Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Who wants to join a union? A growing number of Americans

Unions and these new forms of advocacy can’t get workers the voice they expect on their jobs until U.S. labor laws become stronger.

Image Credit: Erik McGregor/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images

Only 10.7 percent of American workers belong to a union today, approximately half as many as in 1983. That’s a level not seen since the 1930s, just before passage of the labor law that was supposed to protect workers’ right to organize.

Yet American workers have not given up on unions. When we conducted a nationally representative survey of the workforce with the National Opinion Research Corporation, we found interest in joining unions to be at a four-decade high.

Four times higher

The results obtained from nearly 4,000 respondents show that 48 percent – nearly half of nonunionized workers – would join a union if given the opportunity to do so.

That marks a sharp increase from about one-third of the workforce expressing this preference in 1977 and 1995, the last two times this question was asked on national surveys. The scale of this change indicates that 58 million American workers would want to join a union if they could, quadruple the number of current union members.

A question of influence

One of the strongest predictors of who might join a union is the size of the gap between the amount of say or influence they expect to have at their workplaces and their real-life experience.

More than 50 percent of the workers who took part in our survey reported they have less say than they feel that they ought to have, what we call the “voice gap,” on key issues such as benefits, compensation, promotions and job security. Between a third and half of the workers we surveyed reported a gap between expected and actual say or influence on decisions about how and when they work, safety and protections from discrimination.

While workers are clear on what they want, the reality is few workers who don’t belong to unions will get to join one, since fewer than 1 percent will experience an organizing drive at their workplaces. Also, fewer than 10 percent of all these efforts to unionize and get a collective bargaining agreement succeed when employers resist.

New strategies

Recognizing these obstacles, unions are turning to new strategies for improving working conditions. Perhaps the best example is union support for a US$15 minimum wage that would primarily benefit workers who aren’t their members.

Several new organizing efforts are taking shape, benefiting everyone from South Florida tomato pickers to baristas toiling in a Starbucks near you.

But unions and these new forms of advocacy can’t get workers the voice they expect on their jobs until U.S. labor laws become stronger.

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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. Kochan focuses on the need to update America’s work and employment policies, institutions, and practices to catch up with a changing workforce and economy. His recent work calls attention to the challenges facing working families in meeting their responsibilities at work, at home, and in their communities. Through empirical research, he demonstrates that fundamental changes in the quality of employee and labor-management relations are needed to address America’s critical problems in industries ranging from healthcare to airlines to manufacturing. His most recent book is Shaping the Future of Work (Business Experts Press, 2016). Kochan holds a BBA in personnel management as well as an MS and a PhD in industrial relations from the University of Wisconsin. Duanyi Yang is a PhD candidate at MIT Institute for Work and Employment Research. Her research covers topics on organizational conflict and worker voice, labor standards in global value chains, and flexible work arrangements in organizations. 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. Erin’s research investigates the adoption, implementation, and consequences of work-family and anti-discrimination policies in U.S. workplaces. She is part of the Work, Family and Health Network, which was supported by the National Institutes of Health and Centers for Disease Control. Kelly has also investigated non-compliance with the Family and Medical Leave Act, how U.S. companies manage flexible work arrangements, and the effects of corporate affirmative action, diversity, and family policies on the representation of white women, women of color, and men of color in managerial and professional positions. Kelly received the Rosabeth Moss Kanter Award for Work-Family Research and has published articles in leading journals including the American Sociological Review and the American Journal of Sociology. Prior to her appointment at MIT Sloan, Erin held the Martindale Chair in Sociology at the University of Minnesota and an affiliate of the Minnesota Population Center and the Life Course Center. She was also a member of the graduate faculty at the Carlson School of Management. She received her BA in sociology from Rice University and her MA and PhD in sociology from Princeton University. Will Kimball is pursuing his doctoral degree at MIT in the Institute for Work and Employment Research. His research covers topics on inequality, worker voice, and employment arrangements.
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