Like many frontline workers across the country, Denise Kohr saw her pay at Amazon increase over the past year; as for her say, not so much.
“They don’t want to hear from me,” complained Kohr, who has picked and packed products at a fulfillment center in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, since 2018.
Kohr—who after a 25-cent bump last fall, along with a shift change that boosted her wage, now makes $22.95 an hour—still wishes she earned more money. But her bigger frustration is this: Whenever she makes a suggestion about how work should get done, she is invariably dismissed by management. “It can’t possibly be a good idea,” she said, if it’s coming from an entry-level employee.
As America celebrates Labor Day 2023, a tight job market and smart public policy have translated into wage gains for many lower-income workers. Though it’s unclear how long the trend will last, and there is still a long way to go for tens of millions to reach a true living wage, those at the lower end of the pay distribution have made up a ton of ground since the COVID-19 pandemic.
But while the pay gap has narrowed, what scholars call the “voice gap” doesn’t seem to have budged.
New research reveals that a majority of workers—young and old alike—don’t believe they have the right amount of say when it comes to compensation and paths to promotion. A sizable voice gap also exists on issues such as training and scheduling. This is consistent with earlier findings published in 2019.
“There certainly hasn’t been a dramatic shift in a positive direction,” said John Ahlquist, a professor at UC San Diego’s School of Global Policy and Strategy, who co-authored the most recent study.
Meanwhile, Gallup polling shows that only 30% of U.S. employees feel their opinions at work count.
This lack of voice comes against the backdrop of a “hot labor summer,” with Southern California hotel workers, as well as Hollywood writers and actors, going on strike, and UPS drivers threatening to do so before the Teamsters union was able to win what it termed a “historic” contract in July. The United Auto Workers, whose contract is up in September, are the latest to consider taking to the picket lines.
At least some of the agitation can be interpreted as a blowback to constant stifling by corporate America. “All we want is . . . to have a little more dignity, and to have more of a say in what we have to do on a day-to-day basis,” Jaysin Saxton, a worker and union organizer at a Starbucks in Augusta, Georgia, told a Senate committee in March.
Speaking up at work can be risky. Kohr maintains that she has been “targeted and bullied” by supervisors at Amazon after raising safety concerns and fighting for those with health challenges to receive proper accommodations. “When you buck the system, you become a problem child,” she said.
Kohr, who is a member of the workers’ rights organization United for Respect, has been planning with co-workers to put together “an employee advocacy group” to improve communication with their facility manager. But when they informed him about it, she said, “he encouraged us to put our efforts elsewhere.”
Amazon disputes Kohr’s take, stressing that it offers channels through which employees can relay thoughts and concerns to management, including 13 affinity groups, and that Kohr’s warehouse recently adopted one of her ideas to enhance safety.
Perhaps the most curious thing about companies not listening more to their workers is that it’s bad for business. Gallup estimates that if six in 10 employees had faith that their opinions matter, rather than just three in 10, organizations could realize a 27% reduction in turnover, a 40% drop in safety-related incidents, and a 12% uptick in productivity. When workers use their voice, it can also spur innovation—an indication that many employees are eager to contribute, not just carp.
So why, then, don’t more companies seek employee input?
For one thing, C-suite execs tend to be confident they have a pulse on their employees’ thinking, thanks to HR surveys, on-site visits, and “open-door” policies that, at least in theory, allow workers to contact upper management without fear of retaliation. The problem is that these mechanisms are prescribed by the company itself. “Those are not substitutes for real worker voice,” said Thomas Kochan, a professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management.
Indeed, the real deal requires executives to provide workers with something that many find even tougher to part with than pay: a bit of their power.
In addition, managers worry that allowing workers free voice might lead to unionization—something most employers are determined to defy at all costs. “They will bring in all the armor to defeat that,” Kochan said.
Still, the specter of collective bargaining explains only part of management’s unwillingness to heed workers’ recommendations. “It’s deeper than that,” said Bianca Agustin, the co-executive director of United for Respect, which has its roots in the United Food and Commercial Workers but is not a labor union. “It’s just a disrespect for working people and what management thinks they can bring to the table.”
As an example, Agustin pointed to a shareholder resolution at Walmart submitted by an hourly worker and United for Respect member named Cynthia Murray. Her proposal sought an independent review of company policies and practices on workplace safety and violence, including gun violence. “As a 22-year Walmart associate,” Murray declared, “I am personally invested in keeping myself and my fellow associates safe at work.”
At Walmart’s annual meeting in May, Murray’s resolution received nearly 24% of the vote—well above the 20% threshold that proxy advisory firm Glass Lewis says should lead the board of directors to “engage with shareholders . . . and demonstrate some initial level of responsiveness.” Yet Walmart won’t meet with Murray, telling her in a letter that it already regularly reviews its protocols to “ensure a safe and healthy work environment.”
“If she were any other shareholder—not a worker—the vote would have triggered a dialogue,” Agustin said. “It’s very discouraging.”
Walmart declined to comment.
But the most straightforward approach is to make it easier for workers to unionize—something that has proven a very tall order despite a flurry of activity over the past few years by organized labor and soaring popularity for unions. In 2022, a mere 10.1% of American workers were unionized, the lowest rate on record.
As the hot labor summer fades to fall, it’s hard to be sure what will become of all of the high-profile union drives currently underway. But some are uneasy that even where labor organizers have made inroads, like at Starbucks, companies will take advantage of toothless labor laws and delay negotiating—and that worker excitement for a union will wither away. If that happens, “it’s going to be devastating,” said Sharon Block, executive director of the Center for Labor and a Just Economy at Harvard Law School.
Not only would that mark another setback for worker voice on the job, but it would imperil something much greater: a chance to elevate the voice of the working class in national affairs.
A rich body of scholarship has established a clear connection between union strength on the one hand and political stability and economic and social justice on the other. With unions diminished, “you create the room for demagogues to grow,” said Ray Marshall, who served as secretary of labor under President Jimmy Carter.
By contrast, when unions had a more robust presence in the United States, representing a third or so of all workers in the 1950s and ’60s, organized labor played a key role in civil rights and other movements pushing for equality. “People want to know how to get involved,” said Ahlquist, the UC San Diego professor. “You get a very different answer if it’s coming from the Proud Boys than if it’s coming from a union.”
Dorian Warren, a political scientist and co-president of the nonprofit Community Change, echoed those sentiments. “If union density had stayed at 30%,” he said, “there would have never been a Trump. The weakening of worker voice leads to authoritarianism.”
As you dig into that Labor Day hot dog, it is a good time to remember: When employees’ voices are ignored or squelched, it is terrible for workplace democracy. It may be even worse for American democracy.