From the vaults: A Nightmare in Whiteware: the ‘teamwork’ system, exploitation and alienation

imagesBack around the mid-1990s a number of left publications here ran an article by longtime left activist Peter Lusk about his six months on the dryer line at ‘iconic’ NZ company Fisher & Paykel’s Auckland factory.  Peter’s article vividly portrayed the nature of work under the Teamwork system (aka the Nissan Way) used by the company.  Hailed by both business interests and the Engineers Union, Teamwork really means a more brutal – and particularly alienated – form of exploitation of workers.

What the left publications didn’t do, however, was explain this particular method of work and why it might be used by F & P.   In 1998, several months after TV1 showed a Dean Parker dramatisation (Share the Dream, TV1, November 1997) of Peter’s experience, the editorial collective of revolution magazine decided that we would run Peter’s article, even though by that stage it was a couple of years old; the reasons were that it was a fantastic piece of working class journalism that deserved endless exposure and that we thought it was important to explain the process that Peter was so movingly describing

At the time some of us first read his article, in NZ Monthly Review, if I recall correctly, we were part-way through a study group on the first volume of Marx’s Capital.  As it so happened we were studying the sections on the different forms of absolute and relative surplus-value, and here we had a case from a major NZ factory and company in our own time, which showed exactly why this type of work method would be deployed by capitalists, pointing up the extraordinary prescience and relevance of Marx to modern-day capitalism.

In his article, Peter also showed how the Engineers Union was fully complicit with the company in imposing Teamwork, another reason for reprinting the article in revolution as this country lacked, and desperately needed, class-struggle unionism rather than the ‘in bed with management’ variety which was so strong and had such debilitating consequences for workers.

Below we reprint all the material grouped together in that section of that issue of the magazine (revolution #5, March/April 1998).  Peter’s article is in two parts: the first deals with his experience on the drier line and the second deals with his experience of the union.  These are followed by the two further pieces we ran with his article: the first deals with the economic significance of this particular method of work and the second looks at related new management practices being imposed on clerical workers.

by Peter Lusk

“Peter, useless.  Peter, useless!” chanted my workmates.  “Peter, useless!” they roared.  My name echosed around the factory for everyone to hear.

From time to time other workers on the drier assembly line at F&P in Auckland got called useless and I’d joined in the chanting myself.  Usually it was in good humour and it broke the monotony.  But this time I wasn’t finding it so funny.  In fact I was in trouble.  It was three months since I’d started as a temp at F&P and this particular day I’d got a bit careless, letting my stocks slip down.  On top of that I had a headache.

At four in the afternoon the big boss team leader took over the work station two upstream from me and started cracking on the pace.  He and his young mate were racing and sweat was pouring off them.  They were working faster than the line speed and building up a stockpile of drier drums.

The opposite was happening to me.  The faster they worked the quicker they ate up my product and soon I had none.  The more I tried to rush the more I fumbled.  The more screws I dropped the more attention I drew to myself.  “Peter, useless,” my workmates chanted and laughed.

But a couple of guys weren’t laughing.  They were giving me very hostile stares.  I was really tired now and couldn’t work harder if I tried.  But why the hostility?  This shocked me.  If they were so keen to break a record and please the company why not step in and give me a hand?


The answer lies in the Teamwork scheme operated by F&P.  Other names for this management technique include Total Quality Management, the Nissan Way and the Deming Way.  It’s a scientific metbhod for extracting the biggest profit out of workers for the least labour cost, using multi-skilled teams and heavy doses of industrial psychology.

F&P introduced this diabolical technique a number of years ago as TQM, but no longer give it a name.  However the company hasnamed a meeting room at its East Tamaki (Auckland) site the ‘Deming Room’ in honour of W. Edwards Deming, the American management scientist who pioneered the field.

Japanese corporations, which adopted Deming’s ideas in the postwar period, have raised labour exploitation to a level where it is not uncommon for workers to die on the job.  The Japanese government has finally been forced to give legal recognition to death from overwork (karoshi) and compensate the families of the victims.  I have heard that NZ workers in the pulp and paper industry are working up to 106 hours a week under Teamwork, with a coroner reporting that overwork contributed to the death of one man.

I’d heard about Teamwork years ago and I thought I understood it, but it wasn’t until I’d worked at F&P that I really appreciated its effects.

The workers on the line are grouped in teams – in our case 15 workers building the drier drum.  One of these is a company-appointed team leader who combines the roles of pace-setter and supervisor.  Each worker is trained to do most or all of the jobs in the section – this is caled ‘multi-skilling’.  Management controls the speed of the production line, pushing for higher and higher output.

As the line speed increases the workers come under greater pressure.  The experienced hands and the young and athletic handle it well.  Some like to compete against the clock and beat their slower or older workmates.  As the speed increases someone will start getting behind.  But everyone else is busy with their own job and don’t – or can’t – help the slow one.  They know that as each production target is replaced with a higher one, a worker who is not making the grade will sooner or later let down the team.

One way out for the workers who are put in this position is to pressure the slow worker to leave, in the hope that he or she will be replaced with someone faster.  A hostile stare or a bit of taunting may give the slow one the message.

The most devilish feature of Teamwork is this setting of worker against worker, undermining the traditional solidarity of the workforce and replacing it with competition between workers to meet the company’s agenda.  The working class slogan “Workers of the World Unite” is under threat from the capitalist slogan “Workers of the World Compete”.  It’s sobering to note that ‘international competitiveness’ is the policy of organisations as divergent as the Business Roundtable, National Party, Labour Party, Alliance, Council of Trade Unions and the Engineers Union.


On smart-drive each worker moves the product on after completing work on it.  To increase production in this circumstance relies much more on workforce attitudes like identifying with the company’s goals, responding to challenges and getting satisfaction from ‘winning’.

Most days at F&P we’d have workers and management from other companies walking through the plant learning about Teamwork, for which F&P is a national role model.  A friend who worked in a government department attended a Public Service Association conference a few years ago.  As part of the PSA programme for the conference, a speaker from the Engineers Union gave an account of Teamwork at F&P and praised the company where “Pacific Island people are sho happy”!

The assembly manager, unlike other management staff, kept his 20-year-old Japanese car in the workers’ car park and used the same door to the factory as workers.  This is a common trick for managers implementing Teamwork.  Does he keep a BMW or similar at home, I wondered.

A report on ‘communication courses’ for workers in F&P’s distribution division divides workers into ‘heroes’ and ‘winners’ as distinct from ‘lazy ones’ and those who ‘criticise, condemn and complain’.  This turns on its head the traditional concept of the working class hero.  Those who accept the company’s agenda are called ‘heroes’ by F&P, while anyone who resists is a moaner or ‘lazy’.

The Labour Department’s Industrial Relations Services subsidised the ‘communication’ courses by $25,000.

Not all workers are sucked in by Teamwork.  A couple of months into the job, I’d mastered five work stations, made plenty of friends and was managing to keep out of trouble with the big boss team leader.  One day my workmate turned to me with a serious look on his face and said, “You know what your problem is Pete?”

“No,” I replied.

“It’s attitude!”

We both had a big laugh about this.  He plays football and explained how his team are traned to the FAST formula.  F stands for fitness, A is for attitude, S is for speed, T is for teamwork.  Fitness, speed and teamwork are important, but most important is attitude.  You can’t win without attitude.  Translated to the workplace, the company needs workers with a company attitude to boost profits, and beat competitors.

To achieve a company attitude, F&P goes to great lengths and spends huge amounts of money.  Every five years the company even closes down for half a day for a brainwashing extravaganza designed to bump the workforce down the road to a company culture where workers forget they were ever part of the working class and identify more with the company.  I was lucky that my six months at F&P coincided with this glorious event.


On the day, 2000 workers and management staff poured into the darkened Logan Campbell Centre in Auckland.  Above the stage, amazing sports scenes flashed across three large picture screens.  Champion skiers zoomed across the finish line, rugby heroes scored spectacular tries, windsurfers looped the loop then disappeared into the waves, a motorcross rider fell from his bike which went out of control, crashing into the crowd.  Music bleared out- “The Heat is On”, “Show No Mercy”.  Flashing intermittently between the pictures were the words “Win-Win”.

F&P chief executive Gary Paykel appeared on stage and announced a surprise visitor – it’s Aussie league legend Mal Meninga.  Mal shakes hands with Gary, then tells us how he took up the challenge to become a great football player.  Then follows netball great Wai Taumaunu with an account of her challenging sporting career.  Then it’s some guy who was on Team NZ’s Americas Cup yacht with, yes, you guessed it, his big CHALLENGE.

Rex Jones of the Engineers Union is next up.  He praises F&P to the skies, but says absolutely nothing about wages and conditions.  Gary praises Rex (“his words are always well chosen”) and the union (“always part of the team”).  I’m thinking, I know the cpompany would have paid big money to get the sporting greats along, but how about Rex?  I bet the workers paid that bill!

Somewhere in the middle of all this there is a ripping sound which spreads around the auditorium as everyone discovers, taped under their seat, a company hat.  Across the brow is written “Share the Dream”.  I believe this slogan is derived from the CTU’s half-hearted campaign for workers to go for pay rises to “share the (economic) recovery”.  F&P’s industrial shrinks cunningly divert the ‘sharing’ away from $$$ to dreams.  Share the dream?  I’d rather have the money.

Gary then thanks Colenso Communications and Multi Media for creating the occasion and tells us of company extension plans in Australia and America.  He warns that competitors in Thailand have produced an innovative slimline fridge which is gobbling up markets.

As we pour out of the auditorium to pick up a company-packed lunch I hear one worker say to his mate, “How was that for brainwashing?”  Even the lunch had the message – the chocolate bar was stamped “F&P – The Innovators”.

With their emphasis on team players with attitude, F&P goes to great lengths when selecting new workers – my intake endured eight hours of interviews spread over two days.  It starts with a company video, tests for basic maths and manual skills, then how you cntribute as a team player.  Team leaders (delegates?) and management watched as we played pool, table tennis and volley ball.  We also took part in a game where we were atronauts, lost on the moon.  Together we had to prioritise from a list of equipment the items necessary to get us to a rendezvous point on the far side of the moon.  Management watches to see how everyone interacts in solving the problem.

Management are also concerned with ‘interaction’ with the union.  On the day I started work at F&P I had a number of forms to sign.  One of these was for membership of the Engineers Union and I was surprised to find the form already filled out by the personnel department – even my race! – with only a signature required.  A personnel officer twice stressed the excellent relationship between F&P and the Engineers Union.  When I asked about the collective contract she rushed off to get me a copy, saying how wonderful it was.

This attitude was in sharp contrast to my previous job where I had a struggle with the boss to join the union.  There, I signed an individual contract to get the job, even though there was an ‘option’ of a collective contract.  The two personnel officials we dealt with most often at F&P were bubbly, smiling young women – no authoritarian male head-butters here.

Cakes and buns

It would be wrong to give the impression that the company gives nothing back to the workers for their hard work and continuous improvement.  In order to maintain the face that everyone benefits, F&P does things like shout cakes and buns at morning smoko when a production record is reached.  The cafetaria, toilets and smoko rooms are modern, clean and tidy, and ear-plugs and gloves are in unlimited supply.  Workers are generally spoken to politely and don’t have to clock in or out.  You can use the phone at any time you’re not busy.  None of these things cost the company much; they’re far cheaper than a production bonus or a pay increase.

F&P has performance pay, rather than pay rises based on length of service.  When I was there, new workers started at $9.26/hr and, if up to a certain standard after eight weeks, went to $10.20/hr (FP2 level).  The next level is $10.60/hr (FP3 level), which you can reach after six months if your performance warrants it.  But many workers are stuck on FP2 despite their excellent performance because the company doesn’t get around to assessing them.  This obviously helps keep the wages bill low.

Workers had asked for a company-supplied creche which I imagined meant an all-year creche for pre-school kids so their parents could work.  The union organiser praised Gary Paykel for suggesting at negotiations an alternative of a company holiday programme for school kids for a total of three or four weeks a year.  To me, it appeared Paykel had cunningly side-stepped the issue.  But in selling it to laundry division workers, the organiser said, “You can be proud once again of your own company.”


There are two production lines in laundry division – drier line, where I was, and smart-drive line.  Drier line is older technology, with a chain-drier line and heavy physical work in the drum-building section.  Smart-drive washing machines are built on a hi-tech line where machinery does the hard work and the first third of the line is completely automated.  My work station was opposite this automated section which whirred, clicked and thumped all day with just one operator keeping an eye on it.

Comparing our hard labour on the drier line with the robot-driven section of smart-drive reminded me of the situation I’d read about early in the industrial revolution, when hand-loom weavers worked 20 hours a day trying to compete with machine looms, exhausting themselves in a race they knew they must eventually lose.  It was also clear to me that, given the capital, technology is already here to build a washing machine without a human hand touching it.  Eighty smart-drive assembly workers can be replaced by 3 or 4 machine-minders and a maintenance team of fitters and electronics technicians.  The days of the assembly worker are numbered.  But in the meantime companies like Fisher and Paykel use Teamwork to raise labour productivity as they compete with bigger rivals who have cheaper labour and/or greater potential for automation.

By anybody’s standards, drier line workers are amazingly productive.  When the line is at full speed, the rhythm, skill and teamwork of the largely Pacific Island workforce is impressive to see, especially when you consider they can keep the pace and high quality of work for ten hours a day.

Many workers at F&P are strongly affected by Teamwork and are well on the road to a company culture.  Yet every day they see the 450 driers and 700 washers they’ve produced and they know what they cost in the shops.  Someone told me it takes lonely eight washing machines to pay the smartidrive workers’ wages for a day.

Tears, coke and the boot

I’m going to finish this article where, with a dozen other workers, I finished the job: at the termination ceremony.  This was held in the Deming Room, a boardroom-like place with big swivel chairs for everyone and Deming’s 12 points on the wall.

“Wow, we can be executives!” I joked to the guy next to me.

“Share the dream,” he replied.

The assembly manager thanked us for our hard work, pointing out that we’d broken records for production and were part of the best drier team ever.  Unfortunately some of us had just not come up to the comapny’s ‘five criteria’.  Management had consulted with the union as to whom among the temps got permanent jobs and who had to go, so it was ‘fair’.

He then handed the meeting over to two union delegates.  My delegate said how sad it was we had to go, how tears had been wept for us, but each of us knew that we had failed to meet the criteria.  She also said the selection process was fair.  She noted how one guy had a poor attendance record from working two jobs and asked him why he did it.  “Security,” was the reply.  Being a temp and a family man he had to guard against having no job at all.  Those of us being terminated sympathised with what he was saying and there was an awkward silence.

“Who’d like a Coke?” said the head of personnel and he rushed off to get drinks from a handy fridge.

I guess the company had set up the delegates to take most of the flak over our termination, but I was annoyed by my delegate’s tone.  I’d seen all the workers on the job and they seemed excellent to me.  I asked what was my worst feature that meant I’d failed to keep my job.  The delegate from smart-drive snapped at me, saying the union wasn’t that involved in who stayed and who went.

So that’s it, I thought to myself.  The union doesn’t have any real involvement at all.  They simply rubber stamp terminations, but in so doing allow the company to claim that the union is a partner in sacking us.

Near the end of our termination ceremony an officer of Income Support Service came in armed with pamphlets and forms to sign us up for the dole, DPB etc.  No-one showed much interest because we were not eligible (spouses working, new job already jacked up).  The officer almost begged us to sign up, even checking that eligible mortgage holders were getting the accommodation supplement.  Her presence was designed to smooth our sackings.  What a contrast to the dole office where you can be kept waiting for hours and are not even told of your legal entitlements.

Despite knowing better, I walked out the gate muttering to myself, “Sacked by the union! Sacked by the union!”

In bed with management: the Engineers Union at Fisher & Paykel

by Peter Lusk

The Engineers Union plays a shocking role at the plant; it helps boost profits and is an arm of management.  During my time at F&P we set a record of 550 driers a day and company profits jumped 57$ to $42 million.  As if to celebrate, the Engineers Union sold us a pay cut!

Yes, our reward for a huge increase in productivity was a 20c an hour pay cut for all new assembly workers, with the money going to improve the pay of team leaders!  Several workers spoke out about it at the union meeting, but the officials did a great sales job, saying it couldn’t affect us, just new workers taken on.

The collective contract between F&P and the unions states (Intent of Parties, Clause 4) that the parties are agreed that improvements to productivity will improve workers’ job security.  Not true.  At F&P increased productivity leads to more money for the company which is invested in more automation, therefore reducing workers’ security.

Even the delegates who start off on the side of the workers are soon disciplining the workforce on the company’s behalf.  It’s a ten-hour day in the laundry division – ten hours on your feet working hard.  And, at the end of that ten hours, everyone wants to get out that factory door.  At about 5.22pm, the workers start moving.  Soon there’s an unstoppable current down the aisles and, despite the best efforts of the team leaders and the assembly manager, the wave is unstoppable.

One day as we were headng out, I heard my union delegate yell, “Hold it everybody!  We don’t finish until 5.25!”  As a temporary worker who wanted a permanent job, I’d been planning to keep my mouth shut at times like this, but I spun around and snapped at her, “You’re the union delegate, you should be at the front, leading us out.”

“That’s the old style of unionist, I’m the new style,” she barked back.

F&P puts a lot of effort into delegates, taking them away for regular ‘interview skills’ training sessions.  The delegate who tried to stop us leaving was a young woman of about 18.  The day after I’d had my name chanted around the factory for being “useless”, the big boss team leader – who strutted around the place like a cop – came to my work station and told me to follow him.  I thought I might be sacked, so I called out to my delegate to come as a witness and support me.

The team leader started off with a pep talk, then the delegate spoke up to make it clear she didn’t “take sides”.  “But I want you to be on my side,” I said.

“Peter, you’ve probably come from a different background,” she replied.  “We aim to put thngs like strikes and conflict behind us.  Strikes never achieved anything.  Here we talk things through.”

The team leader then asked me why I had got behind the day before.  I explained that I’d started a month later than the other temps, I had a headache, and Teamwork spotlights anyone who is slower.  Another reason was my age – I’m 47 and although that’s not old you don’t have the stamina of a 20-year-old and don’t pick up skills quite as fast.

“That’s rubbish,” interrupted the delegate.  “My mother is 49 and does a very physical job in a team with a lot of younger workers.  She can work just as hard as any of them.  Age is no excuse, Peter.”  She then looked at me accusingly and asked, “What’s your attendance like?”

“It’s good,” said the team leader, stepping in as if to defend me from my own union delegate!

A report read out at one of our five-minute talks in drum bay said a union meeting on wages would be held soon.  It called for a “smooth vote” and advised those who didn’t understand the issue to see their “delegate, team leader or manager”.  At a union meeting a few days later the head delegate also advised anyone not sure about the reasons for the 20c an hour pay cut to see their “delegate, team leader or manager”.  Listing together officials who would normally have opposite class interests shows how advanced the company-union collaboration is at F&P.

At one union meeting, the union officials were selling a pay settlement of 4.8 percent, about the rate of inflation (at the time – Redline), for the F&P collective contract.  The union organiser commented that the union had “deliberately restricted” its claim to appear “realistic” to the company in order to get other claims (eg more dollars for shift workers and the creche).  This strategy helps the company because they have more to lose from a big pay rise for all workers.

This organiser later claimed that the final settlement of 3.5 percent (ie lower than the inflation rate – RL) was higher than 98 percent of workplaces around New Zealand.  F&P take the lead in wages once again, she said.  This is misleading because workers on a big site like F&P should always take the lead in wage settlements because of superior bargaining power.  The company deserves no praise – despite record profits they knocked us back from our pathetic claim of 4.8 percent to 3.5.

At worksites where the union is in bed with the company, workers have often used a social club as a means of organising independently of the boss.  But at F&P, management runs the social club too, through a paid club supervisor with an office in the management suite.  With union meetings so stage-managed and social club functions crawling with management, drier line workers confronted the boss most commonly at the 15-minute talk.

The economics behind Teamwork

by Grant Cronin and Sharon Jones

Peter Lusk’s article is a good example of the continuing relevance of a Marxist analysis for workers in the ‘new’ working environment.  What Peter highlights is the use of intensity to increase the magnitude of surplus-value without a corresponding rise in the price of labour-power or a fall in the rate of profit.

In chaper XVII of Capital vol 1, Marx analyses the changes of magnitude in the price of labour-power and in surplus-value.  In one of the examples of how the capitalist can change the magnitude of surplus-value without affecting the price of labour-power Marx introduces the concept of the normal intensity of labour, “whereby a given quantity of labour is expended in a given time”.  This is one of the circumstances that determine the price of labour-power and the relative magnitude of surplus-value.

In other words, labour-power is paid for at its normal intensity which is set by the socially-necessary labour-time for needed to produce any particular commodity:

But what happens when the rate of work is intensified?  Marx writes: “Increased intensity of labour means increased expenditure of labour in a given time.  Hence a working-day of more intense labour is embodied in more products than is one of less intense labour, the length of each day being the same” (p491).

Marx notes that the increase in intensity of labour is different from the increased productiveness of labour brought about by improvements in machinery and technology.  Such improvements simply spread value over more goods.  They reduce the labour-power embodied in each commodity, thereby decreasing its value and (ultimately) lowering its price.  At the same time, the greater expenditure on these improvements serves to drag down the rate of profit.  (For a discussion of the rate of profit and capitalist crisis, see here and here.)

Productivity increases brought about through speed-up have a different effect, however.  Now, an hour’s labour-power – and thus value – is congealed in a product created in 45 minutes.  This creates a substantial increase in surplus-value without additional expenditure on plant, machinery, etc.  It is a particularly brutal way of trying to offset falling profitability and raise the rate of profit.

Now, not only is the worker performing, say, four hours necessary labour (the time in which they reproduce the value of their own labour-power) and four hours surplus labour (the time in which they perform unpaid albour for the boss, ie create surplus-value) but, through speed-up the surplus labour time is effectively expanded to six hours because they are working 25% faster.  In other words they are doing ten hours work in 8 hours, but the value of their own labour-power is still created in four hours.

It is a telling indicator of the exhausted condition of capitalism today that the rate of exploitation has to be stepped up in this brutal manner, denounced by Marx 130 years ago.  This is, we would argue, all that capitalism has to offer workers today.

There can, for instance, be no return to the welfare state: capitalism requires instead the methods of driving down the price of labour-power below its value, reducing the consumption levels of the working class, and increasing the rate of exploitation.  As long as capitalism remains, this is as good as it gets.

The capitalists, however, do not want things to be seen this way.  Speed-up is therefore dressed up as if it’s a big football match.  In this case the result is already given, the boss is – and must always be – the only winner.

At the same time, management and workers can be presented as part of the one ‘team’ instead of members of materially opposed classes.  As well as, and as part of, bringing abut an increase in the rate of exploitation, any notions of independent class consciousness and organisation are eroded.

Additionally, management intrudes into, indeed takes over, every part of the workers’ space, even the social club, further breaking down the possibilities for independent workers’ consciousness and organisation.

The role of the trade union, in this case the Engineers Union, as an arm of management which polices the workforce (even selling them a pay cut although company profits have risen 57 percent) has important implications for the left.  While the Engineers Union has a particularly blatant record on this score, it is important to note that this is a far more generalised trend.

The old trade union movement, mediating between labour and capital, totally accepted the limits of what was possible under capitalism.  During the long postwar economic boom, concessions were on offer.  These days, however, capitalism is in protracted slump and there is nothing on offer but lower living standards and greater inensification of work, as shown in Peter Lusk’s article.

Given that they have no horizons outside capitalism, this means the labour officialdom is left counselling workers to accept this situation.  Workers, meanwhile, have largely abandoned the old trade union movement.

Unfortunately, the left does not appear willing or able to face these facts.  Lacking any existence independent of moribund labourism, the left has gone down with the old labour movement.  At best, it longs for a return to the past and desperately clings to the hope that new life can somehow be breathed into the old trade union corpse.

It seems to us that this is a hopeless perspective.  To most young workers, such as the ones Peter worked with, the old trade union movement is an obsolete irrelevancy – and deservedly so.  New forms of organisation and new politics – based on the conditions of the 1990s rater than nostalgia for the 1970s – are needed.  In particular, the new politics must start not from what is possible under capitalism (like the old labourism did) but from the need to transcend capitalism.

Marx noted that the working class is constantly re-made.  Peter’s article showed how this is taking place today.  Given that today’s remaking takes place in conditions of capitalist exhaustion and the demise of reformist labourism, creative, forward-looking Marxists have the possibility to be a factor in the political shape and consciousness of this remade working class.

Are you being served?

by Grant Cronin

Speed-up is not the only weapon available to the capitalist in the struggle against the tendency of the rate of profit to fall.  Also important is the removal of any obstacles to the realisation of the existing surplus-value at the point of sale.

In the interest of this, capitalist ideologists – mostly in marketing and human resource management – increasingly concentrate on disciplining labour-power in the service industry under the guise of providing a more effective and efficient customer service.  Behind the banalities of giving the customer the service they want lies the desire to remove any human hindrances from the sphere of circulation.

Customer service gurus like Fred Pryor, who recently held a series of his seminars in New Zealand, focus on two major areas of customer care people or CCPs.  The first is their attitude and the second is their actions.

The object of this focus is to create automatons who will not disrupt the realisation of surplus-value.  As Fred Pryor argues in his seminar, the attitude of all CCP (ie retail and service industry workers) must be POSITIVE which is achieved by sticking to “Fred’s ten rules of staying positive”.

Amongst the pearls of wisdom he offers are gems like “skip the news just before work – or listen selectively” and “avoid complainers and criticisers – get to know someone with a great attitude and model them”.  In other words, while capitlaism wreaks destruction around the planet and produces ever-worsening working conditions, these customer service ideologues advocate the “blocking out” of the real world and the demonisation of critique and complaint – the rejection of all people who don’t accept the present state of slump capitalism as the best of all possible worlds.

CCPs should set their inner compass to appreciate customers with such affirmations as “thank you for my job” and “thnak you for my salary. . . so that I can pay my mortgage, buy a car, send my kids to college. . .”  Service workers are told at Fred’s seminars to view every customer as having a dollar sign on their forehead.

For the customer service guru, conflict is a matter of attitude.  Instead of “arguing”, “rationalising” and “defending” – attitudes that risk losing the sale – CCPs should instead ask themselves “What’s good about this situation?”

For all their credetials and advice, however, they misuderstand at least two aspects of capitalism.

The first is that value and surplus-value (the basis of profit) are produced at the point of production and only realised in the sphere of circulation.  The fact that it is workers’ labour that produces all expanded/new value is lost to them.

Secondly, that conflict, rather than being a matter of “attitude”, is part of the structural relations of capitalist society.  What this means is that conflict is a constant as long as one class exploits and expropriates the labour of another class.  Attempts to solve conflict on a surface level can only ever be idealist and hollow.

Finally what all this attitude adjustment means – besides brainwashing and unprecendented interference in workers’ personal lives – is a call to ignore the realities of slump capitalism with increasing hours, falling pay, worsening working conditions and cutbacks in social services and, instead, put on a “smiley face”.

The real point is that CCPs are expected to unquestioningly abandon any critical faculties or self-respect they may have had in the interests of lining their employers’ pockets.

Further reading: The real working life of a chef


  1. Thanks for posting the Pete Lusk articles up – they are classics. It would be good if people today wrote about the modern forms of teamwork. Have things gotten worse since that article was written? My impression is that is they have, as teamwork has been applied to not just assembly line work but also to most office jobs and service jobs (tho of course McDonalds type jobs are basically assembly line work in a way).

  2. Thanks Toby. Yes, Peter L’s stuff was classic.

    We have also run an excellent piece on the working life of a chef, written for Redline by an AWSM comrade. He was telling me about his work one day I was having coffee with him, and he went away and wrote a great piece. It got a good number of hits and some interesting comments.

    But we need a lot more. A lot, lot more.

    All the best,

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