Joint Production Committees: protecting workers as technology transforms the workplace
Here, men are hard at hot, dangerous work stoking furnaces at a steel plant in Rotherham.
Later, the workers make way for machines that load the furnaces for them, watched over by suited and booted operators from a state-of-the-art control panel.
Productivity was the buzz word in post-war Britain – everything could be made quicker, easier and better with the help of machinery. And understandably, while trade unions embraced technological advances, they were also concerned about machines replacing people. As GDH Cole wrote, “In trade union nostrils, the word ‘productivity’ smelt of ‘speeding up’ and breaking down cherished craft customs: it suggested scientific management, efficiency experts and industrial consultant firms…”
Joint Production Committees had been introduced during the Second World War as a way for workers to advise management on improving productivity. By 1943 there were around 4000 committees. After the war TUC agreed to retain these committees, later establishing the TUC Production Committee and Department. Its purpose was to help employers ensure that while productivity went up, workers’ wages and rights didn’t diminish. They championed redeployment and retraining. So with any luck, those men stoking the furnaces in the first picture could have become the smartly dressed operatives in the second.