[OPE-L:5048] Re: question

Gerald Levy (glevy@pratt.edu)
Fri, 16 May 1997 15:53:43 -0700 (PDT)

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Ajit wrote in [OPE-L:5042]:

> Your [Duncan's, JL] one concern is about
> "abstraction" of labor, because you think concrete labor cannot be
> added or compared, and this takes you to the point of commodity
> exchange. But it seems to me that many people have not realized that
> the problem, if it is a problem, would arise much before you get to
> exchange. Go to any factory, say a car factory. A car is not produced
> with one kind of concrete labor, leaving the constant capital element
> aside. All kinds of different kinds ofconcrete labor go into producing
> anything, so if concrete labors cannot be added, it cannot be added
> even at the factory level. So the problem does not arise in the
> context of comparing two commodities in exchange, but much
> before that.

[The following is a digression].

This may be a bit off-topic, but as a former autoworker, having spent 5
years of my life working "on the line" at General Motors and Ford, I
can't resist commenting on the above.

Putting aside the question of those in the skilled trades (e.g.
electricians, tool-and-die makers, machinists), in a sense labor is
"abstract labour" _most_ *at the moment when workers are hired*
(i.e. *before* they have even entered into the labor process)! This can
readily be seen by the hiring practices of most auto corporations in the
US whose main criteria (of course, there are exceptions and differences
among companies) is the ability to perform labor in general. I.e. they
require humans with two legs and two feet, two arms and two hands,
normal dexterity, and all major senses (e.g. eyesight, hearing, smell,
etc.). Basically, that's it! (really).

These criteria are chosen since with those characteristics (general human
attributes), people can perform well over 900f all jobs in an assembly
plant with minimal training (from one to three days in which there is not
really skill acquisition but simply repetition).

Nonetheless, while the overwhelming majority of workers can perform the
overwhelming majority of jobs within an auto factory with minimal
training, this does not mean that the labor performed is homogeneous. On
the contrary, it is heterogeneous. This, perhaps anachronistic result, is
a consequence of the heterogeneous nature of the jobs themselves with
significant differences in strength and endurance required, significant
differences in the intensity of work (even on the same line with workers
working side-by-side), and other differences in the physical environment
(e.g. noise, heat, risk of injury, etc.). All workers, thus, know, that
there are certain jobs which are more "desirable" than others ... and
there, thus, is frequently "competition" by workers for the more
desirable jobs. This "competition" by workers is often skillfully used by
management to divide workers and pit them against each other in the
production process. "Divide and conquer", after all, is a major strategy
of management on the factory floor (and in the office!). Typically, the
worst off are "new hires" (who have to stand a 90 day industry-standard
probation period), part-time employees (who don't have the same
contractual rights) and low-seniority workers.

While on this topic, let me say some more about "stopwatches."
Stopwatches and time-and-motion study experts are typically *not* used
to increase the intensity of work. Rather, the strategy is simpler, i.e.
management redefines jobs on the assembly line in such a way that extra
tasks are added to each workers' job. Then, if workers perform to the new
standard, management says that obviously the new standard can be
performed since it *is* being performed!

Before unionization, if a worker complained that s/he was overworked,
then s/he would simply be told that there are lots of other
[unemployed] people who would be more than willing to have and perform
the job! With unionization and a grievance procedure which allowed
workers to write "overwork grievances", this changed [of course,
depending on the willingness of local union officials to pursue overwork
grievances]. This situation gives rise to a comic opera of sorts that is
repeated tens of thousands of times each year. Act I begins when workers
jobs are redefined and workload increased (typically, following the
summer changeover to the new year's model). Then, absent solidarity among
all workers, individual workers can either perform to the new standard or
not. If not, then they have to write an overwork grievance. Act II
generally begins with threats by management and, in response, calls by
workers to meet with their union representatives. The union reps. then,
basically, tell workers that if they want to win the grievance, then
workers must *show* management that the job is overworked by not doing
the job completely. Act III begins as workers *slow down* (this can often
be quite humorous). Management then issues more threats. Sometimes
management makes what can be a disasterous mistake in this act by issuing
a "direct order" to a worker to complete the job on each car before going
on to the next car. [A "direct order" *must* be obeyed; if it is not,
then the worker is charged with "insubordination" and, regardless of
seniority or lack of past disciplinary actions, can be "terminated"].
Most workers usually cave in at this point (or before). *However*, and
here the plot can _really_ turn comic!, workers can respond by obeying
the direct order [as they must] and by dilly-dallying on a car following
that car down the line. In this case, since the worker has been given a
direct order not to move on to the next car until the entire job has been
completed, one just stays with a car claiming that you are still working
on the car. I tried this stratagem many times [in one case I followed
the car for 30 min. (a job is normally performed in a minute or less)
into an entirely different department of the plant. By so doing, it meant
that all of the 60 or so workers who are "down the line" can't perform
*their* jobs! When my supervisor finally found me and I told him my
contrived story, his veins were pulsating so wildly that I thought he
might go into cardiac arrest!]. Thus ends Act III. However, in the
sequel, the "problem workers" are put on a hit list and harassed into
either submitting or getting fired. More drama, and often comedy cum
tragedy, follows.

What the above highlights is that labor is only abstract from the
standpoint of capital. Although capital can *hire* workers based on their
general physical attributes, their ability to *extract work* from workers
in the labor process depends critically on the subjectivity and
solidarity of workers.

In solidarity, Jerry