Marxism at Work: Can We Manage Without Managers?

Submitted by AWL on 10 May, 2006 - 12:02

We all know that there is a lot of deadwood in the management grades on the railway. When we strike, we can shut - or at least disrupt - the train service. If managers went on strike, no-one would notice for months!

Much, maybe most, of what they do is not about running the railway. Rather, it is about keeping us in line. They hassle us about petty uniform rules, promote the employer's latest glossy-but-useless campaign, use MFA/Attendance procedures to bully people into coming to work when you are sick.

When we go on strike, managers go into full flow - organising scabbing, threatening staff (especially probationers), breaking the rules to keep the job running.

In other words, the reason we have so many managers is political. The companies employ many more managers than they need to run a railway, but for them, it is a price worth paying.

Some Management Required

But aren't there some 'management' tasks that need doing?

Yes, there are. But they do not have to be done by people paid a lot more than everyone else and with extra power and privileges.

It is common for railworkers to see management cock-ups and to say that we and our workmates could do a better job of it. We know that staff who actually do the frontline work would also make a better job of planning and overseeing it.

A Pipe Dream?

Surely that's a fantasy? No. The Zanon tile factory (pictured) in Neuquen, Argentina, was taken over by its workers after the bosses tried to shut it down, and now is one of a whole network of workplaces in Argentina run as (in their words) 'factories without bosses'.

All the functions of coordination, planning and organisation, usually done bossily by highly-paid managers, are done by ordinary workers, paid the same as the other workers, and democratically accountable.

The Zanon workers also produce a newspaper, radio programme and website to promote what they are doing, and have made union reps more accountable by limiting the time they stay in office.

The Zanon workers describe the situation: "This is the way we work. We pay the bills; we sell to the public and to warehouses all over the country; we increased production and jobs; we collaborate with the community. In this way we show that things can be done differently: they can be done in the right way. It is clear that this is possible because, under workers' management, not only a few take the income. Here, income is distributed with the people."

In the railway industry too - whether in Argentina or Britain - management tasks could be done by ordinary workers, perhaps on a rota system of release from your normal duties. We could decide policies, plan new projects, keep the accounts, work out rosters, organise training. No problem.

Happy Together?

Within one factory, Zanon makes a reality of what Karl Marx proposed for the organisation of society - workers’ control.

But Zanon exists within a country still run by a capitalist government, the rules of profit, and the instructions of the IMF. Can workers' control and capitalism coexist?

If workers take over just one workplace - or even one industry - they will operate in an economy still dominated by capitalist enterprises, in a political system still governed by the bosses and their servants. A system of 'dual power' can develop - instead of there being one government or management, there are two - the bosses' and the workers' - battling for supremacy.

Things could go in one of two directions. The Marxist writer Leon Trotsky discussed this in 1931.

One direction would be for the worker-managed enterprise to settle in to a subservient niche within society: "If the participation of the workers in the management of production is to be lasting, stable, 'normal', it must rest upon class collaboration, and not upon class struggle. Such a class collaboration can be realised only through the upper strata of the trade unions and the capitalist associations ... In all these instances, it was not a case of workers' control over capital, but of the subserviency of the labour bureaucracy to capital."

The other option, though, is for the workers to take their control of the particular industry and push forward to challenge the bosses' rule of society as a whole. "Questions of credits, of raw materials, of markets, will immediately extend control beyond the confines of individual enterprises.... The questions of export and import right away ought to raise workers' control to the level of national tasks and to counterpose the central organs of workers' control to the official organs of the bourgeois state ... A way out of these contradictions can be found either in the capture of power by the proletariat [ie. the working class] ... or in ... counterrevolution".

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