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Dan Swinney’s Comprehensive Vision & Strategy

In what follows, GEO interviews Dan Swinney, Executive Director of the Midwest Center for Labor Research (MCLR), and the author of a new position paper, “Building the Bridge to the High Road” (94 pp.). This paper, outlined below in an “Executive Summary,” has generated growing debate and discussion in the social movement as well as in the business and economic development communities. Peter Montague, editor of Rachel’s Environmental & Health Weekly, for example, had this comment: “It could be as important as the Port Huron statement was in 1964, provoking a generation of activists to do their best thinking.”

The paper is available on MCLR’s web site, <www.mclr.com>. To order copies, send a $10 check or money order to: MCLR, 3411 W. Diversey, suite 10, Chicago, IL 60647.

Executive Summary

In this paper, Dan Swinney proposes a High Road  strategy which is difficult to pigeon-hole. Sometimes it appears radically left, at other times, radically right. In truth, it is an eclectic synthesis, drawing on best practices from many diverse and indeed conflicting ideologies. Forged by research, tempered by wide and long experience, the High Road offers a plausible solution to the malaise of late industrial society. Swinney’s analysis rejects the customary labeling that treats all businesses, or all unions, or all community activism as automatically bad or good, depending on where one stands. The paper is critical— in some detail—of low road businesses that disinvest from and destroy communities, of many traditional community development activities that displace residents and promote low road jobs, and unions that resist stepping up to members’ contemporary needs. At the same time, the essential role of high road businesses, especially those strong in entrepreneurship, is explained in equal detail, as are the critical roles of progressive labor and community economic development efforts. Finally, the High Road is a global strategy advocating international agreements on trade and investment that, while rejecting protectionism, incorporate high road values of mutual and sustainable development.

Swinney sees the gap between haves and have-nots in the U.S. as increasing, despite some favorable short-term aggregate economic indicators. This is a result of disinvestment and deindustrialization, which in turn are a result of capitalists increasingly turning to speculation and short term profits, and away from production. More and more capitalists have lost their sense of symbiosis with their communities. Some have abandoned their duty of stewardship and with it the social contract that functioned earlier this century. This deviation has been enabled, but not caused, by technological progress that allows the rapid flow of capital around the world.

The market takes the blame for much of this, but Swinney points out instead that the market is a neutral mechanism for transactions, not a teleological entity that dictates to its participants. Poor business plans, ineffective execution, lack of succession planning, and similar fixable firm-level business problems frequently lead to job loss. Short-term values that some owners and managers bring into the marketplace have caused other job losses. Only in a minority of cases has obsolescence or “market necessity” been behind job losses.

The High Road Vision is of a society that is environmentally and economically sustainable, creating jobs and livelihoods that allow true human development, not mere subsistence. It regards productivity, efficiency, and profitability as essential, but asks: What values and priorities are driving decisions within the limits of the market? How do we use the surplus generated by the market?

To carry this Vision beyond utopian dreaming, those who would follow the High Road must implement a dynamic strategy over the next several decades. This will incorporate popular control of both the micro- and macro-economy. Labor and community groups must turn from their tradition of oppositional redistributionism to a new role as creators and generators of wealth. As long as unions could fight for and receive a bigger piece of the pie, the people organized did not need deep understanding. Those days are gone. What is needed now is what Swinney calls a Development Model of Organizing: this requires that workers and community members have a clear understanding of society, think strategically, and embrace a vision. Labor, both organized and unorganized, occupies a crucial strategic position; it must adopt “capital strategies” and “an integrated approach...to affect all aspects of the structure, finance, and operations of both single firms and entire industries.” Labor and community must recognize the benefits of alliances with each other. They must use a much broader array of tools to achieve this vision, including some, like market forces, intrinsic to capitalism. But when markets fail, other tools can provide correction, including social action. Government is seen as just one of several crucial tools, and not the source of all solutions. Within this High Road strategy, some sections of the business community have a crucial role to play. Swinney makes an important distinction between enterprises seeking a fair return through increasing productive capacity and those seeking a return through speculation only. Businesses on the High Road are viewed as allies, those on the Low Road are to be blocked.

As a vision for society this may sound radical or remote, but in fact elements of it have already been implemented in individual firms and throughout some regions of Europe. Many companies have become high performance workplaces through greater worker knowledge and control. Though ESOPs are usually little more than financing tools, Swinney cites examples of genuine employee owned and controlled firms. Crucial preconditions for the success of this vision are well-trained leaders and organizers who can educate their unions and communities about finance, management, economics, and sociology. Organizing for wealth creation is a long term proposition, so unions and community organizations must themselves be well managed, high capacity units.

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