Top global thinkers and think tank lists: Where are the voices of labor?

Although work and workplaces are central experiences in countless numbers of lives, the world of employment relations is somewhat invisible in two recent lists of leading global public policy thinkers and think tanks.

Foreign Policy‘s 100 Top Global Thinkers

In December, Foreign Policy magazine published its list of the 100 top global thinkers (link below), which included scholars, writers, elected officials, policy analysts, and advocates from around the world who have impacted thinking and action on significant public policy issues.

Several economists whose work inevitably overlaps with employment policy make the list, Joseph Stiglitz (ranked 25th) and Paul Krugman (29th) being prominent among them. And Barbara Ehrenreich (59th), author of influential books and articles on the low-wage workforce, unemployment, and the state of work in America, is listed “for her relentless efforts to understand the root causes of poverty and inequality.”

But no readily identifiable labor leader or employment relations scholar appeared on the list.

The Global “Go-To Think Tanks”

In January, the University of Pennsylvania’s Think Tanks and Civil Societies Program released its annual survey of leading think tanks, covering U.S. and non-U.S. institutions (link below).

The list did include prominent think tanks that have conducted important labor-related research and analysis, including the Brookings Institute (ranked 1st overall), Human Rights Watch (23rd overall), and the Economic Policy Institute (46th in the U.S.).

However, similar to the Foreign Policy ranking, there was no readily identifiable labor-centered think tank on the list.

Labor’s decline

The absence of a prominent employment policy and labor relations presence on these lists is especially reflective of the decline of the labor movement.  During the decades that followed the end of the Second World War, labor sat at the table with management and government in shaping employment policy and public policy in general.  However, during the past 30 years, labor union density around the world has been on the decline, and transnational corporations have grown enormously in power and influence.

Ripple effects

The less prominent labor voice manifests itself in several ways:

In the media, few newspapers assign reporters to a “labor beat,” and coverage of employment issues is usually in the context of business and economics.  Very few public intellectuals have built their identities around labor issues — Barbara Ehrenreich is a definite outlier here.

In politics, labor all too often has been relegated to “special interest” status, even if labor unions themselves represent some of the most diverse swaths of the population.  The list of elected officials who court labor union support at campaign time but then fail to take a strong stand on pro-labor legislation would fill a small phone book.

In academe, work issues typically are shoehorned into management and organizational behavior elements of MBA programs, a sprinkling of sociology and labor economics offerings, and a handful of law school elective courses. Labor studies programs have been on a steady decline.

Voices and visibility

There is no shortage of creative research, thinking, and advocacy on labor issues.  However, the workplace and workers’ interests do not receive the attention they merit in our contemporary discussions of public policy.  The challenge for all of us working in this realm is to do what we can to raise the visibility of these issues in the public eye.


Foreign Policy global thinkers article

University of Pennsylvania global “go-to” think tanks report (pdf)

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