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Hogwash

Hogwash

In the early 1980s, to Margaret Thatcher’s annoyance, union reps and managers at the steelworks in Port Talbot agreed a strategy to save the plant.  As a result, Port Talbot was spared the post-industrial blight visited upon most of Britain’s ex-industrial towns.  Now in private hands, and despite periodic crises, the steelworks employs some 4,000 people – a big drop from the 20,000 workers during the plant’s heyday in the 1960s.  Nevertheless, those 4,000 jobs are supplemented by hundreds more sub-contractors, and together these provide the demand for local small and medium businesses.

What saved the Port Talbot plant was an agreement to implement neoliberal efficiency savings.  Key among these was the sub-contracting of what we might think of as efficiency buffers – redundant capacity to cope with emergencies.  For example, prior to the agreement, the steelworks employed a small army of fitters, electricians, welders and other skilled workers whose skills were only required when something went wrong.  Instead of being paid a full wage – often for sitting around playing cards and drinking tea – they would be paid a retainer together with a set fee every time they were called out.

Similar arrangements were in place in the railway industry in those days too.  And I personally spent shifts playing cards and drinking tea as part of the spare train crews kept on standby for sickness cover and unforeseen emergencies.

Whatever else neoliberalism was about, cutting out these “inefficiencies” lay at its heart.  Companies were losing money paying people like me to sometimes sit around all day.  And so, the redundancy process was enlisted to cut the workforce down to its bare minimum…

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