Branko Milanović: Disciplining workers in a workers’ state

What it meant to discipline labour in the Soviet Union.

Cross-posted from Branko Milanović’s blog

Chess match in an Odessa factory, 1977 (picture: Бори́с Galatiknova)

When I reviewed on Wednesday Fritz Bartel’s excellent new book “The Triumph of Breaking Promises” where he describes how governments in both the West and East in the late 1970s and early 1980s had to break tacit promises (of economic growth and welfare state) with their citizens, he speaks of “disciplining labour.” In a capitalist context, it is clear what it means: reduce the power of trade unions, make the labour market more flexible (i.e. firing easier), reduce the duration and amount of unemployment benefits etc. Almost everyone understands it.

But some people wrote to me: they did not understand what “disciplining labour” meant in the East European (and probably Soviet) context in those years. To understand what it meant one has to start with the position of labour in socialist societies. In those societies, and in those years (because it was different under high Stalinism), workers were seen as the “privileged” class in theory. While they were not high in income distribution, they benefited from many egalitarian policies, and it is them, and their position, that provided the legitimacy to the communist party rule. Since that rule could not legitimated through elections, it had to be legitimated through the claim that it ensured the “dictatorship of the proletariat”, i.e., made workers, rather than capitalists, the ruling class. Obviously, they were not the ruling class in truth: party and government bureaucracy was, but the ideological claim of “the dictatorship of the proletariat” could not be openly ignored and it meant that a special social contract did exist between the powers-that-be and the working class.

The contract included the following items:  (1) low intensity of work effort, (2) guaranteed employment, (3) low wage differences between skilled and unskilled workers, (4) less hierarchical plant-level relations than under capitalism, (5) social benefits linked to jobs.

The most important thing to realize is that work effort was much less, and the number of hours of effective work probably even less than in an equivalent capitalist-run firm. There were several reasons for it. Socialist enterprises were organized much less efficiently. There were no real owners who cared about profitability and in consequence they did not either care if labour was employed eight hours per day or four. On top of that, the overall system was less efficient: so often raw materials would not show on time and there would be no work to do. Then, there was surplus labour within companies hired just in case they needed it to fulfill the plan quota (or, as in Yugoslavia, which was not a planned economy, just in order to hire family and friends). Companies were encouraged to increase hirings because local politicians were afraid of unemployment in their area and under their watch. They wanted companies to hire as many people as possible regardless of whether it made economic sense or not (the soft budget constraint will somehow mop all of this up: somebody else will pay). Finally, hours and hours were lost in political meetings, or as in Yugoslavia, in interminable discussions of workers’ assembly or workers’ councils.

All of these things combined meant for an individual worker that he or she effectively worked much less than in a corresponding capitalist firm: the intensity of work was less, the duration of work was less, the idling was much greater. Worker’s shop-floor position was stronger than in an equivalent capitalist firm because it was almost impossible to fire them. So he/she was both more powerful and worked less.

Comes the need for reform. “Breaking promises” under socialism meant principally disciplining labour along that the three dimensions: make them work harder, reduce their shop-floor powers, and allow (timidly) for possibility of firing. As a careful reader might have noticed, discipling labour had mostly to do with “internal” elements of the shop-floor organization, and establishment of stricter rules and hierarchy, not with the usual “external” elements as in capitalism (amount of unemployment benefit etc.). 

I remember observing clearly these differences during the years when, to complement my student income, I worked with Yugoslav trade unions. They had very close relations with French Trade Unions  (CFDT in particular) and I knew them well. When the French Trade Unions would visit Yugoslavia, they would be taken to the management of the company and to the plant-floor to chat with workers. When Yugoslav trade unions went to France, they would meet in trade union offices (very nice, by the way), but they would never meet the management (obviously the management would ignore us), nor would they ever be allowed to the shop-floor. The internal organization of work was entirely the “province” of capitalists and managers. Of course, unions may be consulted, or could strike, but the rules of work organization, the pace of work, the hierarchy within the company were not the object (or were seldom the object) of negotiations. 

It is that very hierarchical work organization that technocrats, or reformers, in socialism wanted to establish so the system would be more efficient.  Consequently, they had to fight the acquired rights of workers. This was ideologically difficult because workers were the “ruling class”. If they are the ruling class, how—and for what purpose—can you force them to work harder, be less consulted, and even face unemployment? 

This was the perennial battle between technocrats, often company directors, and the working class. Whenever crisis would hit, technocrats would gain the upper hand. They would make temporary inroads, but would be thwarted and pushed back by a coalition of bureaucrats in the party and workers. It was a battle that was for ideological reasons impossible to win by technocrats. “Disciplining labour” was thus much more difficult in  Eastern Europe in the 1970s that in the West, and especially so, in the United States, where the power of labour (and the ideology legitimating that power) was always weak.

Branko Milanović 

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