The end of bunce

Just after Christmas, Chris Dillow wrote a piece on the Debuncification of the economy – ‘bunce’ being the term applied to unofficial perks of a job. He quotes from Danny Baker:

Getting things ‘out of the docks’ was considered a perk of the job. At one time, any working person who considered a new job would have to factor in what their bunce quotient might be. Bunce can be simple office stationery, or a good supply of cream horns if you work in a bakery. Or, as in the case of my brother’s mate Billy who landed a job at the Ford plant in Dagenham, you could see everyone in south-east London all right for tyres and driver’s side mats throughout the 1970s.Bunce, and the distribution thereof, lay at the very heart of the working-class community. (Going to Sea in a Sieve, p27)

Not any more, says Chris. Bunce has been all but eliminated:

But this, I sense, is no longer so. This is not because we have been overcome by a fit of morality, but because of (among other things), technical change and more rigorous management. Containerization has frustrated dockers’ and lorry-drivers’ freedom to redirect goods; CCTV has made shoplifting and pilfering riskier; electronic tills have reduced shop assistants’ flexibility in ringing prices; and management now take a more sceptical view of expenses claims than they did a generation ago.

Debuncification might have contributed to the low growth in (measured) wages of less skilled workers. Technical changes have allowed managers greater direct oversight of workers which in turn has reduced the need to pay them efficiency wages in order to try and keep them honest.

But, while the decline of bunce may have economic effects, there has been social impact too. In general, bunce tended to be a feature of larger organisations where direct supervision was impractical. Smaller and owner-managed businesses controlled workers’ access to such ‘informal’ benefits more tightly. Therefore, working for a big organisation, whether public or private, gave more opportunities for bunce.

Beyond the tangible stuff, there was also a form of ‘hereditary bunce’. If you worked for a large organisation, it was often taken as read that members of your family would get jobs there too. Being able to ‘put in a word at the works’ gave a man as much kudos as being able to get tyres and driver’s side mats. If not more.

This was part of an informal system of social control. I think it was Owen Jones (though I can’t find the reference) who remarked that all the hereditary rights working class people once held have gone. He was talking about ‘inherited’ rights to jobs and housing.

As Michael Collins said, to get a council house in some areas, you had to have a steady job. Once you had a council house, your relatives would then get priority. It all reinforced the idea of the ‘respectable working class’. And once you were part of that, your rights to housing became, albeit unofficially, inherited. Something similar happened with jobs. Recruitment from families gave those who worked for the big organisations a degree of patronage and a certain status.

In the organisation where I started my first HR job, at the fag-end of the eighties, whole families were employed. Fathers and sons as engineers or on the labouring gangs, mothers and daughters in billing or dispatch. One of the unwritten perks of working for the company was being able to get friends and family in too.

I witnessed the death throes of hereditary bunce at first hand. The company I worked for decided to recruit apprentices again after the scheme had been suspended for almost a decade. A new sophisticated recruitment and selection process had been designed. As my first big project, I was given the job of co-ordinating it all. The prospective apprentices had to undergo a batch of written and practical skills tests to determine whether or not they had the aptitude to become engineers. Many young people applied but few made it through.

As the process went on, I began to get calls which went something like this:

“I’ve just had a letter saying my boy hasn’t been selected for an apprenticeship. There must be some mistake.”

[After checking his name] “No, I’m afraid that’s right. He didn’t score highly enough on the tests.”

“Nah, son, you don’t understand. I’m Joe Smith, I’m an engineer based at the North London depot. I’ve worked here for 30 years.”

“I’m sorry but we can’t make any exceptions. There is a minimum threshold which they have to pass. We’ve had thousands of applicants and it’s very competitive.”

“Yeah, but not for people who already work here.’

“But your son doesn’t already work here.”

“But all our family work here. Have done for years.”

I’ve summarised the exchange. They were usually much longer than this. Round and round the conversations went; the sound of two sets of assumptions grinding against each other.

“They need to understand that the world has changed,” said one of my managers. Indeed so but the bewilderment of some of the people I’d spoken to ran deeper than just being a bit disappointed for their sons.

Yes, they were worried about their sons’ careers but we were also taking away what people had assumed to be a de facto hereditary right. It would be a bit like telling a duke that his son would have to pass an assessment before inheriting the title. An outrageous suggestion! Working for ‘the company’ had conferred a certain amount of status and power of patronage on people. It didn’t matter how senior they were; just being a part of it was good enough. Now all that was going. Just as the supply of tyres and driving mats was drying up, the hereditary bunce was disappearing too.

I’m not getting nostalgic for all this. Anything that favours some people automatically excludes others. Inevitably, by the late 1980s, firms that recruited from families were attracting the attention of the Commission for Racial Equality. Hereditary job rights were eroded not only by arguments about meritocracy and efficiency but also by equal opportunities legislation.

All the same, they did serve a purpose. Bunce, in all its forms, gave workers a feeling of control and identification with the organisation. It contributed to sense of what we would now call engagement and ‘buy in’. It might not have been ideal for maximising a firm’s profit and efficiency but it did reinforce a social structure and, in doing so, contribute to stable communities. Perhaps that’s why those in authority allowed it to go on for as long as it did.

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5 Responses to The end of bunce

  1. Pingback: The end of bunce - Rick - Member Blogs - HR Blogs - HR Space from Personnel Today and Xpert HR

  2. Robert Wright says:

    I can’t quite pin down exactly what you attitude to bunce is Rick. I get the impression that you sort of think petty larceny is a good thing as big companies can afford it and it keeps employees engaged. Am I right?

  3. The reason why “those in authority” allowed it to go on as long as it did was because they were unable to do anything about it until labour was humbled in the 80s. Hereditary jobs and shrinkage were different aspects of the historic counter-movement against unfettered capitalism. The “bunce” of dockers was an extreme manifestation in an industry where casualisation and low wages were the norm until the Dock Labour Scheme in 1947.

    Your point about equal opportunity legislation is suggestive. It is a commonplace to assume that the growth of meritocratic selection and assessment is a sign of our growing tolerance as a society and business’s colour-blind interest in efficiency, but an alternative reading is that meritocracy is antithetical to solidarity and has therefore been advanced (in part) as a way of undermining organised labour.

  4. Robert Wright says:

    Only a fool would believe meritocracy was mutually incompatible with solidarity

  5. rogerh says:

    Something important here I think. Perhaps a big cause of trouble was making everything so structured and formal – testing apprentices with probably useless exams. Once you start writing ‘processes and procedures’ all manner of ‘best practice’ gets bolted on when what the employer wants is a handful of folk who will be useful in a year or two. Add in the uselessness of the education system and small wonder young working class males have a hard time ‘getting in’.

    Then there is the psychological benefit. Work provides young people with alternative parental models that add to or substitute for home parents. Opens their eyes to a wider horizon.

    The working class is squeezed below by globalisation and above by a middle class desperate to look busy. A suggestion, cut HR and all their flim-flam out of apprentice recruitment and leave the job to lower end managers. The old scheme had its problems but fewer than the present mess. As for pretty larceny – what are a few tyres compared with the pension and bonus fiddles.

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