Reconstructing the American Workplace
Over the past fifteen years, corporate America has undertaken a
dramatic and wrenching restructuring: deindustrialization, corporate downsizing, and
extensive takeovers, mergers, and acquisition activities dominated the corporate
profitability strategies of the 1970s and 1980s. Previous chapters have illustrated, in
addition, how firms devoted significant resources to transforming their employee relations
frameworks and their internal cultures in trying to cut costs and prepare workers for
Still to be determined is how best to reassemble the pieces of American
industry left behind by these strategies. What will corporate structures and work
processes look like in the 1990s and beyond? And what are the links between restructuring
the American workplace and restructuring management?
These questions hold vast economic, organizational, and cultural
implications, and a surprising consensus about their answers has emerged among corporate
leaders and a new generation of postindustrial theorists. The new consensus for
reconstructing the American corporation rests, above all else, on criticism of rigid
bureaucracies and the belief in flexible production processes. Stepping back from the
case-study material to examine this consensus, this chapter will generalize from the
experiences of American Security Bank to show how "productive flexibility," when
appropriated by corporations and directed at the work of managerial and nonmanagerial
employees, may cause fundamental changes in the organization and authority relations of
Although the notion is necessarily speculative, I wish to suggest that
American Security Bank's commitment to creating managerial "flexibility" while
simultaneously reconfiguring its middle management ranks echoes a larger trend toward
change in the bureaucratic management apparatus that has been the mainstay of large
American corporations throughout the twentieth century. Coupled with the ideological and
structural reforms discussed in earlier chapters, the popular consensus for productive
flexibility provides the remaining piece of a very large and complex puzzle about
contemporary changes in American middle management.
The Argument for Productive Flexibility
In a recent and influential book, Cohen and Zysman (1987) survey the
economic context of the 1980s and 1990s and argue that the increasingly competitive
environment of these decades has and will continue to put inescapable pressures on the
production processes and relations of large U.S. firms. In their view, large corporations
will have greater difficulty dominating market niches over a long and stable period;
therefore, corporations must create the organizational capacity to respond quickly and
flexibly to new, often short-lived market demands. Cohen and Zysman claim in particular
that managers must enhance the capacity for innovation close to the line, giving greater
responsibility to workers with hands-on skill and knowledge.
Focusing on the breakup of mass markets and the inability of the large
American corporation to respond effectively to an era of slow economic growth, other
industrial policy analysts have taken up the argument for more flexible innovative
capacity (Reich 1983; Piore and Sabel 1984; Walton and Lawrence 1985). If the United
States is to regain its stature as a major industrial competitor, according to these
authors, large firms must be able to respond quickly to direct market-hence
continually fluctuating and competitive-pressures. Not only should flexible
production characterize our remaining manufacturing or industrial enterprises but firms
producing services should also encourage flexibility in the way services are delivered
These postindustrialists also argue that every member of the industrial
community should play a part in restructuring the corporation. Top managements may need to
redesign corporate strategies; but workers and lower levels of management must be willing
to redesign their work methods and relations. A body of literature on the postindustrial
labor process focuses on worker responsibility, autonomy, and self-management, suggesting
that the contemporary workplace be reconfigured along the lines of "neo-Fordism"
(Sabel 1982), "postindustrial work systems" (Hirschhorn 1984), and
"flexible specialization" (Piore and Sabel 1984).
If workers can overcome their reliance on rigid work rules and
antagonistic postures toward management, if they commit themselves to continually learning
and developing new skills and to performing job tasks interchangeably, they can contribute
to a historical shift in American productivity and production relations. In the current
context of global competition, these policy analysts argue, neither workers or managers
can afford any longer to gloss over workers' expertise or dismiss workers' potential to
perform as responsible, autonomous producers.
Further up the workplace hierarchy, middle managers and supervisors
should redistribute their authority and place greater faith in "high-trust"
relations with workers; in so doing, they will unblock a tremendous reserve of worker
skill, enthusiasm, and commitment (Sabel 1982). Eliminating
traditional hierarchical distinctions between workers and managers, based on the
historical centralization of knowledge in the hands of management and engineers, is thus
seen as a critical dimension of moving the American economy into a new competitive age.
To gain the participation of workers and managers in such change, these
theorists charge, employers must offer basic guarantees of job security to establish
workers' commitments to more flexible, participative, and specialized production
processes. Reich (1983), for example, calls for U.S. firms to
guard the nation's "human capital," emphasizing that workers should not be
penalized for the restructuring of industry; while Cohen and Zysman (1987) deliver an
impassioned plea to employers to initiate skills retraining for workers, rather than
resort to skill and job displacement through the use of new technologies and offshore
Ironically then, the visions of corporate management (discussed in
Chapter 1) and progressive public policy analysts converge on the goal of dismantling the
bureaucratic management structure. In reflecting on the possibility of a less hierarchical
workplace, the postindustrial theorists argue that operational and personnel authority,
historically lodged in corporate middle management and supervisorial levels, must be
passed down to work teams that are self-managing. The bureaucratically administered
organization of operations and personnel management may have been adequate for expansion
in a stable, growth-based economic context, but the very system of coordination and
administration that helped make American corporations prosperous will, according to the
postindustrial perspective, undercut their ability to maintain a competitive footing in
the world economy. For the postindustrialists, the current economic
crisis-and its organizational determinants in the bureaucratic American
corporation-is a case of the chickens coming home to roost: large employers
must now pay the cost of management systems that have typically robbed workers of skill,
responsibility and discretion.
The plans for flexible production systems, put forth by those determined
to renew American competitiveness, depend on a new system of management. That system
entails a diminished role for middle managers, with operational and personnel
responsibilities centrally coordinated by higher levels within the corporation and with an
increase in responsibility for those working on the line. By using an array of
organizational and technological instruments designed to promote flexibility, American
employers will be able to decrease the organizational distance between the upper and lower
reaches of the corporation. In the movement toward this new system, the fates of
managerial and nonmanagerial workers alike are intertwined in the changing corporate
division of labor; changes in one strata shape changes in the other.
Four corporate trends currently capitalize on the call for productive
flexibility. By far the most important of those trends is the implementation of
worker-participation schemes in the American workplace, followed by the increasing use of
contingent workers, computerization, and the use of centralized management groups.
Furthering the effort to mitigate hierarchies and rigidity, all four are converging to
transform the work and position of middle managers by allowing top levels of management to
coordinate, direct, and control production processes without their aid.
Although they are ostensibly promoted in the name of flexibility, those
trends obscure two issues. The first is the way
that flexibility serves the firm but not necessarily the interests of
the parties who are principally affected, workers and managers. The second issue is the
way flexibility undermines the historical role of middle managers in corporations.
New Ways of Working: Some Implications for Management
With a new emphasis on participation, top management has been trying
to draw both blue-collar and white-collar employees into taking more responsibility for
production in unionized and nonunionized firms. Estimates of the extent of
worker-participation schemes vary, but there is no doubt that they are widespread and have
increased significantly in the last decade. Wells (1987), for example, argues that
one-third to one-half of the Fortune 500 firms have some version of "quality of work
life" (QWL) schemes, and Lawler and Mohrman (1985) claim that over 90 percent of the
largest Fortune 500 firms had quality circles by 1985. A 1982 New York Stock Exchange
survey found that quality circles were the fastest growing human resource programs in U.S.
corporations with 500 or more employees (cited in Drago 1988). Using a different unit of
analysis, Kochan, Katz, and McKersie (1986) report that employee-participation schemes
affect about one-quarter of the work force (p. 213).
In U.S. collective bargaining in the 1980s there has been a surge of
negotiations related to implementing QWL and employee-involvement programs, following
decades in which labor and management leaders paid lip service to such concepts (Freeman
and Medoff 1984). Firms have attempted to give workers more voice and have encouraged
managers to respond positively to heightened worker involvement on the shop floor (Freeman
and Medoff 1984, pp. 248â“249), efforts top managements now see as mandatory
to improve U.S. economic competitiveness.
By bending previously inflexible work rules, encouraging quality circles
and QWL programs, and enlarging workers' responsibility and authority
levels-all policies that coincide with the postindustrial perspective on
flexibility-business leaders can turn workers into managers and minimize the
firm's dependence on middle levels of management to arbitrate production. Top managers and
work experts laud this model as the wave of the future; consequently, the ideology and
cultural discourse of decentralized, autonomous management has been ladled out to
production and manufacturing workers as well as to managers themselves.
Semi-autonomous work groups in a firm, many business leaders and
postindustrialists argue, can make production decisions more quickly if they can bypass
the centralized decision-making processes of higher levels of managers. Such groups can be
given authority to set up and maintain machinery, keep track of inventory, order
materials, document production costs, and participate in budgeting and forecasting. Walton
and Lawrence (1985), advocates of workers' participation, argue that workers need to
become involved in all operational and personnel decision-making areas, including quality
control, short-term planning and monitoring of product flows, selection and training of
new employees, and daily trouble-shooting activities (p. 355). While plant management
develops the broader goals, workers develop their own skills and competencies with support
from trainers and team advisors (Beer and Spector 1985, p. 228).
It is important to remember that reshaping workers' roles along these
lines is strongly associated with corresponding changes in the role of middle managers.
One of the significant repercussions of an expanded role for workers has been the
"total elimination of one or more entire levels in the traditional hierarchies to
remove redundancies and shorten communication lines" (Walton and Lawrence 1985, pp.
355â“356). In particular, the self-managing team approach, in which workers
redesign their own jobs, take responsibility for quality control and output, and work
comparatively autonomously, leads in many cases to the elimination of middle levels of
managerial workers (Hall and Isabella 1985; Sherwood 1988), which in turn increases
flexibility on the shop floor and allows the firm to quickly respond to changing market
This interactive process, wherein managers' and workers' jobs are
reshaped with the advent of participation schemes, occurs in a variety of industries.
Studying a chemical company undergoing restructuring processes as a result of
international competitive pressures, Nichols and Beynon (1977) show how the enrichment of
workers' jobs directly correlated with the demise of manager and foremen positions.
"Self-supervision" and the addition of responsibilities to workers' jobs mainly
involved workers in absorbing the tasks and the costs of elimination of managerial
positions (Nichols and Beynon 1977, chap. 4).
The example of the white-collar bank teller in American Security Bank's
branch system demonstrates the interactive dynamic between the empowerment of lower-level
workers and the eventual displacement of management. The bank promoted some tellers to
corporate officers with the effect of reclassifying tellers as supervisors and enlarging
their decision-making capacities about a variety of branch issues. That reclassification
process also had the long-run outcome of eliminating branch managers from the
superbranches. What appeared to be an increase in flexibility and added responsibility for
bank tellers was part and parcel of a decrease in responsibility and authority for branch
managers. In sum, changes in the middle management function in American Security Bank were
predicated on, indeed would have been impossible without, changes in lower-level branch
This "multi-occupational" process means that changes in one
occupation interrelate with the transformation of other occupations within a diversity of
workplaces. That is, deskilling an occupation or a function may entail upgrading or
creating another separate occupation (Reskin and Roos 1987; Baran and Teegarden 1987). A
perspective that spans the multiple functions of an organization is crucial for
understanding shifting patterns of skill and authority relations. Firms are not only
transforming the occupation of management, they are transforming the system
and organization of management. Examining the overall organizational context of
deskilling and upgrading is thus important for understanding contemporary occupational
change (Simpson 1989).
When companies introduce worker self-management schemes, middle managers
find themselves acting as agents, yet being the targets of change. According to Bradley
and Hill's (1987) study of the implementation of quality circles in ten companies, the
burden of operationalizing participative management often falls directly on middle
managers. Bradley and Hill (1987) argue that managers view their role in setting up
quality circles as "add[ing] to managerial workloads for comparatively small
returns" (p. 75); but at the same time managers have to manage out their own
positions as they hand over decision-making powers to workers. Because managers lose power
as responsibility is shifted down to lower-level workers, there is often a great deal of
confusion in managers' roles when participative schemes are introduced (Schlesinger and
Oshry 1984; Simmons and Mares 1985, chap. 13; Manz and Sims 1987). Simmons and Mares
(1985) found that as corporate management urges rank-and-file workers to take more and
more responsibility, and urges both workers and managers to adhere to new philosophies of
self-management, middle managers "fear the possibility that they are being asked to
participate themselves out of a job" (p. 221).
The current reordering of the way production is managed-of
the essential tasks involved in overseeing productive processes and work
relations-raises the historical importance of workers as agents in the
management structure. No doubt workers have always overtly or covertly played a
significant role in directing production. Indeed, nearly the entire corpus of industrial
sociology addresses the role that workers play in directing production, whether
informally, through the restriction of norms and regulation of work groups, or formally
through collective bargaining procedures. Corporate management, however, is explicitly
drawing out this role in the competitive environment of the 1980s and beyond. Workers not
only should produce, but should be vested with authority to employ their unique expertise
in the service of production objectives.
Although it is by no means new, interest in this participative ethic has
a prominent role in current strategies for improving the performance of U.S. industry. The
current emphasis on participation, coupled with real structural changes, is aimed at
reorganizing the contemporary management hierarchy in a very different way from earlier
approaches to involving workers in workplace objectives, such as the human relations
framework. In other words, worker participation and responsibility is the other side of
the "demanagerialization" of the workplace, a process that was unfolding in
American Security Bank's branch system during the period of this study.
A second trend ostensibly promoting flexibility leads to a fundamental
transformation of management. In an attempt to reduce fixed labor costs and make
employment itself more flexible (Freedman 1988; Osterman 1988; Pfeffer and Baron 1988)
many businesses are cutting back permanent, full-time employees, replacing them with
temporary, part-time workers. The Bureau of National Affairs (1986) recently reported a
significant increase in the corporate use of nonmanagerial part-time, temporary,
flex-time, and seasonal workers. The authors of the report explain that this increase is a
result not only of the rise of a service sector of employment but also of corporate top
management's perspective that full-time permanent work forces have become a liability to
"maximizing productivity and minimizing costs" (Bureau of National Affairs 1986,
As the manager of labor law for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce comments,
work forces made up solely of permanent employees "tend to handcuff the employer in a
time when there is a revolution in the workplace" (Bureau of National Affairs 1986,
p. 3). This revolution is now a permanent feature of the workplace: employers must be able
to institutionalize flexible employment conditions in order to adjust their work forces in
the context of a highly competitive and fluctuating economy. The authors estimate that a
contingent work force of part-time, flexible, temporary, and seasonal workers now numbers
over 28 million workers-one quarter of the U.S. work force-who
will be the first to lose their jobs in periods of corporate contraction.
This trend reconfigures management on two levels. Increasingly, in a
way that many observers feel is unprecedented, managers are being made peripheral in the
same way as workers. Firms use displaced managers as a flexible, "contingent"
labor force, contracting out their managerial responsibilities. Predicting a growth in a
"two-tier" work force, much like the two-tier wage structures that companies
have used to privilege long-term workers and disadvantage newer hires, the Wall Street
Journal (4 May 1987) claims that firms will dismiss tens of thousands of managers from
their permanent core employment activities, who will then become part of the peripheral,
temporary, self-employed tier of managers that firms hire only when needed.
Supporting these hypotheses, one commentator argues that despite the
Bureau of Labor Statistics' optimistic projection of managerial employment through the
1990s, many firms will hire private managerial subcontractors
who take temporary management positions, once held by permanently employed middle managers
in large companies. These subcontractors will account for much of the projected increase
of 20 percent or more in the managerial and executive category (Fortune , 2
February 1987; see also Wall Street Journal , 4 May 1987). And increasing numbers
of companies also have insisted that managers shift from full-time to part-time work
schedules in response to budget cuts and increased financial pressures (Wall Street
Journal , 2 June 1982).
The explanation for the peripheralization of management is economic in
part and pertains to nonmanagerial employees as well: if they can organize more of their
managerial work force on a temporary basis, firms can respond to economic fluctuation
readily, sloughing off redundant employees in slack times. This second trend also
converges with the first, participative, trend: an integration of managerial tasks into
workers' jobs and decreasing dependence on managers. As workers take on more managerial
responsibilities, firms can displace regular managerial employees.
The move to peripheralize both managerial and nonmanagerial work forces
has perhaps even greater consequences for the structure of management. When firms reduce
the core of permanent, full-time, committed employees and increase the periphery of
temporary part-time floating employees, they externalize formerly internal costs and
functions (Mangum, Mayall, and Nelson 1985; Pfeffer and Baron 1988). The consequences for
managers can be unprecedented and unpredictable. Although it will undoubtedly create new
managerial problems and specializations (in particular, it raises the prospect of having
to manage across different organizational boundaries), the externalization of functions
can also shift management tasks outside the corporation to temporary agencies and other
subcontractors and thus reduce the number of critical functions to manage within the large
corporation (Pfeffer and Baron 1988, p. 294). Further, if externalization of employees and
functions reduces the size of a division or a manager's span of control, managers'
compensation and prestige may be affected (p. 295).
Osterman argues that "the increasing use of temporary workers can
be viewed as an effort to transform . . . the occupation in question from
one involving stable internal employment with an element of job security and training to
(from the firm's perspective) a hire/fire relationship with no commitment" (Osterman
1988, p. 63). This shift, in turn, leads to changes in managerial work. As more firms move
that objective to the center of their strategic agenda, more and more middle managers,
much like those in American Security Bank, may find themselves thrust into the unenviable
position of mediators and targets of ongoing corporate change.
Computerization of both production processes and management functions,
seen in American Security's branch system and credit card center, represents the third
trend that may lead to centralized control with greater responsibility discharged at the
lower levels of the corporation: the technological capacity to displace managers and
decrease the organizational distance between top management and production work.
Computerization of production processes frequently has a positive effect on both
manufacturing and white-collar occupations, leading to expanded tasks and
responsibilities. At the same time, however, computers can be used to decrease the
discretion and autonomy of certain levels of management. Top managements have introduced
computer networks that integrate plants and divisions with corporate levels of the firm.
Integrated systems give those at the top direct access to production-process data bases,
thereby enabling top managers to bypass the judgment of middle levels of production
managers and to use their access to the data to manage managers (Zuboff 1988, chap. 9).
The ultimate outcome is the displacement of some levels of management (Osterman 1988, p.
When computers are introduced into bottom-level work processes, they
affect processes further up the corporate hierarchy as well. Computerization leads to
greater productivity for the clerical work force, decreasing the need for supervisors and
managers as it decreases the need for many clerical workers. In addition, computers have
the power and range to monitor workers, a task typically performed by managers. And as
blue-collar workers become more involved with flexible technologies, they take over
functions previously performed by such white-collar professional and managerial workers as
production planners and inventory control staff (Osterman 1988, p. 78).
Similarly, as insurance companies computerize data-entry and
underwriting functions, they create new jobs that combine managerial and professional,
service, and clerical responsibilities into one workstation or labor process (at the same
time wiping out both the most routinized clerical jobs and a higher level of managerial
jobs). Combining those functions leads to the expansion of new job categories (Baran and
Teegarden 1987, pp. 210â“212) that can be classified as managerial. Even if
turning workers into supervisors represents little more than job inflation (Reskin and
Roos 1987), those cases are important for understanding the symbolic and the real ways in
which management tasks are being redistributed throughout organizations.
A fourth trend that enhances comparatively centralized systems of
management in the name of flexibility is organizational: the heightened use of centralized
personnel groups in a changing workplace. Kochan and Capelli (1984) argue that in the
context of the competitive economic environment of the 1980s and the ongoing decline of
the labor movement, corporations are giving centralized personnel groups greater
prominence and power in order to mediate and control new problems of labor management.
It is clear that the distinction between labor relations, human
resource management, and operating management will become increasingly blurred as firms
attempt simultaneously to control production costs, increase employee communications and
involvement, maintain stable union-management relations where unions exist, and avoid new
opportunities for union organizing.
1984, pp. 154â“155
As in the new organizational arrangement of human resources staff
in American Security's SystemsGroup, centralized personnel groups may acquire more and
more of the responsibilities of middle managers. Top management at American Security
touted the new system as a way to decentralize human resources management and make it more
responsive to diverse divisional concerns; in fact, the system created a more direct and
centralized line of authority between the SystemsGroup unit and top management. In
general, centralized groups are assuming new and authoritative positions in the corporate
The concentrated management structure, part of the concept of area
management (Chapter 4), will similarly decrease the organizational distance between
strategic management and production processes. The area management group would allow the
spatial reorganization of middle management (a form of off-site management), as AMG
representatives would circulate about branches, monitoring and evaluating branch
Observing the convergence of these four trends, we may reasonably ask
whether we are simply witnessing a return to the craft-like, autonomous work processes
that characterized an earlier form of management predicated on a high level of
decentralization of shop-floor production processes. If we were to accept the claims about
flexible manufacturing at face value we could almost envision the reemergence of a simple
drive structure of management, in which workers semi-autonomously worked on their own with
only a loose system of management, "unintegrated" in Litterer's (1963) terms.
The "drive system" preceded technical and bureaucratic
management systems (Nelson 1975). A comparatively decentralized arrangement consisting of
integrated knowledge and control held by those directly involved in production, it
included foremen as the most immediate representatives of strategic management (Gardner
and Whyte 1945; Roethlisberger 1945; Wray 1949; Patten 1968). The drive system of managing
production also included some degree of workers' participation in coordinating and
directing the work process.
Before the rise of coordinated, bureaucratic administration, discussed
in Chapter 1, firms were vulnerable to market exigencies. The drive system "allowed
for flexible adjustment to shifts in demand and was effective in holding down unit labor
costs" (Jacoby 1985, p. 123). To maximize profitability, firms had to be able to
respond to external factors outside their control; they were sensitive to and confined by
local markets, suppliers of materials, and agents of distribution (Edwards 1979, p. 24).
The drive system thus allowed firms to maintain a short-term manufacturing orientation
(Jacoby 1985). Foremen and plant managers, administering employment in a variable and
unpredictable economic environment, "looked for quick results and maximum
flexibility; the work force was to be adjusted to changes in technology and to
fluctuations in output" (Jacoby 1985, p. 6).
That description does not stray far from the vision of the proponents of
flexibility. But is the early twentieth-century structure of management appropriate for
the contemporary corporation? Sophisticated organizational and technological devices as
well as the profound shift in employment practices, all discussed above, give corporations
far more power to control, monitor, and integrate low-level production activities.
Although firms may encourage workers, supervisors, and middle managers to embrace the
ethos of participation, the fact is that participation, increasing responsibility, and
decision making all occur within an environment under tight surveillance. By slashing
levels of management; strengthening and legitimating their ability to cast off superfluous
workers and managers; increasing their ability to gain detailed data immediately about
production, distribution, and finance by means of computer systems; and relying on
centralized, high-level managerial groups, top managements decrease their organizational
distance from production operations and solidify their ability to manage from afar.
Such techniques were not available to owners and managers of the
nineteenth and early twentieth century; indeed, technical and bureaucratic management
systems, introduced in different periods of the twentieth century, were deployed precisely
to overcome the extensive autonomy enjoyed by workers and supervisors under the early
drive system (Edwards 1979). Thus more likely than a return to the earlier system is the
emergence of a new form of work and management with only the semblance of
decentralization: the responsibilities of middle-level management pushed down into the
lowest levels of the corporation, and workers increasingly prevailed on to act both as
workers and managers within tightly defined limits. (See Burawoy and Lukacs[*]  for a similar criticism of the flexible specialization
In sum, what may seem to well-intentioned policy analysts to be humane
and logical reorganization strategies often represent to corporate top management little
more than license to institutionalize the impermanence of jobs and skills and thus
workers. The concept of flexibility, while providing tangible benefits for employers,
currently portends more troublesome results for corporate workers themselves. Clearly,
managerial and nonmanagerial employees alike end by paying the costs of flexibility and
The Politics of Flexible Production
The proponents of flexibility have made many provocative claims.
Sorting through the devastating restructuring processes of the seventies and eighties,
these theorists are attempting to chart bold directions for corporations in the 1990s and
beyond. Between the admonitions to adopt a more flexible orientation to markets and the
guidelines for a more participative and flexible set of workplace relations, they have
offered us the ingredients for a transformed corporate America.
Blueprints for increasing productivity and uniting the efforts of labor
and management in a new corporate agenda are critical. However, they can only suggest to
us what can be, not what will be. Much about the restructured postindustrial
corporation, although perhaps technologically and organizationally feasible, is
politically indeterminate, something rarely acknowledged in the postindustrial optimism.
Because of that indeterminacy, it is important to discuss the politics of change in order
to assess the likelihood of moving to new flexible, postindustrial work arrangements.
Skeptics have not held back from addressing the political difficulties
of this issue in the prevailing atmosphere of dissension between labor and management in
the United States. Howard (1985), for example, agrees with the thrust of the
postindustrial perspective. He notes that new computer technologies, often adopted to give
corporations a competitive edge, prefigure a more positive and decentralized
reorganization of work that can benefit management and workers. Workers could assume
greater responsibilities in organizing production and could utilize their unique skills to
design new ways of working. At the same time, Howard argues, the new technologies are not
likely to reveal their potential in the current antagonistic labor-relations climate of
American industry, unless management agrees to treat workers as partners, with respect and
trust. If current hierarchical arrangements prevail, workers will be forced into a
coercive brave new workplace. In view of the current orientation of American corporate
management toward short-term profit-making, Howard may be correct in his pessimism.
American employers may hesitate to make the long-term investment in the technology and
training necessary for implementing genuinely flexible and participative work systems.
This point is only briefly touched on by Sabel (1982, p. 219) in his discussion of
neo-Fordist work arrangements.
Zuboff (1988) emphasizes even more adamantly that American business
organizations stand at the crossroads with regard to new, flexible technologies. All too
frequently, she argues, top-level managers operate under traditional restrictive
assumptions about their political relations with labor. More than willing to deploy
computers solely to automate (and thus to extend control over workers), management will
seldom strive to maximize workers' skills and intellect or use the technology
simultaneously to incorporate and expand workers' unique knowledge through what Zuboff
calls "informating" processes. To take the former route will be fatal, according
to Zuboff, because it will permanently consign American firms to a regressed, secondary
status in the world economy.
Highly suspicious of claims about the benefits of flexible
specialization for workers, Gough (1986) suggests that the new technologies that
facilitate flexible specialization production systems, such as CAD and CAD/CAM
(Computer-Aided Design/Computer-Aided Management) are often precisely the technologies top
managers use to deskill and impose new systems of discipline on workers (Gough 1986, pp.
65â“67). Workers must self-consciously and systematically develop their own
"oppositional restructuring" agenda to increase the unity of the working class
and enable that class to struggle effectively against capital.
Whether or not the new work arrangements can succeed must be considered
in the context of prevailing labor/management politics. Middle managers themselves
frequently object to coordinating worker self-management (an objection interpreted as
irrational, inexplicable resistance to change in the popular business press). Cognizant of
losing authority and discretion as workers are empowered, many middle managers object to
passing on decision-making powers to lower-level workers when managers may still be held
accountable for final outcomes. Not coincidentally, but without adequately explaining why,
Lawrence (1985) sees managers' resistance to the new ethic of participation as one of the
biggest blocks to the upgrading of workers' jobs (p. 359).
Workers too, in many cases, have greeted new flexible work arrangements
with ambivalence and distrust, generating a highly politicized atmosphere when asked to
become managers and to embrace new flexible technologies and organizational devices.
Workers often view increases in responsibility without increase in compensation,
heightened involvement as self-managers, and reduced participation of upper-level managers
as indicators of significant speedups and future redundancies (Simmons and Mares 1985,
chap. 14). Such perceptions create a negative payoff to the
firm when workers feel that new work arrangements and technology are a source of stressful
extra work and accountability rather than a source of enrichment (Zuboff 1988).
Simmons and Mares tout the potential advantages to workers, citing the
decrease in alienation and increase of morale and pride as important outcomes of greater
worker involvement. Yet even they acknowledge that one of the principle limitations of
existing QWL programs and other schemes designed to enhance worker participation is that
in the majority of cases in which participation has increased, there has been little
fundamental change in workers' power and authority. The result has been the
disillusionment and antagonism of the workers. Asked to do more, to consider themselves as
agents of management, and to adopt the goals of the firm as their own, workers' ability to
control the most meaningful factors of work life (investment, plant closures, etc.) is
nevertheless sharply circumscribed, a situation well captured in Simmons and Mares's
phrase "participation but not control" (1985, chap. 7). Often management uses
quality circles to give workers the "feel" of participation without a meaningful
voice in decision making, or to co-opt existing and future unions with the intent of
maintaining managerial flexibility (Grenier 1988; Parker and Slaughter 1988; Businessweek
, 10 July 1989).
Unions have responded in various ways to flexibility. As mentioned
earlier, recent collective-bargaining negotiations have included commitments to
employee-involvement programs. In many cases unions have agreed to those programs because
they have no options: they must either acquiesce to management's demand for flexibility or
see their plants close down (Kochan, Katz, and McKersie 1986). But some unions have
resisted worker-participation schemes; union leaders, for example, may resist joint
consultation with management on flexible technologies and worker involvement because they
fear that their members will feel they are simply being co-opted by management (Thomas
1988). Indeed, the pressure to participate has occasionally
backfired, leading dissident rank-and-file workers, in at least one important case,
seriously to challenge the judgment of their union leadership and to call for new leaders
who will be less willing to cooperate with top management.
I do not conclude from those cases that the redistribution of
managerial authority is unequivocally bad for workers. To the contrary, the outcomes for
workers are indeterminate. The downward movement of authority, for example, in and of
itself may have positive outcomes for workers as they gain greater control of shop or
office. It may be very much in workers' interests to participate in top-down
self-management schemes if, for example, the survival of the firm depends on increasing
productivity. Indeed, the redistribution of authority can benefit both workers and the
firm; it is known that managers can inhibit productivity by ignoring workers' unique
expertise (Juravich 1985).
That indeterminacy, however, means that it is important to demystify the
concept: to investigate the numerous and ambiguous causes and outcomes, for workers, of
"flexibly organized production" and, in particular, to understand the
interaction between and politics of managerial deskilling and worker
"upskilling." It becomes important to ask, for example, who initiates flexible
programs and what happens to compensation and job classifications as firms burden their
workers with managerial responsibilities and eliminate strictly defined managerial
positions? Will job security be guaranteed in return for the relaxing of job
classifications and any subsequent productivity increases? If firms have the unstated goal
of laying off workers and closing plants, then gaining the participation of workers in
self-managing teams to stave off closure temporarily can rightfully be viewed with
suspicion. Ironically, the unequal trade-off between top management and
workers-in which workers make concessions about flexibility but gain little
or no power to influence decisions concerning the security of their jobs and their
firm-could limit the successful spread of so-called QWL programs, since, in
the estimation of Kochan, Katz, and McKersie (1986), QWL ini-
tiatives stand the greatest chance of success when they are linked to
employment and income security (p. 211).
Demystifying flexibility is also important for understanding how
restructuring may affect opportunity structures for women and minority workers. In key
ways, the techniques designed to implement flexibility may diminish opportunities for
women and members of other historically disadvantaged groups. In the light of the present
examination of American Security Bank and of data on larger trends in the organization of
employment relations, three outcomes seem possible in the coming years.
First, when firms wipe out middle managerial positions, they eliminate
positions that have only recently been made available to women and minorities. The most
significant change in women's labor-force patterns in recent years has been their
increased participation in managerial and administrative jobs: women went from being 18.5
percent of the managerial and administrative work force in 1970 to 37.9 percent in 1987
(Blum and Smith 1988; U.S. Bureau of the Census 1989). Throughout the 1970s, black workers
made important gains in professional and managerial staff jobs in large corporations,
after decades of being excluded from those positions (Collins 1989). As firms become more
committed to cutting overhead in the form of administrative costs and layers, they are
doing away with the jobs that had just opened up to women and minorities and undermining
the advances these groups have made in wages, status, and security.
The computerization of workers' jobs can similarly undercut supervisorial jobs that
have been important bridges for women and minorities into the upper levels of the
corporation. New integrated computer systems combine production and supervisory tasks
previously performed by different jobholders into one job at a computerized workstation.
In tandem with the computer system that has the capacity to measure and control the worker
using the technology, one upgraded clerical worker runs the workstation without being
directly monitored by a supervisory worker; the new integrated jobs are often dead-end
positions even though they are comparatively upgraded (Baran and Teegarden 1987). Doing
away with bridge jobs can both keep women and minorities out of internal labor markets,
which provide greater security and certainty of mobility, and weaken the internal labor
market itself by taking away the progressive steps upward in the firm. In sum, eliminating
low- and mid-level managerial jobs in the service of flexibility may systematically
destroy employment opportunities only recently gained by women, blacks, and other
Second, a countervailing trend that is part of the movement toward
flexibility may have a unique effect on women's work opportunities. As firms try to
implement quality circles and other participative schemes in blue- and white-collar
workplaces, they may seek employees who have great emotional flexibility and a high
tolerance for intense personal relations to work as "facilitators" or
"group leaders." Such persons may be perceived as being better equipped to
cajole and manipulate workers and overcome their apprehensions about new technological and
social work arrangements. Companies might design jobs just for those persons, who
presumably would be most able to cooperate and least strictly committed to hierarchical
If, for whatever reasons, employers view women as well suited for that
type of intense, cooperative, interpersonal work, they may go to great lengths to recruit
women employees for the purpose. And in fact some managers and management experts have
argued that firms would do well to recruit women to work in the less hierarchical, less
bureaucratic firm of the postindustrial era. Women make better managers, in this line of
reasoning, because of their allegedly superior ability to cooperate, intuit and work
around the feelings of others, and confront situations that are intensely
social-relational (see Blum and Smith [1988, pp. 530â“534] for a review of
Although this second trend would open up a sphere of managerial jobs for
women, in contrast to the first, which does away with managerial jobs, the new job
category could easily turn into a less desirable, "feminized" occupation. By
gender-typing lower-level managerial and supervisorial jobs as "women's work,"
managers and employers could deliberately select women over men and exclude women from
other types of positions. Psychic costs to women will be high if they are continually
thrust into changing, uncertain, and fluid positions with responsibility for absorbing
tension and conflict over changing roles in the workplace. The costs would also be
monetary, if women are confined to a new female ghetto of relational work with the
characteristic disadvantages of female occupations, such as lower pay and prestige (Reskin
and Roos 1987; Strober and Arnold 1987). In other words, female managerial work could
stabilize as a subspecialty within the larger occupation of management (Reskin and Roos
Cutting across the first trend of diminishing opportunities at higher
levels in the firm, the expansion of intense interpersonal managerial jobs would stymie
women's mobility by restricting them to a new "emotion work" ghetto (Hochschild
The issue of a feminine-hence
gender-based-managerial style is provocative, but, in this case, it is a
smokescreen. It obscures potentially costly and permanent changes in women's employment as
a result of corporate restructuring. What is important, however, is whether and how
employers exploit the theory of difference between male and female managers to justify
confining women in disadvantaged positions.
Finally, the growing trend toward the peripheralization of professional
and managerial jobs offers American corporations new ways to marginalize women. For
decades, of course, women and minority workers have had the majority of part-time and
temporary jobs, most frequently at lower levels of large firms or in the secondary labor
market (Edwards 1979, chap. 9). In both situations, women's wages were among the lowest in
the economy; they received few benefits and had few opportunities for promotion (Smith
Now, however, firms are employing more elite professional and managerial
workers on this basis. Very likely this so-called dual internal labor market (Mangum,
Mayall, and Nelson 1985), only recently emerged, will be interwoven with women's
employment patterns. That is, because of family and child-care constraints and managerial
stereotypes about women's lesser commitment to careers, employers may hire white male
workers for core activities and women for their peripheral work force. Women may have to
accept part-time and temporary jobs, even though so many women have worked in the core
work force on a full-time and permanent basis over the last fifteen years.
Unfortunately, the increase of a peripheralized professional and
managerial work force coincides all too well with a current corporate interest in
developing different career tracks for different groups of women. These tracks vary
according to managements' perceptions of whether women will be committed, long-term
employees or will have a dual commitment, to a less than all encompassing professional
life and to raising families. The female dual-track proposition has been described,
analyzed, attacked, and defended in the popular and business press (F. Schwartz 1989; Businessweek,
20 March 1989). However much its advocates wish to deny that the dual track should be used
to discriminate against women, the so-called mommy track already appears to firms a
perfectly reasonable way to accommodate both women's needs and the needs of the firm for
If firms need a peripheral work force that can be shed or built up
according to prevailing economic and market conditions, top managers may well tap into a
pool of workers they perceive as having only an intermittent interest in wage labor, less
interest in promotions and mobility when they are employed, and weaker bargaining
power-a description that closely fits Felice Schwartz's (1989) picture of the
women on the family/work track. Thus alternative, non-fast-track career choices for women
will be institutionalized in the unpredictable employment practices of firms.
The outcomes of this trend, too, have an indeterminate, political
character and will depend on a worker's class and race. For women who have the
organizational bargaining power and leverage-presumably upper-managerial,
educated, skilled workers in the largest corporations-these trends could
prove to be emancipating. Those women will be in a better position to control when and how
they will work on a part-time or temporary basis, rather than at the mercy of the
corporations' business cycles. For other women the outcomes will be mixed. The labor-force
participation of those employed by less paternalistic or less profitable firms, or those
whose race, ethnicity, or lack of education casts them into a less privileged position,
will be more vulnerable to uncertain business cycles. Firms must develop the capacity to
respond to economic downturns and upswings and the capacity to change product lines
rapidly; firms may inflict the corresponding unpredictable employment needs of business
fluctuations on disadvantaged groups of women employees. Privileged women will be in a
position to control the timing of their employment and to accommodate their personal
life-cycles to the business cycles of the flexible post-industrial firm without paying
huge personal and professional costs. But less privileged women and women of color may be
forced to accept whatever positions are offered them, regardless of the fluctuations of
their own lives.
Overall, restructuring and flexibility appear to create new
opportunities for exploiting old assumptions about women's labor-force participation. The
practices discussed above could be used to block the progress that women have made in the
labor force over the past ten to fifteen years. Just as women made huge strides in
professional and managerial work, those levels of the corporation are being slashed away.
Just as women have shattered stereotypes that define "women's work,"
corporations seem to be building whole new domains of emotionally laden occupations for
which women may be seen as prime candidates. And just as women are being taken seriously
as full-time workers with deep and meaningful commitments to professional and
administrative work, firms are developing part-time and temporary ghettos within these
occupational levels and are managing to marginalize even historically elite workers.
Because of the overwhelming presence of women in lowerlevel clerical,
service, and retail sales jobs (Rothschild 1981), it has long been clear to students of
gender relations that women workers have an enduring relationship to the postindustrial
economy. The phenomena described above, however, show other ways that women's work and
gender inequality will be an integral part of changing authority relations and corporate
hierarchies in the restructuring, postindustrial workplace.
The Politics of Restructuring
In theorizing and creating new work arrangements, corporate managers
and the postindustrialists must also deal with the general politics of restructuring.
Whether and how workers and middle managers resist restructuring will be critical to top
management's attempt to gain greater control over the corporation. It appears that more
and more corporate employees, managerial and nonmanagerial alike, are sharply critical of
short-term strategies for profitability and investment and are challenging top
management's prerogative to make decisions that devastate communities, firms, and
Nonmanagerial workers have, in varied circumstances, resisted paying for
corporate downsizing with their own efforts (in the form of speedups) and with their own
jobs. They have attacked corporate diversification policies that strip productive
enterprises of profitability. Because their struggles have had an institutionalized, legal
form, located within a formal bargaining framework, such resistance has been far more
discernible and "measurable" than managerial resistance.
Union leaders and members, for example, have pressed for legislation to
restrict plant closings at the local, state, and national levels (Deitch and Erickson
1987; Lawrence 1987; Staudohar and Brown 1987, part 5). The 1986 steelworkers' strike at
U.S. Steel was inspired by distrust of top management's investment and diversification
policies (Businessweek , 19 May 1986; Hoerr 1988). To halt Safeway Stores' top
management from making unilateral decisions about selling off assets and laying off
workers, the United Food and Commercial Workers mobilized to gain some degree of veto
power in these negotiations (Businessweek , 8 September 1986).
In one recent and highly publicized case of opposition to paying the
costs of corporate restructuring, the United Airlines contingent of the Airline Pilots
Association attempted to buy the airline company from UAL Incorporated, its parent
company. This bid was pursued expressly in opposition to UAL's diversification strategies.
The pilots argued that top management's policies would jeopardize the airline; the pilots
predicted job loss, disruption of business, and a general drain of United Airlines
financial resources as top management continued to acquire other businesses (Wall
Street Journal , 9 April 1987; Businessweek , 20 April 1987). They proposed, in
return for a controlling interest and ownership by the entire United work force, a
leveraged buyout using pension fund money and labor cost reductions.
Similar criticisms guided the recent strike by Eastern Airlines
machinists. Machinists and pilots fought company head Frank Lorenzo's notorious agenda to
break up the company and sell off assets without regard for the long-term integrity of the
airline (New York Times , 9 March 1989). Other manufacturing and production unions
have bought out plants that top managements were threatening to shut down (Whyte 1987).
My study suggests that managers' resistance to paying the costs of
restructuring have been hidden within the firm. I documented some forms of this resistance
in American Security Bank and explained how they were shaped by the politics of corporate
restructuring. Preliminary evidence from other large corporations suggests similar
patterns in the complex in-firm politics of management restructuring.
General Motors, a firm that has surfaced occasionally throughout these
pages, experienced a major managerial crisis in the face of reorganization processes that
cut back both blue- and white-collar workers severely. One report, which framed this
crisis as a morale problem, focused on the depression and anger felt by managers who faced
the possible disappearance of their own jobs, as well as the pressures and strains of
having to "select subordinates as candidates for 'voluntary departure.'"
Managers' contradictory position as agents and objects of GM's contraction evoked such a
wide reaction that top management identified it as a genuine company problem (Wall
Street Journal , 26 May 1987b). American Telephone and Telegraph reported a similar
"managerial morale crisis." In the wake of its breakup, and extreme cost and
personnel cuts, AT & T's middle managers were "deeply disturbed and
disillusioned" (CommunicationsWeek, 16 February 1987).
These are unsystematic references, to be sure. But although some may
persist in calling the subject of this study a "managerial morale crisis," such
accounts provide glimpses of profound disturbances in the largest and most powerful
corporations in the country. One may reasonably speculate that the real extent to which
the in-firm politics of corporate restructuring are blocking and reshaping corporate
management directives is much greater than has been revealed.
Similarly little understood are the ways middle management and
professional opposition to corporate restructuring agendas can force top management itself
to restructure. In other words, top management may have to change its policies when large
groups of employees refuse to participate in them; boards of directors can take action to
oust those at the top if strategic management fails to gain the consent of key groups in
In the case of American Security Bank, for example, under pressure from
the board of directors, chief executive officer Wedgewood eventually was forced to step
down from his position when it became apparent that his policies had failed and that
middle managers were not going to manage out massive numbers of "unnecessary"
workers. Although it was not the exclusive cause of his departure, middle management
refusal added to the impression that the restructuring project in general was failing.
United Airlines's parent company similarly jettisoned its corporate head, Richard Ferris,
when it became clear that no restructuring program would work without the cooperation of
company employees; top management felt that banks would be willing to finance a
restructuring plan if the company had the consent of its workers (New York Times ,
12 June 1987).
Certainly, different groups of workers possess different degrees of
organizational capacity and political leverage to resist paying the often severe price of
restructuring. One of the most significant differences is between managers and workers who
have been targeted for different roles in the new corporate division of labor. While
strategic management encourages workers to manage themselves up to self-managers, it
encourages middle managers to manage out workers and management itself, goals that appear
to be at cross-purposes.
Nevertheless, by articulating and acting on these criticisms, corporate
workers, managerial and nonmanagerial alike, resist paying the multiple costs of
restructuring. They have taken a critical and oppositional stance to diversification and
investment strategies. Perhaps if the agenda to scale down management, embedded at present
within change programs that tend to disguise the degradation of management, becomes
explicit and more openly coercive, managers' resistance will become much more visibly tied
to the resistance of those they manage. Although it would be atypical in view of the
history of unionization in the United States, some have suggested that managerial workers
might affiliate with traditional blue-collar unions or form white-collar unions (Osterman
1988, p. 81). It is difficult to predict whether workers in
such disparate positions in the corporate division of labor could collectively embrace an
antistrategic management politics, or whether such a politics would have the power to stop
rather than simply contain the effects of restructuring (Burawoy 1983). Like the future of
the workplace, these political currents remain to be observed and analyzed further. But as
Kanter and Mirvis (1989) note, workers at all levels-blue-collar,
white-collar, professional, and managerial-have become exceedingly cynical
about American corporate management policy, particularly as a result of many of the
contradictory processes that have been outlined in this book. Corporate employees distrust
the "managerial evangelism" whereby business leaders use "smoke and mirrors
schemes" to manipulate workers (Kanter and Mirvis 1989, chap. 6). Workers have also
been disillusioned by the failed promises of employment contracts; their loyalties and
commitments have eroded as corporations slash and burn away much of the excess work force.
In a climate of cynicism, corporate employees may feel compelled to find systematic and
organized ways of battling the business mentality that disregards the well-being of those
who make business as usual possible.
Between the postindustrial proposals and the realities of American
business policies, then, two paths appear to extend from the current economic morass. The
paths start at the same point: a consensus about the need for new corporate strategies and
about the organizational designs that should in theory improve American competitiveness
and industrial relations. But beyond that point the paths diverge. In the current economic
era, corporate management needs the commitments of all its employees. It is unclear
whether American corporations will try to gain that commitment by following the
high-trust, enlightened model of the postindustrialists, however, or whether they will
follow more antagonistic, lowtrust, hierarchical, short-term cost-cutting policies.
Perhaps it is more likely that firms will pursue low-trust hierarchical policies of
cutbacks using the rhetoric of high-trust flexible relations, a course of action well
illustrated by the case of American Security Bank.
This book has examined the case of one not atypical path that American
corporations can follow, as well as the organizational politics created by that choice.
Looking at the labor management, product market, and production process strategies adopted
by top management in one restructuring corporation, this book analyzed the effect of those
strategies on the firm's industrial relations system. American Security Bank's situation
illustrates the depth of the difficulty of achieving fundamental corporate change and
demonstrates why U.S. top management may be tempted to follow that troubled path for
reconfiguring organizational structures and employment relations, rather than the
optimistic suggestions of the postindustrial theorists.
If it is to succeed, the postindustrial model may require that American
top management relinquish the absolute control it is accustomed to exert over investment
and diversification policies; it may also require that firms give too much genuine power
to workers. Perhaps more germane, postindustrialism's high-trust premises may be workable
only if business leaders are willing to forgo instantaneous high profit margins, to wait
out crises, and invest in building a solid, enduring foundation on which to deal with
corporate employees. If we look at the reigning short-term profit outlook and the
reassertion of ownership in the 1980s, during which Wall Street gained tremendous
influence in determining investment and diversification strategies, we see few signs that
American corporations are ready to engage in such a constructive long-term endeavor. At
the same time, this study suggests that if corporate managements follow a path that shifts
responsibility for corporate upheaval and decline onto its lower-level employees, they may
produce high-conflict situations in which managers and workers alike refuse to go along
blindly with draconian corporate agendas.
Finally, let us return to the larger question of the future of
management. Will "management, as a traditionally conceived, hierarchical
function . . . disappear altogether" as one prominent management
theorist speculates (Schein 1989, p. 65)? Or will corporate leaders solve their
competitive problems through other strategic and organizational means? Whether or not
bureaucracies and middle management must be revamped in order to regain corporate
competitiveness is a question that is beyond the scope of this study. Certainly such
theorists as Zuboff, Hirschhorn, and Hoerr present compelling evidence that the new
technologies, combined with current economic exigencies, make it imperative to dislodge
exclusive responsibility from the ranks of management and to develop more cooperation
between workers and corporate management.
But the lack of research about correlations between the structure of
management and profitability, and about other possible internal sources of current
economic problems, makes the analysis presented here of the causes and consequences of
restructuring all the more important. Corporate top managements have all too willingly
scapegoated middle management for alleged problems of hierarchy and rigidity. In the
absence of persuasive scholarly evidence to the contrary, they will have full license to
continue to cut and degrade management, often at the expense of both managers and workers.
This study proposes a different interpretation of the roots of the
competitive dilemma. It suggests that corporate management strategies ultimately create
organizational hierarchies and behavior. What many consider rigid middle-managerial
bureaucracies are in fact products of empire building by corporate managers themselves; in
a particular economic context those bureaucracies more than fulfilled their purpose. But
throughout much of the twentieth century, strategic management at American Security Bank
and numerous other corporations developed aggressive profit strategies that were
shortsighted in two important senses and led eventually to the demise of bureaucratic
management structures. They relied myopically on assumptions of endless growth, and they
strove for immediate, maximum short-term returns at the expense of building structure and
investing in technologies that would endure in a very different global context. Those
strategies have forced corporate top management to make choices about regaining power and
profits, and for the most part, they appear to be exercising quick-fix choices that target
relatively powerless parties.
By acquitting middle management of ultimate blame for U.S. competitive
problems, I do not intend to canonize individual middle managers. To be sure, middle
managers may be complacent and may build personal empires at the expense of the larger
goals of the corporation (criticisms that have been incorporated into the standard lexicon
for scapegoating middle management). I am rather taking a structural perspective on the
problem, arguing that we cannot accept at face value that these phenomena explain
America's current competitive position. The most important determinant of the failure of
the large corporation is top management strategic decision making; the extensive,
semi-autonomous structure of middle management was historically a direct by-product of
The case of American Security Bank shows that, far from being a major
impediment to contemporary restructuring, middle managers in many ways held the social and
productive fabric of the corporation together in the face of strategic management's
drastic, albeit disguised, objectives. Middle managers carried a different conception of
the firm's corporate interest, inspired in part by an explicit criticism of aggressive,
shortsighted growth strategies. Because of this criticism, top management lost its
credibility for engaging middle managers in the dirty work of restructuring. Middle
managers, however, did not dismiss the possibility of overhauling the employee relations
framework; instead, they put the brakes on this process, slowing it down, reinterpreting
and reworking the new policies both to increase productivity and to maintain the
credibility of the firm in the eyes of their employees. From strategic management's
perspective, with its insistence on immediate and profitable results, middle managers'
actions most certainly were an obstacle; from the perspective of thinking about the future
of the American corporation and the prospects for consent to and legitimation of change,
middle managers' actions could, in a different strategic context, make possible the
cooperation so highly touted by both policy analysts and strategic managers.
Some may wish to say that when it comes to formulating remedies for our
economic situation, it matters little who is responsible for the current crisis in the
corporation: we should just face the facts and look for new ways of working that will
increase productivity and efficiency, even if that means laying off hundreds of thousands
of managerial employees and turning remaining workers into controlled managers. Yet there
is no reason to think that these policies will be viable in the long run if they are based
on inadequate or distorted explanations of how American firms ended up where they are
today. This study has attempted to go to the origins of the problem and to relay a sense
of the consequences of blindly pursuing corporate employment strategies without regard to
the history and power relations of the modern corporation.