Worker Leadership: America's Secret Weapon in the Battle for Industrial
Competitiveness, MIT Press, Cambridge, AAA, 2013; 256 pp: 9780262019637, 20.95 [pounds sterling] (hbk)
It is widely believed that Barrack Obamas bailout of the automobile industry in Detroit was a decisive factor in his success in the 2012 presidential election. While this probably had more to do with the vagaries of the US electoral system than with the relative importance of auto manufacturing to the US national economy, the intervention was nonetheless loaded with symbolic significance. In contrast to Britain, where the gradual collapse of car manufacturing was met with a characteristically polite fatalism, the decline of the US auto industry has been nothing less than a source of national shame for many Americans. The poignant frustration of Hank Hill, the lead character in Mike Judges TV series King of the Hill, captures the essence of it: in one episode, Hank suffers a profound existential crisis when he borrows his neighbour's Japanese-manufactured lawnmower and realises it is, without doubt, much better than his own, domestically-produced one.
In Worker Leadership: America's Secret Weapon in the Battle for Industrial Competitiveness, Fred Stahl argues that progressive industrial management holds the key to restoring the USA to its former glory. At its core is a paean to the methods and pioneering spirit of Dick Klein, general manager at the Illinois-based agricultural equipment manufacturer John Deere & Company. The story of Kleins success in turning around a number of seemingly moribund factories-starting with the firm's Ottumwa plant in the late-1980s, moving on to the Harvester Works at Moline--makes up roughly two-thirds of this mini-treatise. Stahl, a former Boeing Company executive who has examined Klein's techniques at first hand, believes that they offer nothing less than 'a revolution in production, in labour relations, and in industrial competitiveness'.
For over 200 years since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, bosses have fixated on concentrating the division of labour at the expense of the capacity for individual initiative. This reached its apogee with Henry Ford's conveyor-belt system, and modern industry hasn't looked back since. Managers inspired by FW Taylor's doctrine of 'scientific management' have sought in vain to mitigate and manage the alienation of the industrial worker, whose work had become commensurately duller, more repetitive,...