American Labor Law Is Broken; Worker Survey Data Tells Us How it Fails and How to Fix It

April 30, 2020

New Roosevelt report outlines new criteria for workplace law reform


New York, NY—Worker power in the United States has long been in a downward spiral. Over the past five decades, union membership has declined, curbing workers’ ability to improve their wages, benefits, and working conditions. With COVID-19 shining a light on frontline workers’ lack of workplace protections, a consensus is growing: America needs labor law policy reform.

American Workers’ Experiences with Power, Information, and Rights on the Job: A Roadmap for Reform, a report released today by Alexander Hertel-Fernandez (Roosevelt Institute Fellow and associate professor at Columbia University), proposes a new framework for labor policy reform. First, he defines specific criteria for measuring workers’ rights, information, and power on the job. As he argues, these criteria provide a straightforward way to gauge workers’ opportunities to build power at work and a benchmark for comprehensive labor law reform. Second, he draws on new national surveys to show how current workplace law falls short on each of these fronts for many workers— but especially those with lower incomes and less formal education, racial and ethnic minorities, and those outside the traditional labor movement.

Findings include:

  • Many workers report being treated unfairly or in arbitrary ways on the job. Slightly over half of all workers report that their managers had changed working conditions for arbitrary or unfair reasons. Importantly, this trend extends up and down occupational, educational, racial, and income categories.
  • Most workers are in the dark about important workplace information that could help them negotiate better working standards. Just 15 percent of workers report that their employer regularly shares information about wages and salaries, which would allow workers to know how their pay compares to that of other employees doing similar work.Higher earning and more educated workers tend to be more likely to receive both kinds of information, putting less well-off workers and those with less formal education at a substantial disadvantage.
  • Many workers do not recognize their legal rights—or the limits of those rights. When asked whether they thought a variety of employer actions were legal or illegal, most workers, particularly those with lower incomes and less education, do not seem to know the contours of existing labor and employment law. Higher-income and more highly educated workers tend to be most knowledgeable. The worrisome implication of this finding is that the most economically vulnerable workers are the least likely to recognize and be able to exercise their existing legal rights under federal law.
  • Many workers, especially low-income and less formally educated workers, report that they do not have regular conversations with their coworkers about workplace issues and problems. These discussions matter because workers who have the opportunity to regularly talk with their coworkers have a better understanding of their rights. Workplace discussions are also a necessary step to collective action. One important reason that these workers do not feel comfortable discussing workplace issues and problems is that they lack physical space and time to do so at work.

“As a worker in America, especially a frontline worker, the deck is stacked against you. Recent articles and news clips of workers struggling to get personal protective equipment and higher pay have made that abundantly clear,” said Hertel-Fernandez. “With an upcoming presidential election and a war against COVID-19, reforms to expand worker voice and power ought to be central to a broader progressive agenda.”

Tomorrow (May 1) marks International Workers’ Day. This year, Amazon and Target workers across the country will stage a sickout to draw attention to the health risks they face delivering groceries and other critical supplies. Now is the time to change workplace policy. You can read more on how the Roosevelt Institute is working to bring worker voice into the next stimulus bill here.

About the Roosevelt Institute

The Roosevelt Institute is a New York-based think tank that, in partnership with its campus network and the FDR Presidential Library and Museum, is working to redefine the American economy. Focusing on corporate and public power, labor and wages, and the economics of race and gender inequality, the Roosevelt Institute unifies experts, invests in young leaders, and advances progressive policies that bring the legacy of Franklin and Eleanor into the 21st century.

To keep up to date with the Roosevelt Institute, please visit us on Twitter or follow our work at #RewriteTheRules.

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