Responses to Computerized Control in US and Australian Grocery Warehousing

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‘Under the clock’: trade union

Responses to computerized control in US and Australian grocery warehousing

In contrast to optimistic interpretations of contemporary work reorganisation, the example of computerised work monitoring in US and Australian grocery warehousing highlights a far more negative picture of work intensification, job stress and low trust relations. Despite significant variation in trade union response, the article argues such examples reinforce the need for strong and independent trade union regulation to limit the worst excesses of workplace rationalisation.

The workplace implications of new computerized technologies and job redesign has been the subject of significant debate. Despite critiques of the potential control implications of such technologies, an alternative and far more optimistic interpretation of new workplace technologies has developed, based upon increasing employee involvement and ‘high trust’ employment relations. Examples of such a view have varied from post-Fordist visions of socio-technical work reorganisation, to the recent advocacy for ‘high involvement’ or ‘best practice’ models of workplace governance which emphasise increased trust and commitment between employers and employees.

What role trade unions should play in this process has at best appeared ambiguous. Human resource management and some elements of post-Fordist writing for example see little necessary role for trade unionism in the ‘new’ participatory workplace. In contrast, other writers have argued that current attempts at work reorganisation and the introduction of new workplace technologies provide unions with new opportunities for improving the quality of working life in areas such as training and employee participation. Here it is argued, a shift towards ‘cooperative accommodation’ between unions and management is possible given the increasing common interest brought about by new production concepts. Trade unionsunder this scenario become ‘social partners’ with management, both striving to improve enterprise performance. As critics point out, such a view also may result in a moderation of demands, a weakened role for rank and file mobilisation, an increasing enterprise focus, and a rejection of industrial action.

However, advocacy for greater trade union moderation and accommodation to issues of work organisation has been shaped by a fairly limited conception of the nature of contemporary workplace change. Based upon developments in manufacturing, and the auto industry in particular, work reorganization has been equated to issues of teamworking, ‘self-Taylorisation’, quality management and other participatory shopfloor practices. Despite the vigorous debate that has evolved over the implications of ‘lean production’ technologies in car manufacturing, there has been a neglect of the broader range of contemporary workplace rationalisation.

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