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Labor

A new survey takes the pulse of worker voice in America

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Thomas Kochan and his Good Companies-Good Jobs research team wanted fresher information. Beyond the 1995 Worker Representation and Participation Survey and the 1977 Quality of Employment Survey, there was essentially no data on worker voice — the degree to which employees can express concerns about working conditions and the performance of their enterprise. “So we started this project to update those prior surveys,” said Kochan, a professor at MIT Sloan and co-director of the Institute for Work and Employment Research. “But we also did it to broaden out the old findings, to look at new forms of worker voice and under which conditions we might see innovation.”

Studies of worker voice have historically looked at the fundamental worker-led institution of the time: unions. (In the 1950s, roughly one-third of all employees belonged to a union.) But as union membership has declined decade over decade, and as new technologies have simultaneously opened novel avenues to the expression of worker voice, “we need an encompassing view to capture what workers are looking for today,” Kochan said.

Understanding how well workers think their voice is heard has implications well beyond academia. Absence of voice, said Kochan, has contributed to the deterioration of wages and working conditions for U.S. workers, as they are unable to engage in the conversations that affect wages and working conditions. There is also a significant cost to organizations: If a company cannot hear what its workers have to say, then it cannot benefit from their ideas for innovation and improvement. Most significant, though, is the cost of frustration among those who feel they are voiceless — one of the leading contributors Kochan sees to today’s political divisions.

To understand present-day worker voice, Kochan and his coauthors surveyed nearly 4,000 adults of working age (18 or older). They measured both how much voice workers felt they have with regard to workplace issues, as well as how much voice they felt they ought to have. The difference between these two represented a “voice gap.”

Though the survey delivered a broad range of findings on how people feel about their influence in the workplace, three results stood out. First was the size of the voice gap, particularly around working conditions and compensation, where up to 60 percent of workers surveyed experienced a difference between their expectation and their reality.

Second, there was a surprising uptick in workers who expressed interest in joining a union. The prior two surveys from 1977 and 1995 showed that roughly one-third of workers would join a union if given the chance. The new survey revealed that just shy of 50 percent of non-union workers would join if given the opportunity. “To me this signals that workers want something to fill the void in worker voice,” Kochan said. “Exactly what they expect unions to do is an open question.”

Third: though Kochan has seen a growth in public discussion about new forms of worker voice other than unionization, very few workers actually demonstrated experience with or knowledge of these new forms. This difference in what he’d heard and what he saw ties into the second phase of the project.

With the help of students at MIT Sloan, Kochan is compiling case studies to explore the variety of new forms of worker voice that are taking shape that combine creative uses of technology with “the human touch,” as the students put it. OUR Walmart, an independent employee organization, for instance, is starting to use artificial intelligence to inform workers at Walmart and other firms of their rights. Coworker.org helps baristas at Starbucks petition for operational and workplace improvements across their entire network of stores. And lobster fishers in Maine formed a cooperative to buy, sell, and market their products.

Regardless of how workers end up expressing their voice, Kochan said it’s imperative we do something about the gap people experience between the voice they feel they should have and the voice they feel they do have. “When this gap starts to close, you should see a more productive workplace and, I think, a workplace where workers feel treated more fairly. It creates a much more positive work environment and, over time, wages and benefits improve for average workers,” he said. “Those are the directions we need to go as society.”

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