Copyright Sociological Research Online, 2001


Carol Stephenson and Paul Stewart (2001) 'The Whispering Shadow: Collectivism and Individualism at Ikeda-Hoover and Nissan UK'
Sociological Research Online, vol. 6, no. 3, <>

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Received: 14/11/2000      Accepted: 3/10/2001      Published: 30/11/2001


Despite recent interest in the character of individual dissonance in the workplace less attention has been given to the nature of collectivism in the context of restricted trade union behaviour. While findings on conflicts associated with collective practices have been given reasonable space these have tended to focus on the association between collectivism qua trade unions and the presence or absence of conflict. Moreover, where the relationship between conflict and individualism provide the focus of study, this often serves to herald the demise of forms of collectivism or collectivism in general. The paper identifies three forms of collectivism in two Japanese manufacturing plants. These are; 'trade union collectivism'; 'work place collectivism' and, the 'social collectivism of everyday life'. By moving away from the conflict-consensus polarity, the intention is to shift the terms of debate over the nature of individualism and collectivism in the context of LLPs. The perceived conceptual and empirical gap is not to be closed by highlighting only incidents of dissonance, whether individually or collectively construed.

Conflict; Consensus; Individualism; Lean-labour-process; Varieties Of Collectivism; Work Non-work Associations.


"Sometimes resistance begins in whispers" (Peter Armstrong) [1]

While there has been much contemporary writing on the character of individual conflict in the workplace there has been limited focus on the nature of collectivism in the context of restricted trade union behaviour (Bacon and Storey, 1996; Kelly, 1996; Martinez and Stewart, 1997; Thompson and Ackroyd, 1995; Ackroyd and Thompson, 1999; Knights and McCabe, 2000; Durand and Stewart, 1998). On the contrary, while findings on conflicts associated with collective practices have been given reasonable airing these have tended to focus on the association between collectivism qua trade unions and the presence or absence of conflict. Moreover, in the wider literature where the relationship between conflict and individualism provide the focus of study, this often serves to signal either the demise of particular forms of collectivism or collectivism in general (Oliver and Wilkinson, 1992; Sewell and Wilkinson, 1992; Knights and McCabe, 2000; May, 1999). This recent concern has to be set against a long tradition in the sociology of work where the causal relationship between individual and group behaviour was at the centre of the research agenda. (See, inter alia, the classic accounts by Mayo, 1933; Shils, 1951; Goffman, 1963, Ch3. For an intriguing historical account of the handling of this relationship see Clegg and Dunkerley, 1980).

Contemporary concern with the relationship between individualism and collectivism has important ramifications for discussion about the fate of the collective worker in the context of Lean Labour Processes (LLP). These supposedly provide new workplace conditions which for some herald the demise of the traditional politics of the collective worker, (Delbridge, 1998). For arguably this is a debate about the changing relationship between individualism and collectivism, (Martinez and Stewart, op cit) in which the nature of the conflict identified (individual or collective) becomes a vector for the arguments of champions on either side. Individualism and collectivism stand as opposites in this binary divide of employee identity in the workplace. Thus (traditional) trade union activity is taken as a sign of the persistence of traditional collectivism whereas individualistic expressions of conflict are taken as ciphers for the rise of individualism even where these are given a collectivist inflection (Bacon and Storey, op cit. See notably, but in a different fashion, Thompson and Ackroyd, (1995).

Ackroyd and Thompson's (1999) Organisational Misbehaviour is an intriguing intervention to this discussion. The issue is how one might identify the myriad other forms of collectivism in the absence of, or indeed (notably, Ch 3 pp 61-70 and Ch 5, Organisational Misbehaviour) despite, traditional forms of collectivism.

Organisational Misbehaviour is concerned to uncover the persistence of collectivism by identifying it in various moments of conflict (misbehaviour). The leitmotif of 'misbehaviour' is an attempt to provide an understanding of the failure of managerialist explanations for employee behaviour and the saliency of that behaviour which lies outside the orbit of management control (pp8-11). Nevertheless, in identifying collectivism in terms of moments of conflict (misbehaviour) the importance of the ideological and cultural underpinnings of employee behaviour are reduced. We argue this is a critical oversight since the notions of autonomy and self- organisation, crucial conceptual underpinnings to their argument, are not always intelligible in terms of conflict, resistance and inappropriate behaviour.

Conflict, Individualism and Collectivism at work.

Organisational Misbehaviour is a clever counterintuitive, ironic reading both of employee behaviour and of the various disciplinary accounts (including traditional Organisational Behaviour and much orthodox sociology of work) that mistake a whole range of employee acts as in some senses pathological, rightable if only management could get its act together. For Ackroyd and Thompson, employee activity only really begins to make sense once we see that traditional accounts miss the real significance of employee behaviour. It is only when the significance of behaviour is understood as reflecting employee self-organisation that all workplace behaviour can be adequately accounted for.

Within Ackroyd and Thompson's optic, rather than interpreting acts such as, inter alia, sabotage, absenteeism, pilferage etc, as errant and thus correctable ("corrigible" p3), these should be seen as organisationally created and dependant (p8) and therefore endemic to all work organisations (p11). And significantly, employee behaviour should be considered as arising from the search for identity at work (p27) and out of the pursuit of "autonomy which is central to misbehaviour" (p 74, see discussion pp54-57) and further that these are thus inevitable and irreducible - "the characteristic forms of misbehaviour in the workplace .... arise from and are related to the processes of self organisation" (p54).

In attempting is to rediscover the meanings behind employee behaviour that diverge from company expectations Ackroyd and Thompson argue that what appears as individualistic behaviour is, on the contrary, rooted in group norms of self-organisation (whether formal or informal). Significantly these are most readily identified in conflictual behaviour such as, for example, industrial action, absenteeism, pilferage, or types of humour. While management and various forms of sociological orthodoxy might see these divergent acts in ethical terms as inappropiate (or miss) behaviour, for Ackroyd and Thompson they indicate the organisationally endemic persistence of employee self organisation in the pursuit of autonomy.

But what if we were to shift the terms of debate over the nature of individualism and collectivism in the context of LLPs the better to leave behind the conflict-consensus binarism? We argue that the perceived conceptual and empirical gap is not to be closed only by highlighting incidents of organisational conflict, whether individually or collectively understood (see inter alia, Durand and Stewart, 1998). This also allows us to avoid the normative concern with the 'problem of order' that can limit the saliency of sociological accounts of the workplace.

The lacuna in research is to account for the existence of collectivism in the lean workplace in the absence either of individual or collective conflicts and more especially, as Ackroyd and Thompson point out, in workplaces where trade union activity is weak or absent. We argue that the presence or absence of conflict cannot be taken as a measure of the presence or absence of collectivism. It is in this sense that we follow Domingues' injunction to uncover the character of collectivism in the interstices of everyday (workplace) life.

Thus, whilst Ackroyd and Thompson are surely right to argue that, '[resistance] is there if researchers have the time or inclination to look' (op cit, p164), this may ironically mask a more significant feature of employee activity in the workplace than is allowed for by their thesis. While we agree with Ackroyd and Thompson that the variety of different forms of collectivism must be identified we argue rather more that these must be understood in a broader sense than is allowed by the restrictive conceptual cage of conflict. While attempting to illustrate the way collectivism continues to exist even in those workplaces where intricate barriers to trade union collectivism have been erected (see the notable reference to the Plessey study pp67-70) their emphasis invariably considers the significance of collective behaviour as a form of conflictual self organisation. By contrast, our argument is that collectivism takes a number of forms, some are elaborated in the workplace, some outside, some for sure involve hostile challenges to the logic of managerial control. Yet others also exist, as the title of this paper puts it, 'in the shadows', and go unnoticed by management. If Ackroyd and Thompson have identified and unpacked a weakness at the heart of traditional Organisational Studies by emphasising both the extent of distinct employee interests and the normality (naturalness?) of conflict this necessary ontological corrective has overplayed the degree and salience of resistance. Although the neo-foucauldians may have been misguided in their conclusion that collectivism has died (or was never there) as a result of the triumph of domination, it does not follow that all individual and collective expression which is not apparently conflictual inherently results from domination.

In their critique of the old and new approaches to employee workplace behaviour, Ackroyd and Thompson have overly bound the idea of the persistence of collectivism (arising from employee needs for autonomy and the inherent sociality of the workplace) to its most apparent behavioural marker, conflict. Our point specifically is that resistance is not always there, no matter how hard you look. Indeed, some people do indeed truly believe, are true 'company men and women' as some of our anecdotal evidence of the fate of a whistleblower at one our case study companies indicates. Conversely, the absence of conflict and the significance of true believers within the new LLP companies does not mean that all employees who seem to behave in subordinate, or to use Gramsci's term subaltern, ways are either dominated or lacking in distinctive ideologies. People do have alternative interests, quite distinct from those of management, and these do allow for the possibility of solidarities, playfulness (in jokes), or destructiveness. The marker of conflict is not always the best means for identifying all solidarities that are not company sponsored. As Glucksman (2000) has recently argued, they can still be oppositional, culturally and socially, without being conflictual and leading to resistance in the workplace.

Potential Patterns of Collectivism

We address this lacuna in the context of two UK-based Japanese manufacturing plants, Nissan and Ikeda-Hoover (I. H.). Our focus is on collectivism inside and outside the labour process, whether practical or attitudinal, conflict driven or not.

This understanding of collectivism is grounded in accounts employees provide of their experience of the LLPs, mediated variously by social relations both inside and outside the employment relationship. This approach allows us to identify three patterns of collectivism; 'trade union collectivism'; 'work place collectivism'; the 'social collectivism of everyday life'. Specifically, 'trade union collectivism' can be characterised in a variety of ways but for our purposes is defined as the extant pattern of trade unionism including those meanings attributed to it by the existing membership. By 'work place collectivism' is meant those associations between shop floor employees in the context of the sociality of everyday life (Westwood, 1984; Glucksman, 1990; Domingues, op cit). Finally, these both depend upon, whilst reinforcing what can be termed the 'social collectivism of everyday life'. These interact in determinate ways to produce distinct outcomes in the two lean work places examined.

The Case Study of the Buyer and Supplier Firms

Both Nissan UK and the supplier company Ikeda Hoover (I.H.) are based in the North east of England. I.H. is part owned by Nissan and the companies operate a synchronous production system. I.H. was launched in 1986 to supply Nissan on a JIT basis with seats and internal cabin trim. In 1989 I.H. moved to a purpose built site on the Nissan Trading Estate. Employees are engaged in seat assembly which is dependant on upholstery skills.

Nissan's announcement in 1981 that it intended to base a new European plant (and a number of part owned supplier plants) in the North East of England was hailed as a major victory for both Britain and the region's development agencies. The development was seen as a victory for 'sunrise' industrial growth, much lauded as the natural successor of the 'smokestack industries' of coal, steel and shipbuilding upon which the region's economy was built.

The Nissan plant was seen as a departure for the British automotive industry because of the single union, so-called 'no strike', agreement reached with the Amalgamated Engineering and Electricians' Union (AEEU), which left it with little meaningful representative role. The agreement sought compliance with whatever changes the company wished to introduce. I.H. later signed an identical agreement with the union (Garrahan and Stewart, 1992)

In the eighties and nineties Nissan became synonymous with the promotion of a set of managerial practices, which they claimed brought manufacturing and industrial relations success (Nissan's Community Relations Officer, 1990). Indeed senior managers have claimed that the promotion of the 'Nissan Way' of working is in itself a goal of the organisation (Wickens, 1993). This is a lean production plant that to depends upon Taylorism (Wickens, 1987). Manufacturing employees are expected to perform repetitive tasks, primarily in a prescribed manner and to work to a time schedule set elsewhere (Wickens, 1993:32).

By December 1997 Nissan employed 4,300 employees and had produced 1.4 million cars in ten years (Nissan, 1998). Nissan was twice hailed, as Europe's most productive car plant. In 1999, Nissan employees produced many more cars per head than several of their key rivals (Observer, 25/3/2000). Yet already indications of difficulties tell of somewhat uncertain prospects (Guardian, 29/9/2000).

This recent concern suggests a less sanguine view of Japanese owned companies more generally. Only four years ago these were seen as invincible providers of employment security in the region. In September 1998 Fujitsu closed after only seven years production, with the loss of 600 jobs. The inward investment by Siemens, the micro-chip company based in North Tyneside, ended after less than two years (The Guardian, 5/9/98) and despite plans for reopening in 2001 the scale and nature of the project will be considerably more modest. All this has added to the growing sense of insecurity in the local labour market. Nissan too became a casualty of international restructuring in the form of consolidation and merger when Renault took a 36% stake in the company. The Northeast and national press have been full of rumours about the long-term viability of Nissan's plant (The Guardian, ibid). Nissan senior management had argued that the strength of the pound would force the new Micra model to be moved abroad and Prime Minister Tony Blair met with senior managers in the company to agree a multi million pound support package. And if the immediate future of the plant is no longer in doubt the detail of Renault's investment plans give cause for concern (Observer, 14/5/2000).

Our current round of interviews with Nissan and I.H. employees reflects this anxiety about employment security. These also identify the theme of quality of working life that one might anticipate in traditional plants. Their primary concern was whether they would be capable of working in these plants into middle age and beyond. In workplaces where the pace of work is fast and the labour process demands multi-tasking, employees question their ability to 'work here past forty' (Garrahan and Stewart, 1992; Stephenson, 1996). Interviews with employees reveal that the question of what to do with older employees has been raised with the workforce (Steve, Nissan Team Leader, follow-up interview, June 1998):

Team leader Steve, previously interviewed in the late 1980s then believed that if he worked hard and participated fully in sharing his ideas, he would spend the rest of his working life at Nissan. Like many others that faith had been shaken. Indeed most employees interviewed were less optimistic than Steve for the future of older employees in the company. Employees were concerned that working long term on the line at Nissan led to repetitive strain injuries. Some felt that managers had moved employees to work stations where their injuries would not be exacerbated, however there was a feeling that eventually there would be no alternative jobs available and that injured employees were being offered redundancies. These were incremental losses of the most contractually insecure and physically vulnerable employees - not large redundancies that would be picked up by the press. The Nissan case reveals what some have already noted about the physical impact of lean production on employees (Rhinehart, Huxley and Robertson, 1997).

At I.H. employment is also seen as less than secure. Previously, skills shortages had provided I.H. sewing machinists some leverage in attempting to win concessions (Stephenson, 1996). However, clothing manufacturing in the region was in decline. Jackie Woodhall a local GMB official responsible for representing sewing machinists pointed out that in excess of 10,000 jobs in clothing manufacture had been lost in "the last two and a half years" with between 50 and 60 factories closed. (Interview, July 2000). The main player in Nissan, Renault, is based in Europe with new and alternative plant and capacity available to play off against Sunderland in the next round of restructuring. The implications of this create obvious employment concerns for workers at I.H.


Interviews have been carried out in two stages; the first stage was completed in 1994, with forty interviews with Nissan and I. H. employees completed. A second stage involving 20 new interviewees began in 1998 is ongoing. The research involved site visits to Nissan and I.H. to gather internal company documents, conduct interviews with senior managers and, most importantly, interview employees who were interviewed in their homes after completing and returning a open ended questionnaire. Interview access was achieved by use of the snowballing technique often favoured in the context of LLP where companies by and large are guarded and often suspicious of social science researchers. This was the preferred interview access technique adopted in a number of seminal same sector studies by Fucini and Fucini (1990), Garrahan and Stewart (1992), and Stephenson (1996). In these studies, traditional quantitative and ethnographic research techniques including shop floor questionnaire shots and participant observation were precluded due to lack of regular workplace accessibility, whether as a covert or participant or work station observer.

In 5 cases (from the original group of 40) a dialogue has been maintained with employees over a ten-year period. A number of others were traced and re-interviewed so as to provide perspective on how they saw change within the plants. In total 60 employees have now been interviewed from the two plants.

The primary aim of the first phase of research was to understand the nature of lean production in the plants, how employees perceived these 'new' work strategies, and how lean production worked, that is how employees came to make sense of it (cf Bradley et al 2000, op cit). However, the purpose of this second series of interviews has been to examine the ways in which employees' perceptions of the workplace are changing and what factors may have influenced these views. More particularly, we have been concerned to assess the way employees make sense of the changing nature of work and non- work relations with colleagues over time. To turn the original goal of this research on its head we sought to examine the possibility of the continued presence of collectivism, in varying forms, within even the most lean and controlled of environments.

Collectivism and Lean Production

Initial critical accounts of lean production at Nissan and I.H., were pessimistic about the possibility of worker resistance (Garrahan and Stewart, op cit). Although some felt this pessimism went too far (Rainnie, 1996) events have nevertheless highlighted the continued ability of these regimes, in certain circumstances, to marginalise non-unitarist trade union collectivism. Lean production presented traditional employee collectivism with many challenges, not the least being a new 'collectivism' (see Bacon and Storey, op cit) enforced at both a practical and ideological level. Employees are encouraged to see the collective as the corporation wherein the welfare of all is indelibly tied to profitability. Thus those individuals with the right attitudes should achieve success for the 'collective'. Employees who left the company were derided; only special employees could be 'Nissan employees' (Stephenson, 1996). At a practical level, this exclusivity and new found collectivism was confirmed through the exclusion of the trade union from any practical role in problem solving in the plant. New organisational structures aimed at excluding organised unions have made it difficult for unions to engage in the normal range of activities central to the employment relationship. While participation in discussion over workplace organisation has never been on the agenda, other, more typical collective issues (eg, health and safety, grievances and pay) have seen the union play a secondary role to the Company Council. The result of the exclusion of an independent union role was to impose a degree of formality on worker interaction on these issues in the workplace.

Yates provides a further indication of how lean production presents challenges to forms of employee collectivism (Yates, 1998). She illustrates how the strategy deepens divisions between employees - the strong against the weak, the young against the old and men against women. Team working, promotes increases in work pace, has led to employees' intolerance of the weak and the slow who 'let others down', thus creating more pressure for an already pressured group. While other researchers have noted that peer group surveillance and competition are critical features in the lean workplace it may be too pessimistic to overplay the extent to which these cleavages diminish non company-centred collectivism.

Despite the obstacles presented by surveillance and individualised or team based competition, a number of accounts note the persistence of employee dissatisfaction. These range from overt activities such as stoppages to employees 'distancing' themselves from the company and/or its goals through refusing to sit down during team meetings and wearing the company uniform inappropriately (Graham, 1995 op cit; Delbridge, 1997; Stephenson, 1996). While overt resistance to lean production is not common, covert, cynical and sometimes personal acts of resistance are widely reported although most of these acts do not actually disrupt the labour process. This outcome is by now well documented by researchers in other contexts (see for example work by Delbridge, 1998; McKinlay and Taylor, 1996; Durand and Stewart, op cit). At Nissan, some of our interviewees observed that colleagues claimed to attend Kaizen meetings in order to be "seen to be doing so", but once there made no real effort to contribute significantly to discussion. Similarly employees chose to hide their political associations understanding these would be unpopular with management (Stephenson, 1996). Some researchers have read this type of situation as the sublimation of worker collectivism as these seemed to be private acts, many of which go largely unseen by the employer (see especially Willmott and Knights early work on workplace subordination. (1992) ). However we argue that worker collectivism is prevalent in these lean workplaces even though it is not always reducible to the emergence of acts of overt resistance such as strike action or working to rule.

Specifically, three forms of collectivism can be identified among employees in the study of I.H. and Nissan UK, specifically these are; trade union collectivism; the collectivism of everyday life, and; workplace collectivism. These forms of collectivism are inter-related in that the emergence and prevalence of one form or another is influenced by the experience of the labour process and wider social relations.

By trade union collectivism we refer to trade union based activity which has often been viewed as the defining characteristic marker of worker collectivism. Very often trade union based collectivism has been supported by workplace collectivism that may derive from a series of antipathetic employee responses to management. Nevertheless, collectivism may also, following Glucksman (2000) and Domingues, 2000 be typical of certain social and cultural milieu and social relationships - but not ones which are inherently autonomy forming or creative of self organisation and conflict. Nor does this necessarily imply social subordination. One typical manifestation of this can be witnessed in practical informal support and help employees offer one another inside the workplace. Emotional support that employees show for each other within the working environment is a critical factor here. While this sort of collective support can lead to disruption and resistance at work, this is not always the case. Indeed this support can on occasion support production, but it is primarily based in the expression of worker collectivism, which stems from the common experience of the capitalist labour process. Lastly, there is what we call the collectivism of everyday life. This refers to the networks of support which employees participate in outside the factory but which have implications for both home and work life. These may entail collective responses to a range of needs including familial, transport, and pastoral care in the context of sick or injured colleagues in addition to support for those facing disciplinary action.

We shall now seek to illustrate this typology further by providing examples from the I.H. - Nissan case studies.

Trade Union Collectivism

The most striking examples of trade union collectivism in the companies studied stem from the I.H. plant, where active trade unionists have led in stoppages, supported employees through disciplinary hearings and cases seeking compensation for workplace injury. Pro union employees and shop stewards were elected to hold company council positions and led a number of short walk-outs in protest at what was seen to be a belligerent management. (Stephenson 1996). Employees interviewed in the late 1980s and early 1990s argued it was concerns over the well being of other colleagues, such as health and safety, which catalysed trade union action.

More recent evidence suggests that trade union collectivism at I.H. has diminished. Membership of the AEEU has fallen to less than 50% and pro union employees have difficulty in encouraging colleagues to make a stand through the union over key concerns. However a number of stewards are nevertheless actively engaged in recruitment. Stephenson previously described the approach of many Nissan employees as a form of cynical compliance (Knights et al, 1985). This term was used because it reasonably portrayed the involvement of those employees who appeared ostensibly to be whole-heartedly committed to the Nissan way of working while privately holding reservations about the fairness and logic of the Nissan regime (Stephenson 1996; Stephenson, 2000). These employees were fully aware of what they needed to do to avoid the scrutiny of management yet in line with the sentiment of our tile, there were dissenting whispers in the shadows. Interviewees were privately critical and many held and displayed attitudes to the workplace and colleagues which were collectivist, despite their failure to embroil themselves in trade union collectivism. However our view is that there are other forms of collectivism at work, beyond trade union collectivism, within both Nissan and I.H. From this standpoint the absence of trade union organised collective activity cannot be assumed to mean the absence of all forms of worker collectivism.

Work Place Collectivism

Work place collectivism refers to the willingness on the part of employees to provide support for each other in the workplace around either work or non-work issues. Since collectivism does not solely equate to employees acting as a collective entity in order to achieve a particular goal, collectivism, we contend, may also refer to employees commitment to the welfare of their colleagues. One example of this is where Nissan employees express emotional concern for the welfare of colleagues (Interview with Nissan Manufacturing Worker, 1990)

While much previous work has suggested that the lean workplace is characterised predominantly by competition between employees and peer supervision (Oliver and Wilkinson , op cit; Sewell and Wilkinson, op cit; Garrahan and Stewart, op cit) as our interviews reveal there are other dimensions to worker orientation in the lean work place. Other expressions of collectivism can be identified in the way co-operation between employees helps to 'get the job done':

"When I first started I just could not do the job at all - I was doing just a fraction of an overall job that a worker was expected to do. I was helped out by the blokes or I would just not have been able to get through." (Julie, Nissan Worker)

Julie's example, of people informally helping each other, may not even be known to management and certainly does not constitute a threat to the everyday working of the plant - on the contrary work is frequently made possible as a result of this kind of mutual support. Some may dispute this as evidence of worker collectivism, perceiving it rather as evidence of good team work practice yet the following illuminates the double sidedness of team working:

Q....What would happen if you fell behind

A "...I'd do things for me mates. You'd ask the team leader and it would be 'I've not got the time, get on with it' but your mates will help you out. I'd do jobs that were not mine, to help them out....... Management would not be happy with me doing it they would say 'it's not your job don't do it'. .They [management] always say 'team work, team work' but that is not how they actually operate. If someone is flapping they don't want to know - it was every man for himself. But we would help out, the lads, but management did not want you to step in and help anyone because their line would be 'if he can't do the job he should not be here'". (Patrick, Nissan Material Handling)

This illustrates how rather than the team working (only) in management's terms coming into play here, employees had to take risks to help out friends and colleagues as informal interventions such as these hid dependencies and weaknesses - and not just in the labour process. Far from resulting from the logic of team working, the forms of workplace collectivism described above actually hamper employers ability to root out the weak, an unintended consequence of the actions of worker reciprocity.

So collectivism of the workplace is also expressed in standing up for ones' colleagues and being visible to management, irrespective of the absence of trade union support. The most dramatic example of this comes once again from I.H. when during a now infamous series of events a team leader stood up for his colleagues. A team went for a celebratory drink to see off a colleague on the last day of production before the summer break. Despite taking only their lunch hour and drinking non-alcoholic drinks they faced hostility on their return:

"As I said they were only out for 40 minutes on our lunch break. When they got back this Supervisor called them into a meeting room. The men said 'what is this about' and the Supervisor was 'Never you mind. Get your bags and belongings and meet us here'. The attitude was terrible - now that supervisor was trying to prove himself 'the hard-man' so that he could climb the ladder and shortly after he did. So these men all ended up in this room the whole team must have been 25, with the two team leaders. The supervisor started saying really nasty .... . One of the team leaders spoke up 'if this is about going to the pub for a drink, then I've seen plenty of senior management come down here and they have had a drink'. [The team leader was later sacked] They were out to get him for that remark he made and for sticking up for himself and for us." (Angela, Sewing Machinist at I.H.)

This incident was repeatedly referred to by interviewees and provides another poignant example of what we have called the collectivism of the workplace. The team leader took the risk of supporting colleagues and friends - he was punished for his lack of loyalty to the company. He did this without the support of the trade union, but he clearly felt a commitment to the collective, which led him to jeopardise his status and later, employment security.

The Collectivism of Everyday Life

Evidence for the collectivism of everyday life is particularly strong in interviews with I.H. employees. Many employees had been friends for several years, working together in other workplaces. This was a very clear pattern among women employees who worked in the clothing sector in one or both of two large clothing manufacturers based on Wearside, Hepworth and Dewhirst. Many of the social ties women formed in these companies were maintained after they moved to I.H where women would often reminisce about the old days working for these two employers. For example, it was not uncommon that during interviews employees would recount conversations they had on the phone with colleagues during non-work hours, or the advice they had given friends who had run into difficulty either within work or outside of it. Informal contacts with former colleagues smoothed entry into the 'new world' of working for a Japanese owned plant (Kenney, I.H., Seat Assembly worker, 1990).

"We share a taxi into work the four of us, well it makes sense rather than us all going separately. I should have asked them to come back and have a chat with you!" (Louise, Sewing Machinist follow up interview, 2000)

This kind of easy familiarity and trust expressed between co-employees derived not only from a financial decision: sharing not only the taxi fare but also the chat about work and non-work lives made cultural sense to those interviewed. The taxi ride gave employees a chance to share their perspectives and, where possible, suggest solutions. This is what we refer to as the social collectivism of everyday life that is so much a feature of working class culture. Recognised in previous studies (Glucksman, 1990:174) it refers to the support, friendship and care employees offer each other outside of work.

Once again, this type of commitment to the wellbeing of others can take both mundane and more dramatic forms, which require employees to be visible and take risks for their colleagues. Social collectivism, on occasion, proved to be instrumental in securing the sort of support employees needed in order to gain justice:

"I had a good friend that I shared a lift with from Consett. He still is [a friend]. He was married with four kids like and he went to the tribunal for me - he put his neck on the line really because if you step out of line at Nissan your cards are marked...yes there were a lot of good lads. I did not know him [the friend] before I went to Nissan like". (Patrick, Nissan Worker, 2000)

If we examine for a moment the relationship between one group of women employees in the sewing section of I.H., we can better understand what is meant by the importance of these differing forms of collectivism and their relationship to one another. One woman in particular, Louise, interviewed originally in the early 1990s and who was part of our long term cohort, had played a key part in supporting others and in doing so had developed the trade union there. It was interesting to note the degree of emotional effort employees such as Louise put into supporting colleagues:

" What hurts is that I helped them (part time staff) all when they first came. They would sit at their machines in tears 'I'll never be able to make the target', so I would help them out and finish off their work. Now they are going faster than me and they are pushing up the targets and now I don't know if I can keep up." (Louise, Sewing Machinist, I.H., 2000)

This of course reflects a significant, though common place, degree of ambiguity in so far as her support allowed the others to get up to speed with the production process and thus enter into competitive relations with one another. Nonetheless, Louise was typically disappointed as she had hoped for, and often received in the past, sustained mutual support. She articulated elements of the three forms of collectivism. At work she was an active trade unionist (and was ten years previously when first interviewed), advising employees on their rights, recruiting employees to the union. She was a good colleague, seeing the logic in helping others out, building trust through her commitment to the collective she identified with. Louise would leave her own line, risking the wrath of management in order to support those struggling in another team. Outside of work she continued to support colleagues and friends, ringing employees who were ill or injured, monitoring their progress and providing support and advice. In examining her commitment to the collective, it was difficult to decide where one form of the collectivism we describe ended and another began. Louise had built trade union based collectivism on the back of the other forms and she saw each of these differing activities as important in the process of overcoming the many difficulties worker face in the lean scenario. She acted as a powerful role model within the plant through her commitment to collectivism both within the plant in a formal sense and outside it. Despite her disappointment that she was not always repaid with mutual support, she appreciated the nature of the lean workplace and the terrible dilemmas it presented employees. She, like many others, were disheartened by the decline in formal trade union activity in the plant, but her commitment was evident not only in her union activity but also across a range of forms of collectivism. Her support for employees within work and outside continues to be of significance to her colleagues, legitimating her trade union activity:

"Louise - she is a really excellent woman, very bright you know and she would do anything for you. She does things for people and she does not get a thank you - I think she gets hurt about it. I say just wait until they want your help again.!....Louise is really good. You see some people talk about the union and you think 'oh really boring' but with Louise she always makes it fun" (Angela on Louise, I.H., 2000)

How can we square the apparently contradictory moments with our leitmotif of different registers of collectivism? Our reading of apparently contradictory collectivist moments is that team working at Nissan and I.H. does not always allow employees to gel together to overcome problems and develop new ideas, particularly among skilled employees. These employees feel particularly scrutinised so good ideas remain hidden to be used to impress at a later date. On the other hand, it is also evident that employees such as Louise and Patrick actually left their teams in order to help others. Their actions bore risks and were genuinely altruistic in Westwood's (1984) sense, stemming as they did from a basic belief that collective support for colleagues at work would benefit all in the long run. In Louise's case, she hoped it would build commitment to the union (see Cavendish, 1982).

What we uncover are the different registers in which team working does work because employees pull together - although not always in ways imagined by management. More particularly, our point is that this has not been recognised as evidence of the collective commitment employees express to one another. Because of (or despite?) a management centred drive to create bureaucratic team structures employees may equally offer alternative expressions of team working. Moreover, this resonates with research by others into the multiplicity and multi-layering of team working practices in LLPs (Rhinehart et al , op cit).


We have offered a number of modest alternatives to the problems surrounding the current debate about collectivism and resistance in the context of LLPs. We uncovered a number of different elements in the inter-dependency of forms of collectivism. Indeed it is at times very difficult to distinguish between the collectivism of everyday life and workplace based collectivism. While being mutually reinforcing they may also form the building blocks for a more formal strategy of collectivism that can develop into a strategic expression of social and cultural resistance to lean production. But this is not the only consideration to be borne in mind. Thus, our starting point might be that while resistance 'begins in whispers' it grows out of those expressions of collectivism described above and in many other accounts, including those cited by Ackroyd and Thompson. Yet there is another side to this. Just because all forms of collectivism do not lead to resistance does not mean we have somehow failed to see the persistence of collectivism. Neither does the absence of resistance mean that collectivism is subordinate, company centred (though on occasion it may be) or without social and cultural autonomy from management. Pace, Ackroyd and Thompson, while it is true that resistance is there if one cares to look, it may indeed be absent. Nevertheless, accounting for the myriad collectivisms in the context of LLPs is still somewhat undeveloped.

While previous accounts of the lean workplace have over-emphasised competition between employees and therefore the 'victory' of lean production over worker collectivism, like Ackroyd and Thompson, we argue that collectivist attitudes and behaviour persist in even the most seemingly unpropitious environments. Collectivism of the workplace and the collectivism of everyday life are important in building trust between employees, enabling, in some instances, the development of a collective understanding of the nature of the workplace.

At I.H. trade union collectivism emerged to challenge some aspects of the logic of lean production and led to stoppages within the plant. Previous accounts of how this situation had come about noted the importance of the role of women in the development of that opposition and accounted for their confidence through reference to specific labour market conditions (Stephenson, 1996, 2000). While those labour market conditions have changed dramatically, interviews illustrate a continued commitment to a collective response to the lean workplace. In this research in progress we suggest that the labour market conditions of the early 1990s provided employees with the confidence to take a step toward overtly challenging the employer. More significantly, it was through less explosive forms of collectivism that employees initially developed the mutual trust enabling this action to occur. Many at I.H. had worked together in the past and their work at I.H. was similar to work previously undertaken. By contrast, while Nissan employees indicated few instances of direct action, there is evidence of other forms of collectivism. Employees express concern for one another and help each other out when they fall behind in work. There is a clear ethos that collective co-operation in the face of adversity is a very effective survival strategy. This is a collective response that is not straightforwardly collusive, subordinate or pro-company and in critical instances it is none of these. Though in part linked to labour market characteristics, this collectivism is also present at I.H. and has in the past provided the well spring of trade union collectivism.

Lean production management strategies seem unable to appreciate the full range of possibilities encompassed by collectivism. On the contrary, the three forms of collectivism we delineate begin with the interrelationship between different notions of collectivism. Although Domingues has broader concerns, this account resembles his notion of "collective subjectivity" in identifying the porosity of workplace boundaries where patterns of collectivism are foundational to everyday life. In other words, our three forms might best be understood as a collectivism-in-everyday-life wherein ties at work are made to spaces outside work and vice versa. While our focus here has tended to come back to the workplace as the site of one pattern of production relations it cannot be the site of the creation of these relations sui generis. Given the innovative character of LLP workplace relations it is perhaps hardly surprising that research has tended to focus on the internal nature of the workplace. However, we need to go beyond the factory gate and begin the process of linking the internal world of new production regimes to the wider social domain of which they are a part. Our developing research agenda will take further this exploration of the broader texture of work, family and community.


1 Peter Armstrong's comment during the discussion following a paper presented by the authors to the 18th Annual International Labour Process Conference April 2000.


The authors wish to thank Derek Winter for his transcription of the interviews. The authors would also like to thank Andy Danford at the Centre for Employment Studies Research at Bristol Business School and particiants at the 18th International Labour Process Conference in Glasgow, 2000, who contributed to the discussion of an earlier version of this paper


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