What Workers Really Want: Voice, Unions, and Personal Contracts

Source: Yuval Feldman, Amir Falk and Miri Katz, Employee Rights and Employment Policy Journal, Volume 15 Number 1, 2011
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From the abstract:
One of the leading theories for why employees join unions, represented in Freeman and Rogers’ influential book, “What Workers Want”, is that employees aspire to be given a greater voice in the workplace and that unions best serve this function. This line of literature, while doing much to explore the functioning of unions as tools for collective bargaining, has overshadowed the pitfalls of unionized voice, and the advantages of voice associated with personal contracts in employees’ everyday life. The current study analyses Israeli employees’ preferences for voice through a comparison of their perception of collective agreements and unions in comparison to other available legal instruments and institutions, with special emphasis on personal contracts with their employers. The Israeli workforce is an especially interesting case study, due to the major changes undergone in Israel in the nature of employment relations. The data for this study was collected from a representative sample of 600 employees in Israel, using a combination of survey questions about their own work experience and scenario-based questions. Findings revealed an expected effect where stronger employees were more likely to trust personal contract rather than their unions for gaining a voice., whereas workers with low levels of voice showed a stronger desire to join unions and manage their employment rights through collective agreements. In contrast to the view currently advocated by many scholars in the literature on collective voice, our findings suggest, however, that gaining more of a voice did not predict the desire to stay unionized. Furthermore, the comparison between unionized and non-unionized employees, suggests that the latter group felt they had more influence on their employment conditions and were generally more satisfied with it. Unionized employees were far less involved and aware of their employment conditions and status. Furthermore, only among employees with personal contracts, was there a relationship between their influence, and their satisfaction from the legal instrument. Nonetheless, unionized employees were more likely to resist a change in the legal instrument that regulates their behavior. Hence, while a personal contract has the upper hand over collective agreements in providing a sense of voice to employees; collective agreements are still desired, especially among weaker employees. The theoretical focus on voice as experienced on the individual level, leads to policy discussion about the choice of the optimal legal instrument for employees.

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