What U.S Workers Want From A Labor Organization


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If U.S. workers could select the characteristics of a labor organization to represent them, what would they choose? That’s the question explored in an intriguing working paper by Alexander Hertel-Fernandez of Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, William Kimball of the MIT Sloan School of Management, and Thomas Kochan of the MIT Sloan School. Hertel-Fernandez is an Assistant Professor of International Affairs at Columbia, Kimball is a doctoral student in MIT Sloan’s Institute for Work and Employment Research program, and Kochan is the George Maverick Bunker Professor of Management at MIT Sloan.

In their study, Hertel-Fernandez, Kimball, and Kochan used a technique originally developed for market research – conjoint analysis – that enables researchers to identify which potential attributes of a product or service are most valued by individuals in its target market.

Using this technique with a nationally representative sample of more than 4000 U.S. workers, the researchers discovered that two of the features the workers would most highly value in a labor organization are collective bargaining on behalf of workers and the provision of portable health and retirement benefits. Other features that workers would highly value include unemployment benefits, training opportunities, and job search help. Workers also would be somewhat more likely to join a labor organization if it offered legal representation or input into corporate decisions, through means such as representing workers in joint labor-management committees or formally on a company board.

On the other hand, workers were less likely to want to join a labor organization if it used the threat of strikes or was involved in campaigning for politicians. In general, Democratic workers and Republican workers had fairly similar views on most characteristics of a labor group—except in the categories of willingness to use strikes and political activity. Workers who identified as Republicans were significantly less interested than workers who identified as Democrats in joining an organization if it involved those characteristics.

One of the authors’ interesting conclusions is that one factor constraining the growth of unions in the U.S. may be that they are not allowed by current U.S. labor law to offer some of the features that workers would most value. For example, in some other countries, labor law allows unions to be more directly involved in the provision of benefits like health and retirement plans or in codetermining business decisions with management—but U.S. labor law places limitations on unions’ involvement in these areas. “A growing number of labor law and policy scholars…suggest that American labor law forces unions to conform to a model that is poorly matched to the present economy and workforce with its firm-based organizing and bargaining and the limited influence the law grants unions over corporate practices,” the authors write. “The findings we present in this paper suggest another reason that labor law is restricting growth of the labor movement: it currently limits unions from providing many of the benefits and services that workers value.”

The researchers received support for their study from the Good Companies, Good Jobs Initiative at MIT Sloan; the Ford Foundation; the Russell Sage Foundation; and the Washington Center for Equitable Growth.