Re: re comments on my Rethinking labor process theory

From: Steve Gabosch (
Date: Sun Jan 25 2004 - 21:45:58 PST

On 1/23/04 -0800, Paul wrote me off list:
>Steve -- I wanted to thank you for your terrifically useful comments on my
>paper. Where do you work at Boeing? I'd love to hear more about your
>experience there.
>All the best

Hi Paul,

You're very welcome. Thank you for sharing your paper and creating the
current discussion. I got carried away with my response to you so I've
decided to post it, since some of this might be interesting to others.

The main headline in today's Seattle Times is "Boeing considers sale of
huge Wichita plant." The article explains that Boeing plans to get out of
the manufacturing business, and just design and assemble the
jetliners. More on this later.

I work at the Auburn plant about 40 miles south of Seattle. Layoffs have
been massive over the past two-plus years, and we are still seeing more go
every month. My department is called "skin and spar", which makes the
aluminum wings - the skins are what you see on the outside, and the spars
are the structural parts, sort of like I-beams, on the inside.

The milling machines are the core of skin and spar, which also sands,
bends, dips in chemicals (anodizes, etc.) and paints the parts before
sending them to north to Everett (777, 747, 767) or Renton (737, 757) to be

I am a CNC (computer numerical control) spar mill operator. I have also
been lead, setup coordinator, shop trainer, helper, hand sander. I hired
into skin and spar in 1979 and except for a 2-1/2 year layoff in the early
'80's and two strikes, have been there all along. I participated in
numerous productivity and action teams in the late '80's and early
'90's. I worked with another spar mill operator/lead in 1991 to create a
comprehensive course and then together we taught about 100 conventional
mill operators how to operate CNC spar mills. A second skin and spar
factory was built 30 miles south of Auburn (called Frederickson) in
1992. I helped get that spar mill shop running, and trained all the
operators how to use the new controls. I eventually worked what was really
a process engineer job for several years, while also being an hourly
worker, getting the best of both worlds.

I've participated in a host of improvement projects in the spar shops I've
been in over the years. Boeing began turning its "culture" around in the
mid-80's, which opened up opportunities for workers such as myself from the
shop floor to help them figure out how to do it. This window of
opportunity for participation (for some) - a positive step in
"socialization" - began to shut down in the mid-'90's, especially after the
1995 strike, and is now almost entirely gone. Some thoughts on why below.

I returned to Auburn and got involved in implementing significant lean
manufacturing processes, such as creating linear and rational part flow
(first in, first out), radically reducing in-work inventory, calculating
capacity and takt time, and dealing with thick-headed managers who thought
inventory would go away if you just don't provide a place for it (meaning,
"hide" those 80-foot long in-work parts somewhere where managers can
pretend they don't exist). (These are the type of managers who think "lean
production" means "leaning" on the workers!)

In regard to this, I had some fun in an "AIW" I went to - Accelerated
Improvement Workshop - a heavily management-weighted, high-profile week
long affair with selected people from many departments designed to reap
"low-hanging fruit" in improvement suggestions. An unstated purpose of
these AIW's was also to eliminate the low-profile worker-weighted
productivity and action circles of the late '80's and early '90's. Part of
the context of this particular AIW was that it took place during the height
of this frustrating floor space competition, when managers were desperately
trying to reduce the manufacturing "footprint," meaning square footage per
part, and were stupidly blaming workers - anyone who used a crane to move
parts - for putting the in-between-process parts on the floor, as though
that was the problem (we crane these part-laden baskets with 60 to 100
foot-long parts around and store them on the floor when they are waiting
for the next operation).

The problem was not that we had to *store* the parts as much as the problem
was that we had *started work* on these parts in the first place, which
caused us to have too many parts in process at one time. We were always
starting way too many parts ahead of schedule for this or that reason,
usually to make up for some bottleneck. More bottlenecks mean more
throughput time, which means more inventory currently in process, which
means more in-process storage is needed. The solution is not to eliminate
in-process storage, which just creates confusion, and does not reduce
in-process inventory, but eliminate the bottlenecks so the throughput is
reliable and then start the parts in a scheduled, orderly way. The ideal
is to have an in-process inventory where every part in-work is actually
being worked, which in turn requires a production process with no bottlenecks.

These part movement and throughput problems all got discussed in detail in
this particular AIW, which had a million-dollar consultant from Japan
leading the way, interpreter and all. I got his attention on our
particular floor-storage problem, and put it to him clearly just before
lunch, with some noticeable worker vs. management tension building around
this issue in the room. He said he would have an answer after lunch. And
he did. He came back with the perfect food shopping metaphor. He
explained we needed a "supermarket", so the next workers in the next
operation after the spar mills (a sanding machine) could go to their
supermarket "shelves" and get what they wanted next, and work according to
their schedule. This got called "Steve's grocery store" for a while. It
was still a struggle to get enough "shelf space" (I was the lead on third
shift at the time) but the upper level managers began to back down much
more easily after Mr. Matsu educated them a little. So you see, that's one
of the reasons why they should pay us workers more - because the more
you're paid, the more people listen to you. :-))

The problem with lean production methods is that they are often highly
capital intensive. Big changes in how machinery is arranged on the shop
floor, how parts and tools are transported, and how things are done in
every way are often required. It is one thing to design a lean production
style facility from scratch, and it is another to convert an old-style
high-inventory mass production system - while you are still producing - and
convert it to the new methods. At some point, there is an ultimate limit
as to how far the new lean methods can be applied to an old-style
structure. Anyone considering remodelling their kitchen faces the same
problem. At a certain point, one begins to consider buying a new house.

This is the dilemma Boeing faces, and why it plans to get out of the
manufacturing business. Its immediate plans in the next few years include
shutting down or selling to other manufacturers plants such as the huge
building I now work in at Auburn, the entire Renton complex, and now,
apparently, Wichita. In the longer run Boeing wants just the patents,
engineering work and the final assembly process, and to out-source most of
the fabrication and other manufacture.

A huge big problem Boeing faces is that the capital investment to create a
21st Century aluminum aircraft part processing facility based on lean
production methods is not only enormous - many, many billions of dollars -
but aluminum planes may become obsolete. Plastics and composites may
replace aluminum. They already are doing so.

So Boeing is going to plan C. Not remodel, and not even buy a new
factory. It is going toward a strategy of outsourcing all manufacturing
and fabrication, which is the equivalent for a homeowner of eliminating the
kitchen altogether and planning to only order in meals delivered by
restaurants. The reason makes sense from a cutthroat capitalist point of
view. Let someone else eat the cost of building new aluminum fabrication
facilities, and then further eat the cost of owning a very expensive
dinosaur that makes metal parts for an industry now using plastic. Boeing
has a monopoly on the designs and patents, which are all on computer and
easily shared. The average international profit rate is falling, and this
is Boeing's desperate solution - try to make its profits without risky
capital investments - or perhaps many capital investments at all.

There is a very important social issue to also factor in. Boeing must also
make risky labor investments, and the feistier its labor forces get, the
riskier the labor investments get. The unions at Boeing, the machinists
(hourly) and professionals/engineers (salaried), have not lost a strike in
a long time. (Part of the leak to the press about Wichita that prompted
the big headline might also be some posturing by Boeing to improve its
position in the next contract struggle, which comes to a vote in September

Privately, Boeing is legitimately quite frightened by the Boeing
unions. Publicly, Boeing claims it is fair and offers "competitive" wages
and benefits. The IAM members won their strikes in 1989 and 1995, and we
have been ready for another (although the massive layoffs and threatened
plant closures have a lot of people scared). It is no accident that Boeing
is dismantling its production facilities in all the traditional IAM
strongholds, such as Auburn, Renton, and now Wichita.

We would have been on strike in 2002 but for a 2/3 strike sanction
requirement, which only 65% voted for, and an International and local
bureaucracy which actively defused the strike momentum. As in all labor
movement bureaucracies, the IAM sees itself as bonded to capital, and bases
itself on the most privileged and skilled workers, whose "aristocratic"
status is tied to the existing machines and yesterday's processes. This is
one of the reasons the labor bureaucrats are always lagging behind, always
taking the opportunist course, always resisting significant change. They
are pro-socialist in words (sometimes) but pro-capitalist in deed.

If the corporations such as Boeing, despite themselves, must institute more
and more "socialization" initiatives in the production process, the unions
must for their part institute a vigorous program of social action, on the
job, in the community, and in the world. Leon Trotsky put it very
succinctly - the workers must learn to "think socially, act politically."

Marx put it this way in a resolution he drafted for the first congress of
the First International, held September 1866 in Geneva, in a section
entitled "Trade unions: their past, present, and future."
"(c) Their future
"Apart from their original purposes, they [trade unions -sg] must now learn
to act deliberately as organising centres of the working class in the broad
interest of its complete emancipation. They must aid every social and
political movement tending in that direction. Considering themselves and
acting as the champions and representatives of the whole working class,
they cannot fail to enlist the non-society men into their ranks. They must
look carefully after the interests of the worst paid trades, such as the
agricultural labourers, rendered powerless [French text has: "incapable of
organised resistance"] by exceptional circumstances. They must convince the
world at large [French and German texts read: "convince the broad masses of
workers"] that their efforts, far from being narrow -- and selfish, aim at
the emancipation of the downtrodden millions." Volume 20, page 191, MECW,
copied from MIA. This passage is also printed in the Pathfinder Press
compilation _Trade Unions in the Epoch of Imperialist Decay_ by Leon
Trotsky (1990).

The socialization processes offered in capitalist production are only the
essential beginning, and, no matter how advanced, are always distorted and
used manipulatively by the bosses to the disadvantage of the
workers. Capitalist production will always be a place of exploitation and
oppression because of the very nature of private property and profit (say
the Marxists, who I agree with on this). For the lot of the worker, it is
always one step forward and two steps back. Yet, despite itself, despite
its need to wring the most from labor, capitalism must also socialize labor
if it is to technologize it. Profit is nothing without technology,
technology is nothing without workers, and workers are nothing without
social relations.

In my opinion, this is the essential secret behind the conflict of labor
and capital - the historic conflict between human needs and private
property - and how capitalism is creating its historic grave diggers -
socially and politically conscious working classes. I believe this is the
most important shoveling job to ever be undertaken by humanity, a job so
big it cannot be and is not being done in single generations. A great deal
of this work is being done in the preparation - red moles preparing sites
below the manicured green grass, with larger and larger numbers becoming
aware of the possibility of burying the current state of affairs (war,
crisis, repression, destitution, famine, epidemic) and creating a better
world in its stead.

The challenge is for working people to begin to see themselves no longer as
just objects, but as the true subjects of history. A key revolutionary
task is for the larger numbers to know what to do when it is time to break
out the digging tools, and that means, among other things, developing the
ability to see below the grass, to see past "false consciousness," and see
that capital and private property are not only not the friends of humanity,
but are its mortal enemies.

No Mr. Matsu or even a Dr. Marx has the authority - or pay scale :-)) - to
convince anyone of the truth of such revolutionary claims. I am not trying
to be convincing here, just interesting (if perhaps a bit longwinded!). As
always, it will be people's real experiences that will actually do the
teaching. I'm glad we are sharing ours.

Paul, you are obviously in a special place where you can observe, interact
with and learn much from workers with many kinds of experiences from many
countries. That is a valuable place to be indeed.

- Steve

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