WORK - WORKER CONTROL - 1960s - 1970s

Some considerations on certain forms of industrial democracy in Australia from 1965 to 1975.

All merit for the swift advance of civilisation was ascribed to the mind …. Men became accustomed to explain their actions as arising out of thoughts instead of their needs … and so … there emerged that idealistic world outlook which … has dominated men’s minds. It still rules them to such a degree that even the most materialistic natural scientists of the Darwinian school are still unable to form any clear idea of the origin of man, because under this ideological influence they do not recognise the part that has been played therein by labour.
F. Engels, The Part Played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man, c.1876.[1]


Where do correct ideas come from? …  they come from three kinds of social practice, the struggle for production, the class struggle and scientific experiment.
Mao Zedong, Where do correct ideas come from? (1966).[2]

Although the conflict for control over the application of labour capacities at the point of production is ever present in capitalism, its expression in campaigns for Worker Control has been intermittent.[3] Why does that demand come and go?[4] To approach an answer will involve considering how the dynamics of capital accumulation work themselves out at each moment, and in each place. No formula can explain, let alone predict, an upsurge. Yet, two elements recur, albeit never in the same guise. The first is the relative strength of the contending classes, which extends to cultural confidence on a world scale. Around 1920, for example, proletarian enthusiasm had been tempered in intensified misery; fifty years later, by contrast, the workers’ determination was grounded in rising expectations. A second recurrent feature is capital’s need to redesign work procedures in its effort to combat the tendency of the rate of profit to fall. Here, the hard technology of machinery collides with the soft technology of human capacities. The capitalists/managers must alloy these elements. To that end, they seek the participation of the wage-labourers in gaining the additional value essential to meet the costs of having invested in labour-displacing equipment.

To accept the significance for the rise and fall of Worker Control of the global class struggle and of the Janus-faced technologies still leaves open the question of how to treat their effects. This paper attempts to apply the materialism expressed by Engels and Mao. One aim is to surpass the Idealism attaching to voluntarism, with its reliance on the explanatory power of the individual as hero, a concentration on the political as sectarian ideologies, an exclusion of the critique of political economy, and a marginalising of the application of technologies (hard and soft). Above all, an historical materialist seeks for the rhythms of the pressures for worker control among social practices, not in the minds or transitional programs of conflicting grouplets.

In applying the above precepts, the paper will move through seven sections:

  • the first focuses on the upsurge in union militancy in Australia from 1967 to 1969, that is, from the reaction against of the Total Wage decision to the O’Shea general strike;
  • the second highlights some effects from that militancy for the participatory politics that displaced representation;
  • the third presents some of the pertinent technological changes in building and construction;
  • the fourth explores the emergence of the intellectually-trained as potentially more self-managing, according to the Arena thesis;
  • the fifth looks at the responses to worker control from various political groups;
  • the sixth highlights the attempts to contain the above challenges by legislating certain forms of industrial democracy while preserving managerial prerogatives;
  • the seventh segment offers two contrasting case studies of employee participation in job redesign as reminders of the ceaseless tussle for the control over labour-time that is pivotal to the struggle between wage-labour and capital.[5]
  • A brief conclusion leads back through Engels and Mao, and then beyond the point of production to the state.

  1. Revolution in our time, 1967-69
The rebelliousness associated with “the Sixties” is mostly remembered as anti-war protest by students and Blacks, leading to women’s liberation and the environmental movement.[6] At the time, a no less important breakout came from the workers at the peak of the long post-war boom, just as it leveled out before plunging down in late 1974.
In France in 1968, factory occupations had swept through Billancourt while students occupied the Sorbonne. A cultural revolution in the building industry was not confined to the 1967 appearance of ready-mix cement trucks decked in Farley-and- Lewers Pink.

The militancy of the late 1960s came after 25 years of over-full employment, otherwise known as the ‘trough in unemployment’.[7] The affluent society required public squalor and exacted hardships as inflation ate into the basic-wage. Moreover, mass marketers had expanded the socially necessary costs of reproducing labour-power to ensure the absorption of the surplus.[8] Workers had to match the rising expenses that had been induced to meet the needs of capital’s expansion. They sought over-the award payments and a swag of overtime, while leaning on hire-purchase. The capitalists, for their part, aimed to hold down those labour costs in campaigns that reached far beyond the containment of hourly or weekly earnings. Piece-rates brought limited success in the quest for higher productivity.

Neither mass immigration nor a drawing of women into paid employment exerted the full downward pressures of a reserve army of labour on wages. The expansion of the economy was too great and labour-market segmentation too entrenched.

Until the mid-1950s, huge increases in productivity could be achieved by replacing long-handled shovels with a front-end loader.[9] The swing from labour -intensive to capital-intensive operations during the 1950s targeted the militant unions in coal and on the wharves by mechanisation of coal, bulk-loading on the docks, and eventually containerisation. In manufacturing, the chase after productivity gains was as complicated as the skills under the control of the workers.

AEU official, Laurie Carmichael, recognised how mechanisation/automation was leading ‘away from the concrete concepts of the basic wage and margins in arbitration’. He saw the logic of capital expansion working its way through to the dispersal of earnings:

The total wage concept, now adopted in principle, with its less tangible and more abstract concepts of “economic content’ and “work value” will be carried further, compounding the already difficult processes of substantiating argument in the arbitration system.[10]

By the mid-1960s, the employers were arguing for the abolition of the wage-determination system structured on margins added on top of a Basic Wage, but weighed down with over-the-ward benefits to limit labour churn.

Wage determination was built on skill differentials and rates of remunerations embedded in the rigmarole of Awards. The employers found it bootless to break through them one by one. For as long as that tangle could be maintained, the unions could deflect the attacks. Hence, the employers used mechanisation-cum-automation for two ends: first, to tear through these rigidities, and, secondly, to overcome the labour shortages that kept up labour costs.

From the early 1950s, the unions had been worried about job losses through mechanisation, which few people then bothered to delineate from automation.[11] The earliest effects were in felt in the coal industry where 1000 jobs went from the South Maitland fields in 1956. In 1958, the NSW Government appointed a Royal Commission into Automation. One feature of the new methods of work was the loss of craft skills and erasure of the clear divide between manual and mental labour, blue and white collars workers. The mechanisation of office tasks, for example through EDP, altered the clerical unions and brought them closer to the industrial counterparts. In October 1966, the ACTU conducted a seminar on automation in conjunction with both Australian Council of Salaried and Professional Associations and the High Council of the Commonwealth Public Service.

The employers’ assaults on the filigreed awards deprived the unionists of some of the defensive controls they exercised over their working arrangements. The installation of new machines, new operating procedures and new materials upset the traditional power arrangements at the point of production. Any victory for the bosses on this front, however, brought an unanticipated consequence by opening a space into which a still confident working class could react with more assertive forms of control. Hence, that trio of innovations did not deprive the wage-labourers of their capacity to turn at least some of the changes back against their employers. 

Many of these disputes surfaced as wage demands. In 1953, the Arbitration Court had ended automatic adjustments for the cost of living. In 1959, the ACTU research officer, R. J. Hawke, acting as advocate, convinced the Court to reverse its 1953 decision.[12] Hawke also argued for a second tier of increases to reward productivity gains. Union officials warmed to him. Then, in 1965, the bench swung the other way, and Hawke went ballistic. Employers despised him because he had no hesitation in calling a fool an idiot. His reputation for radicalism reflected these rhetorical outbursts. When Hawke returned in 1966, he got the status quo ante re-instated with rises accepted for both prices and productivity. The media demonised Hawke as ‘Mr Inflation’.

Late in 1967, the Arbitration Commission adopted the employers’ call for a Total Wage. Furthermore, the judges recommended absorbing increases into existing over-the-award payments, as the Shipwrights had been forced to do in 1966. This time the metal trades erupted. In January 1968, immediately after the return to work, 1300 delegates rallied in the Sydney Town Hall, leading to a 24-hour strike by 200,000 unionists. So determined was this shop-floor blacklash that, on 21 February 1968, the Commission abandoned its proposal for the absorption of over-the-award payments, declaring their own proposal to be “impracticable”.[13]

Ten days after the strike, the Viet Cong occupied the US Embassy in Saigon. The annus mirabulous of 1968 had begun. In rapid succession came news that LBJ the would not seek re-election, of May Days in Paris, the Prague Spring, a revival of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution in China, uprisings across Latin America, incendiary urban rebellions after Martin Luther King’s assassination, and student dissent from high schools to universities.

The spread of revolt stimulated Australian workers fed up with arbitration as a round of pains and penalties. The total-wage dispute laid the ground for the walkouts in May 1969 on the arrest of Clarrie O’Shea, the Maoist Secretary of the Tramways Union in Melbourne. That Tramway dispute had been brewing for years. O’Shea’s defiance of the court presided over by John Kerr cannot be attributed to the CPA (M-L)’s conversion to the voluntarism espoused by the Chinese Party in the wake of the slaughter of their Indonesian comrades. Yet, the cry of ‘Dare to Struggle, Dare to Win’ did spur the Party and Union leaderships. Chairman Hill applied his pedantry to ensure that the Union never left itself open to a flank attack on some technical point of law. Despite this legalism, the Tramways campaign had been prepared on the inevitability of O’Shea’s defiance of the state by refusing to hand over his members’ funds. Nonetheless, tension perhaps simmered between Hill in his ultra-Leftist phase and O’Shea as a union official suspected of economism. The CPA(M-L) put out a leaflet around this time which amounted to a call to bombard the trade unions as inherently counter-revolutionary.

The Age editorials on the strike remembered the global upsurge of the previous 18 months to convey the alarm that seized the Australian bourgeoisie. Kerr later confided to journalists that ASIO had paid O’Shea’s $10,000 fine. Henceforth, the penal powers were dead in fact, if not in law. While the state scrambled after new ways to organize capital and disorganize labour, the gate had been opened for all manner of industrial gains. Without that breakthrough in May 1969, the movement for workers’ control would have had to take a different path. Of course, had the long fuse lit by Hill and O’Shea not led on to an explosion, the outbreak would have found another spark. By the late 1960s, the labour movement in Australia was not a prairie but a powder-keg.

Faced with the world revolt and local stroppiness from 1967, the presiding cliques in the Australian labour movements could no longer manipulate in the old way. After years of quiescence under Lord Monk of Lygon, the ACTU executive was being carried along by the swerve to the Left. The CIA realised that the drone who had been A.C.T.U. Secretary, Harold Souter, would never be able to hold the line against the militants. At Melbourne’s Downtowner Motel in March 1969, the US Labor attaché, Emil Lindahl, announced that his Embassy was switching support from the Santamaria Groupers to R. J. Hawke.[14]

2. Power to the workers (1970-75)

The demand for industrial democracy has gained tremendous momentum in the West in the past few years. Few movements have made as great an impact in so short a period.
Blurb on the back cover of Industry’s democratic revolution (1974).[15]

Once the May 1969 strike had swept the penal powers aside, the employers and their political agents could not put the lid back on the labour force. Not only were there more union actions at every level, but the substance of the calls for industrial democracy underwent a sea change. In early 1969, a research officer for the AEU, Jack Hutson, had defined ‘Worker Control’:

The extension of the right of the trade unions particularly in the workshops, through their representatives, to have an effective say in  decisions made in respect to such matters s trade unionism, safety, welfare, discipline, wage fixation, appointment of supervisory staff, deployment of labor, technological changes, hiring and firing and access to financial records. (Emphasis added)

These items documented the subordination of the unions under the Penal Powers. As Hutson noted, the shop steward had the same rights as a dog that had strayed through the factory gates.[16] His list could not have been more radical. Its implementation would still amount to the denial of managerial prerogatives. Nonetheless, Hutson had yet to register the change from representation to participation.

The appeals of participatory democracy became a commonplace. In 1973, NSW powerhouse workers responded to the Electricity Commission’s use of professional staff to scab by starting a work-in. The tradesmen got that idea from news of disputes at the Opera House, Harco and Clyde. Summing up the work-ins in the electricity generation sector, members of the “Power Group” of the CPA acknowledged that they had had next-to-no influence over the militants.[17] The power workers held out for four months, running over that bastard Askin. At the start, they saw taking control of the plant as a tactic in their campaign for a 35-hour week, not as a step towards Worker Control of their industry, still less of society. Their demand for shorter hours ceased to be trade-union economism, however, because of the tactics they had picked up to push their hours claim. Even if the power workers had not been government employers, their occupation would have brought them into confrontation with the state, that is, towards revolutionary politics.

At the other extreme were migrant workers with no influence over either their work procedures or their union officials. They articulated their powerlessness by exercising their capacity to wreck the Ford Plant at Broadmeadows in June 1973.

3. building blocks
Mundey and Gallagher had began their unions careers in struggles over pay and conditions. Their victories on both industrial and environmental issues became intertwined with the remaking of construction processes on which they could not take the initiative.

After the late 1940s, the architect had been ‘called upon more and more to work as specialist in an industrial team rather than as an individual general practitioner’.[18] Twenty years on, architects had been overtaken by engineers such as G. J. Dusseldorp, whose construction and contracting procedures gave Lend Lease/Civil & Civic the profit margins to negotiate industrial peace.[19] That reorganization of the industry would be felt all the way along the chains of command. From inside the B.W.I.U., Pat Clancy reported late in 1966:

Changes in the organisation of the production process, such as the development of sub-contracting in various industries, have resulted in an increase in managerial personnel, foremen, various kinds of planners, co-ordinators and similar administrative workers.[20]

The increase in supervisory levels, and the rearrangement of their previous patterns, offered points and fissures where workers could exert pressure.

Meanwhile, pre-fabrication altered the allocation of tasks within and between professions and trades. For instance, on-site skills moved around between cabinet-makers, carpenters and labourers. Instead of a tradesman hand-crafting a cupboard, labourers trained on the job would assemble, or perhaps only install, kitchen units made in a factory. By the mid-1960s, pre-fabrication and standardisation had been renamed Modular production.[21] Their principles were being applied to high-rise office blocks. In 1966, an advocate of Modular construction felt that the building industry was – at last – “on the threshold of industrialisation’. Just before the outbreak of union militancy in the late 1960s, the modular engineers/managers looked forward to their long-awaited mechanisation of building:

The acceptance of an internationally recognised dimensioning system to co-ordinate the sizes of machine-made components is surely a logical step towards the goal of greater efficiency in the rapidly approaching building industry ‘machine age’.[22]

The social division of labour into trades would be then overwhelmed by the particularisation of the tasks in each trade, a la Adam Smith’s pin-making.

These changes were downgrading the tradesmen of the BWIU, while putting the AWU and BLF on a collision course. The builder’s labourer had ceased to be a labourer for a tradesman to become a labouring builder. Plastics arrived on sites with no clear provision for demarcation. (A. V. Jennings had bought into Moulded Products as early as 1946.) Award provisions for new materials and tasks had to be settled as they were introduced.

The volumes of ready-mix used in Australia went from 1442 cubic yards in 1956-57 up to 6603 cubic yards in 1965-66, four-and-a-half times in ten years.[23] Stopping concrete pours became emblematic of how developments in construction process had enabled the least-skilled to control the site. The situation was more intricate. At other stages of a development, a dogman or a crane-driver could bring work to a halt.[24] The concrete went into multi-storey office blocks. High-rises required taller cranes with different requirements for safety. The taller the towers, the deeper went the foundations, requiring new digging machinery on sites.[25] Whelan the Wrecker brought new skills to demolition and added dangers to dogmen.

These changes did more to determine the tactics available to the BLF against the employers than did ideological allegiances, whether to Euro-Communism or to the thoughts of the Chairman. This limit on the power of positive thinking would have been the case even had the embrace of those respective stances not been nominal.

4. political lines
From the late 1960s, most Left groups were advancing some variant of industrial democracy to balance or counter the centralism directed by a vanguard party. The Yugoslav road to socialism boasted of self-managed enterprises. These experiments became beacons to Western revolutionaries throughout the 1970s.

The refashioning of the Communist Review into Australian Left Review in 1966 announced the CPA’s drift into Euro-communism. The Italian line pointed up Antonio Gramsci’s participation in the Turin factory occupations around 1920.[26] Industrial democracy became central to the CPA’s redirection. A symposium on Worker Control appeared in the December 1966 issue of ALR, with another in August 1973. That strategy tied the Party’s union base to a re-thinking of socialism. In Brisbane, long-time CPA activist Stella Nord and the fellow-travelling Hughie Hamilton from the BWIU backed a Worker Control national conference in 1973. After the split with the pro-Soviet faction, this pluralism allowed a range of voices in ALR, including the Trotskyite leader, M. Raptis, in August 1974, on self-management.

An alternative line advocated expanding the domain of leisure. This position left the control of work, and of society, untouched. Late in 1966, the President of the CPA, Richard Dixon, referred to an article, ‘World of Plenty and of Ample Leisure’, by Sam Lilley in Marxism Today (August 1965). Dixon offered a counter theme to the critique of work as alienating. Instead of democratizing or humanizing the workplace, he looked forward to a diminishing of the significance that work had for life. He made no mention of the quality of working life.[27]

During the 1970s, the rough and tumble of the construction sector with its cowboy builders and larrikin workforce re-routed both the Communist Party of Australia and, later, the CPA (M-L). For a brief while, Jack Mundey became National President of the former. His spontaneity got the best of him on television one night in August 1974 by calling for a ‘Spring Wage Offensive’, a notion he picked up in Japan, where it had relevance. In Australia, his call highlighted the mindlessness of a militancy seduced by the mass media. He was replaced by Laurie Carmichael. In the early years of Fraser, the M-Ls demoted Gallagher from his position as vice-Chairman because he had agreed to make a reactionary decision by the ACTU Executive unanimous. ‘Unity in Betrayal’, thundered Vanguard, ‘Is Still Betrayal’. By the 1980s, Hill would need Gallagher more than the other way around.

Initiatives in the field exposed disjunctures between theory and practice, or rather, between ideology and activism. Nowhere were conflicts between words and actions more extreme than among the M-Ls. Mao’s first reaction to Krushchev’s 1956 speech had been “On the Correct Handling of Contradictions Among the People”, which reads like a model for people’s democracy. Ten years later, Maoist rebels seized factories in Shanghai from the Capitalist Roaders. Neither Mao’s writings nor the practice of Red Guards convinced the Worker-Student Alliance of the value of Worker Control. One WSA leader lambasted the Worker Control Centre in Adelaide as ferociously as he did the employee participation bills then being introduced by Dunstan.[28] At the same time, the WSA was promoting occupations in the car plants.

Moscow’s position was more consistent. In rebutting existentialist critiques of everyday life in the centrally-planned economies, the Soviets in the 1950s had taken the line that there could be no alienation where the working class owned the means of production. Their supporters in Australia argued that Worker Control was a diversion and must remain an empty slogan for as long as the bourgeoisie held state power. (For all its adventurism, the Maoist BLF under Gallagher agreed on this point with Pat Clancy’s BWIU, primarily because neither welcomed democracy inside their unions.)

The special pleading behind the Soviet objections to Worker Control is undeniable. That bad faith does not mean that the point lacked substance. For example, converts to self-management had trouble responding to the long-time communist, Alf Watt, when he raised the possibility of conflicts between the interests of the whole working class and those of workers in strategically placed and better financed plants.[29] That inequity would manifest itself inside the NSW building industry wherever the BLF leadership lost touch with the small and speck sites. The Mundey team had got elected by organizing at the grassroots before being caught up in big sites and on green bans, a loss of direction unwittingly documented in Rocking the Foundations.

The NSW BLs were not the only activists adrift in ad hocery, drawing few if any connections between on-the-job activities and concepts of the state, or the expansion of capital. Indeed, the popularity of various forms of voluntarism flourished as one more rejection of political economy, which was then being spurned as another determinist legacy of Stalinism. Neglecting the dynamics of capital could not make them disappear. A worker-intellectual, Jack Blake, proposed a different detour.

5. a new intelligentsia
Mundey had come to Worker Control through involvement with the industrial working class. Enthusiasm for industrial democracy also came from the new social stratum to whom Mundey appealed. The lifelong, if increasingly dissident Australian communist, Jack Blake, offered ballast for their excitements in his 1971 Revolution from Within. Blake reconfigured the classic position that the overthrow of capitalism would emerge from the conflict between the means and the relations of production. That antagonism had pictured a revolution from within. Blake’s twist was to claim that ‘the intellectual culture is being built into the structure of the workforce itself by the developmental needs of modern industrial society’.[30] If true, socialist consciousness in Australia would not be starting almost from scratch as had happened in Russia. Australian socialists therefore could avoid most of the crimes of the Stalin era. Denouncing Stalinist bureaucracy united most of the supporters of Worker Control more than any account of a post-capitalist future.

The place of the ‘intellectually trained’ in achieving a democratic workplace was also the pivot for the Arena thesis. Out of an academic background in social theory, science and education, two of the founding editors of the Melbourne-based Marxist journal Arena, were Geoff Sharp and Doug White. Their strategy responded to the restructuring of the economy away from the industrial working-class towards the service sectors, preceding a de-industrialisation of the economy and the de-labourisation of manufacturing through mechanisation/automatation.

The Arena editors proposed that the nature of the work undertaken by the intellectually trained would bring them into conflict with the commandism of capitalism. The new tasks required “not simply a higher level of skilled worker”, but a fresh way of working, namely, the application of an analytical approach to established skills:

Always the intellectually-trained worker is called on to exercise his general powers of knowledge and theoretical standpoint in relation to fresh particular tasks. This perhaps is a quite central condition tending to generate an autonomous person, who, because he cannot readily be supervised (except by those who share his capacities) is to a degree self regulating and is the more conscious of his individuality.

… because the intellectually trained have no voice in setting the objectives they strive to attain they are alienated from the products of their working effort just as much as is the industrial worker who is likely to have contempt and disregard for his employer who judges things by a different set of standards from those he has. And because he wishes to carry through the whole of his life activity in accord with his values, is more concerned about the uses of the product of his labour than older style workers.[31]

Sharp and White offered the example of school teachers who were at the time rejecting assessment by an inspectorate, demanding instead promotional criteria established by their own professional institute. (Here was the B.A., Dip. Ed. Class that P. P. McGuinness would disparage.) Academics later put into practice some of the freedom to manage their own affairs that had been seized by their students.

Ever hopeful that student power would be the seedbed for a new generation of revolutionaries, Sharp and White nonetheless recognised that the needs of the intellectually trained could be met through adjustments to the social and cultural regimes of capital, thereby rendering its political and economic power more secure. That proved to be the case. The personal computer took over from the mainframe. Instead of a democratizing impulse from the intellectually trained, capitalism saw the crown of monopolising pass from IBM to Microsoft.

In its eclecticism, the ALR had reprinted Radovan Richta’s article on automation and alienation from Peace, Freedom, Socialism in June-July 1967.  The Warsaw Pact invasion killed the attempt to ally socialist planning with cybernetics, as proposed in the Czech Academy’s manifesto, Civilisation at the Crossroads, edited by Richta,. In 1969, the CPA, through ALR, published a translation of that symposium.[32]

6. repressive tolerance, 1969-75

“It was too successful. What were we going to do with the supervisors – the manager? We didn’t need them any more. Management decided it just didn’t want operators that qualified’.
Director of Training, Polaroid, 19?? [33]

By 1973, the upsurge of participatory democracy had scared David Rockefeller into getting his Tri-Lateral Commission to fund a study on the governability of democracy, a telling oxymoron. One of its authors, Samuel P. Huntington, came out in favour of authoritarian Singapore. Ralf Dahrendorf, however, supported participation in works councils across Germany, which he took as a counter to more radical demands.[34]

At that time, bourgeois democratic governments everywhere were deflecting calls for industrial democracy away from the overthrow of capitalism towards the reconciling of workers which their lot, often by methods which Herbert Marcuse labelled repressive tolerance. The Whitlam government appointed unionists to boards of instrumentalities, even legislating for their direct election in a few cases. The technocratic Laborites around South Australian premier Don Dunstan put forward plans for worker participation, which the right-wing Secretary of the NSW Labour Council, John Ducker, described as “erring on the conservative side”.[35] More of a maverick, the Federal Minister for Labour, Clyde Cameron,[36] commissioned Canberra academic Fred Emery to report on Living at work (1976).

The NSW ALP conference guaranteed employees the legal right to elect “30% of representation on boards of directors of major industries”. In 1975, Ducker saw “joint consultation and board level representation” as no more than “first steps”:

But the real response to the challenge of an alienated workforce lies in re-shaping work settings so that the workers participate in decisions affecting production. Monotonous, assembly-line jobs can be done away with; work can be totally redesigned to boost the job satisfaction and improve the health of workers without massive costs.[37]

This promise played no part in the ten years of the Wran model.

Industrial democracy as high policy found another outlet in the forgotten 1976 Report of the Committee to Advise on Policies for the Manufacturing Industry. Those volumes included a commissioned survey of the role of workers in industry, undertaken in response to a recognition “that a lack of common purpose between management and workers was impairing the performance of industry and frustrating the achievement of a satisfying work environment”. A three-person team was dispatched to investigate worker participation in Romania and Yugoslavia.[38] That tourist trip exemplified the extraction of bureaucratic rent in the name of anti-bureaucratisation.

After 1976, the Commonwealth still wrestled with how to get unions back under control. John Howard recorded in 1989 that

the most frequent comment I hear about the Fraser government is: ‘You fellows had the two biggest mandates in history and you didn’t take on the unions as you promised. You were put there to smash union power’.[39]

Howard attributed this failure of will to the illegitimacy that the government had felt because of the 11 November dismissal. State governments demonstrated more resolve. The West Australian police arrested Carmichael in Perth in June 1979, provoking a 24-hour national strike; Bjelke-Peterson dismissed the SEQEB workers en masse.

Despite these assaults, the unions were still on the march. In 1980, the Metal Unions hitched a wages push on the back of Fraser’s and Lynch’s hype about an infrastructure boom to deal with the post-Iranian revolution energy crisis. The workers were then knocked over by the 1981-82 recession, with permanent job losses. Their leaders then scurried into the Accord for protection. The upsurge of ‘1968’ would limp through one last lap in the industry plans from Australia Reconstructed after 1987.[40]

7. Participation for job redesign
The significance of new production methods in the drive for industrial democracy has been touched on in regard to the building trades and the new intelligentsia. Getting new machines (the hard technologies) to increase the expansion of values has always require the organizing human capacities (soft technologies). Those micro-changes persisted behind the smash-and-grab headlines from construction sites.

To identify whatever it is that managers contribute to the extraction of surplus value we again must proceed from the specifics of each period and locale. The managers whom the Australian movement for Worker Control encountered from the late 1960s were notorious among management experts for a paucity of talents and the poverty of their training. In 1971, the Chairman of the Commonwealth Banking Corporation, Warren D. McDonald, pointed out:

We missed a generation in management … Our industrial growth was so rapid that many firms moved from being backyard operations to complex national organisations in a few years. Father, who often started in shirtsleeves and with perhaps a limited education, had to compete with immense problems and back-braking work. Instead of his better-educated, better-trained sons taking over in the natural course and being able to handle the new problems, as in older industrial societies, he had to do everything himself in a few years or he failed to survive. He often did not possess either the background or, most important of all, the time to be concerned with things like marketing research and scientific management techniques.[41]

All industries included a spread of competencies among their managers. A few were well-prepared and forward-looking; most were the lucky and the second-rate’ named by Donald Horne who accused the rest as glorying in “a look-no-brains attitude’.[42]

This managerial deficit had been compounded by the age-structure of many firms, not only family ones. Talk of a youth quake in the 1960s need not blind us to a revolt of the middle-aged against the septuagenarians in business, unions, politics and the law. Under these circumstances, astute managers could deploy variants of industrial democracy as levers for lifting the productivity of their supervisors.

The pair of studies confirm that workers never lose all control over the application of their labour power, which is why managers need co-operation from operatives. Each work-site presents distinct problems, approaches and outcomes. Extending this examination of the early 1970s phase in the movement for Worker Control to manufacturing will direct attention back to the issues raised by CPA union officials regarding the ways in which mechanisation/automation was disrupting wage determination. The two examples follow the accounts given by managers.

i. Philips
Philips Telecommunication of Australia Ltd made radio equipment for police cars:

Originally, this equipment was manufactured in small quantities by technicians and radio tradesmen working from samples. Drawings were few and much information was retained in technicians’ heads. As a consequence, repeat orders at a later date met with obvious production difficulties.

Those operating procedures changed with the introduction of mass production. Sub-contractors or tradesmen then manufactured the “sheet metal items, coils and electrical components”. Two groups of women worked on assembly lines making up sub-assemblies or particular models.

Materials were given to them in batches and they selected components as required, according to samples and instruction sheets. Between one and five stages were involved in making up sub-assemblies, and five stages in the assembly of finished radios, no job cycle being greater than twenty minutes. Each sub-assembly and final assembly was inspected before it went into storage.

The workers were unable to improve their production bonuses because they were moved around between tasks to break the monotony, and thus could not “develop the required speed”.

This system had the added disadvantage of requiring Philips to hold components and finished radios to the value of $500,000. These stocks locked up capital so that it could not reproduce itself. Work patterns had to be re-organised to reduce inventory and free up the money circuit for capital’s expansion.

Another drain on profits was the poor quality of the assembling. Radios often needed re-working. The production line made it difficult for supervisors to identify which operative had been responsible for poor work. The women resented having “to rectify mistakes” made by other workers.

In January 1966, the company experimented with the women assembling complete units and checking the quality of their own work. The components were delivered to the women on trays in which the parts had been arranged in the sequence needed for their assembly. Each operative now had responsibility for assembling an entire unit. By these means, the value of inventory was reduced to $300,000.

However, the adjustments did not enhance efficiencies of labour-time. The workers’ rate of production did not reach the universal labour-time set at the outset by the managers. For several months, those targets had to be slowed; at the same time, the output needed to earn a bonus was lowered.[43] What the managers gained in quality, they lost on speed. The difficulties that they faced in job redesign illuminate the multiplicity of ways in which returns on capital can be both affected, and effected. The managers took a year to find a combination of incentives and job- redesign that the women would accept in their practice.

Philips had involved its workers at the micro-level, paying due attention to repetition and other non-financial disincentives. The company had never thought of asking them to plan the assembly. Control is a contest. In this case, degrees of control at the point of production shifted back and forth from the managers to the workers, and did so at different steps in the assembly process. The workers’ control over the application of their labour-power went up or down. Worker Control in terms of the labour process remained constant at around zero.

ii. Australian Thread
The “Common Interest Programme” began at Australian Thread in October 1971 to deal with dissatisfaction over low wages. The dyehouse did not lend itself to the incentive scheme operating elsewhere in the plant. Discontent with those lower earnings manifested itself in absenteeism and turnover. A consultant showed that operators in the dyehouse often had 35% idle time, even when they were running three machines, when the accepted practice was to run only two. To eliminate this unproductive time, the operators were told:

here is the dyehouse, with so many machines. You, as a group of men should operate these machines as best you can. There is obviously room for improvement in methods and organisation, and you are the best people to know how.

Shop-floor ideas went to a Joint Production Committee which achieved additional economies. The managers accepted that the workers could do both their own work and that of their supervisors. Granting the workers’ control over the procedure had intensified the firm’s control of the labour-time for which it was paying wages.

Management’s stated aim was to not to work its labourers harder, but “more effectively”. “Effectively” meant no down-time. Hence, the labour-time for which the firm paid would be brought as close as possible to the hours during which the wage-labourers were adding value. Although the work went no faster, and each step required no more physical effort, the working day became more exhausting because there were no unscheduled breaks. The previous level of effort was now sustained across the eight hours, rather than for five or six. In compensation, the company identified a pool of “saved man-hours” which, converted into money, it shared equally with the workers. Only by putting in those extra two or three hours a day did the workers get the over-award payments they had been seeking.[44] The workers were no longer killing time for a couple of hours a day. The relentlessness of each shift was wearing them out more rapidly.

This paper has laid some foundations for a materialist account of one episode in the ebbs and flows of the movement for Worker Control. The politics behind this approach to analysis is that neither correct nor incorrect ideas drop from the sky, any more than either is innate in the mind. Following on from Engels’s remarks about the Darwinians, the call for Worker Control can germinate in the minds of even the wisest central committee only through the social practices enumerated by Mao.

At the core of this explication has been the relative strength of the contending classes. The expressions that the class struggle assumes, like its transient outcomes, are influenced by the war for position on the ideological front, which includes the comparative levels of confidence of the contenders. This conference is playing its part in that on-going battle. The distance between the mood at the Worker Control conferences in 1973 and that around this weekend cannot be bridged by wishing. To regain the confidence of 1973 will require a rebuilding of the collective organisations of working people, not excluding trade unions.

The future of any of the current social movements is not a matter of ideological struggle alone. Upsurges of Worker Control relate to the shifting mechanisms of capital expansion. The governor on that growth-engine remains the second-by-second direction of labour. A drive for industrial democracy can be initiated by reactions against new machines and their concomitant reorganizing of the application of labour. Such protests can take advantage of the disruption caused by the new technologies/machines with their re-jigged operational procedures. If not met with informed resistance, that coupling will circumscribe the sellers of labour-power.

The attention of this paper has been towards the point of production, an approach which is dangerously lopsided. The space for industrial democracy within capitalism is limited first by the logic of capital expansion, and secondly, by the state, which seeks to do for capital what its managers cannot achieve through their corporations.[45]

The greatest ever failure for Worker Control was in August 1914 when the European proletarians did not strike to prevent the outbreak of war. That instant called for an insurrectionary withdrawal of labour power aimed at the state, not just against individual employers. From out of the conflagration that followed, the ‘soviets’ emerged as one form for realizing a dictatorship of the proletariat. It is less clear how councils of workers can, of themselves, dislodge the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie. This uncertainty is less true for councils of soldiers. Some small-l liberals seek to extend political democracy to industrial democracy within the rule of capital. Anarcho-syndicalists and Marxist-Leninists agree that such an advance can be made permanent only by extending political democracy beyond the rule of the propertied class.

Humphrey McQueen
8 October 2003

[The paper is a draft. By all means pass copies on, but please refrain from quoting as if it were a final version.]

[1] F. Engels, The Dialectics of Nature, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1964, p. 180.
[2] Mao Zedong, Four Essays on Philosophy, Foreign Languages Press, Beijing, 1966, p. 134.
[3] The distinctions between Worker Control, self-management, workers’ control, industrial democracy and employee participation are vital but require a separate paper; it is hoped that my intention will be clear from the context. However, I have used upper-case Worker Control for moves to take charge of more than the point-of-production which I discuss as ‘workers’ control’.
[4] It is easier to explain the rise and fall of academic interest in the subject, which trails behind the struggles waged by workers, see Harvie Ramsay, ‘Cycles of Control: Worker Participation in Sociological and Historical Perspective’, Sociology, 11 (3), September 1977, pp. 481-506; in 1966, a volume of Readings on Australian Labour Relations, edited by J. E. Isaac and G. W. Ford, (Sun, Melbourne) got no closer to any aspect of industrial democracy than collective bargaining.
[5] Humphrey McQueen, ‘Making capitals tick’, Overland, 172, March 2003, pp. 92-101; Humphrey McQueen, ‘What happened in globalisation?’, JAPE, 51, June 2003, pp. 103-31.
[6] A prime example of reporting the era in its own terms is Robin Gerster and Jan Bassett, Seizures of youth, ‘The Sixties’ and Australia, Hyland House, Melbourne, 1991.
[7] Walter Korpi, ‘The Long Trough in Unemployment’, Politics and Society, 33 (3), 2002.
[8] Michael A. Lebowitz, ‘Capital and the Production of Needs’, Science and Society, 41 (4), Winter 1977-78; Paul A. Baran & Paul M. Sweezy, Monopoly Capital, Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1965, chapter 5.
[9] Clay Products Journal, September 1949, p. 11 on a CSIRO Report.
[10] Australian Left Review, (ALR), Dec.-Jan. 1967, p. 15; the articles by union officials in the ALR between 1966 and 1969 expressed what I call ‘strategic economism’. Their position was economism in the sense that demands remained within the rule of capital. It was strategic because it recognised the logic of that rule. The attrition of this defensive analysis across the intervening 30 years has weakened the working class.
[11] Australian Factory, February 1959, p. 26; from the Left, Ken Kemshead, Automation, friend or foe?, Fabian Society, Brisbane, 1957, pp. 6-7.
[12] R. J. Hawke, ‘The Commonwealth Arbitration Court Legal Tribunal of Economic Legislature?’, J. E. Isacc and G. W. Ford (eds), Australian Labour Economics, Readings, Sun Books, Melbourne, 1967, pp. 33-88.
[13] ALR, Feb.-March 1968, pp. 9-15; April-May 1968, pp. 8-9; R. J. Hawke, ‘Total Wage – An Analysis’, Federal Law Review, 3, June 1968, pp. 100-3; J. Hutson, Six Wage Concepts, AEU, Sydney, 1971,
[14] Recorded in Marian Wilkinson’s 1984 film Allies. In July 1969, Hawke got elected ACTU President. Hawke repaid the CIA’s confidence in the hours immediately after Kerr sacked Whitlam when he told unionists to stay at work and donate a day’s pay to parliamentary cretenism. The next year, Hawke became the golfing buddy of George Shultz, then with the Bechtel Corporation, between being US Secretary for Commerce and Secretary of State.
[15] Charles Levinson (ed.), George Allen & Unwin, London, 1974.
[16] ALR, Feb.-March 1969, pp. 8-12; see also J. Hutson, Penal Colony to Penal Powers, AEU, Sydney. 1966.
[17] ALR, December 1973, 42, pp. 10-12.
[18] Editorial, Architecture, Oct.-Dec. 1950, p. 119.
[19] Lindie Clark, Finding a common interest: the story of Dick Dusseldorp and Lend Lease, CUP, Melbourne, 2002, chapter 1; K. G. Hooker discussed the division of responsibilities between the architect, construction company and proprietor, Australian Building Science and Technology, September 1964,pp. 15-17.
[20] ALR, 4, Dec. 1966- Jan. 1967, p. 12.
[21] Australian National Clay, July 1965, pp. 8-9; a Modular Society had just been established here.
[22] Australian Building Science and Technology, October 1966, p. 15.
[23] John Hutton, Building and Construction in Australia, Cheshire, Melbourne, 1970, p. 184.
[24] Meredith Burgman and Verity Burgman, Green Bans, Red Union, UNSW Press, Sydney, 1998, pp. 18-19.
[25] Concrete Industries News, August 1965, p. 2; Henry J. Cowan, From Wattle & Daub to Concrete & Steel, The Engineering heritage of Australia’s Buildings, MUP, Carlton South, 1998, pp. 86-104 & 187-204.
[26] Alastair Davidson, ALR, October 1974, pp. 38-48, March-April 1975, pp. 35-44.
[27] ALR, 4, December 1966-January 1967, pp. 8-9.
[28] Arena, 32-33, 1973, pp. 9-20.
[29] Alf Watt, The Politics of Workers’ Control in Capitalist Countries and Worker-Power in the Soviet Union, Alf Watt, Sydney, 1973.
[30] J. D. Blake, Revolution from within, Outlook, Sydney, 1971, p. 114.
[31] Arena, 15, 1969, pp. 30-33; Warren Osmond. “Towards Self-Awareness”, Richard Gordon (ed.), The Australian New Left, Heinemann, Melbourne, 1970, pp. 192-98.
[32] The professional engineer, Dave Morris, disputed the Richta position, arguing that ‘nearly all of the scientific revolution applies primarily to matters of control, not to production at all’. (Italics in original), ALR, 7, Feb.-March 1968, p. 36. Morris had taken refuge in the USSR where he died just after his article appeared, see Bernice Morris, Between the lines, Sybylla, Melbourne, 1988.

The erosion the centrally-planned economies can be dated from the suppression of the Prague Spring. Moscow’s alarm at flows of uncensored information cancelled whatever chance the command economies had of shifting from their successes with the primitive accumulation of capital onto supplying the superabundance of consumer goods for Krushchev’s Goulash Communism. In the early 1970s, the Soviet Minister for Chemical Industries wanted more memory for his IBM 360-50 so that he could control 30,000 factories. He saw mainframes as the means to centralize, not as an aid to devolution, or for cross-links between the plants. Hence, the mis-named centrally-planned economies staggered on for another twenty years through a black-market between factory managers seeking to get around the worst of the bottlenecks. In the mid-1980s, Gorbachev acknowledged that restructuring could not succeed without openness. He had came 20 years too late to succeed at either. By then, the ‘problem of the millions’ had been decided in von Hayek’s favour.

[33] Ray Ferris explaining why Edwin Land abandoned worker participation in his plants, David Jenkins, Job Power, Doubleday, New York, 1973, pp. 314-5.
[34] Holly Sklar (ed.), Trilateralism, South End Press, 1980, Part V.
[35]  John Ducker in Doron Gunzburg, (ed.), Bringing Work to Life, Productivity Promotion Council of Australia, p. 17.
[36] Clyde R. Cameron, ‘Modern Technology, Job Enrichment and the Quality of Life’, Journal of Industrial Relations, 14 (4), December 1972, pp. 361-78.
[37] Ducker, pp. 16-17.
[38] Policies for Developing of Manufacturing Industry, III, AGPS, Canberra, 1976, pp. v.& 253-387.
[39] Best of the Independent Monthly, (ed.) Frank Devine, Deakin University Press, Geelong, 1992, pp. 151-52.
[40] John Buchanan, ???????
[41] Australian Marketing Projects, The Hoover Award for Marketing, National Committee of the Hoover Awards for Marketing, West Ryde, 1962, p. vi; Christopher Wright, The management of labour: a history of Australian employers, MUP, Melbourne, 1995.
[42] Donald Horne, The Lucky Country, Penguin, Ringwood, 1964, p. 239.
[43] Personnel Practice Bulletin, 24 (3), September 1968, pp. 194-6.
[44] Australian Textiles, 3, 1981, p. 34; compare Mena Calthorpe, The Dyehouse, Seven Seas Books, Berlin, 1964, which was one of the few Australian workplace novels to recognise the dignity of labour, pp. 71, 90, 92 & 163. Calthorpe might have been following a lead from the 1957 Soviet novel of Vladimir Dudintsev, Not by Bread Alone, in which the hero-engineer is victimised by managers.
[45] Humphrey McQueen, The Essence of Capitalism, Sceptre, Sydney, 2001, chapter 3.