Remembering Willy Brown: a great researcher and teacher of labour relations

Willy Brown sadly passed away on Thursday 1st August 2019. I was lucky enough to have gotten to know him over the past seven years. Although he wasn’t my supervisor the kindness and support he offered me, when there was no obligation for him to do so, will be familiar to many.

I first met Willy in 2012, I was interested in how job insecurity impacted on workplace control but I was struggling to get access for my fieldwork. My PhD supervisor, Brendan Burchell, suggested I meet with Willy to ask if he could help via his trade union contacts.

I remember nervously walking up the stairs to the Master’s Office at Darwin College, playing on my mind was an acute awareness of my limited knowledge of industrial relations. My trepidation that he might quiz me on industrial relations scholarship or, even worse, his own work, turned out to be greatly misplaced. When I entered his office, I found a softly spoken man with a warm simile and kindly glint in his eye.

I remember his excitement when I explained that I hoped to undertake qualitative workplace research on trade unions. It was obvious that what mattered to Willy was a passion for researching trade unions, rather than what books someone had or hadn’t read. In fact, in typical humbleness, when I asked which of his own books I should read, he replied not to bother with his own and instead to read John Kelly’s Rethinking Industrial Relations, which he, thought would be more useful.

Through Willy, I was able to get excellent access for my fieldwork. But it was once I’d analysed my data that Willy’s generosity really went beyond all expectations. In an age where many academics try to limit their teaching responsibilities, Willy’s attitude was the opposite and he voluntarily gave up huge amounts of time to help anyone with an interest in unions.

Without Willy’s detailed feedback and encouragement on the drafts for my first three journal articles, the peer review process might have ended my hopes of publishing my research. Willy’s generosity was particularly evident on one occasion where he greatly assisted me in making major revisions to an article, and in return, I suggested that he should be a co-author. He refused straight away saying that it was my work and I should get the full credit. Instead he continued to encourage and support me to publish it on my own.

Willy helped me prepare for my viva and over the years since continued to offer his help, guidance and support. Willy’s generosity and kindness will be familiar to many, but he was obviously not only a great teacher and mentor but also a masterful researcher with unparalleled knowledge of UK industrial relations.

Of particular influence on my own work is Willy’s classic investigation of piecework at ten factories. This book provides a lucid illustration that workplaces are sites of  ‘political activity, not in the sense of party or state politics, but as an activity in which conflicting pressure groups come to temporary accommodation through the agreement of rules’ (Brown, 1973: 24).

This study is of particular of interest now that piecework is back with a vengeance with the rise of the gig economy. Reading this seminal work from the early 1970s today highlights that similar payment systems can result in very different outcomes depending on the relative bargaining power of labour and capital.

Unlike today’s gig economy, in the 1970s managers lacked ‘effective disciplinary powers’ due to the strength of organised labour and therefore piece rates were set according to ‘custom and practice’. This, in turn, gave rise to a compromise equilibrium between labour and management. Not being able to discipline or sack workers, meant that foremen had to make concessions to individual workers in order to gain their cooperation but in doing so they set a precedent by which other workers expected to be treated. However, to ensure that piece rates did not quickly spiral out of control and the company become unprofitable the shop stewards’ committees themselves sanctioned workers who broke or fixed the rate over-zealously and thus risked causing the entire system to breakdown.

Also of great importance was Willy’s work highlighting how almost de facto union derecognition was taking place in the 1990s through the ‘procedural individualisation of employment’ (Brown et al., 1999; 2000; 2009) as well as the use of reputational damage to improve labour standards (Wright and Brown, 2013). In the last decade of his life, Willy was increasingly fascinated by the research of his students and others in China, where he was hopeful for the emergence of a progressive industrial relations system and the potential this had for the rejuvenation of organised labour as a global actor (Brown and Kai, 2017).

I will greatly miss having the opportunity to hear Willy’s insights into the world and the world will sorely miss his kindness and intellect. But a comfort is knowing that his legacy will continue to live on among the many people he influenced.

Willy Brown Key Readings:

Brown W (1973) Piecework Bargaining. London: Heinemann.

Brown W, Bryson A, Forth J and Whitfield K (Eds.) (2009) The Evolution of the Modern Workplace. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Brown W, Deakin S, Hudson M, Pratten C and Ryan P (1998) The Individualisation of the Employment Contract in Britain. London: Department of Trade and Industry Research Series

Brown W, Deakin S, Nash D and Oxenbridge S (2000) The Employment Contract: From Collective Procedures to Individual Rights. British Journal of Industrial Relations 38(4): 611–629.

Brown W and Kai C (Eds) (2017) The Emerging Industrial Relations of China. Cambridge: Cambridge University press.

Wright C and Brown W (2013) The effectiveness of socially sustainable sourcing mechanisms: Assessing the prospects of a new form of joint regulation. Industrial Relations Journal 44, 1, 20–37.