Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Herbert Clark Hoover on Twentieth Century Human Resource Management

In most standard treatments of twentieth century history such as Louis Hartz's Liberal Tradition in America Herbert Hoover is painted as a conservative advocate of laissez-faire who caused the Great Depression through indifference and inaction. He is contrasted with Franklin Roosevelt who is painted as a true social democrat and harbinger of socialist progress. In New History of Leviathan Murray Rothbard does a good job of debunking this nonsensical mythology. Hoover was very much a Progressive in the early twentieth century sense, and his policies anticipated much of the substance of the New Deal. One of the sources that Rothbard cites is the reprinting of a speech that Hoover gave in November 1920 to the Federated American Enginnering Societies in the American Federationist, the journal of the American Federation of Labor (January 1921 issue, volume XXVIII, pp. 35-40).

What is remarkable about Hoover's speech is not just his warmth toward organized labor and his fulsome expression of favor toward regulation of industry and collective bargaining but also the degree to which he anticipated flexible labor relationships that characterized late twentieth century Japanese and US factories. Hoover advocates competency-based pay, cooperation between labor and management guided by collective bargaining, employee involvement in problem solving, flexible work hours to adjust for business downturns, hours of labor that vary with trades and government restructuring of labor markets to facilitate job search among seasonal workers. This last concept was being touted as innovative by labor economists of the 1990s, seventy years after Hoover discussed it. Along with the flexible work practices, Hoover advocated collective bargaining and regulation of industry. He was not an advocate of laissez-faire. One must wonder about the historians who would claim so given easily available evidence such as this speech. Allow me to quote from part of the speech:

"Among the greatest of the problems before our country -and in fact before the world- are those growing out of industrial development....The congestion of population is producing subnormal conditions of life. The intermittency of employment due to bad coordination of industry...The aggregation of great wealth with its power of economic domination, present social, economic ills which we are constantly struggling to remedy...Our mass of regulation of public utilities and of many other types of industry...is a monument to our efforts to limit economic domination...A profound development in our economic system apart from control of capital and service during the last score of years has been the great growth and consolidation of voluntary local and national associations. These associations represent great economic groups of common purpose...And to me, one question of the successful development of our economic system rests upon whether we develop the aspects of these great national associations towards coordination with each other in the solution of national economic problems or whether they grow into groups for more violent conflict...There are certain areas of conflict of interest but there is between these groups a far greater area for common interest...

"...In the question of industrial conflict resulting in lockout and strike one mitigating measure has been agreed upon in principle by all sections of the community. That is collective bargaining...

"There lies at the heart of all these questions the great human conception that this is a community working for the benefit of its human members, not for the benefit of its machines or to aggrandize individuals..."

Among the steps that Hoover advocated to encourage community of interests were hours of labor varying with trades; improvement of labor exchanges; flexible hours to adjust for business downturns; competency- or pay-for-knowledge-based wages with wage structures graded for skill; cooperation between labor and management; employee involvement in problem solving; and the use of the closed shop to encourage greater worker efficiency. The Japanese have done much along the lines of the last point with their "enterprise unions", but Hoover was not saying "company unions" or "representation plans". He used the phrase "closed shop", an approach that was illegalized under the Taft Hartley Act as granting excessive power to labor.

It is also of special interest that Hoover emphasized the role of factions or special interest groups. His hope that they would cooperate never really materialized, although as Rothbard shows during World War I and as Radosh shows during the early period of the New Deal, fascist-like regulation of the economy through governmentally-mandated cartels were attempted.

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