Reclaiming Voice in the Workplace, and Beyond

By Professor Liat Spiro

We are witnessing concurrent phenomena of protest, in minor and major keys: from the “great resignation” and “quiet quitting” to unionization campaigns at Starbucks and Amazon. Worcester’s nurses successfully undertook a grueling months-long strike for a better contract. Right now, underpaid, rent-burdened graduate student workers, post-docs, and adjunct faculty across the University of California campuses have begun waging their own struggle against precaritization. Systems of social maintenance and care, already underfunded (or increasingly held as financial assets from afar by private-equity firms), have been crumbling with the toll of workers lost to the pandemic, something one fears will harm lives and diminish lifetimes for years to come. Despite the praise, this society and its authorities, private and public, left thousands of “essential workers” in agriculture, manufacturing, healthcare, and transportation, disproportionately Black and Latinx workers, to die in the COVID-19 pandemic. How has work become so poorly remunerated, unfulfilling, and dangerous for so many workers in the U.S.?

Exit, voice, loyalty. In 1970, economist Albert O. Hirschman defined these three responses to situations of decline in firms, states, and organizations. To what extent are they available to workers? How might exit and/or voice be achieved, or altogether reconceived?

Exit Or No Exit?

The labor market has tightened, unemployment is relatively low (3.7%), and a higher-than-average quit rate may indicate that some workers have exited current jobs for better employment prospects. However, many workers in the U.S. have a narrow path to changing jobs, a form of Hirschman’s “exit” option. Beyond search and relocation costs, economist Suresh Naidu has shown how labor market monopsony prevails in many parts of the U.S. When a single employer or a few large employers dominate an entire region, they operate effectively as price-setters for labor (wages). Additionally, in recent decades, an increasing percentage of workers in the U.S.—well beyond tech workers—have found themselves compelled to sign noncompete agreements upon entering work, constraining their future options. This includes a significant proportion of fast-food and other service sector workers. A survey published by the Economic Policy Institute in 2019 estimated that between 27.8% and 46.5% of the private-sector workforce in the U.S. is subject to noncompete agreements—some 36 to 60 million people. The lack of universal healthcare further restricts many workers’ ability to pursue different work.

Moreover, as social historian Heather Ann Thompson has demonstrated and economic historian Adam Tooze has recently emphasized, mass criminalization has deeply injured the lives of the U.S. working class across the board, including in the workplace before, during, and after imprisonment. In the 2010s, firms such as McDonald’s, Victoria’s Secret, Starbucks, and Walmart “outsourced” work directly to prisons, public and private, where incarcerated people are paid $0.12 to $1.15/hour (federally) or $0.13 to $0.32/hour (states) to work amidst health and safety violations. The 2018 prison strike by the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee called for an end to “modern day slavery.”

Thompson has noted the correlation between declining union density and rising incarceration, with incarcerated people stripped of their rights, including the right to form or join a union with recognition to bargain collectively. The employment of six-hundred thousand to a million incarcerated people working under these conditions has displaced jobs in manufacturing, farm work, and day labor. The communities out of which incarcerated people have been stolen receive none of their love and family care, social and economic activity, or political representation. To understand the making of mass incarceration and how it relates to contemporary racial capitalism, read Elizabeth Hinton’s From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime (Harvard University Press, 2016) and Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing California (University of California Press, 2007)!

The surge in arrest rates has severely limited the employment available to people left in the wake of the carceral state. Irrespective of conviction, a person arrested a single time in childhood earns approximately $6,000 less annually as an adult, with the lost earnings rising to $13,000 with multiple arrests during childhood. Over 77 million people in the U.S. possess what amounts to a criminal record in the eyes of the FBI. In a 2019 RAND study, approximately one third of Black men ages 26 to 35 had been arrested by age 26. Mass criminalization has not only depleted potential earnings but also blocked entry and “exit” in the labor market—and undermined “voice” in the workplace for millions of workers in the U.S.


Following the landmark National Labor Relations Act, or Wagner, Act of 1935, the main channels for “voice” in the workplace for industrial workers were labor unions. However, while extending the right to unionize and collectively bargain through a standard, state-recognized procedure, the NLRA did not cover all workers. At the behest of Southern Democrats holding key committee positions (positions gained through seniority, itself achieved through the terror of the Jim Crow one-party state), the NLRA excluded agricultural and domestic workers. These categories of workers, primarily workers of color, would not benefit from many of the provisions of the New Deal: the right to organize and collectively bargain, the minimum wage, and the accrual of Social Security on the job.

“Voice” in the workplace emerged, but not for many Black and Latinx workers. Consequently, farm workers, led by Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta, had to innovate tactics, pairing, for instance, worker organizing with consumer activism in the grapes and lettuce boycotts. Both farm workers in the United Farm Workers and domestic workers in the National Domestic Workers Alliance have had to undertake fights state by state to secure rights not accorded to them federally. They have achieved victories, such as passing a Domestic Worker Bill of Rights in ten states, but they still have numerous fights ongoing to ensure voice in the workplace.

Union density declined precipitously in the U.S. in the closing decades of the twentieth century with the rise of state-level “right-to-work” laws and runaway factories, first to anti-union, anti-regulation jurisdictions within the U.S. and then abroad. The proportion of U.S. workers covered by a union contract fell from nearly one third to about one tenth today, with many of the remainder in the public sector.

The “fissuring” of the workplace, described by economist David Weil, has further undercut the possibility of “voice” via unions by disaggregating workplaces into subcontracting relationships. Whereas the industrial unionism developed by the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) in the 1930s would aim to unionize an entire workplace across lines of skill and occupation, suddenly workers working ostensibly in the same place had different employers and different contract structures. This made it impossible to collectively organize and bargain as a sizeable unit. Further, with the advent of gig work and platform capitalism, an increasing share of workers today are classified as independent contractors. Under this designation, workers such as Uber drivers are barred from many labor protections, including the right to unionize due to antitrust law. In the Law and Political Economy movement, law professors Veena Dubal and Sanjukta Paul have proposed a major rethinking of coordination rights to respond to these shifts in our political economy and technology and enable these workers to act together.

What is “voice” in the workplace? We have become accustomed to considering wages and working conditions the purview of collective bargaining. However, one could envision a wider horizon of “voice,” or scope for workplace democracy, treating such subjects as the pace and design of implementing technologies, the environmental impact of the firm, what kinds of products to make or refuse to produce (weapons of war or surveillance, for instance), short- and long-term investment decisions, and racial justice practices in hiring and every day on-the-job.

In recent campaigns, educators especially have adopted a framework of “bargaining for the common good.” Whether in unions in Los Angeles and Chicago or in the RedforEd movement in non-union states such as Arizona and West Virginia, teachers have prioritized the welfare of students and communities, arguing that their working conditions are students’ learning conditions. This has meant fighting for funding for school counselors, nurses, and other crucial staff as much as making wage demands.

Some political economists and policymakers have proposed adopting Germany’s system of co-determination (“Mitbestimmung”), wherein workers have formal representation on company boards for deliberation over a range of matters. Comparative political economists studying “varieties of capitalism” such as Kathleen Thelen and Peter Hall long emphasized that Germany’s high-skills manufacturing economy was premised on a system of organized capitalism with consistent, ongoing bargaining, communication, and exchange. Yet research points to a mixed record for Mitbestimmung in advancing workers’ rights and welfare. It has indeed tended to prevent layoffs, but also fostered policies of wage restraint. Moreover, political economists have noted the dualization of the labor market in Germany and other “coordinated market economies,” with women often having access solely to “mini-jobs” with no right to Mitbestimmung as exists at corporations. Co-determination on the model of Mitbestimmung offers some “voice,” but it is not a silver-bullet for addressing inequality.

In our financialized era of “asset manager capitalism” (Benjamin Braun), scholars have suggested looking beyond the point of production to “labor’s capital.” Political economists and historians such as Archon Fung and Sanford Jacoby envision workers leveraging pension funds as a source of power from outside the labor market to increase their power within it—and to create coalitions among workers across the public and private sectors.


Hirschman contended that loyalty “holds exit at bay and activates voice.” He acknowledged exceptions (“the gang and the totalitarian party”) where the steep penalties from exit also serve to repress voice. Yet I’m not sure whether he reckoned enough with capitalism itself when he constructed a homologous analysis of firms and states and organizations. Admittedly, a publication in 1970 wouldn’t necessarily have foreseen neoliberal or carceral forms of capitalism. But “exit” has rarely been easy for workers under capitalism—to join the reserve army of the unemployed with no guarantee of subsistence? Nor has “voice.” There are indirect as well as direct forms of compulsion, formal and informal power imbalances—something a wide array of thinkers from Marxists to Legal Realists have recognized.

And still, many workers across the U.S. and globally are fighting to make the world anew.

We face global crises of devastating climate change, inequality and over-capacity/“secular stagnation,” and resurgent fascist/authoritarian movements. Addressing all of these threats will necessitate empowering workers. Empowering workers will require thinking beyond the paradigms of the New Deal order. While rebuilding union power within firms and states, it will be critical to “color outside of the lines” of institutions, forging transnational solidarities and recognizing the multiple facets of working people’s lives (as debtors, renters, and family care-givers, for instance, and people facing the harms of environmental degradation, mass criminalization, and lethal border regimes).

Some inherited categories and units in labor law and policy, products of the New Deal order and business’s long crusade against it (analyzed in historian Kim Phillips-Fein’s book Invisible Hands), too often match neither lived experience nor the scale and scope of interdependencies in our world. The PRO (Protecting the Right to Organize) Act, now stalled in Congress, started the work of re-envisioning by aiming to combat union-busting tactics by employers and restore rights to secondary boycotts and sympathy strikes barred since the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act. If there is “loyalty,” it is to one another and a livable future. As tech billionaires entertain fantasies of exit from society via space travel or luxury bunkers, workers are taking stock of the ruins. Sifting, discerning. Fighting to breathe.

We can begin here. At Holy Cross, maintenance workers earn $16 per hour when those at peer institutions earn $22. Students have encountered long lines in the dining halls as the Human Resources department advertises incentives for recruiting staff week after week. Staff endured reassignments and furloughs imposed unilaterally during the pandemic semesters. Whether on campus or across the country, how can care for the entire person take place in the absence of voice?

Professor Liat Spiro
Professor of History, Department of History
College of the Holy Cross


  • Slavery Industry and Empire (HIST 203)

  • History of Capitalism: US & World (HIST 212)

  • Gilded Age–US In the World (HIST 399)