Re: by way of a common reading: Paul Adler on Labor Process Theory

From: Steve Gabosch (
Date: Mon Jan 12 2004 - 13:22:27 PST

A sincere thanks to Paul for offering us his paper for discussion, and with
a very informative post as an introduction as well. I took a peek at the
Academy of Management interest group that Paul has helped spur, Critical
Management Studies. Not the usual place one would look for
Marxist-influenced scholarship! I can only imagine the stares and averted
eyes Paul must sometimes endure ... :-))

Paul's paper explores two contradictory historic processes in capitalism;
on one hand, the need of capitalism to increase the rate of the
exploitation of labor (deepen what Paul calls "valorization pressure,"
extracting increasing surplus value from labor), and on the other, the need
to constantly increase the rate of productivity by improving the methods of
production, which in turn leads to greater socialization of the work
force. Paul explains that one ongoing consequence of this historic
contradiction is how the "progressive socialization of the labor process"
is "simultaneously stimulated, retarded, and distorted by the valorization

I have been working in aircraft production machining and processing large
aluminum parts for jetliner wings for many years. The essential dynamic
that Paul analyzes is in my experience true, and Paul does a good job of
capturing key features. In the long run, the socialization and skill
levels of the general factory worker at Boeing has been increasing. At the
same time, as methods improve, processes are standardized, and management
finds ever-new ways to increase productivity and profit, craft-level skills
and jobs are constantly being eroded. And, every day, the "valorization"
process does greatly retard and distort every aspect of process improvement.

I have been an intimate witness to the adoption by Boeing of the Toyota
Production System, also called lean manufacturing (Boeing now calls it the
"Boeing Production System.") Overall these methods do rationalize
production, they do pull more workers into more participation in the
general production process itself, they do make it more possible to improve
safety conditions, and they do improve social relations.

I have been through experiences similar to the ones NUMMI workers in the
GM/Toyota plant in Northern California that Paul desribes. I have also
seen the other side - am seeing it now - when capital expenditures on new
improved (leaner) processes dry up, and management loses
interest. Worker's morale does go up when the money is coming in - real
improvements are exciting - and goes down when the money isn't.

Lean manufacturing methods expose the worker, especially the more
privileged and skilled worker, to more than ever having to work in a more
regimented, cookie-cutter fashion (standardization), and it does threaten
the privileges of the older workers (I am one of them now) with that
special work-around knowledge that accumulates with irrational production
processes. As a consequence, the union bureaucrats and the labor
aristocracy they are based on have been less than thrilled by these
features of lean manufacturing. From their point of view, industry is
becoming de-skilled, because it is undermining some of the traditional
leverage craft and business unionism has used against management (special
knowledge and skills). This is the direction Braverman took in his
analysis of Taylorism.

The emphasis Paul places on socialization points the union movement in a
different direction, akin to the historic break with the narrow craft
unionism of the AFL, (which argued against the unionization of "unskilled"
workers), when the giant industrial unions in the U.S. were built in the
1930's and the labor movement was changed forever. A new labor movement
must be built today, and Paul's insights into how valorization and
socialization are in an historic mortal conflict can help.

- Steve

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