Vauxhall Motors- my part in its downfall

3 06 2009

Vauxhall cars



                                                                                                                                                       General Motors has gone bankrupt and is nationalised; its UK subsidiary, Vauxhall Motors may very well be in trouble.  This news reminds me of my own part in this historical drama.  

Life on the factory line

In the winter of 1969 I worked for six months on the nightshift at the Vauxhall Motors factory in Dunstable. Having just left school and after a failed attempt at becoming an accountant, I decided to set up a music promotion business. Along with an old school friend we decided to raise the capital by working at Vauxhall’s for six months and saving all the money.

Vauxhall assembly lineA brief induction later, I found myself on the engine track with a rubber mallet in one hand and instructions in the other.  My job was to bang a cork seal into a slot every time an engine came by. I hadn’t the slightest clue what the purpose of the seals was and only a vague idea of how the internal combustion engine worked.  And that was about it: the track prodded the engines along and I kept banging the cork seals in. Sometimes the seals did not go in straight, but nobody ever seemed to notice. There were rumours of  a ‘quality control’ unit somewhere in the factory which sorted these things out.  It was too noisy to talk to anybody else and the other workers were too far away up or down the track to make it worth the effort. If you wanted to use the toilet you had to put up your hand and wait for a charge hand to come and relieve you, so to speak.

Eventually I found that the best way of dealing with the tedium was to escape into a kind of dream state. Occasionally it all got too much for somebody along the line and a spanner, often literally, would be put in the works.  The track would come to a halt and we all had a sit down and a chat. Most of the men who worked there were doing it because they had failed at something else. Very few had been there for long or were planning to stay. When demand waned and the track was stopped we were all given a paint brush and a pot of paint and told to paint the factory (I was not shown how to do that properly either). 


Less of a mollusk, more of a man

Working on the factory line was not the worst job I have ever done and the money was good.   The most remarkable thing was that an untrained, unskilled  and uninterested person like me, could play a role in the production of cars. This is the beauty of the system of mass production which ruled the industrialised world throughout the 20th century.  John Kay in today’s Financial Times disparages this type of production thus:

On an assembly line, barely skilled workers would be employed to manufacture cars… Mass production and piece-rate incentives created a workforce with little pride in the quality of the product.

But he is missing the point. It was precisely because of the way that production was organised that enabled workers to slot in with little training, and which gave opportunities for many to find jobs they otherwise would have struggled to do.  It also enabled mass production and mass consumption of goods, like cars, which would have otherwise been beyond the pockets of most people.

Karl Marx made a similar point a long time ago in quoting the feelings of one factory worker he met;

I never could have believed, that I was capable of working at the various occupations I was employed on in California. I was firmly convinced that I was fit for nothing but letter-press printing… Once in the midst of this world of adventurers, who change their occupation as often as they do their shirt, egad, I did as the others. As mining did not turn out remunerative enough, I left it for the town, where in succession I became typographer, slater, plumber, &c. In consequence of thus finding out that I am fit to any sort of work, I feel less of a mollusk and more of a man.

Of course it is far better that these kind of processes are more mechanised now in advanced production.  This frees up labour to work elsewhere. But it would be wrong, as John Kay, does to implicitly sneer at the same kind of mass production which is still taking place in China and other developing countries. Kay says;

Mass production is now an activity for low-income, low-cost locations.

Chinese factory workers have often come from back-breaking peasant subsistence farming. No doubt they too are feeling less like mollusks and more like men.

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2 responses

3 06 2009

The difference, I fear, between the experiences of pioneering American workmen at the dawn of the modern age and modern Chinese wage-labourers, is great indeed. There’s no doubt that the Chinese today, for the most part, enjoy higher wages and a more exciting life in the city – but in comparison to the freedom experienced by the first few waves of American immigrants, it pales in comparison. Where the Californian worker from Marx’ quote is met by mining, typography slating and plumbing, the modern Chinese worker is met with nigh-on identical manufacturing jobs in nigh-on identical modern factories with a much higher degree of productivity.

There are obvious benefits to having a society in which less skill is needed to churn out more and more goods; but only in a rational economy, based around the needs of people within it rather than an abstract notion of accumulation. Under capitalism, there is no question that the de-skilling of labour contracts not only the enjoyment of a profession, but also one’s attachment to it. If we’re trading Marx quotes, here, there are some more which are far more representative of his views:

“We shall begin from a contemporary economic fact. The worker becomes poorer the more wealth he produces and the more his production increases in power and extent. The worker becomes an ever cheaper commodity the more goods he creates. The devaluation of the human world increases in direct relation to the increase in value of the world of things. Labour does not only create goods; it also produces itself and the worker as a commodity, and indeed in the same proportion as it produces goods. (Marx, 1964, p. 13)”

“This fact simply implies that the object produced by labour, its product, now stands opposed to it as an alien being, as a power independent of the producer. The product of labour is labour which has been embodied in an object and turned into a physical thing; this product is an objectification of labour. … So much does the performance of work appear as devaluation that the worker is devalued (or reduced) to the point of starvation. So much does objectification appear as loss of the object that the worker is deprived of the most essential things not only of life but also of work. Labour itself becomes an object which he can acquire only with the greatest effort and with unpredictable interruptions. … the more objects the worker produces the fewer he can possess and the more he falls under the domination of his product, of capital. (Marx, 1964, p. 13)”

“Just as in religion the spontaneous activity of the human imagination, of the human brain and the human hear, operates independently of the individual–that is, operates on him as an alien, divine or diabolical activity—so is the worker’s activity not his spontaneous activity. It belongs to another; it is the loss of his self. (Marx, 1964, p. 111)”

6 06 2009
Paul Reeves

What John Kay and similar commentators always ignore in their analysis can be spotted by their summations of Mass Production as “scientific management…(where)… Everyone would be assigned a discrete task whose performance could be precisely measured.” and “Mass production and piece-rate incentives created a workforce with little pride in the quality of the product.” As Rob Killick describes, at the car plant where he worked “few had been there for long or were planning to stay”. Modern car production processes are well capable of accounting for such interchange of workers (not just the interchange of component parts). What is often seen as car production and what is often seen by the public (and commentators, such as Kay, who should know better) as car factories is really only the end of the story.

Modern car plants are only the most visible part and the end of the process of automobile production. Even when people consider car or automobile ‘design’ they probably have an image of a small team of ‘stylists’ to produce the body shape and interior design together with a slightly larger team of engineers designing engines and playing about with alternators . Having worked for a short time at Jaguar LandRover I have experience of arguably the most important part of the production process which can be summed up as the ‘design of the production process for the final assembly of automobiles’. Companies such as Toyota, BMW and Ford (as well as Boeing and Airbus) have proprietary productions systems ( )- a term which in itself undersells what it achieves.

Collectively coming under the umbrella of (an even more anonymous term ) Systems Engineering – developed during World war II and during the Space Race- these production systems lay out how a concept for a complex commodity such as an automobile is realised from that concept (to meet a forecast market need often 3 or 4 years into the future for that is how long the process takes) to the design not only for the car itself – but for the factory, tools and work patterns not only for the final assembly (at the ‘Factory’) but the whole hierarchy of components and sub modules (e.g. engine, powertrain, body panels, air conditioning, safety systems, seats etc) which feed into that final assembly. The process design period involves hundreds (and perhaps thousands when the whole supply chain is considered) of highly skilled (although often contract) engineering, financial, marketing and other specialists, working in teams on particular subsystems which have to be continually integrated (often through the use of computer aided simulation systems) and redesigned through the process.

Compromises to satisfy a massive multidimensional problem involving ; strength, weight, aerodynamics, fuel economy, handling performance , safety, individual component cost, the cost of the design very expensive tooling for body work , styling together with ‘packaging’ how to squeeze all of the subsystems into the body and leave enough leg room for the passengers in the back . The design of the production process will have to also consider how those assembly workers originally discussed in Rob Killick’s article will be able to access into the body to assemble the vehicle.

My point for my long but superficial outline of this process is that Mass Production or at least the design of a mass production system is not a low skilled, transitory occupation – but is a highly sophisticated system based around professional human cooperation towards a common goal (at least within the limitations of a corporation). There is much to be celebrated and learned from if only critics like Kay could be bothered to look ‘under the covers’ of the factory.

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