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Productivity improvement – a sobering story about a wine cask

In my previous post, I discussed the much-lauded productivity improvement solution to the downward pressure on wages, hopefully bringing a touch of sobriety to the public messaging from employers and governments. Especially I took a somewhat different view of the mainstream’s “working smarter” option that is promoted as the happy elixir. So far, this discussion is a somewhat sorry one. But, “working smarter, not harder” does read warm and cuddly, does it not?

The prime ingredient for “working smarter” might be skills formation but digging into that angle requires a separate discussion.

Cask wine – a sobering “true crime” story

In the meantime, let’s stay in the real world within our theme of elixirs and sobriety. Cask wines.

Cask wine for mass consumption became a somewhat fashionable thing in the 1980s. It’s still a thing, especially for those who must drink on a tight budget.

For the consumers back then the issue was: will the wine tap fused to the internal wine bladder line up with the perforated hole at the bottom front of the cask? If not, you would have to go fishing and fiddling to line the tap up so that it fitted snugly poking out from the cask. Often, you would tear the perforation and snugness would not happen.

In the mid-1980s I was a union “trainer”, as we were called, running specific courses on productivity and workers’ rights. I visited a factory, located next to massive vineyards, that produced cask wine. The factory featured giant, stainless-steel vats loaded with the wine varieties, pallet movers and machines that transformed a sheet of cardboard into the cask box, an automatic roller line that carried the empty cask to the filling point and then onwards to the next step, a mechanism at the bottom of the vat that poured and sealed the exact quantity of wine into the silver bladder with its tap. From there a chute dropped the bladder into the opened cask box, waiting below. The box then went on to be sealed and loaded onto transport pallets, heading for the market.

At that point in the process, there was one worker where the filled bladder dropped into the box.

She explained her work: her job was to, when necessary, jiggle the bladder so that its tap aligned directly to the perforation that the customer would puncture to access and pull out the tap into its pouring position. She said that one to three bladders in every 10 needed to be jiggled into position.

She also explained that months before most boxes required that task, which required 2 or 3 workers depending on the machine speed (set by someone else). However, a workmate had worked out a solution. She had picked up a length of wire from the floor and fashioned it into a shape that she wound onto the machinery at the point where the falling cask met the open box.

That more than halved the jiggling effort. Only one worker was needed for the jiggling task.

The worker who smartly invented the solution was one of a few made redundant by that innovation. The remaining worker now worked alone in her assigned shift, a bit less intense but more boring. Her wages hardly changed because of it.

The less “jiggling” the faster the line could go. The price of cask wine did not fall.

Discussion – worth sharing a glass over?

For workers, sharing their production knowledge, usually far more profound than the production designers upstairs, is a dangerous thing. Working smarter is not as cuddly as it seems. Working Smarter is the embrace of idealism driven by people who claim to be pragmatists.

And again, just like Non-Productive Time (NPT, see previous post), embracing “working smarter” denies workers the opportunity to use it as bargaining power.

That “working smarter” is so uncritically embraced by so many in our modern union movement is a real problem.

Much perhaps most of the algorithm content on microchips starts as workers' knowledge.

“Working smarter” and its close relatives – employee engagement, quality circles, teamwork – transfers knowledge gathered and held by workers about the labour process onto microchips that are then owned and sold by their employers. The steps towards automation, robotic production, and what is misleadingly called “artificial intelligence”, are made possible by workers' knowledge embedded in microchips.

In conditions where the workers themselves control and own production that would be a different story. But we are not in that happy situation.

In capitalist conditions, the technology outcome of “working smarter” pays workers a pittance, if at all, relative to the profits taken by the employers who expropriate that workers’ knowledge into their hands.

That's why employers are promoting it. That's why tripartite discussions among elites are risky for workers and do not match the potential of organised workers' intervention at the company and industry levels is so much more important.

Indeed, is money enough to compensate for such a profound expropriation and privatisation of human knowledge? Indeed, can it be measured? More to follow on that last question.

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