October 17, 2020

What Kind of Labor Organization Do U.S. Workers Want?

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 new journal article by Alexander Hertel-Fernandez of Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, William Kimball of the Pennsylvania State Education Association (PSEA), and Thomas A. Kochan of the MIT Sloan School. Hertel-Fernandez is an Associate Professor of International and Public Affairs at Columbia, Kimball is Associate Director of Research at the PSEA and earned his M.S. at the MIT Institute for Work and Employment Research, and Kochan is the George Maverick Bunker Professor of Management at the MIT Sloan School of Management. Their article, “What Forms of Representation Do American Workers Want? Implications for Theory, Policy, and Practice,” was recently published online by the journal ILR Review.

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. Workers indicated interest in all three forms of collective bargaining presented as options in the study: bargaining just on behalf of dues-paying union members, on behalf of all employees of a firm, or on behalf of all employees in a region or sector.

Other features that workers would highly value in a labor organization include supplemental unemployment benefits, training opportunities, and job search help. Workers also would be 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 two categories: willingness to use strikes and political activity. Workers who identified as Republicans were much less interested than workers who identified as Democrats in joining an organization if it involved those characteristics.

In general, the authors write,“our findings support the growing number of labor law and policy scholars who are calling for reforms of labor law that would address the current limits of collective bargaining as it functions today and would also open up labor law to new forms of representation and bargaining.” They also conclude that “the strong support for collective bargaining, participation in management decision-making, and provision of individual worker benefits and services suggests American workers want a mix of what both existing unions and emerging advocacy and alt-labor groups have to offer.”

In a blog post accompanying their article, the authors discuss the implications for their findings for labor law reform in the U.S. “The time for a transformational new labor policy has come, and the blueprint for what to do could not be clearer,” they write.

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

---Martha E. Mangelsdorf




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