December 18, 2008

Wagner v. Taylor

Carroll Andrew Morse

Michael Barone of U.S News and World Report has an interesting capsule history of how labor/management relations through the 20th Century have brought the U.S. auto industry to where it is today…

Mickey Kaus, pretty much alone among the commentators I've been reading, indicts "Wagner Act unionism" for the decline and fall of the U.S. auto industry. The problem, he argues, is not just the high level of benefits that the United Auto Workers has secured for its members but the work rules—some 5,000 pages of them—it has imposed on the automakers. As Kaus points out, unionism as established by the Wagner Act is inherently adversarial. The union once certified as bargaining agent has a duty not only to negotiate wages and fringe benefits but also to negotiate work rules and to represent workers in constant disputes about work procedures.

The plight of the Detroit Three auto companies raises the question of why people ever thought this was a good idea. The answer, I think, is that unionism was seen as the necessary antidote to Taylorism. That's not a familiar term today, but it was when the Wagner Act was passed in 1935. Frederick Winslow Taylor was a Philadelphia businessman who pioneered time and motion studies. As Robert Kanigal sets out in The One Best Way, his biography of Taylor, he believed that there was "one best way" to do every job. Industrial workers, he believed, should be required to do their job in this one best way, over and over again. He believed workers should be treated like dumb animals and should be allowed no initiative whatever, lest they perform with less than perfect efficiency.

It is interesting to note that "Taylorism" was a part of the general trend occurring in the first half of the twentieth century, where the old classically liberal ideas were considered passé and the idea that the common folk needed strong management by an elite, in every area of their lives that mattered held a strong foothold.

We should be trying to move past Taylorist attitudes, the collateral damage they've caused in the past, and a possible revival of them in the near future, in as many places as possible.