Just when one might think unions, strikes and worker protests had lost their value, workers are beginning to say otherwise.
First came the Fight for $15 protests, then the #Metoo exposes, then the statewide teacher strikes in West Virginia, Kentucky, Oklahoma, Colorado and Arizona and more recently, the aggressive union negotiations in the hotel, steel and trucking industries.
These actions should not come as a surprise. They reflect the deep frustrations workers are experiencing as they see the economy humming along with profits increasing, while their wages lag and they worry that robots, artificial intelligence (AI) and related technologies will threaten their jobs.
We are seeing these frustrations expressed in our research as well. In a national workforce survey our group at MIT recently completed, a majority of workers reported experiencing a voice gap at work — having less of a say than they believe they should have on compensation, promotions, job security, respect and technology, exactly the issues that affect their current and future livelihoods.
This voice gap is a strong predictor of who wants to join a union today. Indeed, the number wanting to join a union has increased markedly over time — from about one-third of the nonunion labor force in the 1970s and 1990s to just under one-half today.
What should we learn from these data and from worker and union actions?
First, for the first time in years, workers are telling us it is time for them to get their fair share of the economic growth they are helping to produce.
Steelworkers, for example, took deep concessions to save their companies from bankruptcy during tough times, and now they are saying it is only fair that they share in the good profits their employers are now enjoying.
Second, unions are attempting to break new ground in getting workers a voice in preparing for and shaping new technologies in ways that support their work and provide equitable adjustment and compensation practices for those adversely affected.
This is a major issue in hotel negotiations around the country. UNITE-HERE and the two largest hotels in Las Vegas —MGM Grand and Caesars — recently negotiated landmark agreements providing workers:
- advanced notice of technological plans;
- the right to participate in the early stage design processes that influence how their work will change;
- training to ensure they are well-prepared before the technologies arrive; and
- fair compensation and adjustment policies for those whose jobs might be eliminated.
This is exactly the type of joint labor-management engagement that research shows makes the best use of technology to increase productivity and put worker skills to best use. These negotiations are likely to set the benchmark for other union and management relationships around the country.
Third, workers are willing to take risks of raising their voices in new ways even if they are not protected by unions or have formal collective bargaining rights.
The courageous women stepping forward in the #Metoo movement may be just the tip of the iceberg; there are likely larger numbers of people who fear retaliation for speaking out in the absence of the collective support of a union or the legal protections supposedly offered by labor law.
What is so remarkable is that these actions are happening even in the face of a failed labor law, one that badly needs a complete overhaul and updating to give workers the forms of voice they want and need.
For example, labor law does not provide unions the right to negotiate over the design of new technologies. These are generally viewed as “non-mandatory” bargaining issues that allow employers to stonewall union efforts to negotiate on these issues.
Similarly, organizing under the National Labor Relations Board procedures is nearly impossible if management resists. The best research on this shows that unions fail to get a collective bargaining agreement in nine out of 10 situations when employers resist. This is not what the law promised workers.
So workers are sending a message to anyone who will listen: Restore our voice at work.
While labor policy has historically been difficult to change, the good news is that a number of bold new approaches have been introduced in Congress such as The Workplace Democracy Act, and two separate bills providing workers seats on corporate boards.
These bills are not likely to go anywhere in the current Congress but may be precursors of coming debates given the number of Democratic candidates for Congress who are putting strengthening worker rights at the center of their campaigns.
While ultimately it will take a change in both Congress and the White House to break the longstanding stalemate over labor policy, perhaps the next couple years will be a dress rehearsal for a long-overdue debate over how to restore worker voice and bargaining power in ways that fit the needs of today’s economy and workforce.
Thomas A. Kochan is the George M. Bunker professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management and co-director of the MIT Institute for Work and Employment Research.