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The Power to Manage? Employers and Industrial Relations in Comparative-Historical Perspective.

Ordinarily, a scholarly collection of this kind presents the reviewer with the task of finding some coherence in the assemblage of stubbornly disparate essays. That is not in the least true of the book that Steven Tolliday and Jonathan Zeitlin have edited. To a remarkable degree, they have marshalled this collection of essays to the cause they are advancing, which is nothing less than an assault on the basic premises of modern scholarship on the management of labor.

In a cogent introduction, Tolliday and Zeitlin lay out their case. They argue that, for all their differences, the main interpretations of how firms have developed their industrial relations--neoclassical, managerial, and Marxist--share common assumptions: first, that there is a compelling and consistent logic dictating the shaping of labor policies; second, that this logic is responsive above all to the technological and market environments; and third, that over time the labor strategies of capitalist enterprise converge on a single paradigm--"the progressive extension of task fragmentation, managerial control and bureaucratic employment practices within large, vertically integrated corporations enjoying a substantial degree of market power" (p. 9). As the mass production order that this paradigm described has come apart since the mid-1970s, Tolliday and Zeitlin note, scholars have scrambled to adapt their theories to the realities of global competition and flexible specialization and to the possibility that there may be no "one best way" to competitive success, but without jettisoning their "deterministic assumptions." "Even the most sophisticated Marxists |Paul Edwards, John Kelly, and Richard Hyman are cited~, like their mainstream counterparts |in this instance, Oliver Williamson~, remain unwilling to concede a genuine scope for managerial choice in the face of the objective constraints imposed by the natural environment" (pp. 11-12).

If it could be shown that the environment is not determining, of course, that would settle the issue right there. And, in fact, in half a dozen powerfully argued pages, Tolliday and Zeitlin do just that, concluding that we have no empirical or theoretical grounds for believing that technology or markets in themselves can or do "impose a narrow range of appropriate strategies on the enterprise, whether in relation to labour management or to any other sphere of business activity" (p. 17). Strictly speaking, therefore, this book could have ended on page eighteen. But of course Tolliday and Zeitlin are historians, not theorists of the firm, and it is in the concreteness of historical exposition that their real enthusiasm lies (not to speak of the grumbling they would have faced from authors told that their excellent essays were not needed after all). Moreover, they apply the logic of historical contingency to a second subject that receives equal billing with the management of labor, namely, the collective activity of employers.

This has a certain blunting effect on the analytical thrust of the book. For one thing, as a negative reference point, collective employer activity is not in the same league with labor management. Although determinist "schools" (the specificity of previous discussion of individual writers fades at this point) may be inclined to treat collective behavior as a direct reflection of underlying interests, there has been no comparable assertiveness at identifying a consistent trajectory of behavior or any convergence toward a single dominant structure of employer organization. Moreover, Tolliday and Zeitlin make no attempt to integrate labor management and employer organization, although Keith Sisson does so briefly and suggestively in his essay on the structure of collective bargaining. Most certainly, collective employer activity in all its variety offers Tolliday and Zeitlin rich pickings in their quest for examples of historical contingency, but one would have hoped for more by way of an integrating analysis than the parallel surveys of findings that they provide in their conclusion.

The baseline for Tolliday and Zeitlin's comparative approach is England, so we start with three case studies illuminating "the peculiarities of the English"--craft production, and why it persisted, in shipbuilding (by Alastair Reid); the history of the Engineering Employers' Federation as an example of contingent political processes in employer organization (by Zeitlin); and a penetrating account of Ford mass production in the alien labor environment of postwar England (by Tolliday). All three offer compelling evidence of anti-teleological historical process. So do the four essays that follow on aspects of industrial relations history in other countries--a detailed and well-crafted account of the Metal Manufacturers' Association of Philadelphia by Howell Harris, in which he finds it to have served not so much as an anti-union vehicle as a highly effective organizer of the local craft labor market; two essays on Germany, one by Heidrin Homburg on Taylorism and personnel management at Berlin metalworking firms (especially Siemens) between the wars, another by Werner Plumpe on Ruhr heavy industry and the battle over codetermination in postwar West Germany; and, finally, a far-ranging essay by Giovanni Contini on Italy's Confindustria that by itself puts to rest the notion that employer organization can be understood in any but specific national contexts.

Rich and informative as these essays are, they do suggest the intractability of this particular kind of joint scholarly enterprise, namely, that it has to be assembled from what is available rather than from what might be analytically optimum. One sorely misses, for example, a parallel account of the evolution of collective bargaining in the American automobile industry to go with Tolliday's essay on Ford in England. And a companion essay on Taylorism in the United States would have brought into focus the most remarkable (but unremarked on) feature of Homburg's account of the failure of Berlin firms to construct a viable job classification/piece-rate system, namely, that the problem was defined as how to do so on an interfirm basis. My complaint is to some degree answered by the inclusion of two explicitly comparative essays that likely were written for this volume: in Bryn Jones's account of computer-based flexible manufacturing systems in Britain, the United States, and Japan, the variability he finds, and the subordination to existing labor process patterns, explodes any notion of technological determinism or convergence; and Sisson's discussion of collective-bargaining structures is likewise emphatic in insisting that for each country explanations have to be sought in particular historical interactions among employers, unions, and the state. Even so, the essays they have recruited do not provide Tolliday and Zeitlin with all the ammunition they need (or rather, want), and their long concluding essay draws on a truly impressive mastery of the industrial relations history of half a dozen countries.

A question left implicit at the outset is now directly confronted: if not a universal paradigm leading to convergence, are there not at least national models of industrial relations? Yes and no, Tolliday and Zeitlin answer. No, if one means culturally determined "homeostatic and self-reproducing systems of action." Yes, if one thinks of national models "as complex and contingent historical constructions whose unity and coherence always remain open to empirical question" (p. 277). And, with that understood, they proceed to a summary analysis of labor-management history in England, the United States, Germany, and Japan, delineating in each case the leading characteristics, how these sprang from the interaction of structures (technology and markets), institutions (trade unionism and the state), and strategic employer choices, and ending with a bow to the persistent diversity within each national model. In the case of employer organization, they employ a somewhat different strategy, beginning as before with a more detailed accounting of the English example, but then pairing Sweden and Germany, France and Italy, and the United States and Japan, always, however, with the purpose of showing that national systems are historically determined and are particular results of the complex interaction of structures, institutions, and strategic choices.

Where does this leave the study (at least, the historical study) of industrial relations? Methodologically, Tolliday and Zeitlin have demonstrated the powerful utility of comparative analysis, not in service to the construction of grand theory, however, but more modestly for the identification of those features in the "natural" landscape of a nation's industrial relations that call for emphasis and explanation. More important, they have invited the prosaic empirical historian back in, for what they are really saying is that the proper study of industrial relations is as discrete event fixed in time and place and explainable only in the terms and by the narrative/analytical methods that historians have traditionally employed. We might even hope for something beyond the bloodless and abstracted exposition that has mostly prevailed in this field, so that the exploration of industrial relations can enter the historical mainstream and take its rightful place as a vital part of what passes for a nation's history.

David Brody is professor of history at the University of California, Davis. He is the author of Workers in Industrial America: Essays on the 20th Century Struggle (1980; 2d ed., forthcoming), and of other books and articles. He is currently studying workplace relations in American mass production industry between 1929 and 1941.
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Author:Brody, David
Publication:Business History Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 22, 1991
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