by Dr Daniel Nicholson
‘There is no such thing as unskilled work’ has become a popular phrase among leftists and worker activists in Australia. You can find essays notionally written in defence of low paid workers, even stickers and posters triumphantly declaring that unskilled work does not exist.
To a labour economist, paid labour will fit into one of four skill categories: professional, skilled, semi-skilled and unskilled work. Beyond being dry, economistic categories, these are used by some economists to justify the low pay of workers in sectors like retail and care. In the wake of Covid-19 lockdowns, when political and business leaders were forced to acknowledge that the workers who kept food on our shelves and risked their lives to care for the elderly are ‘essential workers’, labelling this work ‘unskilled’ or ‘semi-skilled’ seems particularly outrageous.
It is little wonder, then, that trade unionists and worker advocates bristle against these categorisations. But while labelling workers we rely on for the basic functions of society as ‘unskilled’ may grate many, it does not follow that unskilled work does not exist.
Pretending that unskilled work does not exist elides the fact that the right to exercise skill in the workplace is something that generations of workers and trade unionists have struggled for. It masks the reality that the right to deploy our skills in the workplace can make the difference between meaningful work and tedious drudgery. Perhaps most importantly, it ignores the industrial power that workers gain from skilled work, which grants them high levels of autonomy and control over their labour process.
In short, pretending that unskilled work does not exist obscures the struggle for autonomous, skilled work, and ultimately for industrial democracy, and risks leaving workers and their unions unprepared for future attacks on the right to skilled work.
Skilled work and worker autonomy
Previous generations of worker activists recognised that the struggle for meaningful, skilled work was a foundation stone for a broader struggle for industrial democracy. Going back over 170 years, Australian unions struggled against the micro division of work tasks, and for widely recognised, transferable qualifications as they understood these underpinned workers’ bargaining power and created more interesting, meaningful jobs.
At our current conjuncture, after waves of successive and relentless attacks on organising rights, only 12.5 per cent of the Australian workforce is unionised; it is understandable why unions find themselves in a defensive crouch. But a struggle for more autonomous work, where workers are enabled to develop and deploy a wide range of skills in creative and useful ways, can and should form part of a platform for trade union renewal.
In other words, far from being an abstract ideal, the reality of unskilled work is a tangible workplace issue, subject to struggle every single day in Australian workplaces. This struggle is brought into sharp relief at moments of rapid technological work reorganisation.
Take for example the implementation of a new welding robot in a heavy engineering workshop. Whatever happens, the welder is no longer going to be able to perform their previous, manual welding tasks. There is nonetheless still work to do.
In one scenario, a worker may develop a deep understanding of the new equipment, and a high level of skill in its operation. At the start of a shift, she would be required to interpret a Computer Aided Design (CAD) rendered representation of what she is required to fabricate. She will then need to program the robot for the task. Over the course of her shift, while monitoring the robot, any number of over one hundred error codes might appear. She would know how to deal with them—either through reprogramming the robot or by performing maintenance tasks. She will also possess skills in maintenance and retooling on the new equipment.
A second scenario presents a stark alternative. Our worker is not trained in how to program the robot, nor does she understand how to read the instructions contained in the CAD program. Instead, after clocking on each morning, she waits for an engineer to come around and program her machine. She is familiar with only a handful of error codes—the most common ones—and when more complex errors occur, she calls the maintenance team. Retooling and preventative maintenance tasks also require a more skilled maintenance worker.
These two examples present a range of questions for anybody concerned with workers’ rights. Which worker has a more meaningful, interesting job? Which worker has more control and autonomy over their labour process? And which worker would be more difficult for an employer to replace if she were to withdraw her labour?
In short, there is such thing as unskilled work. Pretending there isn’t denies the tedious, monotonous reality of many people’s working lives. Even worse, it elides the fact that skills—and the right to deploy them at work (autonomy)—just like wages and other employment benefits, are rights workers won through hard-fought struggle. Finally, it fails to recognise the industrial strength that stems from workers having control over their labour process.
The struggle for skilled work
Perhaps the most important radical theorist of work organisation and worker skill was Harry Braverman. In his classic text Labour and Monopoly Capital (Braverman, 1974) he introduced a Marxian class analysis to questions of work organisation. In particular, he examined the ‘Scientific Management’ developed and advocated by engineer and management consultant Frederick Taylor, which Braverman considered to be “nothing less than the explicit verbalisation of the capitalist mode of production.”
Taylor promoted the micro division of workplace tasks, which would be performed over and over by workers under intense, direct supervision of managers. Braverman was especially critical of three central principles of Taylor’s managerial system: (1) that managers should attempt to gather all knowledge previously held by workers and codify this knowledge into a set of rules; (2) all possible mental work should be removed from the shopfloor and centralised with management; and (3) both what work is to be done and how should be planned in minute detail by management.
Braverman’s central contribution was to demonstrate that it was “not the ‘best way’ to do work ‘in general’ that Taylor was seeking… but an answer to the specific problem of how best to control alienated labour—that is to say, labour that has been bought and sold.” In other words, contrary to the managerial literature, under capitalism managers must balance the drive for efficiency through empowering workers with the need to maintain control of the workplace by deskilling work.
Since Braverman theorised the drive for managerial control under capitalism, other researchers have examined forms of managerial control beyond the direct control advocated by Taylor. These include: technical control, when managerial control is built into machinery or other workplace technologies; bureaucratic control, accomplished through organisational rules; and most recently, algorithmic control, used to describe labour management practices in the contemporary digital economy.
Whatever the managerial technology, the managerial imperative remains the same: to deny workers skilled work and autonomy to make them cheaper to train, easier to replace, and easier to control.
Trade unions and skilled work in contemporary Australia
Why, then, given the arguments outlined by Braverman, and expanded upon since, would some on the left maintain that there is no such thing as unskilled work? I argue that this reflects a broader misunderstanding of skill and its role in facilitating meaningful work and underpinning collective worker power.
Indeed, some Australian trade unions continue to support—and even advocate—the deskilling of workers they purport to represent. Frequently, this takes the form of signing up for employer-specific or sector-specific training and skillsets. These micro qualifications mean that instead of workers being trained with nationally recognised qualifications, that give workers the skills to move between employers and sectors, they are tied to a single sector or even employer.
Employers in Australia’s rail sector, for example, have recently spearheaded an attack on the skilled work of rail maintenance workers. Rail operators have been lobbying governments and campaigning industrially to establish a set of rail-specific qualifications to replace trades, trades assistants, and other qualifications that are recognised across the country and across sectors. In place of electricians, they want ‘Rail Signalling Technicians’; in place of fitters, they propose ‘Rail Maintenance Workers.’
These qualifications would represent a deskilling of workers in several dangerous ways. First, the qualifications proposed by employers would lead to a more Taylorised labour process. Instead of fitters, boilermakers, electricians and trades assistants with the capacity to perform a wide range of work in rail maintenance, these qualifications would pigeonhole workers to a particular labour process which they would be required to perform over and over.
Second, these qualifications would only be recognised in the rail sector at best, and only by a single employer at worst. By making workers less employable in this way, the capacity of workers to move to other sectors or employers is reduced, and this means their employers can dictate the value of their skills virtually unilaterally.
Third, while existing career pathways in electrical and engineering are recognised in the Australian Qualification Framework and industrial awards, the new qualifications would not be recognised industrially, making their rates of pay detached from any wider industrial instrument or competency framework.
In rail maintenance and manufacturing, three unions share (and sometimes compete for) coverage of the engineering and electrical workforce: the Electrical Trades Union (ETU), the Australian Manufacturing Workers’ Union (AMWU) and the Rail, Tram and Bus Union (RTBU). While the ETU and the AMWU are fighting a rear-guard action to defend electrical and engineering skills and qualifications that are broadly recognised and industrially enforceable through provisions in the manufacturing award, the RTBU has lent their support to the deskilling agenda.
Why would an otherwise hardworking, industrially militant union like the RTBU support the deskilling of workers in this way?
There are two equally dispiriting possibilities. One is that the RTBU hopes that by creating rail-specific qualifications they can reduce AMWU and the ETU influence in the sector, as these unions are generally seen to organise workers with wider skillsets.
The second is that they simply do not understand that deskilling workers forces them to perform less interesting, less challenging work, and reduces their bargaining power. Either way, the medium and long-term consequences will be the same: the fundamental undermining of workers’ industrial strength.
Skill and autonomy are key features of decent jobs as well as a source of industrial strength. Pretending that jobs that deny or reduce workers’ right to exercise their skills do not exist is patronising and elitist. This essay is not an argument for an exclusive form of craft unionism. Nor is it a tacit endorsement of the economists’ and bosses’ assertions that essential work like retail and care work requires no skill. On the contrary, it is an argument for militant unions to prise open new bargaining agendas, beyond simply bargaining for pay and conditions, and fight for the recognition and expansion of worker skills and autonomy. In deepening and expanding workers’ control over their work, and institutionalising recognition of their skills, unions can bolster their struggle for bread-and-butter issues like pay and benefits.
As a movement, we need to move beyond the naïve assertion that there is no such thing as unskilled work. We would not say there is no such thing as underpaid work, or unsafe work. But in the same vein as remuneration and occupational health and safety, skilled work is not something bosses will simply hand to workers. Workers must organise and fight to win the right to skilled, autonomous work that can be the cornerstone of a new push for industrial democracy and workers’ power in Australia.
Braverman, H. (1974) Labor and Monopoly Capital. Monthly Review Press, London.
About the author
National Research Officer at the Australian Manufacturing Workers’ Union, Daniel Nicholson is a graduating PhD candidate at Cardiff University Business School where his thesis examined trade union responses to technological change in aerospace manufacturing.