Industrial Democracy in American. the Ambiguous Promise

By Scherrer, Christoph | Capital & Class, Summer 1998 | Go to article overview

Industrial Democracy in American. the Ambiguous Promise


Scherrer, Christoph, Capital & Class


Industrial Democracy in America. The Ambiguous Promise

ISBN 0-521-43121-2 (hbk) L37.50

ISBN 0-521-56622-3 (pbk) L14.95

Reviewed by Christoph Scherrer

When it was first published in 1993, Industrial Democracy in America earned enough praise to warrant a paperback edition. Though written in a scholarly manner, this collection of nine essays definitely deserves a wider audience. To the current debate on post-Taylorist labour relations it adds the sorely missing historic dimension.

The first three contributions by David Montgomery, Howell Harris, and Joseph McCartin elaborate the ideology and language of industrial democracy in the years from 1890 to 1930. The following chapters by Ronald Schatz, Nelson Lichtenstein, James Atleson, and David Brody examine the collective bargaining system and its practitioners in the United States during the fordist years, i.e. from the late 1930s until the early 1960s. The volume concludes with a comparative look at industrial relations in Japan by Sanford Jacoby and at Japanese plants in the USA by Michael Parker.

As historians the contributors hesitate to draw explicit lessons for the current debate on a reform of industrial relations. One lesson, however, seems quite obvious. During the 100 years the volume covers, workers achieved a degree of control over the terms of their employment contract only at times of wide spread mobilisation. Once mobilisation recedes and struggles are lost, employers will try to re-establish 'their' right to manage to the maximum extent. After World War I, as McCartin so luridly shows, employers succeeded quickly in neutralising labours' wartime patriotic rhetoric of industrial democracy and defeated most attempts at organising mass production workers. The `salaried model' of industrial relations, which offered some employment security, was, despite its popularity in the industrial relations literature, confined, according to Sanford Jacoby, to a few companies in ntn-cyclical product markets. Moreover, the security offered came at the costs of accepting management's discretion at job assignments. After World War II employers were less successful in getting rid of unions, but they succeeded in locking them into narrowly contractualist and firm-centred labour relations. Thus it comes as no surprise, given the absence of a vibrant labour movement, that current attempts at greater `employee involvement' easily degenerate into what Michael Parker aptly calls `management-by-stress'. His argument would have been even more persuasive, if he had updated his account of the experiences with lean work regimes. After learning about the importance of the two world wars for the legitimacy of labour demands in the chapters by McCartin and Atleson, one is tempted to add that without another world war a more expansive view of organised labour's role in American society will remain a minority position.

What makes this volume truly interesting is the controversy among the contributors concerning the nature of the post-war labour accord and the causes for this limited vision of industrial democracy. While most contributors deplore the narrow contractualism for leaving the corporate power structure unchallenged, Jacoby and Brody assert that it gave the workers a real sense of justice and dignity. Although presented as mutually exclusive positions, both views are valid from a comparative perspective.

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