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Research Domain: Group Five - Informal Learning in Different Workplaces

Title of Project: The Storage and Transmission of Men's Informal Skills in Working-Class Communities

Start Date: April 1, 1997
Academic Investigator: Dr. Dorothy Smith (OISE/UT)
Student Researchers: Stephen Dobson (UT), Michelle Webber (OISE/UT)

"Downsizing," "restructuring," and so on refer to the contemporary reorganisation of capital enterprise that makes its central objective the reduction of labour costs. New technologies and, in particular, the increased penetration of corporate organization by the computer and engineered computer software, radically reduces the role of labour in large-scale manufacturing. Such changes are not only oriented to the reducing the cost of labour to the corporation. They are also part of a continuing project which is to subject the work place to an increasingly pervasive managerial control that integrates work processes more and more intimately into the managerial and financial accounting systems. An aspect of that increased control which is of special interest here is the development of skills training technologies and managerial and corporate strategies (through such agencies as the Conference Board of Canada) aimed at breaking workers monopoly of nonformal skills training vested in workplace hierarchies and in the stable working class communities sustaining an industry. This study is concerned with a process that can properly be described as an aspect of class struggle in which capital in new managerial forms has been constantly and restlessly in search of more effective means of expropriating workers', skills and workers' control over their reproduction and availability, and replacing them with a management controlled production of skills, both directly in the workplace and through the state.

The major focus of the present term research interest is to discover how the relations reproducing nonformal skills in community and workplace were put together, the nature of the skills resource created by workers in both settings, and hence what has been lost with the dismantling of the great communities associated with the downsizing and restructuring of major manufacturing centres.

The study planned looks toward the past to learn about the ways in which the nonformal manual skills of men who worked in the steel industry in Hamilton were passed on from generation to generation among peers. These non-specific skills involving the use of tools, familiarity with the workings of a car engine, familiarity with plumbing, carpentry, and so on were not only an important resource for the community, they were a resource for industry. The acquisition of skills on the shopfloor through experience and learning from senior and more experience workers, built, the study suggests, on the groundwork that was created and reproduced in the community nonformally. The study is also concerned with the intersections of community relationships among men in the community and the kinds of hierarchies of skills in the plant. Some historical studies (or studies that have become historical such (as Michael Buraway's and Wallace Clement's) describe the relationships among skilled and experience workers and those who wanted to learn from them or had been assigned by the foreman to them to train. Some studies suggest that pre-existing relationships in the community were significant in an experienced worker's decision to take on a particular younger man to train (see Joy Parr). It might be expected also that the prestige of skilled workers in the plant was a source of status in the community. And where did the union local come in in relation to the ways in which such nonformal skills were being recognized and transmitted. This study is also interested in the ways in which informal knowledge based on experience in the workplace was circulated through the ordinary ways in which people talk in bars, in the union hall, and so on.

The study will examine the period twenty to twenty-five years before the effects of downsizing had bitten deep into the local community. The study will be comprised of oral history interviews with 10-15 male subjects with recollection of the community as it was before the first major period of downsizing in the mid-to-late nineteen-seventies and who had grown up in Hamilton and worked at Stelco as young men. Steelworkers Local 1005 has aided in locating initial interviewees. The remainder will be located using the "snowball" method.

The focus will be on how and from whom the subjects learned manual skills in the community (family, friends) and how and from whom they learned workplace skills when they entered the plant.


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