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Commission on the Future of Worker-Management Relations

The workplace has become the central institution in American society. A higher proportion of the population than ever before is in the workplace, as women have taken jobs to support their families as principal breadwinners or as part of dual-earner households. Workplaces reflect the racial and ethnic diversity of the population more than any other institution. The workplace distributes earned income to most of the population. In contrast with many other advanced countries, where the state provides benefits for citizens paid from general taxation, the U.S. relies on private decision-making in the workplace to furnish a disparate range of benefits, most notably health insurance and vacations with pay. The U.S. also places on the workplace the obligation to provide an increasing list of individual rights enforceable in the courts. Americans spend more time at the workplace than the citizens of any other advanced country, save for Japan. Far more Americans work than vote.

Some federal interventions have been designed, as in the case of statutes dealing with discrimination and harassment, to change the mores or customs prevailing in many workplaces apart from providing redress to affected individuals. One of the earliest pieces of New Deal era legislation was the Wagner Act (modified by 1947 and 1959 statutes) that sought to assure workers the right to choose freely whether or not to join a union and to encourage the practice of collective bargaining over terms and conditions of employment. The procedures were designed to ascertain whether or not workers wanted democratically chosen representation at the workplace. It is to be observed that the labor movement often provided the impetus and political support for many of the workplace entitlements enacted by regulatory legislation for all workers. In recent years civil rights groups, women's groups, and religious groups have also played a role in expanding the protection provided for workers. At their volition or through collective bargaining, companies have also introduced numerous policies designed to improve worker well-being as well as to raise workplace efficiency. For instance, most large firms now have employee assistance programs to help employees with alcohol, drug, mental health or other problems.

We now turn our attention to the changes in public policy and private practice that are needed if we are to achieve the goals for the workplace of the 21st century.

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