Under pressure

Issue: 119

Sheila Cohen

Gerry Mooney and Alex Law (eds), New Labour/Hard Labour? Restructuring and Resistance inside the Welfare Industry (Policy Press, 2007), £22.99

This book arrives at a time when the bewildering doublespeak beloved of New Labour reaches ever giddier heights. Who knew that teachers would come to be described as “transition managers” and “learning community leaders”—their proposed title when plain old Islington Green comprehensive mutates this year into a “business academy”?

But it is a lot worse than the mangling of the English language favoured by New Labour and its ideological twin, “New Public Management”. As the book shows, New Labour is turning welfare into workfare in a very different sense from its own spin. Increasing intensification and extensification of work—harder work for longer hours—make a mockery of the government’s much-vaunted “work-life balance” policies. And nowhere is that more true than in the once (comparatively) privileged public sector.

Public sector? What public sector? As
New Labour/Hard Labour spells out, privatisation, outright and piecemeal, has reduced a once strong and cohesive sector to ribbons of subcontractors, “providers” and, most of all, insecure, disadvantaged workers. Rather than public sector, the editors employ the term “welfare industry” to “capture what is generally referred to as the ‘mixed economy’ of welfare providers…[and] non-state sectors, such as the voluntary sector and private provision” (p2).

In order to survey this territory, editors Gerry Mooney and Alex Law provide an introductory overview, along with two other broader chapters on restructuring the welfare labour process and industrial relations under New Labour (this co-authored by Peter Bain, the “working class militant and scholar” whose death is mourned in the book’s dedication). These introductory pieces, which incorporate the labour process based perspective followed throughout the book, are followed by eight chapters on specific sectors that provide a welcome departure from the usual absence of a worker voice in books about work. Another unusual, and welcome, feature is the emphasis on workers’ resistance.

As always, those directly involved at the “ward-face”, as one contribution terms it, provide the most vivid expressions of the experiences and contradictions of work. Nursery nurses, mostly very young women, fulminate against “new initatives every year…planning; evaluation; observation; recording”, “new responsibilities being given to us—from all sorts of directions”, “too many different demands on us… Do this, do that, do the next thing”, and in general, “more and more for less and less” (p165).

Such intensification of labour, in an area which might be thought least suitable for it, is accompanied by abysmal levels of pay. As one worker argues eloquently, “All we have heard from management is that we need to get more qualifications, more training, go on more courses…but when we ask will we get more pay for this there is silence.” These pressures led to a long dispute which, as the authors point out, marked “Scotland’s biggest all-out indefinite strike since the miners” (p183).

Such pressures and resentments recur in the experience of social workers transformed into “care managers” by Blairite social policy. As one complained, “Being a care manager is very different from being a social worker… Care management is all about budgets and paperwork and…financial implications…whereas social work is about people.”

The shift from qualitative to quantitative considerations typical of New Public Management is accompanied by extensive monitoring, leading to ever increasing stress: “Much of the stress at work is fear; social workers are scared of their managers, scared of all the monitoring stuff.” And the pressure “is always downwards”—from higher to middle to lower management and ultimately to the workforce. These workers’ own six-month dispute over the introduction of “one-stop” call centres for potential social work clients in Liverpool is described as “about the clash of two different value systems. On the one hand the business drives and values of management and Blairism…and on the other the values of humanity and social justice” of the striking social workers (p200).

NHS ancillary workers cited in a study of hospital private finance initiative schemes express parallel disgust and indignation at attacks not only on themselves but on the once-cherished principle of free health care: “For us, the question is how the hell a company can just want to make money out of ill people” (p83). A Unison union survey of such contracted-out workers “revealed a mass of inequalities” around pay and hours, with problems ranging from zero-hours contracts to “onerous workloads”, and extensive and burdensome worker-monitoring. Yet workers’ nostalgia was not for NHS terms and conditions alone but for “the old hospital [where] it was like a family and everybody pulled together”. It was a mixture of all these factors—destruction of hospitals and loss of beds alongside job losses and pay cuts—that provided the final straw flaming into a ten-month dispute by ancillary workers at Dudley hospitals in 2000-1.

Staying with the health service, an examination of the labour process in nursing cites a mixture of deskilling and multi-skilling, increasingly supplemented by the same “target” and “audit” driven approach documented in so many of these accounts. As one nurse puts it, “Most attempts I make to adopt a patient-centered approach…are stopped in their tracks by management’s continued demands for audit controls on the ward…my time is taken up filling in standardised care plans and audit forms” (p98).

This emerges among other contradictions between Taylor-style management imperatives and the so far irreducible reality that patients are human beings in distress. As one nurse recounts, “[We] were expected to sit at the desk doing paperwork—sitting with patients who were often concerned about procedures was actively discouraged…I suppose doing so was not getting the job done” (p101).

Some of these contradictions, the authors suggest, are dealt with through the management of “emotional labour”, an increasingly central weapon in the management arsenal. Yet, while a number of quotes from nurses emphasise that, for example, “it’s not a job you would do for the money… It’s something that you should care deeply about”, the relentless intensification of labour in nursing often works to undermine such dedication. A 2006 Unison report quoted here shows, among other things, that 55 percent of all nursing staff worked unpaid additional hours, leading to as many as eight out of ten nurses considering leaving the profession altogether (p108).

The same pressures and contradictions are documented throughout this book, in the work of teachers, social workers, civil servants and even academics. The relentless emphasis on “performance outcomes” characteristic of New Labour and New Public Management has taken the shape of what would once have been seen as absurd and impossible—performance-related pay for teachers. Despite resistance, the ever increasing workload, “initiative overload” and target-driven culture now endemic have driven almost a third of teachers to consider leaving the profession.

Models of management within schools “come from the world of mass production in the car industry” (p125) where “constant improvement” or—as its critics term this bundle of techniques, management by stress—have long been managerial mantras. This pattern is repeated in, of all places, the lofty echelons of the university, where the “modularisation” of teaching is one example of “how the principles of an industrial process based on cellular production, flexible working…and teamwork…have been imported into academia” (p144).

One of the most interesting accounts in the book is of the labour process in the once decidedly non-commodified “voluntary” or charitable sector. Over the past few years this has gravitated to a hard-nosed “third sector” model in which charities’ chief executives are paid fat-cat salaries, while workers, as the current Shelter dispute demonstrates, face traditional capitalist attacks on their pay and jobs. The emergence of the “contract culture” is the prime culprit in the increasing use of such organisations as “providers” of the kind of services once routinely offered by the public sector. As this writer comments, non-profit organisations “are effectively being shaped in the image of the statutory organisations they are there to displace” (p237).

The interest of such developments is that they have, perhaps predictably, proletarianised the idealistic, often highly educated employees of these organisations. Workers for the voluntary sector provider of criminal justice services described here felt increasingly that their project was becoming “less client and more target focused” (sound familiar?). The ensuing culture of bullying and victimisation became a source of solidarity and militancy between formerly individualised workers: “I think they were all for driving us out…and I think that they didn’t realise that we wouldn’t just go, and wouldn’t just bow our heads…as soon as they threw some false accusations at us” (p257).

These workers had turned to their union to help them with a dismissal case but had been turned down on the basis that “compensation…was likely to be minimal” now that the worker concerned had found another job (p257). This highlights another theme running throughout the book—the weakness and apparent unwillingness of many union leaderships to support a fighting approach against the relentless attacks on their members.

Unison, in particular, offers “high quality empirical research” as its principal weapon against the private finance initiative and other privatisation-related horrors, a strategy which has had negligible impact on those in power: “The lessons of this evidence-based approach to politics require serious contemplation”, as the author of the chapter on PFI points out (p86). The insistence of Unison and other healthcare sector unions on maintaining support for Labour is also questioned here: “As one Labour conference participant put it in 2001: ‘Why feed the hand that bites you?’”

If I have a criticism of this book, it is that its best intentions—the emphasis on worker experience and worker resistance—promise more than they deliver. While workers’ voices enliven the pages, there are solid sections of theoretical analysis unleavened by such testimony.

The relatively abstract and academic arguments frequently undertaken here can have little relevance for workplace activists whose struggles might benefit more from a fusion of Marxist theory with everyday practice. The emphasis on a labour process approach might be said to undercut this criticism; but longstanding debates such as the alternation between “direct control” and “responsible autonomy” can add little to the understanding of a world of work in which few have the opportunity to be wooed by a mirage of craft-based independence. If anything, New Labour/Hard Labour illustrates how the predictions of deskilling in the book which launched the “labour process debate” appear to have been only too grimly fulfilled.