Recently I have read a book by Gordon, Andrew: The Wages of Affluence: Labor and Management in Postwar Japan. (Boston: Harvard University Press, 2001). The following is my feeling on the book:
About the author: Andrew Gordon is a famous scholar of modern Japanese history. He is Lee and Juliet Folger Fund Professor of History at Harvard University and also the former chair of the Department of History from 2004–2007. He was Director of the Edwin O. Reischauer Institute of Japanese Studies between 1998 and 2004. In 1981 Andrew Gordon completed his PhD in History and East Asian Languages at Harvard University. After completing his graduate studies Gorden taught history at Duke University and at Harvard respectively. He is one of the leading experts on Japanese labor history. Recently Gordon focuses his research in the history of the sewing machine, and the making of the modern consumer in 20th century Japan. (Source: Wikipedia)
Brief summary of the book:
Chapter one touches on the evolution path of union movement in Japan after WWII, the movement was rather violent during the late 1940’s and 50’s, but became more peaceful starting from the late 1950’s. This transformation could be an obstacle for the unions to achieve a legitimate democratic environment in the work place, and eventually in the society at large.
Chapter two uses NKK, a steel mill, to study the role of unions. Previously, the unions were merely an advisory body with very limited power to participate in management, but this situation changed after WWII. In NKK, union leaders imagined that they had the mandate to revive the steel industry, and workers began to form unions in pursuit of equality etc.
Chapter three talks about the conflicting viewpoints between employees and employers on issues such as “labor-management consultation”, “industrial democracy” and “quality control”. Meanwhile, economic recovery in the 1950’s speeded up fundamental structural changes in the society.
Chapter four shows management’s attempts to weaken the power of the unions. Managers at NKK were successful in nurturing dissident parties within the unions so as to eliminate the left-leaning elements inside them. The corporate-centered society began focusing on the issue of “hegemonic order” in place of “embattled ideology”.
Chapter five gives the reasons for conflicts between managers and workers. Managers held the belief that the interests of both the company and of workers would depend on increasing productivity, and as such a rational job design and a merit-based wages system etc.were necessary. However, the union activists disagreed and suspected that they would harm their job security.
Chapter six talks about the strike happened in 1956-7. By the fall of 1957, the steelworkers’ unions were poised for their strongest industrial action ever. Managers were willing to take the risk of facing the strike. In response to the strike, managers put aside their disagreement and competition. Finally the strike failed. It was a turning point: the union abandoned the strike as a weapon since then.
Chapter seven concludes that the year 1957 was the last time for unions to make a serious attempt to force major steel companies to compromise. The NKK union failed to maintain existing working conditions and eliminate sacrifice. Now the unions would behave as partners of the management. The co-operative attitude of workers was rested on a “coercive consensus”.
Chapter eight concludes that most of the managerial reforms in Japan were inspired by American practice. Yet some management models were the creation of the Japanese, such as job wages and merit-based pay. Mangers took steps to better workers’ mobilization. Multiple work sites posting were gradually replaced by single site career path. The dual-status ladder for blue-collar and white-collar employees was combined into a single status hierarchy.
Chapter nine concludes that none of the outside pressures: from small company unions strikes to environmental activist protests etc. would constitute a threat to the corporate-center society. Helped by government and laws that reinforced corporate hegemony, managers in Japan sometimes used coercive powers in handling workers. The hegemony of the enterprise was capable of withstanding a wide range of challenges.
Chapter ten concludes that the history had showed that Japanese workplace could offer the possibility of an alternative scenario, one in which working people could devise strategy to restrain corporate values rather than to embrace them fully. In the postwar, gradually unions pulled back from activism and become a close ally of the managers. While this had the benefit of bringing economic gains, it would scarify workers’ own effort to control their lives.
Thesis/Argument of the book: the book refutes the common predication in 1990s of the demise of Japanese mode of organizing the work place. It also queries the respectful attitude paid to the success of Japanese work place model, noting that the model was achieved more by coercion than by consensus.
My comments: the book is strong at making use of a large amount of historical documents: books, magazines, and pamphlets, from both English and Japanese sources. The book is successful in giving evident to support its arguments. To pick NKK is a wise choice to represent the situation in Japan in general.