“Bedaux” and the Workers

Charles E. Bedaux is the inventor of the high-pressure system which bears his name. For many years the system has been well known among workers, who mistrust and detest it. Recently, Mr. Bedaux was to have “managed” a tour by the Duke and Duchess of Windsor to U.S.A. On November 3rd, the Baltimore branch of the American Federation of Labour passed a resolution strongly condemning the tour, and this was followed by other resolutions. In 1916 a company, was formed to exploit the Bedaux system, with headquarters in New York and branches throughout the world. The company pays a highly respectable dividend. Bedaux, who began life as a semi-skilled worker, now employs a large income in extravagant and expensive tastes.


According to the official account, the “ Bedaux” principle is a means of measuring human power in terms of a common unit. This unit is christened “B,” and equals so many seconds of work and so many seconds of rest, always totaling one minute. The “rest” is by no means actual but only that natural relaxation of effort which, as part of a process, allows work to proceed. The completion of a certain job requires so much “work and rest,” i.e., a certain number of B’s. Sixty B’s per hour is regarded as normal, and Bedaux engineers calculate from observations of factory conditions how much work and rest on an average would make up one B in order that there may be sixty B’s per hour.


The method by which the investigators manage their computation is, however, a closely guarded secret. The Trades Union Congress, in their inquiry, remark:—


   As regards the assessment of the B.’s. it must be said that in the opinion of experts in industrial psychology the task undertaken by the Bedaux engineers is an impossible one. There is no known method of calculating the unit of work (in this sense) scientifically. It is not a question of merely measuring physical effort. It is rather a problem of measuring physical and mental effort undertaken in complex and varying circumstances. It is impossible to evaluate such a unit scientifically, and the Bedaux claim in this respect must be dismissed as unsound.”—(“Bedaux,” Trades Union Congress, page 11.)


One thing is certain, that such a unit will be chosen as will in practice reduce running costs, and substantiate Bedaux’s claims to the capitalist. The “ expert “engineers” are sometimes unaware of the specific factory conditions, and the times set are difficult or unworkable; with the result that workers complain or resist. When their opposition is successful, a lower “B” unit is set up after “investigation.” The high-flown claims of the system to scientific accuracy become, therefore, nothing more than mere trial and error carried out at the expense of the workers; the usual factory practice of finding out just how much the workers will stand. Moreover, since the Bedaux engineers are highly paid, the management is anxious to hurry the job, which increases the inaccuracy. In recent years the engineers have also advised on factory management, etc., with a view to higher efficiency and speeding-up.


Wages are based on a basic hourly rate. The Bedaux system is said to guarantee to workers this rate based on sixty B’s per hour. But it is obvious that once a “norm” has been established, any workers who fall below that productive level are not retained. Those who do more than sixty B’s per hour receive a bonus, but only seventy-five per cent, of the normal rate. The remaining twenty-five per cent, is paid to indirect labour— partly foremen and overseers, who thus have a direct incentive to speeding-up.


It is plain that, when applied in the workshop, the system becomes deeply intricate. Usually (unless as sometimes occurs, a worker is trained specially to check up the pay sheets) the staff are dependent on the employer’s good faith. This is the worker’s first and most natural resentment— that the, system is unintelligible. The boss may be “doing” him. A deeper grievance is in the nature of the intensive speeding-up, required by the maintenance of a normal rate. Not only does this increase the strain, mental and physical, endured by the worker, so that only the youngest and fittest survive, but also sets up a sense of conflict between workers themselves.


On November 6th the Daily Express reported a visit to an East End factory. One of the workers, aged twenty, said to their correspondent: “The Bedaux system is all right in some ways. But we were more contented before. Now we are always arguing with one another over little things. We work so quickly that small things upset us.”


Another worker in the same factory said: ”. . . I would sooner work as we did before. It seems to make the time go quickly, but we are not all friends any more. We were always laughing and singing and happy-go-lucky. Now we have time for nothing—but cross words.” This rosy view of the past is perhaps exaggerated; but both workers reveal what Bedaux means to the workers in nervous weariness and strain.


Workers become more than ever before cogs in a machine. There is no room here for a worker taking pride in his work. He will probably be discharged as too slow, and increase the number of those whom reorganisation has already thrown out of work. Bedaux claims that employment is increased by its introduction. This may apply to a particular worker, or even factory, but it is patently untrue over industry as a whole. This, of course, applies equally to every other. “efficiency” system.


A number of cases are quoted in the T.U.C. pamphlet referred to above, in which trades unions opposed the introduction to Bedaux, and in many cases concessions were obtained. The pamphlet adds, however: “It is not suggested that in those cases where the system thus modified has been accepted that there is any enthusiasm or even approval for this method of wage payment.”


The reaction of the trades unions in U.S.A. to a tour organised by Charles E. Bedaux is therefore understandable. In England, where the system has sold less well, there have been strikes against its introduction at Norwich, Wolverhampton, Acton, Leicester, Silvertown, Birmingham, and elsewhere.


Essentially the Bedaux system, apart from certain special features, is a piece-work system, concealed behind a complicated theoretical structure. Its attractiveness to certain capitalists is in the results achieved. Productivity per worker, according to the Bedaux Co., Ltd., has risen in many cases from fifty to-seventy-five per cent., and sometimes to over 100 per cent. Workers’ earnings, however, lag behind with an increase of ten to twenty per cent. (New Statesman and Nation, November 13th, 1937). The system is plainly one in which high organisation plays the part of additional labour-saving machinery, exploiting the worker more fully than would otherwise be possible. In the meantime, British Bedaux, Ltd., with a capital of £300,000, makes profits averaging nearly £50,000 a year. First and foremost, Messrs. Bedaux, Ltd., is a business house engaged in making profits for the shareholders.


By holding out to workers the inducement of higher-wages it saps their health and energies in an orgy of production. Labour laws and agreements, notwithstanding, the capitalist has succeeded, by methods more subtle than ever before, in extracting the last ounce from the worker before he is scrapped, no longer able to keep up the pace.


C. Kilner