10.5 The Shirk Ethic
From The Work Ethic And Discipline by LJM Cooray

One of the mindless reactions against the work ethic might be called "the shirk ethic" which is common among people who have no actual experience of hard work at all. This ethic became entrenched at both the top and the bottom of the English class structure, as described in The British Disease by G C Allen. He described the "cult of the amateur" among the upper classes which has infected the education system and produced managers who are largely incapable of managing. It has also helped to produce workers who are unwilling to work and especially unwilling to work more effectively by taking on new technologies.

Arthur Koestler encountered a form of the shirk ethic as it was institutionalised among English labourers. In November 1940 he escaped from Portugal and made his way to England, at that time the last bastion of western resistance to Hitler. He joined an Alien Pioneer Corps to "Dig for Victory", which his company of refugees was very willing to do. They asked if the ritual tea-breaks, with the march to and from the canteen, could be eliminated to gain almost two hours of digging in the day.

"The CO appreciated our laudable zeal and explained that we had to have our tea-breaks whether we liked it or not because the British Pioneer Companies, plus the local trade unions, would raise hell if we did not. That was about six months after Dunkirk".— Arthur Koestler, "The Lion and the Ostrich", in Bricks to Babel — A Selection from Fifty Years of Arthur Koestler's Writings, New York (1980) p 37.

This type of anti-productive mentality was lampooned in the film "I'm All Right Jack". A German migrant found something similar in Australia after the war. A skilled fitter and something of a perfectionist in his work he made a mistake on a job shortly before the 5 o'clock hooter. Determined to make good his error and complete the task he kept on after the hour. A shop steward approached and told him to down tools. He protested that he only wanted to fix the mistake that he had made, otherwise the job would have been done by the end of the day. The shop steward insisted that nobody should be made to work beyond the approved hours; the fitter said he was not being made to work, the mistake was his fault and he wanted to put it right. In the course of this discussion the job was put right and he went home, perplexed. Next morning a manager called him to the office to warn him that the next time he worked after the hooter the shop stewards would call all the men in the factory out on strike.

This form of shirking, policed by the unions, is a manifestation of the misguided "class war" between capital and labour, as though labour gains something by cutting the returns to capital. Another form of shirking has a more rational basis in self-interest. This was shown in the case of repairmen in a public sector monopoly who made sure during the week that there was work left over to be done at overtime rates on the weekend. The amount of overtime could be adjusted to meet special needs at the time, so the carry-over tended to increase before Christmas.

The shirk ethic is promoted by the intellectual revolt against "repression" and "discipline". It is policed by some unions as a part of the class war and it is encouraged by systems of rewards and payments that are based on inputs (usually of time) rather than outputs.