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What do workers want? 5 key takeaways from the first citizens’ assembly on workplace democracy

Equity, diversity, inclusion are buzzwords that may evoke social change, but for some they conjure empty promises on a glossy corporate brochure or statement at the bottom of a job listing.

In 2020, when Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin murdered George Floyd, worldwide protests against anti-Black police brutality prompted corporations to rush to address racism. They put out statements of solidarity and in some cases, affirmations of their commitment to anti-racism in the workplace.

But University of Toronto Prof. Kang says that without action-plans to back up those ideas, those statements can cause harm. They can lead to greater blocks to success for racialized employees and job seekers.

Imagine receiving a letter informing you that your job is relocating to another province. Your employment is contingent upon you moving and your employer refuses to discuss it with you.

Or imagine developing an innovative plan for more flexible at-home work options that will reduce your company’s carbon emissions and save your employer money. Your manager, instead of praising your efforts, admonishes you and tells you to focus on your core work — not to “rock the boat.”

Workers around the world face dilemmas like these on a regular basis. At their core, they touch on the notion of worker voice: workers’ capacities and opportunities to speak up and effect change at work.

In light of the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, recent labour disputes, concerns about worker shortages and racism and inequality, a growing chorus of people are asking: how can all workers have the opportunity to meaningfully influence workplace decisions and have their voices heard?

Worker voice

Worker voice doesn’t just empower workers. It also has wide-ranging benefits for employers and broader society as well. It can help protect workers’ interests, improve workplace performance and contribute to societal democratization.

Unfortunately, unless US workers are covered by a collective agreement, opportunities to shape decisions at work are largely at the whim of their employer. This leads to situations in which some workers have ample opportunities to speak up at work, while others — often those more marginalized — have almost none.

Managers, labour advocates and policymakers interested in worker voice can get started on five of these recommendations right now. Firstly, all of these groups can — and should — do a better job of educating workers about their rights and responsibilities when it comes to voicing ideas and concerns at work.

Secondly, employers can implement best practices to encourage worker voice at work, through things like worker councils and self-managed teams. Thirdly, employers should also ensure workers are both incentivized and protected to use these tools and resources. Fourthly, employers should measure their progress toward improving worker voice, and benchmark it against their competitors.

And lastly, labour unions can open themselves up to more involvement from their diverse membership and provide greater transparency about their finances and decision-making processes.

To improve the ability of workers to have a say in workplace decision-making, these recommendations should be read and considered widely by policymakers, politicians, the media and the broader public. It is up to these leaders to listen to workers and take the necessary steps to create fairer, safer, more inclusive and sustainable workplaces.

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