Writings 1990-1999


Kenneth Westhues

Good Work News, September 1997. web publication, August 2003

Early in the summer Joe Mancini asked me to write comments for Good Work News on the 1996 paperback by Edmond Meyers, From Slavery to Social Partnership. A Kitchener resident, Meyers had published the book through his consulting company, EM Research Associates. His proposals for reform of work and the economy seemed to resonate with discussions at the Working Centre.

As summer waned and deadlines approached, this local book was not the only one awaiting my review. For a different periodical I had promised comments on Robert Kuttner's Everything for Sale: the Virtues and Limits of Markets (New York, Knopf, 1996). The latter is a major entry in the big publishing world, already reviewed in the Globe & Mail and widely discussed across North America. Kuttner is in the major league of business writers. He has taught at Harvard and Brandeis, and currently writes for Business Week and the Washington Post, as well as America's most prestigious monthlies. I couldn't help but compare his book to the one by Meyers.

What struck me were the similarities. Both authors make their living as experts on the free-market economy, serving the needs of corporate executives for knowledge of management trends and techniques. Neither is in any sense a Marxist, utopian or radical. Yet both see a pressing need for government checks on profit-seeking by corporations, and politically defined limits on the pursuit of selfish interests in the market economy. Both books are harsh critiques of what Meyers calls "cut-&-slash management principles."

The books are similar, too, in where they look for a better way of doing things: to the regulated mixed economies of Scandinavia and Central Europe. According to Meyers, both Canada and the United States need "a codetermination law, Swedish or German style, to protect the rights of all employees and to replace the traditional adversarial atmosphere with a rapport based on cooperation and mutual respect." Kuttner calls this "stakeholder capitalism," in which all those with a stake in a corporation have a say in making its policy. That means not only management and shareholders but employees, communities, and society as a whole.

Kuttner's book is the more sophisticated: his arguments are more complex, his prose more fluent, his footnotes more numerous, and his history more detailed. Yet Meyers brings to his analysis a blunt, homespun, no-nonsense clarity that makes for a compelling read. Meyers may have spent less time than Kuttner in libraries, but more time, one suspects, talking with people in varied walks of life, reading newspapers, and reflecting on everyday experience.

In part out of commitment to democracy, but also for the sake of economic growth, Meyers would not let corporation executives leave the working class behind. Full employment, higher wages, shorter working hours, preference for goods made in Canada, a strengthened manufacturing sector, lower priority on foreign trade: objectives like these are at the heart of Meyers's program of change. In the second half of the book, he outlines specific proposals for affordable housing, revitalization of urban core areas, cheaper and more effective health care, and a simplified, more progressive tax system.

Around the Working Centre, it is especially heartening to find authors from the business community urging restraints on the market, for the sake of the common, public good. Attention to Edmond Meyers's arguments right here in Kitchener-Waterloo might help us escape the catastrophe to which uncontrolled markets are leading us.