How Much 'Voice' Does the American Worker Have?

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In the wake of Obama's comments on income inequality, the Labor Department means to find out

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A week after President Obama derided growing income inequality, and underscored the need to enlarge a declining middle class, his administration is quietly proposing to find out just how voice-less American workers really feel.

Something tells me that we sort of know the answer.

It's surely a coincidence, but on the heels of his rousing speech in Osawatomie, Kan., on government's responsibilities, the Labor Department on Monday formally proposed collecting data "to gauge the current level of workers' voice in the workplace and the factors affecting voice."

The notice was among the many dry-as-molasses proposed regulations and other actions—including fixing certain types of commercial aircraft, Coast Guard oversight of certain fireworks displays, and anti-dumping tariff moves against some Italian pasta exporters—found Monday in the Federal Register.

The Labor Department proposal, which seeks written comments by Feb. 10, 2012, involves what workers think of laws enforced by the department. The proposal defines its working definition of "voice" as a "worker's ability to access information on their rights in the workplace, their understanding of those rights, and their ability to exercise those rights without fear of recrimination."

"Voice in the workplace is a key outcome goal for the Secretary of Labor and part of her vision of good jobs for everyone," a somewhat self-serving line states, alluding to Hilda Solis, the department chief.

"The study will also be useful in examining how noncompliance in one area, such as safety, is related to voice in the workplace and noncompliance in another area, such as wages," the notice indicates.

Calling the proposed evaluation "new and unique," the department indicated that the contractor, which appears to be Gallup, Inc., is engaged in a rigorous process in developing survey questions. It's done a "thorough review of the literature" to examine existing research related to traditional notions of "worker voice" and has produced a large bibliography of articles, reports and students of relevant.

But, the department claims, it's not just rehashing the old.

"It was also discovered in the course of the literature review that DOL's undertaking is unique to the voice literature as its mandate focuses on compliance-related issue. As such, it is expected that this research will be groundbreaking in the voice (as defined for this study) literature and may lead to follow-on research articles."

Offering more detail than even the Office of Management and Budget may crave, the department indicated that the contractor has developed a "modularized survey questionnaire that is approximately 18 minutes in length." The second part of the survey "instrument" is "two rotating modules," one each for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the Wage and Hour Division (WHD), in which specific queries can be direct to respondents about each of the two DOL agencies.

In one section, respondents will be asked about worker rights, with "a knowledge score" to be derived for each respondent.

Two surveys in all will be completed; the first being a pilot with 800 respondents and the second being the full study with 4,000 respondents. It will be conducted in both Spanish and English for those who are currently employed.

Now, just imagine if we'd ask the frustrated millions who aren't employed, or who are distinctly under-employed, about how much "voice" they think they possess these days.

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James Warren is the Chicago editor of the Daily Beast/Newsweek and an MSNBC analyst. He's former managing editor of the Chicago Tribune. More

James Warren is a former manager, editor and Washington bureau chief of The Chicago Tribune. An ink-stained wretch, he's labored at The Newark Star-Ledger, The Chicago Sun-Times, and the Tribune in a variety of positions, including financial reporter, legal affairs reporter-columnist, labor writer, media writer-columnist and features editor. The Washingtonian once tagged him one of the town's 50 most influential journalists (he thinks he was 46, the number worn by Andy Pettitte, a pitcher for his beloved New York Yankees). He's a political analyst for MSNBC. He was recently publisher and president of the Chicago Reader, and is now policy columnist for Business Week and twice-a-week Chicago columnist for The New York Times (you can find his handiwork on the paper's website and on new Chicago pages produced for Friday's and Sunday's Midwest print editions by the nonprofit Chicago News Cooperative, which he held to start). A native New Yorker, he's a happy resident of the wonderful, if ethically challenged, City of Chicago, where he lives just north of decaying Wrigley Field with his Pulitzer Prize-winning wife, Cornelia, and their sons, Blair and Eliot. Blair's t-ball team is, yes, the Yankees.

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