Background of the Labour Process Conference

Over the past 25 years, the International Labour Process Conference has earned its reputation as a cornerstone of insightful empirical research and cutting edge theoretical debate within the labour process and work organization tradition. Indeed it is hard to imagine contemporary radical research which is not influenced by labour process insights. 

Every year, the conference brings together academics and policy makers from the sociology of work and employment, business and management studies, human resource management, industrial relations, organizational analysis and a range of other disciplines to discuss and critically assess developments in work organization, present their research and stimulate debate, collaboration and publication. 

With so many new faces joining us this year, we thought it would be appropriate to give a bit of background to the conference.

The conference started in the UK, and the first conference was at UMIST (now part of the University of Manchester) in 1983, when 129 participants heard 16 papers, in 2 streams and 2 plenary sessions. It took place 9 years after Braverman’s Labor and Monopoly Capital (LMC) appeared, and was organised in Business and Management Schools, which would have been a surprise to Braverman, given the trenchant critique of American management science in the book. The ILPC adopted a more sociological and industrial relations focus, as opposed to early responses to LMC which had been dominated by economists. The business school context reflected peculiarities of the social science labour market in the UK, as sociologists moved into management and business schools as this area expanded throughout the 1980s and 1990s.  In fact much critical research on work and employment relations, building on labour process theory, has taken place in management schools in the UK and to a lesser extent, some other European countries.

The 16 papers presented in 1983 grew to 52 in 1988, peaking at 71 the following year, before declining to 51 in 1992, and then growing again in the mid-1990s – 80 in 1994 and 1995; 88 in 1997 and 2000, before falling back again to 70 in 2001 and then growing again to 100 plus in 2004. By Dublin in 2008, it had reached a then record of 169 and that growth has been sustained. In the last five conferences (2010-14) the number of papers has been between 178-227, with an average number of delegates of 242. This growth not only reflects the continued vitality of critical social science and work and employment research, but a more systematic approach to the organisation of the event itself. The formation of a Steering Group in the mid-2000s ensured greater expertise and continuity, whilst a website based at Strathclyde has become both a focal point and means of handling submissions, reviewing and registration. New innovations have also become established, notably a PhD workshop at the start of the conference, symposia, and a variety of special streams each year (now averaging around half of presentations)

Healthier attendances also reflect increased internationalisation. In terms of location, initially the conference moved between the universities of Aston (in Birmingham) and UMIST (in Manchester), and for the first 10 years had the snappy title of “Organisation and Control of the Labour Process Annual UMIST/Aston (or Aston/UMIST) Conference”. From 1992 this was shortened to the Labour Process Conference and in 1993 to the International Labour Process Conference when the venue moved away from Manchester and Birmingham, to other cities in the UK -, Blackpool, Edinburgh, Bristol, London and Glasgow – reflecting mobility of the principal organisers – Hugh Willmott, David Knights, Paul Thompson and Chris Smith. Despite the ‘international’ in the title of the conference, venues remained within the UK. It was not until 2004 at the 22nd conference that the venue finally moved outside the UK to Amsterdam. The city was the venue again to celebrate 25 years of the conference in 2007.  That was followed by Dublin, two events at Rutgers in the USA, Stockholm and this year, Athens (not forgetting Edinburgh, Leeds and London in between). The preferred model now is to rotate between the UK, rest of Europe and North America – though it doesn’t always work like that!

The composition of the delegates reflects these changes. At the beginning all participants were from UK universities, making the content of the conference a very British affair. However by the 7th conference held again in Manchester in 1989, nearly 50% of the papers were by non-British presenters. Over the years the proportion of papers in UK/European conferences given by non-UK delegates has risen to around 40% and hit 51% at Kings in 2014.

Not only has the conference grown, it has grown-up. ILPC has moved a long way from its initial focus on Braverman and post-Braverman debates, with some key turns and twists along the way.  During the 1990s set-pieces at the conference often consisted of debates between ‘orthodox’ labour process theorists and post-structuralists. Whilst a certain amount of blood-letting is always entertaining, these ‘debates’ were ultimately self-defeating given ontological and epistemological differences. This phase ended when the post-structuralists departed for distant shores, otherwise known as Critical Management Studies. Since then, the conference has become a focal point for those still interested in researching work and the employment relationship from a critical and (mostly) materialist perspective. We don’t interpret labour process in any doctrinal or territorial sense. The conference brings together scholars from the sociology of work, industrial and employment relations, organisation and management studies, feminism and political economy. This broader basis for ILPC is reflected in the new stream topics and related books, including volumes on creative labour, retail work, body/sex work and this year, global production networks and value chains.

Now in a remarkable 33rd year, its resilience indicates a continuing and growing audience, adding to the strong community of researchers who have been associated with the conference for many years. 

 

Chris Smith and Paul Thompson