Why Can’t It Be Like That Now? Remembering What We Had and Could Have Again


‘But why can’t work be like that now?’ my colleague Julia asked when I told her about my research into the former Guinness brewery at Park Road in West London. After working on the project for the best part of a decade and a half, it’s sometimes difficult to sum up quickly. Over that time, I’ve looked at thousands of photographs, scores of staff magazines, and hundreds of documents, and I’ve talked to dozens of workers. But Julia’s question cut straight to the heart of the book. She got the point straight away, unlike some of my academic colleagues, who have been skeptical about the appreciation the brewery workers I spoke with expressed toward Guinness. Perhaps this is because they have not had blue-collar jobs. But I have, and when I worked on the London Underground, I appreciated the conditions that unions and previous generations had won for me, so I recognise what the brewery workers I wrote about valued in their work.

The book describes the conditions that workers had enjoyed at the plant from the end of World War II through to the early 1980s. Along with earning decent wages and good pensions when they were relatively rare features of blue-collar life in the UK, Park Royal workers also had access to a range of sports facilities and cultural activities onsite, subsidised by the company itself. On top of that, Guinness had hired Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, the premier architect of the day, to design the buildings. The grounds were laid out by some of the top contemporary landscape gardeners, who planted hundreds of different tree species and thousands of shrubs. All this not because the company had too, but because they felt it was the right thing to do, because they wanted to.

Some academics view these conditions as manipulative management practices. After one presentation at a university in North America, a visiting German scholar told me that they were ‘merely simple propaganda’, while others have described that these conditions as ‘crude ideological control devices lulling workers away from their revolutionary mission’. Such responses ignore the complexity and nuance of workers’ experiences and perspectives, but they also miss why the story of Guinness matters for us now.

I think a lot about the contrast between what corporate strategy looked like in the years after World War II and now. When I ask students in my sociology of work courses to reflect on their work experiences, their stories sometimes make for grim and even disturbing reading or hearing. Most are in their late teens or early twenties and work predominantly in-service jobs such as retail and, increasingly, coffee shops. They ‘enjoy’ very different working conditions, including internationally known brands limiting them to six-hour contracts to avoid having to pay for statutory breaks mandated by weakened employment law. They describe the abuse from customers frustrated at waiting those extra seconds for their beverage because the company has pared down staffing levels to a minimum. My students also tell me about the training packages they must complete at home rather than getting paid to train in the workplace.

When I talk to them about my Guinness research, I feel a mixture of emotions. I feel guilty that I am showing what their parents — or really grandparents — thought of as ‘good work’. Am I rubbing their noses in their own situations, highlighting unobtainable riches they will never enjoy? But I also believe that it’s important to describe the working conditions of the past so that we can understand where we have been and why we are where we are now. Work now looks very different than it did in the past for many people, but those changes have occurred because of structural shifts which are often deliberate choices made by corporate and political actors. Equally the ‘good jobs’ of the past exemplified by those at Guinness came about because of a set deliberate decisions and actions taken by employers, politicians, trade unions, and grass roots workers.

Reflecting on my own guilt about parading ‘good work’ in front of younger people reminds me of a seminal moment in the process of interviewing soon to be laid off workers at the plant. I will never forget one interview I did with a Guinness worker. At the end of a long session, the interviewee came out with pure gold (after I had turned the microphone off, as was so often the case). Reflecting on his early working life at the brewery in the late 1960s and early 1970s, he said, “Can you imagine what we used to have here?” The interview had drawn up a whole series of memories and reflections on a working life, his benign contract, the sports and social clubs, the vertical integration of the site, and the workplace camaraderie. The tone of disbelief in his voice was vivid, as if he had enjoyed some illicit pleasure and even remembering and admitting enjoying those features of working life was somehow wrong. He seemed to have a profound sense that the conditions of work in the past, and indeed the other forms of corporate investment, were illegitimate extravagances that were bound to end sooner or later. He spoke for many of his peers in voicing an obituary for a lost world of work.

Perhaps what is more striking is just how deeply neoliberal ideology has penetrated our collective consciousness, to the point where it has completely delegitimized a more expansive, progressive, and humane vision for capitalism. In short, contemporary culture and politics seems to have restricted our imaginations so completely that we cannot see alternatives to the current state of affairs.

And this is why I was so gratified when my colleague ‘got’ the point of my book: in studying the past we chart both what we had and what we have lost. But we also ask critical questions as to why, not so long ago, ordinary working-class people could enjoy conditions at work that gave them dignity, confidence, and hope that their lives were getting better, decade by decade, and that the children’s lives would be better still. It poses questions for all of us as workers, as voters, stock holders, and citizens: why is treating workers well seen as a cost on the balance sheet to be controlled rather than the right thing to do?

This piece originally appeared on Working Class Perspectives.

Tim Strangleman, Professor of Sociology at the University of Kent.