Worth more than my job, mate

August 18, 1995

When Huw Beynon published his first book it met with jeers and denials. He tells Martyn Kelly about the trials of investigating the shop floor.

When I was a student I was strongly influenced by E. P. Thompson's book The Making of the English Working Class and, in a way, I thought that there was an informed, literate, self-educated audience in this country that goes back a long time and that sociology should be engaging with this audience."

Huw Beynon, professor of sociology at the University of Manchester, is sitting in his office on a sweltering July day talking about his book Working for Ford. This grew out of a PhD study that was never written up on the role of shop stewards within a car assembly plant. Instead, the work transmogrified into a book published by Penguin in 1973, which eventually sold over 50,000 copies, went into a second edition and has been translated into Portuguese, Japanese and Italian. Yet the story he unfolds is not one of a best-seller in the making.

Beynon, with a first degree in economics from the University of Wales and a postgraduate diploma in industrial sociology from Liverpool, suffered a fair amount of criticism at the time for the approach he adopted. His research methods mixed straightforward sociological techniques with a "participant observation" approach more akin to ethnography.

Neither camp was wholly satisfied with the outcome at the time. Nor was the Ford Motor Company, which was quick to distance itself from his conclusions. Nonetheless, approaches to industrial relations have changed since the confrontational days of the early 1970s: "I heard, about ten years ago," Beynon recalls with wry amusement, "that their foreman training scheme was now using Working for Ford as a text."

"The idea was to look at shop stewards' committees in different contexts," he explains. "What I was looking at was the relation between shop stewards and workers and the whole idea of representation and representativeness and how it was that different workplaces produced different kinds of understandings and different kinds of organisations as a consequence," he went on. "I did a lot of interviewing in the food-processing industry, the power industry, on the docks and at Imperial Tobacco. Ford was about the last that I visited and I got quite taken up with it because some quite interesting things were happening there."

Beynon spent much of 1967 in Ford's Halewood plant on Merseyside talking to workers, union officials and management. "I got agreement from the company that I could talk to people, and agreement from the trade union. Then I met the shop stewards to get agreement that I could talk to them. They were very concerned to get my bona fides so I spent a lot of time talking about myself and my past. It took a long time for them to trust me and for them to figure out that I was someone who was worth talking to. Once I had begun to do that they began to suggest people I should talk to."

It was here that Beynon's rigorous training as a sociologist, concerned with interviewing a representative cross-section of workers, conflicted with the ethnographic approach he found himself using more and more as he looked for "key informants" whose knowledge or experience could provide detailed insights into particular aspects of the working of the plant. Moreover, unpredictable events such as strikes are difficult for the researcher to quantify by means of surveys yet are clearly important to the student of industrial relations.

"The idea of the PhD became altogether unmanageable because I had an enormous amount of data. I left Liverpool in 1968 but carried on with fieldwork in 1969 and the book ends with the strike in 1972. I felt that I had to do something with all this stuff and eventually decided to write it as a book."

By a somewhat convoluted path, the manuscript was taken up by Penguin and published in 1973. And then the reviewers got hold of it. "A fantasy that he is a Sunday Times 'Insight' reporter," wrote one, of Beynon's vivid and decidedly unacademic prose style. "A catalogue of bloody mindedness" wrote another, going on to say that "if shop stewards are really as ignorant, obstructive and stupid as this book makes out, then the British working man certainly qualifies for Ludendorff's description of the British Expeditionary Force (as) 'Lions led by donkeys'."

The shop stewards were not entirely delighted either. "I wanted it to be authentic and seen to be authentic by the people who it was about," explains Beynon. "However, they didn't like the fact that I quoted them as swearing. I learned that what people say and how people like to present themselves is very different. But that's what factories are like."

Despite this mixed reception, the book sold very well in both paperback and hardback and was eventually accepted by the Open University as a set text. "The very good thing that came from it," Beynon recalls, "was that I got hundreds of letters about it, mostly from people who worked in factories." Ford? "They didn't like it at all. Their public response was quite odd because they began by saying that I hadn't been in the factory for more than a couple of days."

One incident in particular that Beynon reports - where a man died and the foreman insisted on the line continuing to work - was denied outright by the company. "In a way, I thought that the book was authentic and therefore could open up some kind of discussion about the way in which factories were run. But the response that the company gave was to say that none of this was true."

The picture Beynon paints of life on the line - largely in the words of the workers themselves - is bleak: dull, boring tasks repeated ad nauseam for a company still run on the principles established by its founder. Man subservient to machine. A Modern Times, perhaps, for these modern times. Only this time without the laughs.

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