Commendable Realism

Review of Durable Goods: A Covenantal Ethic for Management and Employees by Stewart W. Herman. Soundings: A Series of Books on Ethics, Economics and Business. University of Notre Dame Press, 1997. Pbk., 256 pp. ISBN 0-268-00885-X. $20.00.

[1] I have long thought that Stewart Herman’s Durable Goods: A Covenantal Ethic for Management and Employees is a fine, even wonderful, book. For years I have used Durable Goods as a resource in short courses with leaders in health and human service ministries. My primary focus with such groups has been Herman’s rich understanding and suggestive application of biblical covenants, particularly the covenantal relationship between God and Israel.

[2] In re-reading Herman’s book, I have found more to question than before, but also a good deal more to appreciate. I continue to believe that Durable Goods is a must-read for anyone interested in a fresh and expansive examination of the idea of “covenant” and its possible uses in our time. It also seems to me that Herman has it largely right in his “realistic” portrayal of how labor-management relations can reflect covenantal goods-albeit in limited and ambiguous ways-and should reflect those goods so far as possible. But I wonder whether and how Herman’s paradigm might be adapted to settings other than the unionized, for-profit, corporate-industrial contexts that are his main focus.

[3] Having begun with my conclusions, I will backtrack and try to describe the complex project that Herman undertakes here. He wants to contribute to “Christian business ethics” by examining the “employment relation” in “modern business enterprises.” Following H. Richard Niebuhr, Herman’s approach is interdisciplinary, drawing on organization theory, the literature of management and the history of labor-management relations, and of course theology and Christian ethics. Again following Niebuhr, Herman rightly contends that any sound ethical approach must be grounded in “what is going on” in the modern corporation and relationships between labor and management. “Explaining comes before prescribing, and indeed prescriptions grow from carefully crafted explanations” (p. 17). Without such “methodological humility,” ethical prescription that applies ethical norms to business and labor relations is “thin” and abstract-an uncomfortable, minimally helpful grafting of external norms onto the complex interactive reality of the modern business enterprise.

[4] Thus, after early chapters that set out his overarching theoretic framework, Herman intersperses narrative chapters chronicling successive periods in nineteenth- and twentieth-century labor-management relations with theoretical chapters elaborating this history’s implications for a covenantal ethic of the employment relation; the former serves to ground the latter. In addition, Herman derives ingredients for analysis and the constructive elaboration of a covenantal framework from two other sources.

[5] First, drawing on organization theory, he articulates an understanding of modern business corporations as “dense networks of functional interdependence” that require close coordination of “tightly interlinked systems of coordinated action.” The need for such coordination results in persistent vulnerabilities, created by “enduring contingencies” that management and labor present to each other. Most obvious is the vulnerability of employees, who are susceptible to such contingencies as job loss, inadequate or reduced pay, and unsafe or unpleasant working conditions. But management is-has always been-vulnerable to employees’ more or less organized resistance, fluctuating effort and work slowdowns, absenteeism, sabotage, and more. Such vulnerabilities are external and objective, even as their effects are felt psychologically.

[6] Herman’s evocative theological anthropology (with roots in Augustine, Luther, and Reinhold Niebuhr) informs his discussions of vulnerability and contingency. Citing Reinhold Niebuhr, he casts human beings as creatures endowed with will and spirit. As creatures of will, human beings can (and do) “define and pursue purposes, particularly against resistance” (p. 35). Management may hold the economic power and set the overall direction for the enterprise and the work that is to be done, but (as noted above) there is much that employees can do either to support or to frustrate management’s aims. Thus, in the oft-contentious employer-employee relationship, “will” can take on a sharper contour as “a hard edge of purposefulness” (pp. 37-38). Each party can (and does) create enduring contingencies for the other.

[7] Herman posits that, through its exercise of will, each party has a distinctive “moral principle” that it seeks to realize. For management, that principle is the exercise of managerial prerogative-the presumed “right to direct its enterprises as it sees fit” (p. 56). Labor’s moral principle is that of self-representation-its presumed right to a “collective voice,” and employees’ right to “participate in, if not control, economic decisions profoundly affecting their welfare” (p. 76). If one asks what confers “moral” status on these principles, the self-representation principle has a rather better time of it. This principle is grounded in broader principles of republican government as well as biblical history, e.g., the “right” of the people of Israel to be represented before God, to be “heard and responded to” (p. 80). Herman cites both the right of private property and broad social utility (particularly the generation of wealth) as common arguments for managerial prerogative. He observes that Protestant denominations and the Catholic Church have (with qualifications) all recognized the right to private property, although the Bible makes little of either social utility or private property.

[8] The challenge of the employee relation, and the accompanying moral challenge of a Christian business ethic, is to address enduring contingencies in a way that honors the moral principles central to both principal parties. Thus Herman draws on biblical covenants, especially the covenant between God and Israel, as a second key resource to meet this challenge. His portrayal of the covenant as a dynamic, ever-unfolding reality is a highlight of the book. Herman reads the high moments of covenant-making and the fixed language of the covenant’s provisions as, in a sense, stage-setters. The real drama resides in God’s and Israel’s continuing efforts to hold each other to the covenant and, even more, to mold one another in congenial ways. If “the work of God begins, rather than ends, with the formal covenants ratified by the people” (p. 46), the people also have expectations of God and seek to influence God’s action (as even a cursory glance at the Psalms reminds us).

[9] Herman applies the tools of organization theory to his analysis of the covenant in two ways. First, as in his analysis of the employment relation, he looks for the “ineradicable” contingencies that God and the people perpetually pose to each other. (Theologically, God accepts the contingencies presented by the people, who of course have less choice in whether to accept the divine contingencies).

[10] Second, Herman lists the “strategies and tactics” that both sides employ over the course of their shared history. In particular, as he does in examining the employment relation, Herman focuses on the interplay of conflict, coercion, and cooperation in the covenant history. He finds a gradual-though never total-shift in the divine tactics, moving rather unevenly from conflict and coercion toward cooperation. The agency of the people is taken seriously, even when (as so often) they frustrate God’s purposes; at the same time, and consistent with God’s recognition of their freedom, they are held ever accountable. God seems determined to weather the ambiguity of the results-the mixed success-of the divine “campaign” (p. 50) to win full covenantal cooperation.

[11] Through it all, God keeps the bar of expectation high. Divine patience with frequent human shortfall does not mean diminished demands for love and justice. But painful experience shows that “mercy, forgiveness, and fidelity” constitute God’s most durable response to human wilfulness. Such divine tactics are “durable,” not because they are always effective, but because they present the most enduring hope of eliciting covenantal cooperation.

[12] The parallel between divine-human and labor-management struggles has its limits: “management does not represent God to employees!” (p. 55). The fact that God “copes” with the enduring contingency of Israel’s freedom by making “enduring commitments” is, however, of central importance in mapping the moral possibilities of the employment relation. Since neither business nor labor can control the other’s contingency, God’s strategy suggests how they might act to secure the aims underlying their respective moral principles of managerial prerogative and self-representation.

[13] Each party can seek to make a virtue (my term, not Herman’s) of uncontrollable necessity by demonstrating respect for the other’s central principle and binding itself to refrain from exercising the power it has to frustrate the other. Such “self-binding gestures” take rudimentary form in union contracts, but need not be restricted to time-limited contracts and formal stipulations. To the degree that one or both parties’ self-binding exceeds what the contract requires, the possibility of genuinely “covenantal” relating, in the form of greater cooperation that enables “enlarged freedom” of action, increases. Thus “durable goods”-analogous to the goods nurtured in the divine-human relationship by God’s non-coercive tactics-may emerge in the employment relation.

[14] In the history of labor-management struggle, Herman recognizes that any flowering of covenantal possibilities has tended to be transient. Seemingly, covenantal progress is always followed by backward steps, often with painful and even tragic consequences. Herman’s account of the betrayal of a promising cooperative venture at the Caterpillar Corporation suggests just how bitter the disintegration of such cooperation can be. Market pressures, manipulation, unilateral assertion of power by whoever has it, and seeming stupidity or sheer bad faith can all play a part.

[15] Moreover, Herman unflinchingly describes the difficulty of sustaining cooperative relations even when both sides express willingness to cooperate. To some extent, the enemy of cooperation may be sloth. In a real sense work life is easier-takes less effort-and cleaner-requires less complexity in structure and behavior-within the familiar, hierarchical, management-driven model. In comparison, cooperation is “costly” in emotional and behavioral terms-it typically requires much more communication, for example-even if it yields some financial savings.

[16] And cooperation is, for some, always suspect. Managerial willingness to institute a teamwork model or give employees a stronger voice in organizing work processes may disguise-or be perceived as disguising-another management agenda. It might signal an effort to undercut employees’ commitment to self-representation (which largely concerns wages, job security, and material well-being) by fulfilling another employee desire, that of “self-management” in structuring and carrying out the work itself. The feared result is diminished solidarity and divided loyalty, especially if employees are formed into smaller workgroups and collaborate closely with management. In this cautionary view, “employees are wise to recognize that their interests may overlap . . . but . . . will not converge” with management’s interests (p. 157). Inducements to participate in cooperative ventures are always revocable, and the same management that sponsors employee self-direction today may be planning a reduction in force tomorrow.

[17] Even so, Herman holds out for the durable goods offered by cooperation over against the alternatives: conflict, coercion, and compliance. Herman’s realism can be generous: he detects faint but real glimmerings of justice in even the smallest gestures by which labor or management recognizes the legitimacy of the other side’s moral principle and is willing to balance that interest with its own. He even sees “a tinge of covenantal love” when, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, management and workers were first “binding themselves to care, however minimally” (p. 97), for the opposition’s moral principle.

[18] Such references to justice and love beg the question of how further to specify Herman’s ethical approach and situate it among other approaches to Christian ethics. To begin with, while Herman confesses in the preface that his study displays little evidence of his Lutheran heritage, he does acknowledge (more than once) a Lutheran emphasis on developing a “horizontal” ethic that can provide guidance for human vocation. But Herman draws more explicitly and more often on the Niebuhr brothers, and to a lesser extent on other social and “covenantal” ethicists.

[19] While he follows H. Richard Niebuhr’s commitment to trace “what is going on” in the employment relation, Herman finds this Niebuhr’s characterization of moral agents as “responders” too passive and thus inadequate to describe the proactive exercise of will by potential or actual covenant partners.

[20] Herman also engages Reinhold Niebuhr (rather than contemporary “realists” in Christian business ethics) as a dialogue partner around Christian realism. He tracks the evolution of Niebuhr’s perspective on the labor-management dynamic (from prophetic/pro-labor “idealism” to chastened, indeed pessimistic, realism about both sides’ moral failings). Herman usually appears more optimistic-or hopeful-about the trajectory of the employment relation than the Reinhold Niebuhr he portrays. Yet the repeated derailments of labor-management progress that he recounts compel him to be cautionary about any presumption of “progress.”

[21] Herman also situates his covenantal ethic in relation to other Christian business ethicists who address labor-management relations. He strives for “a Christian realism which hews a middle way” (p. 4) between “ethical managerialism” and “prophetic critics and skeptics.” He characterizes ethical managerialism as an “ideology” whose adherents find a utilitarian convergence between the interests of the business and those of society. They assume that such utility, together with management’s commitment to “service,” both legitimates management’s “paternalistic” control over employees and makes management the de facto moral driver of the enterprise.

[22] Herman criticizes the second of these assumptions as both “biased” and “morally questionable” (p. 12); in reality, he also shows that it is empirically dubious. It is morally questionable, in that it dismisses the moral agency of employees and thus embraces managerial prerogative as an unquestioned right. But Herman also faults ethical managerialism for too easily assuming a convergence of interests between management (acting as the agent of the enterprise’s good) and employees. Further, managerialism’s uncritical acceptance of “aggregate utility” as the criterion for decision making ignores the impact of many business decisions, e.g., downsizing or outsourcing, on identifiable individuals (workers and those who depend on them for a living).

[23] On the other hand, prophetic critics and skeptics see in management a failure or inability to provide moral leadership, and especially to recognize the interests of employees. Most appear to doubt that management actually can resist market pressures that propel massive layoffs, low wages, and declining benefits. Herman criticizes these prophetic voices, however, for treating employees as victims without taking seriously their moral agency and its impact on the employment relation-let alone developing a coherent proposal for understanding and enhancing that agency.

[24] Despite his substantial criticism of the managerialist ethos, in the end Herman aligns his approach much more closely with the managerialists than with the prophetic voices. This posture seems to reflect his agreement that there is no effective moral alternative to the modern corporation as an engine of economic activity, and a concurrent belief that managerial power remains preeminent even though employees’ agency is real and deserves covenantal respect. Indeed, he is sympathetic to a managerialist faith that sees the modern corporation as, at its core, a cooperative venture. His near-dismissal of the prophetic voices seems to reflect a realist impatience with those who don’t or won’t engage what is going on or strive toward what may be achievable though not ideal.

[25] A strength of Herman’s study, besides those already mentioned, is his reminder that the biblical covenantal history reveals God as one who seeks to bring all human activity within the domain of covenantal relations: “No sphere of human life, not even the most hard-nosed business enterprise, is immune to God’s influence or lies beyond God’s claim” (p. 192). Otherwise, we would have to admit that “God has abandoned entire spheres of human life to a void from which God’s will is absent” (p. 192).

[26] In contrast, too often churches and clergy have relegated the world of business, and work within that world, to a kind of nether realm, often with a hint (or more) of disapproval for the values displayed in free enterprise and the market economy. Alternatively (or in addition), while mainline denominations have (often laudably) adopted prophetic stances that recognize workers’ plights and rights, some have uncritically advocated unionization as the all-encompassing remedy for the ills that beset employees. Herman’s balanced study is a needed antidote to any blanket approach in this complex area of human endeavor.

[27] One thing I miss in the book is recognition of the labor-management relationship in contexts other than for-profit, corporate-industrial enterprises. Of course, some non-business enterprises (e.g., government agencies and public schools) can be highly unionized, with a high-profile labor-management relationship. But I think Herman’s study can also be salutary reading for leaders and employees in non-unionized, not-for-profit enterprises of many sorts.

[28] These enterprises always feature some version of the labor-management dynamic, though it may not be named as such. Moreover, they are typically characterized by a service-oriented mission not associated with a profit motive (even if finances are always an issue). In the healthcare field, where I work and consult, there is often a tendency for management to assume that its aims are essentially shared by employees because, after all, “all of us” are engaged in supporting or carrying out the noble mission of caring for patients. The fact that many employees-among them salaried physicians, nurses, and other health professionals-have a deep personal and professional commitment to care for people in need can reinforce this impression.

[29] But in reality these employees have other work-related concerns, financial and otherwise: job security, wages and benefits, staffing levels, work processes, and-often-questions about management priorities and decisions in carrying out the healthcare mission. Thus it is conceivable, but may not be recognized, that these employees-like their counterparts in manufacturing and other sectors-may feel that they lack a voice about many things that matter to them in their work-as-calling.

[30] Such employees are moral agents, often passionately committed to a perceived calling, who have concerns that encompass but are not limited to the kinds of labor-management concerns that Herman considers. I believe that efforts to nurture true covenantal relating in not-for-profit contexts (health care is but one example), and perhaps in the for-profit sector as well, would do well to take this wider set of concerns into account.