforms. Material used in the production of vehicles was cut to provide
a dashiki, caftan or jellaba which the marshals wore over their own clothes.
They donned Arab-style headgear, like a kaffyieh. They armed themselves
with mock AK-47 rifles and bazookas. They moved about in groups, in
formations, at times taking to the ground in anti-ambush motion (...). The
company's flags were pulled down the flag pole, and they were replaced by
the flags of the ANC and of the SACP (...). They also carried a large coffin
which had various inscriptions during the course of the occupation, signifying
the demise of the person or the institution represented. Mr. Les Kettledas'
[NUMSA's national organizer, Author's note] name appeared, as did those
of Nonyukela [NUMSA's Border regional secretary, Author's note], Fikizolo
and Tom [NUMSA's MBSA shop stewards, Author's note], but principally the
coffin displayed a model of a bargaining table, which represented the National
Bargaining Forum (...). The workers had a life-size model of a man, previously
used in first-aid training, which was ritually abused and assaulted during
the course of the demonstrations". (1)
This description clearly resembles those of charivaris or of other
rituals of inversion of established roles and caricatured appropriation
of symbols of authority (Bachtin 1976; Vovelle 1984). It testifies the emergence
of processes of struggle whereby not only existing power relations are
In fact, a new kind of rationality oriented towards the maintenance of the
cohesiveness of the insurgent group takes the place of ordinary rationality
as expressed, for example, in calculations over the relative benefits of
a strike action compared to the possible advantages of a compromise. This
extreme example underlines how patterns of worker subjectivity construction
can be autonomous from determinants directly related to structural conditions
and institutionalized actors. But it also points to the need for new
c) Flexible Methods
The necessity of an approach to subjectivity in production focused on analyses
of workers' social practices at the shopfloor level and on patterns and
processes of mobilization has been increasingly realized in sociology of
work in the last ten years.
Paul Thompson (1989) was the first to raise the alarm on the absence of
a theory of worker subjectivity in labour process analyses. Braverman's
(1974) classic study on deskilling and degradation of work has since long
been assumed for its neglect of resistance in the workplace. Even if this
critical judgement has been revised to a certain extent (Jermier, Knights
and Nord 1994: 4), allegations of determinism in the understanding of the
industrial proletariat as carrier of a historically emancipative mission
remain. Michael Burawoy's (1979) contribution to a theory of subjectivity
in the workplace is recognized. This mainly for his insightful perception
of everyday practices at work in their contradictory nature as means to
reassert a space of security and meaning for workers outside capital's command
but fitting, at the same time, the imperatives of production premised upon
that command. But this approach has been equally criticized for its determinism
and for a notion of subjectivity as a residue of an immanent subject alienated
and deprived under capitalism (Tanner, Davies and O'Grady 1992).
Other authors responded to the call for a theory of subjectivity. In particular,
recent Foucauldian analyses of the labour process have stressed the ambiguous
nature of workers' search for security and stability on the shopfloor as
a product of the internalization of managers' disciplining practices and
normalizing judgements and, at the same time, as modifying the exercise
of power in raising expectations on the acceptable levels of autonomy, workers
involvement and initiative whose betrayal provokes conflict (Knights and
Willmott 1989; Sewell and Wilkinson 1992; Sakolsky 1992). Even if they are
useful in showing ambiguities of the exercise of power in manufacturing,
their notion of a labouring subject produced as such entirely inside the
disciplinary maze of the factory is not wholly satisfactory. In fact, they
seem to neglect processes of subjectivity formation outside the workplace.
These latter can actually redefine factory power/knowledge relations by
developing a set of expectations and norms which not only are not the result
of daily interactions with management but which invest it, provoking localized
inversions (Negri 1991) of power relations themselves.
This seems to be particularly the case in South Africa: here a broader,
extra-factory process of subjectivity formation, for example, can raise
expectations for wages compatible with the family's living standards, the
maintenance of morality and respectability, or the restoration of past
which are difficult to grasp by negotiations between unions and management.
>From this point of view, even authors who postulate the need of a theory
of the resistant subject in the workplace tend to privilege worker responses
which, in the path from individualized self-reflection and practices of
distanciation from the job to collective solidarity (Clegg 1994), seem unable
to escape the constraints of the labour process. This is mainly because
the factory is still regarded as a totalizing institution which deprives
subjects of pre-existing identifications, annihilating their sovereignity.
>From this perspective, it becomes hard, for example, to explain the dynamics
through which workers at MBSA could shake pre-existing seeming acquiescence
in a poorly organized factory during the cycle of struggles 1987-1990. That
would require an analysis of patterns of proletarianization, of compatibility
between conditions of employment and family life, of pre-existing history
of union organization in the whole area, of the history of community struggles:
this is not easily provided by analyses of workplace subjectivity privileging
the nature of managerial power as its constitutive element. The analyses
of such dynamics should focus, moreover, on circuits of production of material
and symbolic resources able to grant duration and solidity to the struggle.
This challenges conventional views of the structure-agency relations based
on the notion of structure as a medium and an outcome of an agency which
is, nonetheless, primarily recognized as defined by opportunities and resources
provided by the structure itself (Giddens 1986). Instead, an analysis of
structures as constituted through the expression of subjectivity in mobilization
(Bonefeld 1992) is here neglected. To stay to my example, after 1987 and
1990 MBSA changed substantially its management styles and mechanisms of
control and that as a resultant of a conflict whose plurality of determinants
cannot be entirely traced to the opportunities and resources provided by
MBSA itself. They require instead, probably, a more careful and autonomous
level of analysis of the ways in which subjectivity is constructed on the
cutting edge dividing production and reproduction, the workplace and the
It is not surprising that the necessity to rediscover subjectivity at work
has spurred a large amount of criticism of survey analysis, regarded as
mainly concerned with static and fragmented representations of worker attitudes,
and a new interest in qualitative research and interdisciplinariety. Ethnography
and participant observation have been reassessed as a way to achieve a greater
interpenetration between the worlds of the observer and the observed aimed
at filling the power gap between the two, and creating the conditions of
discursive practices to enable the subject to make sense of the often invisible
power mechanisms shaping his/her life (Burawoy et al. 1991). The nature
of sociological methods in enquiries on worker subjectivity as a "first
approximation" (Alquati 1975) to the workers' autonomous self-understanding
ultimately undermines the primacy of industrial sociology as a separate
set of technical knowledge and opens the way to a much more promising road.
That can be defined as worker self-research as understanding of the ways
in which his/her/their subjectivity shapes and reshapes restructuring and
the labour process itself (Panzieri 1965).
But the nature of subjectivity as a prism, whose faces not always clearly
reflect a fully-fledged class discursive universe, but are nonetheless capable
to illuminate shifts in the border between acceptance and conflict in the
workplace, requires probably the integration of participant observation
and group analysis with a deeper level of understanding. That can ultimately
be provided by "storytelling" (Benjamin 1968) in the form of oral
histories and life histories as narratives of the constitution of the individual
subject in its socialization processes at work and off work. The nature
of power as discursive expropriation and imposition of meanings whose
become part of subjective identities, shattering any myth of origins and
immanence, has been brilliantly explained by Gayatri Spivak (1992). Interviewing
workers at SAMCOR it was impossible fo me to avoid the impression that the
discourse of quality and competitiveness, while reflecting a fracture opened
in their class cultural substratum, was however unable to entirely codify
a new identity for them. This makes other and different non-integrated meanings
The role of the researcher is here primarily that of avoiding an identification
between subjectivity and narratives of subjectivity. In this way,
of antagonism in the workplace, myths about worker rights and human dignity,
the epic of the union should be carefully balanced with the sense of inadequacy
and the issues left open by such symbols and behaviours in workers' private
lives (Pincelli, Sonetti and Taccola 1986). The nature of autobiography
as a device to adjust experience to the requirements of social reality and
economic conditioning establishes a tension between the two which is the
unavoidable result of introducing subjectivity in the study of social phenomena
(Passerini 1983: 1202). That is most notable when identifications and behaviours
spurred by social change result ultimately as exceeding and unmanageable
for the social and economic forces mastering change (Montaldi 1961).
In this way, narrative is not only a representation of subjectivity: the
ways in which the subaltern actually creates, in the relation with the
the historical event (Hofmeyr 1988), provides him the opportunity to attribute
words and meanings to an experience whose meaning is otherwise obscured
by the routinized nature of production under capitalism. That becomes part
of the process itself of the elaboration of subjectivity, far from being
its static and ossified reflection. This seems to validate the claim by
Michel Maffesoli that, in establishing a self-biographical connection between
experience and sociality, "the subjective can be the passage to
the intersubjective" (Maffesoli 1989: 16). Daily communications between
individual workers on shared shopfloor problems are at the same time part
of everyone's subjectivity and a material foundation of collective
relations in response to capital's initiatives.
South African sociology of work has evidenced wide gaps in the analysis
of subjectivity linked to industrial change. The present intellectual
to world class manufacturing and to non-adversarial industrial relations
does not seem to be of good auspice to analyses of events and subjects in
their exceeding and unpredictable manifestations. These particularly in
relation to the changing nature of the union movement. Organized labour
could acquire a relevance in South African sociological analyses as a catalyst
of processes of industrialization, urbanization and proletarianization which
brought to the fore a new kind of African industrial workforce. Its organized
subjectivity could be simultaneously a product of capitalist subsumption
and a force autonomously impacting on the shape of labour process and industrial
relations (Webster 1985). Processes of collective articulation of experiences
of proletarianization and industrial work as the promise of modernity and
as its betrayal have focused on the role of the unions and of "grassroots
intellectuals" as symbolic brokers and organizational vehicles for
a plurality of languages and images. They are regarded as both related and
unrelated to production, both "traditional" and "modern",
coalescing around a class identification deeply permeated by communitarian
ethos (Bonnin 1994). The synthesis and the continuous exchange between resistant
"cultural formations" in the factory and in the hostels or the
townships, the representation of the factory as a natural extension of a
racial-capitalist order, the formation of a "public class knowledge"
nurtured in a strongly democratic sense of organized militancy have been
regarded as major factors in influencing the new and hybrid class language
transmitted by the unions (Sitas 1983). All this is now probably in need
of an update.
The simultaneous impact of democracy and globalization have made the union
movement responsible towards an idea of "national economy" once
invariably regarded with suspicion and hostility. The problems this creates
in relation to the workers' expectations and attitudes in a daily experience
of production relations still shaped by apartheid practices are documented
both by the story of the conflicts at MBSA and by the interviews I conducted
at SAMCOR. The weakening of the role of the unions as conveyors and catalysts
of a collective image of worker autonomy seems to require a new kind of
attention for dynamics at the workplace level in the study of subjectivity
and conflict in South African manufacturing.
>From the point of view of worker images and practices, the idea of union
involvement in workplace restructuring according to a new style based on
worker participation as "radical reform" (Buhlungu 1996) seems
to raise problems. They are mainly related to the nature of worker understanding
of radical reform in a context marked by the tension between loyalty to
the union in macro-level negotiations and mobilization, and relative
of individuals and groups confronted to the everyday inequality of power
on the shopfloor (Buhlungu 1996: 159-164).
The linkage between restructuring, flexibility and competitiveness in the
world automobile industry has become central in a whole body of literature.
In many accounts, this is the sector which is mostly witnessing the demise
of Fordism and the advent of lean production on a world scale (Altshuler
and Roos 1984; Womack et al. 1990). A new kind of emphasis emerged on a
shift from "machinofacture" to "systemofacture", based
on an integration of technological innovation and workplace organization
with at its juncture the delegation of measures of authority to the workers
in a "positive working environment" (Hoffmann and Kaplinsky 1988:
53). In the South African case this could take place with the additional
strain of defining a competitive, export-oriented sector based on acquisition
of advanced skills and development of workplace cooperation, whereby until
very recently workplace authoritarianism was complemented by a system promoting
protection and production for a limited internal market (Black 1994).
In the present phase it is required a new culture of commitment to quality
and to the competitive success of the firm. But a strong adversarialism
and lack of trust between workers and managers continues to be influenced
by authoritarian practices, a sense of inadequacy of monetary income, and
practices of cultural and even linguistical exclusion. (2).
The resulting framework can be extremely complex: the new promises for worker
control over production, recognition of skills and higher income levels
that will be associated with the industrial order desired by South African
auto manufacturers can overlap with the enduring legacies of past violations.
Moreover the unions' capacity to channel workers' subjectivity in a
way will be likely put to the test.
Commitment to quality and the management's need to leave a wider scope for
worker knowledge of the production process while at the same time trying
to fragment and compartmentalize it can provide areas of
supported by "communal networks" (Surtee 1990). These can be more
or less colonized by the union identity, which can have important consequences
for conflict, if confronted with the permanence of elements of old-style
workplace despotism. Restructuring in the South African auto industry seems
not to be distant from what has been noticed above with respect to authoritarian
innovation and selective introduction of new productive and technological
models. South African automobile industry has been historically characterized
by the small volume production of a high number of models in multiple platform
(ie. the combination body-engine-gearbox) configurations. In this sense,
flexibility means essentially product flexibility in a diversification of
models and makes that, in the climate of global competition, is doomed to
become sub-economic. At present, it is estimated that models produced in
South Africa could be imported at a cost of 20-30% less if it was not for
the remaining market protections. (3)
The most meaningful impact of multiplatform production on workers is that
they are required to operate on a very diverse range of products and machines,
developing "tacit skills" (Adler 1993) which are rarely recognized
in a Taylorist production process based on a detailed description of tasks
on a still racially biased grading system where promotions are widely decided
by personal favour. Notwithstanding NUMSA's successful effort in negotiating
a simplification and a homogenization of grades, skill recognition and the
frustration derived by the gap between education and status are still among
the most pressing demands on the shopfloor, as the interviews at SAMCOR
show. The introduction of methods of flexible manufacturing in the sector
is recognized as uneven and ill-developed, in particular concerning the
integration with the suppliers' network and in the development of alternative
models of work organization. Notwithstanding remarkable exceptions such
as the introduction of "Just-in-Time" and the kanban system
at Toyota, or the development of "green areas" at Nissan, it seems
that the "Japanization" of the South African automobile industry
will proceed in a piecemeal, uncoordinated way. This will be likely more
responsive to union militancy and government trade regulations, rather than
constituting an indication of new developments in a managerial culture still
significantly shaped by attitudes developed in relation with the main trends
of development in South African society and economy (Duncan and Payne 1993;
Duncan 1992). This example on the introduction on teamwork is illuminating:
"One manufacturer said last year that they were operating more than
100 teams. However, when we asked workers and shop stewards, we found that
nearly none of them actually knew that they're in a team". (4)
A difference is sometimes recognized between foreign-owned subsidiaries
(BMW, MBSA and Volkswagen) and locally-owned and/or licensed companies (Nissan,
Toyota, SAMCOR, Delta), with the former recognized as more attentive in
restructuring of work organization, introduction of team concepts, development
of training schemes and recognition of skills. But this is still realized
as inadequate to define a new kind of worker commitment to the imperatives
of quality and competitiveness, in alternative or even as a complement to
the more traditional concerns with wages and maintenance of the job: (5)
"there wasn't one single general meeting where workers came and said:
"Please, union, develop new ideas on flexibility and workplace
for us". On the contrary, all of these ideas were initiated by the
union leadership" (6)
On NUMSA's part, bleak pessimism still prevails, at the end of the day:
"In that area, quite frankly, my personal opinion is that the union
is weak. It talks about a move from mass production to work teams and flexible
specialization, I don't know what the fuck that means. It talks about these
concepts, but in the real world of manufacturing environment they're
they are figments of imagination, because you have a vehicle coming down
of the line and you've got parts that you have to fit, and that's it, unless
you can't get grip of how a vehicle is designed in the first instance, which
requires billions of dollars before starting manufacturing. Because from
design it depends how work is organized". (7)
This impacts on a reality historically affected by extremely high levels
of militancy by a relatively highly educated labour force (Roux 1984a,b),
coupled with an organizational outlook combining the legacy of structural
efficiency of radicalized "established" unions and the pervasiveness
of the independent union movement born out of the struggles in 1970s and
1980s (Adler 1994). The ways in which these structural conditions of organized
militancy interacted in a particular cases with local patterns of mobilization
and culture and social construction of the labour process will be examined
in the following chapter.
2. SAMCOR Blues
"When the management wants overtime and you go to general
meetings trying to reason with your people over overtime, people say: "Fuck
you! Step down!". And when there's a strike they tell you to step
(Julius Chiloane, NUMSA shop steward at SAMCOR)
The office of the Head of the NUMSA Shop Steward Committee at the SAMCOR
automobile plant in Silverton, Pretoria, is a clean, furnished room next
to the final stages of "System 2", one of the two lines after
the paint shop, that where the Ford Escort models TX5 and NX6 are produced.
On a wall it is stuck a company poster claiming "Viva Teamwork!".
Next to it, a letter from the Mamelodi Civic Organization thanking the company
for the donation of a new Combi.
SAMCOR is considered the most advanced technological car manufacturer in
South Africa. It was the first company to introduce, in 1987, robots on
the body-building line, in overhead handling, in transferring and spot-welding,
before extending their use to undercoat application in the paint shop (Duncan
and Payne 1993: 16). Conversely, its attention to flexible manufacturing
as a method of work organization shows significant limitations. A company
document stressing the necessity to "emulate Japanese manufacturing
philosophies" by adopting the "Mazda production system" shows
indeed a remarkably Taylorist attention for work rates and motion studies,
and very little is devoted to worker participation, team concepts, delegation
of authority. (8)
Union organization at SAMCOR has a troubled history. The company was born
in 1985 from the merger of Amcar, an Anglo-American subsidiary, with Ford,
who maintained a minority share in the company after it had disinvested
from its Eastern Cape facilities (Adler 1990; Bradley and Sarakinsky 1985).
As part of the disinvestment deal, 24% of SAMCOR's shares were to be
by a Trustee Fund on behalf of SAMCOR workers, but without NUMSA's
That originated a pattern of harsh, even violent intra-union conflict over
the destination of the 24% Fund, on whether to pay dividends in cash to
workers or to devote it to social expenditure and community upgrading. Today,
at SAMCOR, "24%" is a synonym for troubles, divisions, conflicts
between workers and shop stewards.
The combination of a mainly technological road to restructuring and work
reorganization, and union weakness and internal divisions, notwithstanding
its overwhelming numerical representativeness, evidences from one side all
the difficulties for NUMSA in forging a common identity on the shopfloor.
>From another side it shows a highly differentiated pattern of localized
processes of identification, attitudes towards the job, worker responses
>From the first point of view, intra-organizational tensions and conflictual
dynamics are resented by the shop stewards with a sense of frustration and
lack of understanding:
"There are times when I have to upgrade myself, look for
greener pastures, because in times you feel frustrated, when you are fighting
these wars people continue attacking you even if you are not wrong; you
are constantly being attacked for no apparent reason. In this game you are
not to be liked by anyone, and these who don't like you will go for you.
If you are a shop-steward, when people take the wrong decision, go out for
strike on a wrong reason and you try to correct them, they will start shouting
at you, calling you with names... It's a normal life for a shop steward.
Immediately after becoming shop stewards they start to realize: "Shit,
this is not what I wanted". During the last strike there have been
shop stewards visited at night and threatened with guns. I was threatened
with a gun in 1992 (...)" (Julius, NUMSA shop steward, interview with
the Author, 12/3/1996).
At SAMCOR from 1980, when the company was still Chrysler, Julius represents
a kind of paradigmatic example of the specificity of the company's employment
policies and of the peculiarities of workers in the auto sector which can
be relevant to explain their militancy. Hired as a quality inspector in
grade 3 (defined as semi-skilled), he enters the union after his experience
of the school revolts of 1976, when MAWU sent organizers in the plant, following
the example of his brother, organizer for CCAWUSA. But now, the confidence
and the defiant attitude of the origins are leaving place to disillusionment.
Restructuring is fragmenting worker identification with the union on everyday
issues (he talks about the battle they had to fight to make members accept
overtime schedules and retrenchment plans), redefining their militancy and
resistance in new forms. Moreover, the combined impact of restructuring
and increase in the rate of work, and his part-time shop steward duties
are disrupting his social life, bringing even his marriage on the brink
There is a general recognition that restructuring is defining an increase
in workloads, line speed and overtime. But by itself that is not considered
a sufficient reason for conflict. This also thanks to a kind of flexibile
identification with quality imperatives as defined by managerial ideologies,
what can be either expressive of identity or purely instrumental. In any
case, it seems confirmed that the ideology of quality and competitiveness
motivates an acceptant or a cooperative subject in so far it can be associated
with the promise of an equality of opportunity for everyone to contribute
to the success of the company, what means greater worker control. This identity
seems to be wounded when examples of unfairness appear which, undermining
workers' sense of control over their job, break the promise.
The emphasis on worker control seems justified in the light of what is
unfair at SAMCOR: wage levels not compatible with the subsistence of the
family, lack of recognition of skills, and supervisors' interference with
worker knowledge of his/her job.
>From the first point of view, a general dissatisfaction is expressed concerning
wage levels, regardless for the degree of worker identification with company's
imperatives. This has been made manifest even in the form of overt contestation
of trade union leadership at report back meetings after the 1995 Three-Years
agreement, which is generally recognized by observers as an advance for
workers unparalleled in other sectors. Cases of rejection of the agreement
shows a very clear and rational calculation of the articulation of the family's
needs, of the necessity to support unemployed relatives, or to send remittances
to the areas of origins of the family. The relevance of a stable family
life in a context of rapidly diversifying consumption patterns less and
less linked to primary needs seems to be an overarching consideration from
this point of view.
>From the second point of view, lack of skill recognition is a decisive
in a set of complex, even contradictory workers' orientations to quality.
It seems that this issue is more resented among workers displaying a higher
understanding of the opportunities contained in restructuring and a clearer
strategic approach to career choice. Bethuel is a grade 2 assembler of
at System 1, with previous job experiences as a retail salesman: "I
want to know the whole plant, the whole job of the plant, but my main job
I want to do is motor mechanic. That's the career I want to follow."
(Interview with the Author, 3/5/1996).
In this case, the elaboration of past work experiences, especially in their
evaluation of communicational skills, and a sense of pride in his mental
and physical abilities conjure in defining a substantially positive attitude
towards the job, coupled with a construction of the quality's meanings for
purposes expressive of identity.
"According to myself, nothing is impossible for me. I can't
say my job is difficult (...). If you do that job everyday, you become used
to that job. I'm a fast man always, if the line speed is going up I think
I can cope with it (...). I have been a clerk, I don't think this is the
only job I can do. I am a fastest man. I grab fast so if each of the department
take me to the job I think I'll make it because it takes me few hours to
know the job" (Interview with the Author, 3/5/1996).
But this enter a conflict with an objective situation where promises are
not maintained. The lack of skill recognition is here coupled with the sense
of unfairness in seeing people perceived as having lesser knowledge, usually
white newly hired employees, being more easily promoted. Yet, dissatisfaction
here does not define a strong identification with the union or any kind
of visible militant attitude. Going on strike is considered as a last resort,
while individualized strategies based on promotion and skill upgrading are
preferred and turned into a militant semantics: "By struggle I'm not
saying I'm going on strike. I'm saying I'm going to struggle; it might be
through that post of motor mechanic. It's all part of the same struggle."
(Interview with the Author, 3/5/1996).
Even when jobs are performed according to the skills possessed, external
interferences are perceived as unfairly affecting workers' meanings of their
activity and the subjective construction of the abilities required to performed
it, regardless for the classification of the particular job. Johnny, assembler
in grade 2, developed a strong sense of disillusionment and violation when
he found his qualification as an assembler to be lower than his real
as a repairman. And this notwithstanding he is performing both the job of
an assembler and of a repairman at an assembler's wage rate, a situation
he describes as normal at Samcor. At ISCOR, where he had worked before,
it was not like that; promotions there were more transparent. But he left
ISCOR to avoid to be moved in another facility, and thus to stay more time
with his family, for which he accepted the job at SAMCOR knowing that the
conditions were worse than at ISCOR. This developed a quite instrumental
attitude towards the company, and a totally different strategy compared
to Bethuel: "When I came I thought maybe the company will develop me,
but now I only want to start my own business." (Interview with the
However, given the perception of external problems such as unemployment,
and a sense of lack of alternative, maybe also a poor level of socialization
outside work ("I don't have friends") Johnny supports a vision
of negotiation and cooperation between workers and management "to keep
the company going".
>From this point of view, restructuring and intensification of workload is
accepted with a sense of fatalism: his double job as a repairman and as
an assembler does not usually allow Johnny to comply with its repair schedule.
In this way he is compelled to set unfinished cars aside and to work on
them overtime, involving most Saturdays and sometimes Sundays. Intensification
of workloads and line speed is however accepted because: "the market
is our boss".
But the relationship with the company is a suffered and controversial one:
"It's a problem. It's like having a wife who is irresponsible, but
you love that woman and she's the mother of your kids." (Interview
with the Author, 10/5/1996).
The symptoms of this "irresponsibility" are located particularly
in middle management's interference in the personalized meanings attached
by Johnny to his job. This can take the form of a foreman's superior and
disregarding attitude towards the way the job is done, or of indifference
when real problems arise. This is extended to Johnny's opinion concerning
teamwork: teamleaders are not selected according to their competence and
to the social esteem of their peers; lack of consultation is here particularly
resented. They are simply "the mouthpiece of managers", chose
by favour, "the same as indunas". All this decisively undermines
the same promise for cooperation positively evaluated to "keep the
company going". The ensuing disappointment and maybe the perception
of a lack of opportunities to start his own business can make even such
a seemingly compliant worker adopting an overt language of resistance whereby,
notably, little mention is made of a role of the union in daily confrontation
with plant management. In fact, once attempts to convince the supervisor
of the unfairness of his behaviour, workers start initially to disregard
their job, to come late, to refuse overtime. Then they form what Johnny
calls "anti-foreman groups" on a work-to-rule basis: "they
agree that if he asks for everything, just shit him up".
Even workers substantially satisfied with their job and with their grade
cannot be assumed as automatically compliant. It seems that satisfaction
is produced by a sort of identification of the correct times and ways to
do the job which define an invented pseudo-craftsmanship, an ethic and a
sense of initiative which is totally unrelated with the lowly skilled nature
or the monotonous character of the job itself. In this case, workers can
become even more susceptible to managerial interferences and violations.
Elias is a self-defined unskilled "seal applier" in the paint
"I like the job, very much! I enjoy the job because I
problems, I've got a say. I can say it's becoming working faster. They set
the line speed for that job as they see you perform well and they increase
a little bit, if you still perform well they increase a little bit, a little
bit. After a month they feel that guy is alright for the job and you yourself
can feel now you're alright. And you start enjoying the job" (Interview
with the Author, 3/5/1996).
In this case, a clearer perception exists, compared to workers performing
more skilled jobs but whose skills are not recognized, of the fact that
the worker is made responsible towards quality, that he must inspect himself
not relying on the supervisor. The invention of quality entirely substitutes
any language of struggle. But it does not wipe away the understanding of
conflict and confrontation: here, supervisory interventions on the job regarded
as interference in the worker's individualized construction of the commitment
to quality are more resented than in other cases. In particular, supervisors
are regarded as privileging quantity over quality, trying to arbitrarily
modify the production speed and violating in this way implicit assumptions
about the "right speed" to do a good quality job, on which the
whole moral economy of the job relies. Supervisory interferences are all
the more unacceptable inasmuch they are presented as "final and
and because they are functional to gaining a higher production bonus for
them. Thus, they carry a mark of immorality besides that of despotism and
incompetence. This kind of self-interest is regarded as a particularly hatred
outrage contradicting the promise of a common commitment to quality:
"OK, maybe I can spend twenty minutes on each combi, doing
my job properly and checking the quality and attending the next one. But
if they come and say: "Kom! Kom! Let that car pass away!" You
start being confused, the quality is going to be poor and at the end of
the day you won't make twenty (...). But if you think it's unfair the only
way you can fight is through the quality." (Elias, SAMCOR seal-applier,
Interview with the Author, 3/5/1996).
In this way, even a notion of quality that I would define fetishized and
abstracted by any consideration about relations of power and inequality
in the labour process can only problematically reaffirm a vision of the
company as united by a substantial commonality of interests. It more likely
defines a new terrain of confrontation between opposing cultural and moral
understanding of the labour process itself.
The responses I have analyzed so far generally show the attempt to make
sense in a consistent way of a series of different or even contradictory
appellations in order to define an existential sphere in production shelved
by the image of restructuring as passively suffered. This sphere can be
sustained by images of the company, of its imperatives, its morality and
its culture which does not necessarily coincide with the management's images.
It is apparent from the above mentioned examples that acceptance and compliance
are not by themselves conducive to consensus. What we have, instead, is
a series of unsettled, not reconciled, not entirely integrated subjects.
The meanings attached to their jobs, be their referring to a broader area
of family and career preoccupations, be their concerned with the definition
of spaces of autonomy inside production, tend to exceed those attributed
by a factory authority whose intervention is generally perceived as a threat
to security and stability. Union organization, from this point of view,
is not only structurally weak. It also appears peripheral in the definition
of individualized strategies of survival, adaptation and "struggle",
in the multiplicity of meanings that this word assumes in this case. This
does not mean the disappearance of conflict. It only obscures those structural
determinants of militancy which make conflict part of a set of rules
in employment relations.
The ways in which such unsettled individual subjectivities coalesce in events
of confrontation to define a collective subjectivity is not only necessarily
unpredictable, but it can happen outside or even against the union. If non
recognition of skills, managerial interference, low wages and the issue
of the "24%" can provide a grid through which subjectivity can
be interpreted and certain outcomes made more likely then others, the actual
process through which worker subjectivity defines itself in opposition to
the subjectivity of the company must be studied in its becoming and in the
significance provided for it by its participants. This was the case of a
strike at SAMCOR during January 1996, passed substantially unnoticed outside
NUMSA had just negotiated a performance bonus for the attainment of a production
target requiring overtime.
"In December, just before the shutdown, people become loose,
either they don't come to work or come and go for a beer and come back drunk.
It's not because they were dissatisfied with the company, but they simply
used to leave their job, moving around, visiting friends in other
(Guy, NUMSA shop steward at SAMCOR, Interview with the Author, 13/3/1996,
In this way, according to management's allegations, the performance bonus
was lost. Coming back to work after the Christmas shutdown they found themselves
locked out, for management's fears of dissatisfaction and disruption. A
new agreement was reached in terms of which the units lost in December would
have been recovered through overtime and the company would have paid the
bonus for December. Soon before the overtime started a worker, not member
of NUMSA and part of a faction opposing the trustees in the 24% board, called
other workers in the canteen during lunchtime to refuse overtime. The conflict
rapidly escalated assuming the dimension of a total confrontation between
supporters and adversaries of the existing board of trustees. When the initiator
of the strike was terminated, his followers directed their hostility towards
the shop stewards, demanding their resignation, since in their view they
had been unable to effectively represent the employee concerned during the
disciplinary hearings. Eventually other 17 workers, all NUMSA members, were
In that case, a seemingly minor accident provided a catalyst for the convergence
of multiple determinants of subjectivity -from the fractures historically
associated with the "24%" to managerial arbitrariness in the lock
out, to the restructuring of working times- in defining opposition and conflict.
It is finally notable that the fact that NUMSA was not only unable to control
this dynamic, but it was associated with an agreement over overtime which
violated a shared sense of equity put the union itself at the forefront
of the confrontation with its own members.
3. Not Yet a Conclusion
"- Who are you?
- I am my own history".
(Wim Wenders, "Der Kurs der Zeit")
Emphasizing, as I tried to do in this paper, unpredictability and events
as central components of processes of expression of subjectivity means
the enormous gap separating social research from the formulation of a theory
of subjectivity as something similar to what generations of Marxists have
been used to think about class consciousness. That was the immanent realization
of an oppositional vision whose prerequisites where entirely contained in
capitalist social relations in production.
However, criticizing that perspective does not necessarily imply privileging
an undifferentiated cultural relativist approach, whereby the multiplicity
of subjects and of determinants for expectations, attitudes and responses
can be assumed as an evidence of the impossibility to coherently explain
dynamics of acceptance, consent and resistance in the workplace. It rather
requires an analysis of the shifting boundaries separating meanings and
senses that can be provided by the capitalist rationality of the enterprise
and those which are the resultant of needs exceeding that rationality, be
their the search for security and stability, the maintenance of pride and
autonomy on the job, or wage levels compatible with the survival of the
family. The nature and characters of these exceeding meanings and senses
provide the material possibility for accomodation, compromise or revolt
and the possibility to understand them ex post.
Instead, the study of actual practices in which all this is embodied requires
a specific and focused interdisciplinary methodological approach whereby
the study of subjectivity necessarily overlaps with its development. The
uncertainties of the researcher are, from this point of view, the same for
the policy-maker at the workplace level: they ultimately point to the
to plan flexibility in production because of its inescapable dependence
on a subjective factor whose acceptance of restructuring is justified only
to the extent this uphelds a promise. Its rupture determined by the imperatives
of accumulation can open the way to a whole range of unintended consequences.
This indeterminacy of working class behaviours and attitudes can be regarded
as a result of the disarticulation of established class images and languages.
But it can also reveal new points of frailty and instability in the process
of capital valorization in the age of flexibility. As someone (Negri
1991) wrote: "every suture creates new wounds".
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(0) These aspects are stressed in Sabel (1982).
(1) Independent Mediation Service of South Africa Arbitration Award,
Mercedes-Benz of South Africa (Pty) Ltd. vs NUMSA, No. ARB1080 Albertyn,
(2) Chris Lloyd, NUMSA, Interview with the Author, 15/8/1995.
(3) Chris Lloyd, NUMSA, Interview with the Author, 15/8/1995.
(4) Chris Lloyd, NUMSA, Interview with the Author, 15/8/1995.
(5) Gavin Hartford, NUMSA, interview with the Author, 30/8/1995.
(6) Gavin Hartford, NUMSA, interview with the Author, 30/8/1995.
(7) Gavin Hartford, NUMSA, interview with the Author, 30/8/1995.
(8) SAMCOR, Study of Mazda Production System. Direct Labour Value
Formation (Pretoria: SAMCOR).
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