Last week, President Obama convened the Summit on Worker Voice at the White House. It was an impressive event, in part because of how much energy clearly had been dedicated by the highest levels of the administration to a discussion of revitalizing “worker voice.”  The President himself spoke not once, but twice.  The Vice President, Valerie Jarrett and the Secretary of Labor spoke too, and attendees included Nancy Pelosi, Al Franken, and Jason Furman (the Chairman of the Council of Economic Advisors.) As Lydia DePillis’ wonkblog entry put it, “It’s been a while since anybody in the White House talked this much about unions.”

There were also moments of genuine inspiration.  Terrence Wise, a fast-food worker from Kansas City, introduced the President and talked about working two jobs and still having to miss meals.  Robert Hathorn, who works at a Nissan plant in Canton, MS, described his organizing efforts at the plant:

When I went to cast my vote for president of the United States, no one threatened me.  But with a union vote, there are threats at Nissan. Mississippi has a long history of fighting for the right to vote without threats and fear. Labor rights are civil rights.

In addition to these general observations, I want to highlight a more substantive one: there was at the Summit some understandable – and perhaps productive – ambiguity about exactly what “worker voice” means.  In particular, there was ambiguity about the relationship between worker voice and worker power, or between voice and what the President referred to as “leverage.” Sometimes, voice was used in a way that highlights the difference between voice and power, where voice means something like “input.” At other times, voice was used as a close synonym for power.  When unions and collective bargaining were invoked as examples of worker “voice” the idea clearly encompassed not only input but the power to make change.  Finally, and maybe more subtly, there were discussions of “voice” as a precursor to – a first step toward – power and leverage.  So at least three meanings of voice: input, power, and precursor.

During the panel I took part in (with Mark BarenbergRep. Bobby Scott, and Dorian Warren) the voice/power question came up in the discussion of minority unions and works councils.  In my view, these are mechanisms that provide workers an institutionalized form of input in a manner that promises to facilitate the development of more genuine power (perhaps through the eventual organization of unions).  But the voice/power question is a completely legitimate one to ask about members-only unions and works councils. In fact, it’s probably the essential question to ask and a number of possibilities exist: members-only unions and works councils could (1) give workers real leverage, (2) help workers build organizations that have real leverage, (3) provide workers only with some minimal amount of input but not provide or help workers build real leverage, (4) preclude the development of real leverage.

There’s excellent theoretical work on this subject (primarily Barenberg’s Democracy and Domination) but what would most help us answer the question is a real-world test.  We could run such a test if we gave unions the option to organize on a members-only basis and, where they chose to do so, required employers to bargain.  (Lots of details would need to be worked out including, for example, whether there should be a threshold membership level before the bargaining obligation kicks in.)  We then could actually see how members-only unions operate, what effect they have on firms, and what kind of “voice” they provide or lead to.  At that point we could reevaluate and decide whether a members-only bargaining obligation made good sense or not.  The same is true for works councils.  If we found ways to permit experimentation with works councils (and much could be done in this direction through NLRB action) we could figure out what works councils would become in the U.S. context and what kind of worker voice they would actually provide.

There are always risks involved in such policy experimentation, but given the need to find new ways of ensuring worker “voice,” those risks seem worth bearing.