Saturday, October 06, 2007

The High Road and the Low Road


The concepts of the HR/LR, from my understanding, first emerged in European literature in the mid-90s. In this country, it was introduced by people like Joel Rogers and in the framework of various labor/community coalitions such as Sustainable America and initiatives by the sections of the AFL-CIO that engaged in workforce development and strategic campaigns related to the labor movement. In this setting, the use of the terms generally weren’t for transformative reasons but to increase bargaining and organizing leverage for trade unions and coalitions.

For CLCR, the HR/LR formulation has become a key component of our strategic vision—a vision that we seek to bring into all of our work including the Chicago Manufacturing Renaissance Council, Austin Polytech, the Solidarity Economy Network-US, and the North American Network on the Solidarity Economy.

We see the HR/LR as a key formulation in the vision that seeks an economic and social system with a commitment to development that is economically, socially, and environmentally sustainable; and based on the social partnership of business, labor, government, and community. We are fundamentally committed to an international vision of HR development that accepts globalization as a fact. In this international context we seek to define and advance the High Road and understand and block the Low Road.

With this as a premise, our vision of development is transformative and challenges the fundamental assumptions and trends of what has affectionately become known as neo-liberalism. The neo-liberal vision represents the celebration of the Low Road and has come to be “a”, if not “the”, dominant trend in the global economy. We really seek a comprehensive economic and social system that is based on different principles and assumptions—and that can successfully contend in the market place, the state, and in civil society.

Finally, this is a political movement with a small “p”. It’s objectives and programs are supported as well as opposed by Democrats, Republicans, Greens, and independents. As such, building strong alliances and coalitions among the social partners becomes fundamental. This organizing work is the complicated but finally essential work that goes with this vision.

For that reason, the ambiguity of the notion of HR/LR is useful. It doesn’t have ideological baggage from either the left or right. Everyone knows intuitively what it means and general direction it should take them in. Then we have the work to make the application more specific and accurate through in-depth research and analysis.

The notion of the Low Road emerged first in naming business practices. That limit is no longer acceptable if we are to be successful in building the kinds of coalitions we need to bring about change—hence the beginning efforts to define the HR/LR in the context of all the social partners.

Defining the High Road and Low Road is not science but a judgment. Typically companies, organizations, and agencies have a mix of both High Road and Low Road practices. The intent is to understand and reward the High Road, as well as to understand and discourage the Low Road. In both the private and public sectors, the High Road seeks a strong return on investment by:

· Being smarter and investing in innovation in the more competitive environment;

· Making a commitment to the continual enhancement of employees’ skills and their involvement in all aspects of the company or organization;

· Being more efficient and cutting waste;

· Having a long-term vision and commitment;

· Providing strong material incentives for high performance, as well as providing decent wages, benefits, and security;

· Promoting useful partnerships with stakeholders both within the firm, in the sector, and in the community; and

· Being transparent, straightforward and fair.

At the very heart of a High Road strategy is a commitment to innovation, such as developing new niches and markets, adding value to existing products, investing in research and development, expanding market share, and improving the efficiency of the productive process and the productivity of employees. Some would see this as the way manufacturing was generally done in the past; it is not a particularly new concept.

In contrast, the Low Road in business seeks a strong return on investment by:

· Emphasizing short-term gains, even if they mean postponing or sacrificing improvements in the productive capacity of the company or sector;

· Keeping wages and benefits at the lowest possible levels;

· Managing by intimidation, undermining employee initiative, and discouraging the exercise of employee rights; and

· Ignoring the needs and concerns of those beyond the most short-sighted and powerful shareholders, investors, and/or managers.

In the public sector, the Low Road also exists when particular organizations or agencies place their own rewards and benefit as such a high priority that they are willing to do damage to their partners or the broader economy. For example:

In government—holding on to bureaucratic strength and privilege no matter what the consequence for the public;

In labor—negotiations for an excessive contract with an employer that is really trying to find the High Road that places the company fundamentally at risk in the pursuit of short-term benefits for union members; or

In community—pursing a “community benefits agreement” for a specific constituency with a company such as Wal-Mart whose business plan will devastate the regional economy.

The use of High Road and Low Road by a variety of commentators, leaders, policy formulators, and organizers is increasing. This is a very useful development and CLCR will continue to give increased definition to these terms through our analytical work and practice.