When in 1992 I moved abruptly from writing poetry about the meaning of life in college to writing prose about the practice of employee communication in Chicago, Hugh Iglarsh eased the transition. He was the editor of The Ragan Report and my boss, and he didn't think having intellectual aspirations and working in the employee communication trade press were mutually exclusive. So he and I explored this business pretty earnestly together for a year, and we've remained friends since. So last week I was tickled to alert Hugh to this series I'm doing on this old book I discovered. Here was his response, delivered to me with astonishing speed, and putting Alexander Heron's book into an important historical perspective that my analysis ignores. Thanks, Hugh. —DM
Very interesting both in its assumptions (e.g., that employers—and by extension, capitalism itself—are fighting for the allegiance of their workforce against strong opponents) and its limitations (I haven't seen a mention of the concept of "upward communication," i.e., communication). It has a distinct New Deal sound to it—that the basic institutions are at risk, and can only be salvaged if the working class gets a bigger slice of the pie—in terms not only of wealth, but also information and the implications of information, participation and dignity. Now that we are coming out of an age of neoliberal triumph, in which supposedly there was "No Alternative" to the rigors of globalization, Heron does indeed seem relevant again. The collapse of the economy shows that a system that revolves around paper wealth and ignores basic human needs can't sustain itself.
The book reflects a historical moment. To defeat fascism, the USA had to produce 100,000 airplanes a year. The workers' productivity was as important as the soldiers' courage. Yet the intense labor struggles and radical consciousness of the Depression years were still very much in workers' minds. The result was a liberal industrial policy, in which classical capitalism, with its naked exploitation and resultant class conflict, would be transformed by broad-minded intellectuals (such as Heron) into a kind of social or high-road capitalism, where workers were (at least rhetorically) conceptualized not as pure costs but as sentient human beings. The bosses were grudgingly willing to accept this arrangement—temporarily —because the alternative was losing the war and hence the whole American empire.
The New Deal vision is a better arrangement for everybody—but the forces of bean-counting abstraction have proved stronger than the counter-forces. Ultimately, the strategy became de-industrialization, creating a society in which people either shuffle money, move information or paint nails. All to maximize short-term profits within hollowed-out, downward-spiraling corporations and to pre-empt working-class power, by turning producers into credit-hobbled consumers. But it doesn't create real wealth—in fact it drains wealth out of productive enterprises into usury—and we see the long-term consequences.
I certainly hope that the crash of 2008 leads to a deep rethinking of what an economy is and what human beings are for. However, both the industrial plant and the local economies are weaker now than they were in 1943, and the New Deal solution of economic stimulus and revamped industrial relations is unlikely to produce the same results. One response to an economic-political crisis of this sort is fascism, the tendency of the Bush/Cheney administration. The other is a movement toward humane socialism—i.e., a broadening of the commons, a strengthening of the social fabric and a rejection of greed as the dominant impulse in life.
Anyway, what interests me about this book—even more than the employee relations angle—is Heron's take on the media. His categories of "reluctant" willingness (comparable to what the CIA calls "limited hangout"), "paternalistic" willingness and "propagandist" willingness perfectly describe the attitudes and purposes of the MSM. Heron's essay opened my eyes to the reality of the corporate media as a kind of house organ -- one less enlightened than the communication vehicles advocated by Heron.
As for Heron's central creed:
"The aggressive willingness to share information with employees is practical because, honestly and wisely followed through, it will induce a constructive co-operation which cannot be bought or forced."
Well, that's saying a lot. What's even more important is an aggressive willingness to listen to employees. Workers will feel like partners when they have real input, when their safety is considered, when they feel secure and respected, when their bosses aren't making more in a day than they are in a year, when the company is concerned with quality and not just profits, when the tone of the enterprise is communal and not sociopathic, etc. Certainly communication is a good start in treating employees like people. But when you begin a conversation you don't know where it will go—that's the whole point—and I wish Heron would focus not just on divulging information but on obtaining it. By writing only from the point of view of the bosses (as far as I can tell, from what I've read here), he reveals his own standpoint of enlightened elitism.
Anyway, thanks for posting these excerpts—they're useful advice for those in the trade, as well as wonderful historical documents. I look forward to seeing more of Heron's wisdom and your commentary.