The gang system in Coventry

The gang system

in Coventry


REG WRIGHT is a Coventry engineering worker who has spent a life-time in the motor, aircraft and textile industries, One of the pioneers of the gang system in its present form, he has even written a play about it. In a forthcoming article in ANARCHY he discusses Erosion Inside Capitalism.

THE GANG SYSTEM AS OPERATED IN COVENTRY is modern and yet traditional. Its roots lie among the bloody-minded craftsmen who, centuries ago, sent the King to hell — and paid for it afterwards. They worked in groups — guilds. Later on in Coventry there was a prosperous ribbon-weaving industry. Semi-domestic groups by the thousand sent beautiful silk ribbons, flags and banners all over the world. My grandmother started work at 6 years of age, winding silk for the weavers. She told me: “We didn’t look upon it as ‘work’ — we enjoyed it.” She also carried tea (an expensive luxury) to the weavers. Ribbons were followed by watch manufacture. Again highly specialised family and neighbour groups made the various parts of the watches which were assembled by the master-watchmakers — who also worked in groups. It was all very informal and satisfying. The watchmakers always had a ‘Saint Monday’ — boozing all day, taking Tuesday to get over it, and working Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. Saturday morning they “cleaned up the shop”. They grew most of their own food, kept pigs and fowl, grazed horses and cows on the commons (which were never enclosed — only built on in recent years), and nearly always married young — not because they had to, but because they liked it. Watchmaking died out from lack of standardisation — undersold by machine-made watches. The making of parts was highly specialised, but to make a cheap product an elaborate system of standards and gauging was necessary, as in engineering today. (Peter Kropotkin described a similar set-up among the Swiss watch-case makers of Jura — how they sat around and worked and talked and were natural anarchists).

Next came the manufacture of sewing machines, and then bicycles. Inventions by the thousands, mostly by unknown men, made bicycle-making into a precision manufacture, one of the bases of production engineering as we now know it. Again men formed groups around the job. Mechanics came from all over England and they learned that group work paid .As employers became capitalistic, groups were broken up, but they always re-formed, and re-demonstrated their virtues.

And so it has continued to the present day: right through the making of cycles, motor-cycles, cars, aeroplanes and machine tools, there has been a continuous warfare between the group idea and the individualistic-minded employer and his officials. Those firms today which have the knack of the gang system have a huge advantage over the others. Wages are higher (which attracts better workers), they turn out a good product, make larger profits and are very adaptable. Technical methods and tools used are the same in the American type’ mass-production plant, but the human aspect is vastly different. Each worker contributes an effort, and idea, a pooling of knowledge and experience that is not readily forthcoming in the autocratically managed plant. Work is easier and people are happier. This is not a eulogy of capitalism — there are rows — fierce disputes that break the monotony of regular work. Disputes are often due to the clash of opposite mentalities — middle-class individualism in management versus working-class collectivism. Domestic disputes between gang members are settled on the spot — purely private scraps! Idle people are very severely dealt with by their mates — never from above. There is no ‘idealistic’ talk about these things, but the benefits are obvious. Rough talk and aggressive attitudes are usually poses — the real man underneath is usually quite reasonable. People rarely leave and the labour turnover is very small indeed. There are no secrets about earnings or wage rates — everybody knows all about everyone else. The facts of output required and achieved are common knowledge A car model will be in production for five years or more, a tractor for ten. Regular work, year in year out is thus essential — which can be horribly motononous for certain temperaments.

One of the compensations can be the company of other people. In addition to the firm’s own social club activities, most gangs organise their own, some of them surprising. The firm’s official sick-club reduces the amount of benefit paid to members as an illness is extended. To counter this each gang pays an increasing amount to the person as the period grows longer, on the basis that “the longer he is away from work the more his need grows”. In another firm a man has been away in a mental hospital for over five years — he is still a gang member, recognised by the management and the trade union. The latter grants his wife periodic sums from surplus funds — the firm can provide for his rehabilitation should he be cured. He still belongs.

In another works, sheet metal workers were making car wings by hand (for high-class sports cars) and one man spoiled fifty — a week’s work — through misreading a drawing. The gang had a meeting, took the foreman out to a pub, fifty men made one wing apiece, the scrap ones were ‘lost’ and no-one was any the wiser. The middle-class works manager would have had a baby had he known. but the gang saved him the inconvenience. There are thousands of such stories that could be told daily. This is the natural cohesion of workers when they are not stampeded by clever and cunning people. They don’t profess to be good — just ordinary. Girls and boys enjoy ganging-up and so do men and women. And in Coventry the gang system has been forced upon employers who, at first reluctant, now concede it. But each new generation of clever young managers has to relearn the same old lessons. They start off determined to “put the men in their place” and end by accepting the gang system — even boasting about it as though it were their own creation.

Gangs are self-recruiting, nearly all new members being “recommended’ to a trade union for the formalities. ‘Green’ labour (i.e. people with no special skill) is put on simple repetitive jobs and when the stage of boredom is reached are moved to increasingly complex operations. In effect the man or woman serves an apprenticeship of sorts while earning full pay as a gang member. No distinction is made between them as people. They are all paid the same regardless of skill. The clever man will do the clever job — because he can, and because he likes it. The not-so-clever (or even stupid) man will do the job that is within his powers, It has been proved long ago, that distinctions cause much more trouble than they are worth. Both management and men are agreed on this. Such agreement is tacit. These things I describe are not even mentioned — they have become social custom, commonplaces. Melman in his work continually refers to the excellence of the gang system but the fundamentals of it, the human sense of it seems to be beyond him.

The whole method has evolved directly from the work, from the human and technical need for co-operation. The tough men who have given their whole lives to it have seized on every significant thing or event and turned it to their purpose, our purpose. Bit by bit a new form of industrial society is being built. However bad it may still be, it is far better than most autocratic systems and it teaches people better ways by practice and not by exhortation. When the gang system has worked out and stabilised a new step forward, then the local trade union officials come in and register the facts in an official agreement with the firm, One such man (known to me personally as a very clever negotiator) stepped in and formalised the entire scheme at the Standard works. It was a major achievement, and would have been, at the highest professional level. This man was self-taught, in workshop and trade union. There are some trade union leaders who try to claim credit for themselves for all that is done — they don’t deceive us but the newspapers lap it up. They think and write of trade unions as the leaders, whereas in reality the achievements are those of the members and their ideas.

Technically the gang system is a method of payment for piecework  — a form of collective contract. In practice it follows the natural tendency of men to group up around the job. Gangs can be of any size from three to three thousand — the latter being the approximate size of the Ferguson tractor team. Half-a-million tractors were turned out in ten years with practically no supervision — one gang for the entire works and yet there was still the piecework urge — still the initiative from below, in addition to the technical progress from above. This is the essential difference between the Midlands attitude to the job and the uniform and fixed wage system elsewhere, especially in the south of England. In the Midlands the men have the initiative and are the driving force — the rest of the staff have to keep pace, to provide for and assist the production team. Everything is done to make the job easier, every hint and suggestion from whatever source is heeded and used if possible — especially if it takes the strain from the job.

Thus men’s energies are conserved for other things than work. But it is still work! Automation is a misnomer — there is just continuous production, some automatic, some semi-automatic, and much of it by hand. Greed is abolished because any increase in wages or betterment of conditions is due, and is known to be due, to the men’s own effort and creative ideas. The result of continuous struggle and creative effort is seen in the finished product and enjoyed via the pay packet. People of lethargic temperament may loathe and dread the very idea of all this, but the workers concerned “don’t die on the job”. Neither do they worry or conjure up images of destruction. They are vigorous and healthy and are busy home-making and rearing families.

In other factories small gangs may be grouped around a machine that is being built, or an aeroplane component. In a car factory it will be a production line, or a group of machines, When the product is very complex and costly and is produced in small numbers the gangs will be very clever in adapting their skills to a variety of jobs. Individual skill of a very high order will be applied to a prototype and to the first few production ‘jobs’. The individual will be guaranteed his money by the gang while he undertakes exploratory work — others will follow him, each taking a portion of the work and becoming specialists in it, while others will improvise special tools and gadgets to make it into a “production job”. The variety of work and gangs is infinite.

The gang system sets men’s minds free from many worries and enables them to concentrate completely on the job. It provides a natural frame of security, it gives confidence, shares money equally, uses all degrees of skill without distinction and enables jobs to be allocated to the man or woman best suited to them, the allocation frequently being made by the workers themselves. Change of job to avoid monotony is an easy matter. The “gaffer” is abolished and foremen are now technicians called in to advise, or to act in a breakdown or other emergency. In some firms a ganger will run, not the men, but the job. He will be paid out of gang earnings, and will work himself on a small gang. On a larger gang he will be fully occupied with organisation and supply of parts and materials. A larger gang may have a deputy ganger as a second string and also a gang-steward who, being a keen trade unionist or workers’ man, will act as a corrective should the gangers try to favour management unduly or interfere with the individual in undesirable ways. Gang meetings are called, as necessary, by the latter and all members of the gang are kept informed and may (and do) criticise everything and everybody. All three are subject to recall. Constructive ideas on the other hand are usually the result of one or two people thinking out and trying out new things — this is taking place continuously — to the general advantage of the whole gang.

The fact of taking responsibility in any of these capacities is educative in every sense, and I have often been amused to see someone who is a notorious “gaffer’s man” being persuaded into taking the gang steward position which will bring him into contact with other stewards whose ideas he will unconsciously absorb. He will attend meetings with management representatives at all levels and usually completely changes his ideas. Experienced stewards, with grim humour call this “educating the so-and-so’s!” Some stewards have been known to use variants of this method in educating management representatives.

Similarly in car factories. A gang of 100 or more will have a charge-hand paid by the management. He will stand out from the gang, only working in the event of difficulty arising — any hold-up or breakdown. The gang-steward will stand out with him and settle with him all points of difference on the gang’s behalf. He also will work as necessary. Sometimes they are idle (educating each other!) and at other times they will work like fiends, to keep the flow of work going.

Gang stewards form a reservoir from which senior stewards are recruited. There are thousands of such men and they are quite often engineering experts, usually holding their own with any rate-fixer, cost expert or other managerial type. Occasionally fools are appointed — the blustering wordy windbag — the ‘rebel’ who just fights — and the exponent of an ideology. Some ideologists are first-rate stewards but do not realise that their actions may be the reverse of their ideological aims.

There are many local variants of the scheme — some good, some indifferent. As in any other aspect of life, much depends on the quality of the people concerned, and on their experience. Ideas (that is, theories or ideological or political standpoints) do not enter into any of it — a person can think what he likes, say what he likes, except that he does not do anything against the gang or the trade union He is expected to be a trade union member — even if only as an outward and visible sign of toughness. In terms of the old working-class motto, “he is either with us or against us”. There is no half-way. Incentives are three: to get as high a rate of pay as possible (depending on out-put), having achieved a certain stability in that, there is a general urge to speed up production gradually so that hours of work can be reduced. The final aim (a continuously successful process) is to make the job itself, and the surroundings, as good as possible.

All these urges are everyone’s concern. In such a production set-up it is natural that people in full health and vigour are needed, and sickly people are strongly advised not to take a job there. In a temporary indisposition it is usual for the person to be given some help, or if that is not possible; a transfer to a light job that is not urgent. Most of this has been forced upon employers. but one must give credit to those managers who have genuinely tried to help the urge to better conditions. On the other hand one frequently finds amongst managers a tendency to “swing to the right”. This may be the result of a new director or manager coming in from the outside, usually from firms with American ideas; occasionally he will have a strong political (Conservative) urge. Sooner or later he shows his hand — forthright and dictatorial. From that moment the “worker decision-making” apparatus works against him. His “education” commences. Once I finalised the process by warning the particular manager “You must always remember that a thousand men will wear you out quicker than you can wear them out”. It worked. The moment something actually happens or is pending, there is a ferment right through the plant and the decision-making is carried out at shop-floor level, even to the point, if necessary, of contradicting or disowning the stewards’ proposals.

It is difficult to convey in writing a whole way of industrial life, a subtle, yet obvious, development of capitalism, a different and better way of running large-scale industry. It is better — a vast improvement — a continuance of an age-old method in a modern setting. It has all those elements that could develop into a successor to capitalism. I can imagine some clever people dismissing all this as nonsense, mere sentimental drivel, etc., and going on to prove that it is only a temporary thing that could be wiped out when required, by a powerful managerial capitalist class, etc., or that when “the slump” comes and the workers are thrown out on the streets, etc. (all of which is outmoded thought). My answer is that if “disaster” comes to capitalism, we have at least done some preliminary rehearsing for the new play we may be called upon to produce. If capitalism goes on for a long time without disaster, we shall have tried to make life as good as we can for as many people as we can. If there is some day a general desire to push capitalism over, we shall do our share. I think we are quite as clever as the “intellectuals”, only we have applied ourselves to the daily task instead of to theoretical disputation. As engineers we have changed the world, as social engineers we have improved our part of it as much as we can. We feel that we are reasonably well-equipped to go very much further, and if we do we shall need the co-operation of all those technicians and organisers who are at present on “the other side”, and we know that some of them are already with us.

First published in ANARCHY Number 2, April 1961