Research Briefing

Worker Voice, Representation, and Implications for Public Policies

There is growing evidence that shaping work of the future to achieve a more broadly shared prosperity will require rebuilding worker voice and representation, rebalancing power in employment relations, and making fundamental changes in American labor and employment policies. As noted in the initial report of our MIT Task Force on the Work of the Future: “Although we are uncertain precisely what rules should govern worker representation in the United States, we are certain that the nearly ‘voiceless’ model the nation has embraced over the last four decades is out of balance.”

The enormous impacts that the COVID-19 virus and the rising protests against racism are having on work and employment increase the urgency to rethink policies and institutions supporting worker voice at all levels of the economy. Industry and workers/labor representatives are in the throes of the biggest changes in workplace practices, workforce redeployments, and job losses since the Great Depression. The devastating effects of the COVID-19 crisis laid bare the weaknesses in both the safety net governing work and in the policies governing worker voice. Together with the broad-based calls to address long-standing racial disparities, these two developments demonstrate that American workers need a stronger voice in determining when and under what conditions it is safe to work through the duration of the health crisis and in deciding what changes in workplace practices and policies will make their workplaces and the overall economy more inclusive, resilient, safe, productive, and equitable in the future. Labor, industry, and government leaders need to work together at national, state, and local levels of the economy to help determine and facilitate the massive changes taking place that will shape work of the future. Aside from the weaknesses in worker voice made visible by the current crisis, the need to rebalance the rules (i.e., policies) governing worker voice, power, and representation arises out of two long-term trends and their consequences: (1) the decline of American union membership and bargaining power has been a contributing factor to why American workers have shared little of the economy’s productivity growth over the past four decades, and (2) labor law, carried over from the 1930s, provides a more limited form of worker representation than contemporary workers want and need if they are to have a significant voice in the range of decisions affecting their lives and welfare, including decisions about technology.