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Democracy at Work: Changing World Markets and the Future of Labor Unions.

Intensified international competition and technological change have forced a reorganization of work and production in advanced economies that, in turn, has led to a decline of unions and union power. But comparative analysis shows that such decline is more apparent in some places than in others, and in yet others hardly appears at all. Union decline is far less severe, and may indeed be absent, where unions historically have been able to insert themselves into the management of workplace and enterprise while preserving their organizational inclusiveness and centralization--that is, their capacity for participation in national-level politics and corporatist bargaining. Moreover, union involvement in the firm is quite compatible with union independence and strong union influence, and "cooperation" at the workplace is more stable where it is institutionally backed by law. Inclusive and centralized union movements may be able to obtain such backing through political action, as they did in Sweden in the 1970s. On the other hand, where union involvement in management is not combined with inclusive unionism and not in one way or other mandated by law--as in Japan--"cooperative" unions are likely to be no more than management tools. In any case, however, independent or not, union participation in the enterprise will tend to increase a firm's and a country's competitiveness in the new international market environment. This implies, among other things, that independent unionism, operating from an autonomous power base rooted in broad social solidarity and established political status, may still have a future--not just politically but also, and very much so, economically.

This, in brief, is the argument that Lowell Turner develops in his important book. His method is no less impressive and ambitious than the claims he makes. After outlining the complexities of work reorganization in the 1980s and 1990s and their impact on industrial relations, Turner examines at length the shop-floor politics of the automobile industries of Germany and the United States and the role of unions in them. By comparing the two cases, he is able to establish, in defiance of what in many quarters may still be received wisdom, that centralized and inclusive unions may have more impact on the shop floor than decentralized and fragmented ones; that such impact may significantly modify managerial concepts of work reorganization--like teamwork--in line with the interests of workers; that union influence is vastly increased, not reduced, by legal institutions providing for integration of work force representatives in management; that the legal constraints on management that this implies may improve instead of undermine managerial performance; and that strong, secure, and independent union influence on the organization of work may increase rather than detract from the flexibility and competitiveness of a modern enterprise. In the second part of his book, Turner goes to great lengths to broaden his empirical base and to demonstrate that his findings are not specific to the automobile industry or apply only to the comparison between the United States and Germany. First, he looks at two other industrial sectors in the two countries, telecommunications and apparel--one of them modern and expanding, with large and often publicly regulated firms, and one "traditional" and declining, with "low" technology and comparatively small firms. Second, having shown that national differences in the additional sectors are essentially the same as in the automobile industry, Turner adds four more countries, Britain, Italy, Sweden, and Japan. Looking at their automobile industries as well as their overall industrial relations, he is able to demonstrate that national differences in workplace integration and organizational inclusiveness of unions have the same effects generally that they have in the comparison between Germany and the United States.

I find very little in this book with which I do not agree. I did have a somewhat uncomfortable feeling about how Turner at times, against his own insights I believe, uses words like "cooperation" and "collaboration"--for instance, when he speaks of "the collaboration-oriented institutions of industrial relations in West Germany", or in a sentence like the following: "somewhat paradoxically . . ., I am arguing at once for stronger unions and for more collaborationist unions; this is what contemporary world markets appear to demand if unions are to continue playing an important economic, social and political role". I believe that Turners findings themselves suggest strongly that there is no paradox here at all, and that institutionally based union influence on management needs to be clearly conceptually distinguished from mere union collaboration with management. It is true that, as unions and workers take an active interest in successful production, they may sometimes adopt and pursue objectives they share with management. But it is also true that, where such interests can be pursued from an autonomous power base, it may well be management that finds itself "collaborating" with labor, rather than the other way around. Cooperative unionism--unions taking the requirements of a competitive "supply-side" seriously--is one thing; but if it is to be more than subordination of workers under managerial hegemony, with all its political instabilities and economic uncertainties, it must be accompanied and balanced by institutionally constrained cooperative management. In the most advanced cases Turner describes, it is not the domestication of labor by management that is exciting, but the domestication of management by labor. That such is at all possible without resulting in economic disaster should not be hidden, especially from a U.S. audience, by an unfortunate choice of terminology.

The usual minor quibbles notwithstanding, this is a terrific book. It is very skillfully done; the reader is patiently prodded along, the argument is always present, and the relationship between it and the empirical accounts is never in doubt. The concluding chapter, especially its first part, is an exemplary ease of concise synthetic reasoning from a broad body of qualitative evidence; readers hard-pressed for time may want to start there. Substantively, on industrial relations and work reorganization in the American and German automobile industries, this is now the authoritative study. Furthermore, in addition to demonstrating the vitality of an institutionalist approach to political economy that takes cross-national variation seriously, the book also anchors its rich material in a wide range of analytical and practical contexts, offering the reader any number of reasons why the story it tells should be carefully read--for example, for the study of the impact of economic internationalization on national institutions, the debate on the economic virtues of deregulation and regulation, or the old and new question of convergence and divergence between different national versions of capitalism. Not least, the book makes a surprisingly plausible case that, although institutions are indeed of long duration, there is no reason to assume that they cannot be changed in a desirable direction by creative political intervention. Turner's ideas on what especially American unions might learn from his study sound remarkably concrete and not at all far-fetched (for a summary, see pp. 237ff.). They document once more that, if the work is done right, theory-building and policy research do not have to be different pursuits; as John Maynard Keynes is claimed to have said, there is nothing more practical than a good theory.

Wolfgang Streeck is professor of sociology and industrial relations at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. He has written on industrial relations and political economy in Germany and other advanced industrial countries. His latest books include Social Institutions and Economic Performance: Studies of Industrial Relations in Advanced Capitalist Economies (1992); Public Interest and Market Pressures: Problems Posed by Europe 1992 (with David G. Mayes and Wolfgang Hager) (1992); and Comparing Capitalist Economies: Variations in the Governance of Sectors, co-edited with J. Rogers Hollingsworth and Philippe C. Schmitter (forthcoming).
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Author:Streeck, Wolfgang
Publication:Business History Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 1993
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