American Workers’ Labor Day Message: Restore our Voice at Work! – Thomas A. Kochan, Erin L. Kelly, William Kimball, and Duanyi Yang

MIT Sloan Professor Thomas Kochan

MIT Sloan Professor Thomas Kochan

From The Conversation.

When earlier this year courageous teachers in West Virginia, Kentucky, Oklahoma, Colorado, and Arizona marched on their state capitals to get a pay raise and better funding for their students, they spoke for the majority of American workers who lack an effective voice at work. Their actions should serve as a wake-up call for employers and politicians alike: It is time to restore our voice at work.

Teachers are not alone in demanding a change.  A recent national survey of the workforce we conducted found there is a persistent and deep gap between the influence and say American workers believe they ought to have at work—

MIT Sloan Distinguished Professor of Work and Organization Studies Erin Kelly

something we call worker voice–and what they experience.  A majority of workers report they have less say than they believe they should have over key issues such as compensation and benefits, job security, promotions, training, new technology, employer values, respect, and protections against abuse and discrimination.  And between a third and one half report a voice gap on decisions about how and when they work, safety, and the quality of their products or services.

The long term decline in unions is a key reason for this voice gap and many workers see reversing this decline as part of the solution. In the same survey nearly 50 percent of the workforce (equivalent to 58 million workers) report they would join a union if given the chance to do so today, a number that is up from one third of the workforce in prior decades.

But rebuilding worker voice in ways that work in today’s economy and for the full range of workers who want more of a voice will require new strategies on the part of unions and other worker advocates and an entirely new labor law.

The good news a lot of innovative groups inside and outside the labor movement are now trying out new approaches to worker voice.  They range from protests like those of the teachers, to filing on-line petitions with companies like Starbucks to change scheduling practices, to the use of artificial intelligence tools to inform and advise Walmart workers of their workplace rights, to the Fight for a $15 an hour minimum wage, to efforts by hotel worker unions and others to gain a voice in how new technologies will affect their jobs.  Even MBAs in some of our leading business schools are calling for corporations to respect and honor worker rights.

So far these are only small scale experiments, reaching at most 20 percent of the workforce.  Two things are needed for them to grow to a scale large enough to reverse the thirty years of stagnating wages and growing inequality and to ensure women and men can command the respect they deserve.

Read the full post at The Conversation.

Thomas Kochan is the George Maverick Bunker Professor of Management, a Professor of Work and Employment Research and Engineering Systems, and the CoDirector of the MIT Sloan Institute for Work and Employment Research at the MIT Sloan School of Management.

Erin L. Kelly is the Sloan Distinguished Professor of Work and Organization Studies at the MIT Sloan School of Management and affiliated with the Institute for Work and Employment Research.

William Kimball and Duanyi Yang are PhD students at the MIT Sloan School of Management’s Institute for Work and Employment Research. Their forthcoming paper, “Worker Voice in America,” will be published in the Industrial and Labor Relations Review in January 2019.

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