Business School

The Past and Future of Worker Voice in a Single Classroom

October 2, 2019  • Ideas Worth Teaching

It wasn’t so long ago that “worker activism” might have conjured up images of a distant past for young business students. That past is distant no more. From tech worker walkouts to traditional union action on a renewed scale, worker voice has risen in the headlines. Patrick McHugh of George Washington University has witnessed that change in Human Capital Sustainability, his Ideas Worth Teaching Award-winning course. We spoke with Patrick about the course and how new and traditional workplace activism compare in this extraordinary moment.

Patrick McHugh

The last few years have a steady rise in worker activism. What’s it been like teaching the course as this is going on? Any change in student reactions?

I have found increasing interest in the course among business school students, as well as students from other disciplines. When I first taught it several years ago, students were drawn to taking the course because of the inclusion of the term “sustainability.” Yet, they were uncertain of the application of an environmentally-focused construct to the employment relationship. Back then a significant portion of the initial class sessions were spent on developing an appreciation for social sustainability, worker activism, and the role managers play in creating a positive and sustainable workplace. That has changed. Now most students come to the class curious about worker unrest and activism – not just the drivers and issues leading to worker activism, but also the implications for them as future employees and managers. So one big change is the starting point for the class.

A second unexpected change is that students have a greater appreciation of historical linkages to current events. I hear fewer students asking “Do we really need to know that historical information?” For example, the protests surrounding the eight-hour day movement, the coal wars, the sit-down strikes of the 1930s, and the Memphis sanitation strike are not just something that happened many years ago, but are viewed as highly relevant to them in the context of events such as the Google employee walkout, recent teacher actions, on-line worker petitions to management (e.g., Amazon, Instacart, Starbucks), as well as the #MeToo movement.

It’s easy to draw a facile contrast between the UAW protests (old industrial labor!) and employee activism at companies like Amazon (new service economy!). What differences (and commonalities) between these movements are truly significant?

A commonality between the actions of UAW members and employee activism at Amazon (and employee action at other service economy firms) is the strong desire on the part of employees to have voice, actual influence at the workplace, and to be treated with respect. This is not surprising given studies showing the important value employees place on having voice. Indeed, recent studies by Tom Kochan and colleagues suggest that a very large percentage of employees have less voice than they desire at work.

However, I see two potential areas of difference between the “old” and “new” employee activism. First, the issues driving employee activism may differ. The UAW protests center on having voice on traditional employment-focused points of contention (e.g., wages, working conditions, and employment security). In the case of Amazon, employee activism has focused, in part, on the firm’s lack of action surrounding climate change. At Google, there was employee unrest surrounding decisions regarding the end-use of its products and services. This moves employee activism beyond traditional workplace issues. Thus, there appears to be an upsurge in employee desire for voice at the workplace that goes beyond wages and working conditions, focusing on actions by employers that conflict with employee shared values.

Second, the mechanisms for collective action differ. The UAW efforts and employee actions have been consistent with the parameters of current labor law and the standard labor relations process. The traditional labor relations process as a mechanism for employee voice involves organizing a workplace and securing authorization cards, petitioning for an election, and if an election outcome supports union representation then negotiating a contract with the employer. As a result, the traditional mechanism is often a drawn-out and potholed-filled process. However, what we are seeing in this new employee activism space is that workers are not relying on the traditional labor relations process in order to have voice. For example, Google made changes to its sexual harassment and misconduct policies and ended forced arbitration after a global employee walkout. Publix Super Markets changed its dress code policy in response to nearly 20,000 signatures on a “Let us wear beards” petition.

There are numerous other cases of employees pressuring employers to change workplace policies. These new approaches to voice have been facilitated by technologies which can be effective at mobilizing employees (e.g., Facebook, Twitter).

What stands out from your syllabus is the diversity of the readings grouped under the umbrella concept of “human capital sustainability.” The framing feels novel­—what is your hope for how it could change business practice in the future?

First of all, I need to give credit to George Washington University’s Sustainability Program which provided financial support for course development, and to Jeffrey Pfeffer’s 2010 article “Building Sustainable Organizations: The Human Factor” (Academy of Management Perspectives) which sparked my interest in creating the course. In terms of identifying a unifying theme for the course, all credit is due to John Budd’s framework focused on the challenges and opportunities of balancing efficiency, equity and voice.

My hope is that students walk away with a multi-level understanding of the importance of balancing efficiency, equity, and voice. From a macro-level, I want them to identify the societal and public policy challenges of efforts to attain balance and factors that create imbalance. From a meso-level, they need to be able to consider how application of the Budd framework could impact organizations at the intersection of strategic decision-making and the employment relationship. This may have even more relevance for students given the recent statement by the Business Roundtable regarding the need for organizations to take a multi-stakeholder perspective.

At a micro-level, I hope that students will reflect on the possible implications of the framework for their future managerial and leadership roles. Ultimately, I hope it becomes part of their decision making process. At least in the classroom context, I have observed students applying the framework to a variety of challenging employment-related topics, such as supply chains, worker misclassification, conflict and negotiation, the use of financial incentives in employment, job design and emotional labor, and the role of managers in creating employee psychological safety.

I’ll keep my fingers crossed that they take the framework with them as they move on to meaningful and rewarding careers.

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