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Books that Shaped Work in America

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Book Recommendation

Ray Marshall

Ray Marshall
Former Secretary of Labor

To me, the following four books are seminal in the sense of initiating important changes in policies affecting American workers.

John Maynard Keynes, General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money (1936). In this book, Keynes addressed what was generally regarded as capitalism's most serious failure: wide economic fluctuations, especially ever-deepening depressions with mass unemployment. At a time when most economists considered depressions inevitable, and even beneficial, Keynes demonstrated that appropriate policies could keep the free enterprise system operating at or near full employment. His ideas, as later modified by American economists like James Tobin, helped produce the longest period of shared prosperity in American history. Despite attacks, his ideas have stood the test of time, though must be adapted to the realities of today's global economy.

Sidney and Beatrice Webb, Industrial Democracy (1897). While Keynes addressed the macroeconomic failures of capitalism, the Webbs examined management systems. Using late 19th century British conditions as a backdrop, they rejected authoritarian "scientific management" ideas in favor of collective bargaining and other democratic workplace processes and in so doing significantly influenced labor scholars and policymakers in the United States and other industrializing democracies. Overall, they posited that common work rules established by collective bargaining or government regulations fostered greater efficiency, and that without such processes, employers would shift the costs of safety and health and other protections to workers, their families and society. These ideas helped form the basis for the National Labor Relations Act, social security and other worker protections.

Gunnar Myrdal, An American Dilemma (1944). In this book, Myrdal focused on discrimination against African Americans, but noted the parallels to similar challenges to advancement faced by other minorities and women. Discrimination, he concluded, thwarted productivity and stood in opposition to America's founding premise of individual equality and self-determination. In developing a factual and analytical basis for understanding and reducing discrimination, he influenced many scholars, policy makers and activists going forward, notably A. Philip Randolph and Martin Luther King Jr. in their leadership of the civil rights movement a half century ago.

W. Edwards Deming, Quality, Productivity and Competitive Position (1982), later reissued as Out of the Crisis. In the 1970s and 80s, it became increasingly clear that the traditional and deeply-entrenched bureaucratic management paradigm was not suitable for the emerging global information economy. In this book, Deming explored how this required American companies to re-think the very concept of management, arguing that companies could either compete by direct costs (mainly wages) or by improving quality, flexibility and total factor productivity (not just economies of scale). During the 80s, the demonstrated effectiveness of the Japanese management system—strongly influenced by Deming—prompted many to redesign management processes (employee involvement, total quality management, process engineering, knowledge management, etc.), which generally required more highly-trained and educated workers. These developments, in turn, induced major changes in schools and other learning systems.

Ray Marshall was the 16th U.S. Secretary of Labor, serving from 1977 to 1981.



Books that Shaped Work in America             Title    Author    Year    Contributors




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