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Manitoba History: Review: Wallace Clement, Hardrock Mining: Industrial Relations and Technological Changes at INCO

by Paul Phillips
University of Manitoba

Manitoba History, Number 5, Spring 1983

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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Less than a decade ago, labour studies in Canada were dominated by organizational histories and socio-political investigations of formal labour institutions, particularly trade unions. There is, of course, nothing inherently wrong with such work. Indeed, much of it published in the sixties and early seventies remains central to our understanding of the evolution and operations of contemporary labour institutions. Nevertheless, there was a wide gap in research in the field in relation to, not the workers’ organizations, but the individual worker, both in the context of daily life and, most important, in the workplace.

Working for INCO, Thompson, Manitoba, circa 1958
Source: Archives of Manitoba

Social historians were perhaps the first to recognize the gap, particularly with respect to aspects of working-class culture. Recent work by Greg Kealey, Brian Palmer, Terry Copp and Michael Katz among others, indicates that study in this area is no longer in its infancy. On the other hand, far less advanced is enquiry into the nature of the workplace, the character of work and the relationships between worker and management at the point of production. Yet without an understanding of this vital point of interaction, a point where the average individual spends up to half his or her waking hours, it is difficult to believe that, as historians or social scientists, we have any real grasp of the forces that motivate, shape, and influence the worker and thus, indirectly, working-class culture and formal labour organization.

Relations at the point of production—or more generally the labour or work process-attracted only passing interest until the mid-seventies, when the theoretical work of Braverman and Stone’s historical work stimulated interest in the subject, thus spawning significant new research. Little is yet published, and nothing as ambitious or of such scope and depth as Wallace Clement’s Hardrock Mining.

Clement sets out as his task a twofold investigation: first “a portrayal of what it is like to work in the mining industry”; and second, “an analysis, explanation and understanding of class transformations in Canada since the Second World War” using INCO as a case study (p. 9). The meeting point between these two is in the experience of the worker at the point of production where the worker is, to a greater or lesser extent, under the control of management—a control that is derived from the directive power of capital to organize work under the capitalist mode of production.

This is not to say that labour accepts such control willingly. Indeed, Clement also attempts to investigate the response of workers through their unions to mitigate the effects of that control and the contrary strategies employed by capital to extend its effective control in the interest of increased profitability. The battleground in this ongoing struggle is the collective bargaining process, but, Clement argues, the forces arrayed by the two sides are inherently unbalanced. Management has both a major weapons advantage—its control over technology—and an equally potent strategic advantage—its unilaterial right to determine when and where production will take place—subject only to the vagaries of an unstable market and minimal levels of government regulation.

The first chapters of Hardrock Mining establish the historical, economic and institutional contexts of the Canadian mining industry in general and INCO in particular. The following third of the book is a comprehensive description of mining technique and the nature and organization of work in the various underground and surface operations of the nickel giant. This section has problems. I have done some research and writing on the mining industry as well as touring one of INCO’s underground operations and the smelter and refinery of another large metal producer. I would expect, therefore, to have perhaps a greater familiarity with the industry than the average reader. Yet I found the profusion of specialist mining terminology, as well as the frequent and unfortunate practice of describing or illustrating mining terms and equipment sometimes many pages after they were introduced into the description of the workplace, to be confusing and irritating. Similarly frustrating is the need to spend much time flipping pages back and forth and rereading sections in order to comprehend the central point of the description, the organization of production, and the impact of various technologies. All of these problems would have been eliminated through the discipline of a good editor.

Nevertheless, Clement does establish his main point: that INCO has adopted a succession of technologies aimed at increasing its control over production and destroying the “traditional ways of organizing production with which miners and many surface workers have controlled the direction and pace of their work.” (p. 218).

Clement looks specifically at what is emerging as perhaps the most contentious issue between labour and capital that arises out of the choice of technology, health and safety. His argument is straightforward. Safety, health, and pollution abatement cost money. The company and industry, therefore, are reluctant to spend money on these problems beyond what is required by (minimal) laws or by the collective agreement with the union. Health and Safety, therefore, ends up as a bargaining issue—an issue which the employer can use to trade off against other monetary issues. The bonus system encourages workers to circumvent those safety rules and devices which serve to lessen the technical efficiency of capital.

The discussion of health and safety is just a prelude to the more general discussion of managerial strategies to “keep labour in its place,” in particular the continuing introduction of mechanization, automation and skill-destroying technology.

The ‘craft’ quality of production disappears, and the worker becomes a readily replaceable item. His replacement requires little more skill than a labourer; he becomes a machine tender or a machine monitor (p. 298).

INCO’s workers have not accepted these developments passively. Quite apart from individual responses expressed in very high rates of turnover and absenteeism, the union has played an important defensive role. But Clement recognizes the inherent weakness in the union response. It is defensive. Within “the rules and procedures of capitalism” labour must accommodate to capital if it is to be considered legitimate in the eyes of the state. But accommodation means acceptance of the control of the labour process (and with it control of wages and employment, health and safety, working conditions, job security and the pace of work) by management in the interests of capital.

Clement attempts to summarize his work and bring together his two themes—of the nature of work at the point of production and its dependence on class formations—in a final chapter called “A Political Economy of Mining.” It is not particularly successful, in part because of his introduction of new material on both research and international technology transfer and state aid—material that would more logically have been included in the early chapters on the contexts of the industry and the company.

This is symptomatic of the major weakness of Hardrock Mining. The research is ambitious, the argument consistent and to the point though perhaps less comprehensive than the author implies when he sets out his tasks. But the material needs further digestion, reorganization and, above all, talented editing not only to get the constituent parts in the appropriate and logical order, but also to try to impart some flow and transition to the material. It might then be a very good book rather than just an interesting and, at times, a provocative one.

Page revised: 27 October 2012

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