David Weil has just published an interesting paper on the application of the broken window approach to crime reduction on workplace representation. “Broken Windows,” Vulnerable Workers, and the Future of Worker Representation” asserts that routine violations of workplace right (akin to petty crime and vandalism) cause a withdrawal of workers and paves the way for more significant and persistent violations (akin to serious crime and urban decay). Moreover, as silence allows small infractions to intensify, the results of this viscous circle is a counter-intuitive lessening of complaints.
There is an intuitive appeal to this line of thinking. Looking at my own workplace, the will of my colleagues to resist day-to-day violations of contractual rights and usurping of long-established practices has declined. Resistance certainly still happens, but most are choosing to withdraw from a demonstrably poisoned workplace as a coping mechanism. This reflects that those who complaint receive on;y part of the reward (a free-rider problem) but all of the retaliation. This is evident in low participation and a significant decline in discussion about workplace issues.
This line of thinking may also partly explain broader trends such as declining employment standards and safety complaints and injury reports in the workplace. An expectation of retaliation by the employer is a significant disincentive to such reporting. Again, looking to my own workplace, many colleagues face persistent harassment from supervisors but, knowing that the reality of a “harassment-free environment” is a complaint process that drags on for 6-8 months with no clear consequence for the harasser, they simply choose to mitigate the harassment as best they can and endure the rest. Or leave.
The implications for union organizing are interesting. If persistent violations cause a withdrawal of workers, are workers likely to unionize in those workplaces? This runs contrary to conventional wisdom that workers unionize when faced with an intolerable work environment. It suggests that the role of the state in enforcing basic workplace rights is an important one. A lack of enforcement will not cause workers to help themselves. Rather, it will lead to increased violations and, in the case of OHS, more dangerous workplaces.
-- Bob Barnetson