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The choices we make: a ‘sliding doors’ moment

By David Peetz - posted Wednesday, 16 July 2014

In 1987 Wolfgang Streeck wrote of how the great ‘uncertainty of management’ was dealing with the ‘management of uncertainty’. Managers have responded – to the volatility of the product markets in which they sell and the financial markets in which their equity and debt are nested – by a range of strategies, some consistent, many contradictory.

Chief among the consistent strategies is the search for greater flexibility. You hear a lot about employers offering greater flexibility for employees – more choice in their start or finishing times, perhaps in their total hours. This is in response to demands from employees themselves – more on that later.

But the principal form of flexibility is the flexibility by employees that employers seek, to help employers manage – and shift – their own risk. Sometimes they seek ‘functional’ flexibility – getting employees to take on multiple and quite different tasks and hence skills. Sometimes they seek ‘numerical’ flexibility, meaning that the number of workers, or the number of hours they work, or maybe even their pay rates, move up and down according to the needs of the enterprise.


For a long time, greater numerical flexibility was seen as an unequivocal plus, creating greater stability, or at least resilience, in labour markets. Governments were encouraged, including by bodies like the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), to remove restrictions on hours and on hiring and firing, and to attempt to emulate the most flexible of them all – the US labour market, where employers hire and fire ‘at will’. Then the global financial crisis came along, and although Europe experienced a greater fall in economic activity than the USA, it was America that suffered the greater fall in employment. In its biggest test, the theory failed spectacularly. The OECD was having misgivings even before then; after the crisis it recommended governments improve income support and unemployment insurance benefit systems, which it had previously said would decrease flexibility.

Alongside greater flexibility came the urge for control. But how? On the one hand, employees were demanding more voice at work and more control over their working lives. The decline of unions meant that, for many, an obvious mechanism for voice was no longer there. Some technologies inherently gave greater discretion to employees using those technologies. A case study by James R. Barker showed that employees were often more effective at exerting control over the behaviour of fellow employees, and extracting maximum effort, than were their supervisors. So, many employers gave employees greater control over their work.

But it is oh so hard for managers to ‘let go’. The urge for control is human. How can you justify those big bucks if the workers themselves are in charge? And other technologies gave the opportunity to micromanage employees – in particular, to dictate their time. Swipe cards could tell warehouse bosses just how long their workers were taking to move a palette of cans from shelf to truck. Monitors could tell call centre bosses how many seconds ‘customer service representatives’ were pausing between calls, or taking to go to the toilet. Barcode readers could tell supermarket managers how long shop assistants took to process a trolley of groceries. All could be used to tell staff, ‘Work more! Work faster!’ So, many employers gave employees lesscontrol over their work.

Regardless of whether they gave employees greater or less directcontrol over their work, employers typically sought to reduce the indirect discretion employees exercised. For some, keeping out, or throwing out, unions became important. While decades of research had shown that employees could be, and commonly were, simultaneously committed to both union and employer, many employers could not stomach the idea of an alternative source of power. Sometimes through sophisticated human resource management policies that signalled ‘we’re all in this together’, sometimes through aggressive policies of exclusion, those employers often succeeded in obtaining unilateral control of the workforce, precluding collective bargaining in favour of individual contracting.

These employers would often cloak individualistic rhetoric with a collective demand on their employees (though the term ‘employees’ was often replaced with ‘partners’, ‘members’ or, more commonly, ‘associates’). Corporate ‘culturism’, as it was described by Hugh Willmott, sought simultaneously to make employees feel as if they were treated as individuals but needed to subvert their individuality in pursuit of the collective, corporate goals. Those who failed to toe the corporate rhetoric line, as Diane van den Broek found in her study of a telecommunications company, would be performance managed out. It was reminiscent of the scene in Monty Python’s Life of Brian, in which Brian, facing an adoring but uncomprehending crowd, calls out ‘You’re all individuals!’ They respond, ‘Yes, we’re all individuals!’ He pleads, ‘You’re all different!’ ‘Yes, we are all different!’ Then a little voice at the back pipes up: ‘I’m not!’

Willmott took a more sinister view of it all, likening ‘culturist’ strategies to Big Brother’s attempts at totalising control in George Orwell’s 1984. Yet often these attempts failed because, unlike in 1984’s Oceania, workers were exposed to all sorts of ideas outside the workplace. The HR Department could never be as softly persuasive as Orwell’s Ministry of Truth, or as violently persuasive as his Ministry of Love.


ONE OF THE biggest shifts on the location of work has been from the public to the private sector. In the public sector, ‘new public sector management’ became the rage from the 1980s. Some activities were totally privatised. Services were outsourced to the private sector, policy separated from delivery. But not all changes in work can be traced to market liberal policies or financialisation. Some simply emerged as part of the normal process of development in a trading world.

As in all industrialised countries, manufacturing has declined in Australia – from 17 per cent of jobs in 1984 to 8 per cent in 2013. Manufacturing instead provides the engine for rapidly growing third world or transition economies, for dragging people out of poverty. Still, government policies in industrialised countries influence by how much manufacturing declines, and what it would look like. When the Australian government dared Holden to leave, it could not simply blame the following collapse of component sector employment on forces beyond its control.

While mining is sometimes portrayed as the saviour of the Australian economy – not least by mining companies themselves and their acolytes – it accounts for only 2 per cent of jobs. Employment growth now and in the future is in ‘services’, a term so broad it can mean ‘anything that isn’t primary production or manufacturing’. Some jobs classified as in the ‘services’ sector are ‘blue collar’ jobs in construction or utilities (electricity, water or gas). Employment in the former is very cyclical; the latter is in structural decline.

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This is an edited extract from David Peetz's essay "The choices we make" in Griffith Review 45: The Way We Work.

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About the Author

David Peetz is the author of Brave New Workplace: How Individual Contracts are Changing Our Jobs (Allen and Unwin, 2006), and Professor of Industrial Relations at Griffith University.

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