Matt Vidal’s recent Catalyst article “The Politics of Lean Production”1 is a reminder of a disturbing trend among labor leaders and certain segments of the Left: the tendency to address current weakness and defeats by clinging to the coattails of management and employer programs — and projects seeking to enhance the latter’s competitive interests — rather than taking on the difficult task of building worker power in workplaces and communities.
Any serious socialist analysis of the labor movement teaches a simple but powerful lesson: seeking a false sense of security, power, and respect through cosponsoring corporate workplace transformation programs and partnership projects, and hoping that concessions will provide job security, reinforces the weaknesses of union and left movements. These gambits only make us more vulnerable to work intensification, ongoing concessions, multitier workforces, and job losses. Rather than helping us to build working-class solidarity across employers and between private and public sectors, these efforts reinforce our dependence on the market success of individual employers.
Confronting work intensity, the lack of free time, poverty wages, job insecurity, and a diminishing belief that unions and workers can collectively address the realities of workplaces today requires something else. Such efforts demand a movement that represents the independent interests of workers and catalyzes forms of collective resistance, solidarity, and intelligent bargaining while soberly assessing openings, constraints, and political approaches to limit the power of private competition.
It is in this spirit that it was dismaying to find calls to embrace lean production as a road to worker power in the last issue of Catalyst. Vidal contends that lean production can be made to function in the interests of worker participation and workplace democracy, and, moreover, that work intensification and job loss are not key characteristics of lean production but rather the result of managerial prerogatives that harm the “efficiency and productivity” of enterprises in certain situations. Vidal argues that unions can work with managers to make lean production and corporate competitiveness beneficial for everyone. This argument couldn’t be further from the truth.