New Poll: Americans See Big Power Imbalance in the Workplace

Steven Greenhouse

Steven Greenhouse, a former New York Times labor and workplace reporter, is author of Beaten Down, Worked Up: The Past, Present, and Future of American Labor.

As Covid-19 has terrified America these past two months, many essential workers — grocery cashiers, meatpacking workers, warehouse workers, McDonald’s workers, big box store workers — have complained about having to work without masks and about having virtually no say over safety matters on the job.  Many of these workers are also deeply angry about not receiving health coverage and not receiving paid sick days.

Indeed, for many Americans, the Covid-19 pandemic has shone a harsh spotlight light on how bad things are for millions of American workers and how pitifully little voice they have at work — on matters as fundamental as safety on the job and sick leave.

Essential workers as well as many other Americans agree that something is badly awry– there’s a sense that far too many workers have too little voice and too little power at work. A new survey of 1,181 likely voters bears that out — but unfortunately for the nation’s workers, it is unlikely that the President (who pretends to be a friend of workers) or many in Congress will pay any heed to these concerns.

The new survey, released Wednesday, found that 69 percent of likely American voters said workers have too little power, a view shared by over three-quarters of Democrats and nearly six in ten Republicans. The survey also found that 64 percent of respondents agreed with the statement that “on the whole, employers have too much power over workers,” including more than three quarters of Democrats and more than half of Republicans.

“Most Americans want workers to have more voice in the workplace, especially compared to their employers,” said Alexander Hertel-Fernandez, a professor of public affairs at Columbia University who conducted the survey on behalf of the Omidyar Network and Data for Progress, a think tank.

“Public opinion is squarely behind policies that could revive worker power and organization,” Hertel-Fernandez added. The new survey is called Understanding Attitudes Towards Unions and Pro-Worker Policy–And Implications for Organizing.

That survey was released in conjunction with the Omidyar Network’s announcement that it would commit $35 million over three years as part of its effort to reimagine capitalism, with a focus on building worker power.  The Omidyar Network was founded by Pierre and Pam Omidyar; he is a billionaire who was founder of eBay

“Much of the economic pain American working families are experiencing today was the inevitable result of economic and political systems that have been rigged to aggressively weaken worker power,” said Mike Kubzansky, the Omidyar Network’s chief executive officer. “As we face the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, it is vital that we rebuild our economy with equity, dignity, and power for all working people.”

Considering that the cross-section of Americans surveyed strongly felt that workers have far too little power vis-à-vis their employers, it shouldn’t be a surprise that those surveyed strongly back labor unions. What was surprising was that these likely voters showed such strong support for various proposals that would significantly increase workers’ might and voice, including proposals to require German-style works councils and to have workers elect representatives to corporate boards

Sixty percent of respondents said unions are good or excellent for the country, including nearly eight in ten Democrats and over half of all Republicans. According to the survey, 55 percent of non-union workers said they would definitely or probably vote to join a union if an election were held today. About one fourth said they would probably or definitely vote against the union, while 21 percent responded that they were unsure. Over 60 percent of Democrats said they would definitely or probably vote for a union, while half of Republicans did.

The survey found that Americans strongly support several ideas that, if enacted, would give America’s workers hugely more voice and power than they now have.

  • 73 percent back creating wage boards that would help set standards for industry wide wages and conditions.
  • 71 percent support creating German-like works councils.
  • 71 percent support giving workers a right to have a physical space at their workplace where they can discuss issues with their coworkers free from managerial intervention.
  • 67 percent support a law that would allow dismissal only for just cause.
  • 65 percent support letting workers elect representatives to corporate boards.
  • 56 percent support giving full labor rights to farm workers and domestic workers.

The survey found that at-will employment is deeply unpopular.  “Americans are especially agreed on the idea that employers have too much control over firing their workers,” Hertel-Fernandez said. In the survey, 68 percent disagreed with the statement that employers should be able to fire workers for any reason. Nearly three-quarters of Democrats felt this way, as did 60 percent of Republicans.

More than 80 percent respondents said it should be unlawful for employers to fire workers for protesting health and safety standards, as worker advocates say Amazon and several other prominent companies have done during the pandemic. Nearly 90 percent of Democrats said that such firings should be illegal, as did nearly 80 percent of Republicans.

On Wednesday, the Omidyar Network released Our Vision for the Future of Workers and Work, which it said was “its blueprint for growing worker power.” As part of its effort to increase worker power, the Omidyar Network has donated money to, among others, the National Domestic Workers Alliance, the Clean Slate Project, which has put forward a far-reaching agenda to strengthen worker power, and the LIFT Fund, which seeks to develop innovative ideas to strengthen unions and lift workers.

If nothing else, the survey’s findings show that millions of American, indeed tens of millions, think something is hugely out of whack in the American workplace and the American economy — that corporations have far too much power over their workers and that workers have far too little voice.  Millions of Americans know little about labor law and probably have never heard the term “workplace democracy” and are unlikely to know that worker power in the United States is considerably weaker than in other major industrial nations. Yet with their innate sense of fairness, they still can sense that something is horribly askew in the American workplace.

But with the survey finding that Americans yearn for vast changes in the workplace, the question remains can things be changed to make the system fairer to workers and to give workers far more of a voice on the job — and far more of a voice in politics, for that matter. That will unfortunately be very hard to achieve when one political party is so hugely beholden to corporate donors and corporate lobbyists.

Let’s hope that the surge of worker anger and activism we’ve seen in recent weeks will somehow bestir our extremely broken political system so that it stops giving American workers such a rotten deal.  It’s a system that makes it very hard to unionize, that has fostered extreme income inequality and that has made the U.S. the only wealthy nation that doesn’t guarantee all workers health coverage, paid parental leave, and paid vacation.

Little wonder that so many Americans are convinced the system is rigged — and the fact that many workers have so little voice on the job is a major factor behind that unhappy sentiment.

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