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But we need to consider what was the causal power of this characteristic. First, and crucially, it was not a one-dimensional resistance to all managerial goals. Hence Lupton (1963) discovered, through ethnographic inquiry, a set of practices that workers called ‘the fiddle’. Some of these certainly entailed resistance, for example bargaining with rate-fixers to achieve favourable piece rate prices. But others were productively neutral while yet others, notably efforts to find ways of doing jobs more quickly, directly contributed to production. More generally, workers were as likely to complain about managerial failures to introduce new technology as they were to express commitment to custom and practice.

Second, restrictivism had many variants. It is usually equated with work group custom and practice that was expressed and sustained by workplace trade union organizations. Such a situation existed in, for example, parts of the car industry. Yet, in other parts of the same industry, union organization was much less solidly entrenched, and the extent of restrictive practices was distinctly limited (Edwards and Scullion, 1982). Lupton’s cases reflect situations where the trade union role in organizing workers’ workplace practices seems to have been even more limited. Finally, there are many situations where any organized restrictivism was virtually absent. Consequences of these different patterns of relations for workplace practice have been outlined (Edwards, 1988). We can, in short, refine the conceptualization of a phenomenon initially labelled as restrictivism.

Third, nor was restrictivism a fixed, unchanging characteristic. During the Second World War, joint production committees emerged in the engineering industry, with the goal of productivity improvement through a shared commitment by management and workers (Croucher, 1982). These committees disappeared after the war. It would seem that it was largely managers rather than workers who wished to return to business as usual, spurred by a fear of having to share control of the workplace. This tendency continued later. The classic IR study of productivity bargaining during the 1960s was Flanders’s (1964) study of the Fawley oil refinery. It underlined the central managerial role of building trust, and the structural impediments to their doing so.

Lawson acknowledges other influences on productivity, such as weaknesses in the education and training system and managerial complacency. Yet he sees these, in conventional terms, as additional to his favoured explanation. A stronger argument, and surely one more in line with CR, is to say that these factors in combination created a certain approach to shop floor relations and that workers’ causal powers had their effects only because of these factors, and indeed even came into existence at all because of them.

Such an explanation helps avoid a key problem in comparative study. If we say that Feature A of Country P leads to Outcome X, how do we deal with the fact that Feature A in Country Q does not lead to X? The answer is that the feature operates only in the context of other factors. Many features of UK labour relations were shared by the USA, including an emphasis on settling issues at the point of production and a strong craft tradition. But these features had different effects because the context was different. As is well-known, the US context of large firms and mass markets encouraged firms to behave in different ways from their UK counterparts (Elbaum and Lazonick, 1986). Indeed, to the extent that the ‘same’ industry was configured differently, they were in important respects not the same at all.

There are various ways in which such a view can be expressed, for example:

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