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They’re the voice: how workers can be heard when unions are on the wane

Regardless of the channels through which it is done, most employees want to have a say in how their workplaces are run. Shutterstock

Employee “voice” is often heralded as a core characteristic of high-performing, innovative workplaces and as an antecedent to employee engagement.

As Australian workplaces face ever present challenges to increase productivity and innovation, it is no surprise that employee voice is a core consideration. But what happens in workplaces where there are significant power differentials between employer and employees? And what happens where trade unions are absent from the employment relationship?

How workers can best be heard

Employee voice is best encapsulated as the means by which employees are involved and participate in matters that affect them at work. Employee voice therefore has a procedural dimension – the channel by which voice is expressed – and a substantive dimension, which is the extent to which voice shapes and impacts on workplace outcomes.

The channels by which employee voice is expressed can be direct or indirect. The latter expresses voice through an intermediary (collective representation), whether union or non-union.

As Australian union membership has steadily declined over the last 30 years, employee voice channels have shifted away from collective, largely unionised channels to direct channels, such as team briefings and semi-autonomous teams. This trend is hardly surprising. The most recent union membership figures show that members account for 15% of the workforce.

Does this render the remaining 85% of the workforce silent? Evidence would suggest not.

A series of representation and participation surveys in Australia, modelled on similar surveys undertaken in, among others, the US, Britain and Canada, reveal that employees have fared well with the shift to direct voice.

Direct voice is linked with positive organisational outcomes, such as job satisfaction and a better industrial relations climate (co-operative employment relationship). It has also enhanced individual employment outcomes such as trust in management and perceived influence by employees over job rewards.

While Australian evidence paints a positive picture of direct voice, empirical evidence suggests that employee voice is not a zero-sum game. There are plenty of examples of workplaces that derive positive outcomes from multiple voice channels. Such hybrid arrangements might include unionised representatives plus a non-union employee council, or, semi-autonomous teams alongside union representatives.

Across the Anglo-American world, a parallel trend to the increase in direct employee voice has been an increase in the expression of employee voice through non-union representation.

The “never-member” problem – the majority of the workforce never having joined unions – is one explanation for the rise in non-union employee representation.

How do trade unions fit in with employee ‘voice’?

In the context of a decline in union membership, and as Australian unions seek to revitalise and redefine their relevance following the damning royal commission, effective provision of unionised voice must remain at the heart of any strategic repositioning.

Recent developments in employee voice are therefore instructive in driving trade unions’ initiatives and strategies to rebuild voice for workers.

First, while there may be many winners of the shift to direct and non-union representative voice in professional services and managerial occupations, unions can still leverage power imbalances and the “voice gap” in precarious employment to ensure employees’ voices are resoundingly heard. Childcare work is a powerful example, due to precarious work arrangements, the feminisation of the workforce, and low pay.

Second, the nuance of union voice must continue to evolve over time. Unions must focus on positive expressions of voice to improve job design, productivity and performance, rather than just on the negative dimension of voice, such as worker dissatisfaction or a grievance. Workplace safety, learning and training remain powerful examples of the positive expression of union voice.

Third, and linked to the first point, hybrid voice arrangements must consider other societal agents who express voice for precarious workers such as public servants. These agents may complement the traditional, more instrumental voice of unions in representing workers, extending voice to issues of identity and advocacy, such as age or disability by way of example.

However, challenges to public servants and the legitimacy of civil service organisations, due to an absence of democratic foundations, may provide a challenge to enlarging union voice in this way.

Why voice matters

Irrespective of the channels through which voice is expressed, most employees want the opportunity and expect “a say” in matters that affect them at work.

Empirical evidence in Australia would suggest that most employees perceive that their desire for voice is fulfilled through the availability of channels. However, the mere presence of voice channels is not enough. The outcomes of voice must also be effective.

As Australian workplaces and unions strive to constantly improve, innovate and progress, it is important to remember that much of the growth in employee voice is informal. This means there are more and more interactions between employers and employees that subsequently provide opportunities for information dissemination, consultation and idea generation.

In this respect, the day-to-day relations between employers, employees and unions remain fundamental to the nature and experience of employee voice.

It is in the complex and enduring power relationships that underpin employment that unions can continue to play a pivotal role in ensuring that marginalised or diverse voices are heard. In high-productivity workplaces of the future, effective, meaningful employee voice will be pivotal: characterised by multiple, mutually reinforcing channels where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

In creating effective employee voice, it is incumbent on organisations, employers, unions and employees that employees do not refrain from speaking up. Volkswagen’s recent emissions scandal provides a timely reminder of unethical practices and the perverse effects of employees’ discretionary behaviour.

The survival of union voice is contingent on an underpinning ethical process, purpose and meaning that enables genuine dialogue and power-sharing with employers, and, in turn, facilitates a competitive edge in Australian workplaces.

You can read other pieces in the series here.

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