Thursday, July 8, 2021

Worker Voice and Political Participation in Civil Society: Lousy Work Is Bad for Democracy

The stories are familiar by now: businesses claim that there’s a labor shortage and others reply that they need to pay more. Pay is obviously an important part of a job, but we need to remember that the positive and negative aspects of work are complicated, which means that we must consider more than pay when evaluating job quality and worker well-being. Among many important things, this includes paying attention to how the quality of work affects society.  

Concerns with how workplace experiences affect the political arena are longstanding. Over 150 years ago, John Stuart Mill advocated for worker cooperatives and participatory economic systems because he believed economic democracy fostered political democracy. Most workers, however, do not work in cooperatives. But varying forms of worker voice can have elements of economic democracy, or more widely-speaking, at least some degree of autonomy. In a seminal book, Carole Pateman argued that individuals with autonomy in their work—e.g., the ability to control certain aspects of the job—develop confidence that they are capable of autonomous action. This confidence can spill over to the political and civic arenas leading to higher levels of participation in these arenas. In other words, workplace voice can create “psychological supports” for political and civic engagement. A second line of theorizing focuses instead on skill development. That is, exercising voice in the workplace can enhance skills pertaining to things like advocacy, negotiation, and communication, which can also be useful in the political and civic arenas. So workplace voice can lead to greater political and civic participation through skill enhancement.

Stronger forms of workplace democracy include being represented by a labor union or works council, and being involved with these forms of voice can also trigger both of these channels. That is, participating in a union or works counciland probably a worker center, toocan enhance confidence, instill beliefs about the importance of democratic decision-making, and develop skills that translate into greater political and civic engagement. 

If individual or collective voice prompts greater political and civic participation through these channels, it’s a happy byproduct of workplace voice rather than intentional one. But labor unions and other collective bodies can also intentionally try to increase political and civic participation through voter registration and get-out-the-vote drives, campaigns to contact politicians or join demonstrations, and training programs for political advocacy and running for political office. So unintentionally and intentionally, unions, works councils, and worker centers can build “democratic character: the willingness and capacity of individuals to engage in democratic politics and to do so in ways that are informed by judgements of the common good.” Conceptually, then, we should expect workers involved with these forms of collective voice to participate more readily in the political and civic arenas compared to workers that lack avenues of workplace voice.

But does this happen in practice? Ryan Lamare and I have recently reviewed the literature, and we conclude quite strongly that there are strong relationships between individual or collective voice on the one hand, and political and civic participation on the other. One of our favorite studies—because we authored it!—shows that across 27 European countries, workers with greater individual workplace voice are more likely to vote, contact politicians, work in a political party, and engage in other activities. This is just one of a number of studies on individual voice that have broadly similar findings across various samples and using diverse measures of individual voice and political participation. But spillovers are not guaranteedsupervisor support or suppression can also affect the workplace-political linkage. There is also a large literature on the effects of union voice. Empirical results show that union members are more likely to vote (in the US, Canada,  and Europe), engage in other political activities, and give to charity. There's also evidence that unions can also mobilize non-members to engage in protests. 

Admittedly, specifically identifying causal relationships can be challenging. For example, workers who are pre-disposed toward political and civic participation might look for jobs with individual and/or collective voice, so their observed participation was not caused by workplace voice. But the studies that are able to specifically address issues of causality typically find that non-causal explanations cannot fully explain the observed empirical relationships. In other words, it appears that individual and collective voice prompt some additional political and civic participation that would not have occurred in the absence of this workplace voice. In this way, having more individual and collective voice would be good for society.

Consequently, while individual and collective forms of worker voice are accurately viewed primarily as workplace phenomena, the interconnections to and ramifications for political and civic engagement should not be overlooked. Labor unions, with their own internal participatory, democratic systems and their incentives for political education and mobilization, are perhaps the form of worker voice in which it is easiest to expect there to be spillovers into the political and civic arena—including spillovers that are the byproduct of experiencing unionization and others that result from intentional union strategies. But even the experience of individual forms of workplace voice such as in-job autonomy can have spillovers by fostering democratizing attitudes and civic skills.

Across time and space, then, what happens at work is not expected to stay at work. Researchers and commentators often present this in a positive frame, as has been done here—that is, higher levels of workplace voice are associated with higher levels of political and civic participation. But it is important to remember that if this is true, then so is the corresponding negative framing—that is, dictatorial and authoritarian workplaces in which workers lack individual and/or collective voice likely lead to lower levels of political and civic participation, with consequent negative impacts on society. Pay might be the #1 concern of workers struggling to make ends meet, but societally we should be pushing not only for jobs that allow workers to support themselves and their families, but also that contribute to the broader health of our society.

Source: John W. Budd and J. Ryan Lamare (2021) "Worker Voice and Political Participation in Civil Society," in Klaus F. Zimmermann, ed., Handbook of Labor, Human Resources and Population Economics (Cham: Springer). [free access to the pre-publication version here].

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