Having Their Say

Having Their Say

What Workers Want
by Richard B. Freeman and Joel Rogers
Cornell University ILR Press, 1999, 226 pp., $17.95

What Workers Want is a sharply focused study of how American workers think about workplace participation. Its authors, Harvard economist Richard Freeman and University of Wisconsin sociologist Joel Rogers, began releasing results of the survey on which the book is based in 1995. Reports in the press at the time wrongly characterized the study’s results as unfavorable to organized labor. The new book presents the survey’s findings with engaging analysis and unfailing clarity and in the main the news is quite favorable for the labor movement. It does, however, offer much to mull over for trade unionists and their allies.

Richard Freeman was a member, in the first Clinton administration, of the ill-fated Dunlop Commission on the Future of Labor-Management Relations. Dissatisfied with the absence of workers’ voices during the insiders’ deliberations, he and others convinced the management-oriented Sloan Foundation to “undertake as objective and scientific a survey as we could of worker views toward how workplaces operated and how their workplaces might be improved.” The result is the most ambitious study of workplace democracy in the past generation. It includes a national survey of more than two thousand workers, extensive focus groups with workers, and a variety of in-depth discussions of specific workplace issues. As with all survey research, one would wish for a far larger sample to permit many more subgroups of workers to reliably speak their mind (minority group members, women and men, workers in different industries, and so on). But in an era of intensive use of opinion polls, this one is a model of careful questioning and even-handed analysis.

Here is how Freeman and Rogers sum up their study: “Our central finding in What Workers Want is that, given a choice, workers want ‘more’—more say in the workplace decisions that affect their lives, more employee involvement at their firms, more legal protection at the workplace, and more union representation. Most workers reported that existing institutions—from unions to EI (employee involvement) committees to government regulations—are either insufficiently available to them or do not go far enough to provide the workplace voice they want.” More than anything, the authors find, workers want their voices to be heard. They desire a greater role in the workplace but doubt management’s willingness to share power. They have strong ideas about how their genuine involvement could improve not just their private lot but also their companies’ fortunes.

For union leaders and their allies the news about workers’ desire for cooperative representation on the job is more ambiguous. For example, 73 percent of all workers surveyed felt that a workplace organization that represents t...