No Bicycle, No Bus, No Job. The Making of Workers’ Mobility in the Netherlands, 1920–1990

Bek, Patrick
Anzahl Seiten
211 S.
€ 104,00
Rezensiert für H-Soz-Kult von
Peter Cox, Department of Social and Political Science, University of Chester

Travel costs. It costs in economic terms and it costs in terms of time. Through the twentieth century, the displacement of the workplace from the home meant that waged work became inaccessible without the capacity to travel. Yet without workers’ travel, employers lack a labour force. Who then should be responsible for the costs of that travel and the provision of the mechanisms of travel? How should responsibilities for provision be shared, and what forms have the various compromises reached, taken? These are the central conundrums that shape the five specific case studies spanning seventy years that Patrick Bek weaves expertly together to provide a detailed picture of changing patterns of commuting journey, by mode and by geography in the Netherlands.

Bek draws from an admirable range of both primary and secondary sources in order to build his analysis. Newspaper and journal reports are skilfully blended with historical scholarship and archival sources from both industry and city or regional administrations. More innovative is the use of company correspondence and internal documentation where available, together with in-house company personnel magazines. Triangulating these sources allows Bek to focus on five contrasting industrial centres: the Limburg mining region, Eindhoven, Rotterdam and Schiedam, Ijmuiden and the Twente textile region. Each has its distinct industry focus, and each is geographically different.

“Commuting”, Bek argues, is “not a simple matter of choosing whether, how and when to travel” (p. 22). Rather it is constrained by a range of social forces, which Bek systematically analyses through his five case studies. Despite the differences between the cases, a common periodisation is visible and this forms the basis for the chronological chapter structure of the book. Interwar recession forms the background to the opening chapters in which a growing mismatch between where people lived and worked provoked various solutions that demonstrated workers’ resilience to inadequate transport provision – situations only exacerbated by wartime and its direct aftermath.

The second distinct phase, that of postwar industrialisation (1947–1970), was coupled with housing shortages and the need to cover increasing distances, shaping the workers’ mobility practices according to the specific provisions of workplaces and their locations. Differences between types of work and the workers employed, shown in the selection of contrasting cases, make it evident that simple generalisations are inadequate to understand the variety of solutions adopted to the problem of travel to work. What is clear, is neatly summarised in the concluding chapter: “Under the guise of postwar reconstructionist ideology, modernist visions of an industrial and motorized future, paired with technocratic ambitions of control over people, individual mobility (bicycles) and collective mobility (buses) became subject to company intervention.” (p. 186) The final discussion on the effects of deindustrialisation from 1970 onwards show how pivotal the changes of the 1970s were for consequent debates on mobility poverty, justice and sustainability. As “company support for workers’ mobility waned” (p. 33), so reliance on private motoring became a necessity and those without a car, as the title suggests, became increasingly circumscribed in their employment potential.

The relation between mobility, housing and labour has received relatively little attention in academic study. Bek outlines his primary concern as one of moving research on work and workers beyond its existing urban and working-class bias. He shows that workers and employers both operated in conjunction with the state (and the market) as regards mobility provision and practices. As he argues, “workers and employers faced a similar dilemma: without efficient and affordable mobility, workers had no job and employers no workers” (p. 29). How this dilemma could be and was resolved, what roles state and market played in managing this tension and apportioning responsibility for work-related travel, at different times and with different technologies, form the basic questions for this fascinating study. Importantly, Bek also notes the changing composition of the workforce. Cross-border work had always been a reality, but increasing numbers of migrant workers posed different challenges, especially when coupled with the dependence that arises from company or state provided housing that concentrated large numbers of people in specific areas, more amenable to control than a dispersed labour force.

The volume forms another excellent instalment in the series of works originating from the Eindhoven history group. It is a truism that one should never review a book for what it does not say but in this case, the work prompts so much valuable thought and potential for further study that this rule may be worth breaking. If there is a significant gap in this book, it is in relation to gender and work. For most of the period studied and with the attention given to larger scale employment workplaces Bek is necessarily dealing with a workforce divided by traditional gender lines and roles. Yet by extending our attention to the role of journeys to work and to responsibility for them, he is inevitably extending the scope of study into the reproductive economy. To do justice to these questions would require, however, a greater emphasis on ideas and analysis than is possible in this study, where facts and evidence are to the fore.

In mapping such a range of cases and examples of change there are some notable questions arising. Several changes are noted rather than explained, often with a degree of generalisation where finer detail would allow deeper insight into specific mechanisms and differences that can be erased by the simple phrase “Like in…”. On the one hand, this is entirely legitimate because explanation or analysis of the causal mechanisms is not necessarily germane to the overall argument of the book. On the other hand, these observations of changes prompt a series of questions for further investigation: “what led to that situation being so?”, my inner six-year-old wants to scream. As an academic, it makes my eyes light up in anticipation of future publications and further research possibilities, and some eagerly awaited conversations.

Perhaps the bigger question that is prompted by this study (for this reviewer at least) is what is the basis of the assumption that it is the task of the state to intervene to assist capital (employers) by providing the mobility infrastructures of labour mobility. Is it the role of the state to subsidise capital? Bek’s study allows us to ask these questions anew and to see how the relation between state, capital and labour has variously been played out in different political regimes and conditions. Interestingly, Bek’s discussion of labour mobility and production both in peacetime and under occupation allows us insight into the relation of the state to production. Where the state intervenes to provide workers’ travel for the sake of maintaining production for war, similar interventions have occasionally been used in peacetime to maximise capital accumulation, while justified as necessary public provision for general mobility and worker welfare.

As an example of the latter, there is a discussion (pp. 117–118) of the isolation of workers’ housing from immediate access to workplaces. Deliberate creation of dependencies amongst labour has a specific role in securing the reproduction of capital and its power of accumulation that a more explicitly Marxist analysis might elucidate. As it is, Bek raises for us the issues of dependency and autonomy without really unpacking them. Again, this is not a problem for the current study but points to the need for future analysis.

Such questions, as Patrick Bek succinctly observes, cannot be answered in a primary study. But to its credit "No Bicycle, No Bus, No Job" will allow us (as the author notes) to consider how the differing positions mapped here might appear in international comparisons in the future. It is up to other scholars to match the rigour and complexity of this study. In a final paragraph, Bek observes that these issues of work, mobility and the role of the state take on new importance under the European Green Deal and in current concerns over transport emissions (issues that have their origins in the pivotal debates of the 1970s). Sustainability transitions studies would do well to reflect on the broader questions Bek’s book raises.

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