How does the workplace division of labor affect worker bargaining power?  A long line of research, going back to Harry Braverman, contends that the detail division of labor reduces worker bargaining power.  By simplifying and deskilling work, the division of labor opens incumbent workers to more competition from outsiders.

Beyond the world of Marxist workplace ethnography, workforce development practitioners advocate for job enrichment, task rotation and other initiatives that reverse the specialized division of labor.  These arguments all assume that dividing labor straightforwardly reduces worker bargaining power.

Yet in a recent article in Administrative Science Quarterly, I identify a countervailing process by which the division of labor can actually increase worker leverage and pay.  Specialization typically reduces the number of different tasks that each worker performs.  Consistent with Braverman’s argument, this reduction in complexity lowers the skill level required to perform any given job. It is more difficult to find a professor who can both teach effectively and do high-quality research.  Splitting those tasks into a teaching professor and research professor job could make each job easier to fill.

But, at the same time as specialization reduces the complexity of any one job, it also tends to reduce redundancy across jobs.  Instead of having two jacks-of-all trades, you end up with two specialists.  Each of these specialists has their own job turf inside the organization, which is exclusive and nonoverlapping.  This makes it more difficult to substitute among employees.  If the teaching professor threatens to quit, her employer may doubt that the research professor can effectively cover her lectures.  When employees are less substitutable with each other, their bargaining power, and ultimately their pay, increases.

So, increasing the division of labor in an organization can reduce pay (through Braverman’s deskilling channel) and increase pay (by creating job turf).  You might think that this means that the detailed division of labor actually produces two countervailing effects.  Maybe one is bigger than the other. Or maybe they are roughly equivalent and cancel each other out, so we really do not need to worry about these issues when studying worker bargaining power.

It turns out to be more complicated.  Within a workplace, the workers who have their job simplified through the division of labor may not be the workers who gain job turf during the process.  As a result, increased division of labor might redistribute bargaining power across workers and be a source for increased pay inequality, not just a change in average wages at the organization (now we are getting back to Braverman!).

Note that this theory is not so much about the content of a given task, but about how a set of tasks are arranged into jobs. In the article, I distinguish between task content and task structure.  Task content is about what exactly needs to be done to produce whatever widget or service an organization is selling.  Task structure is about how those individual tasks are arranged into a set of jobs within a workplace.

While task content is often determined entirely by technological necessity and efficiency considerations, task structure seems to vary a lot across even similar organizations.  Some organizations have highly specialized jobs, with substantial job turf available for some workers, while others rely on multitasking and overlap between jobs.  As a result, task structure can increase pay inequality in an organization, even if its underlying set of tasks (task content) is the same as its competitors.

To test these ideas, I use data on the tasks that employees of labor organizations perform.  I first show that when an organization increases the extent of specialization or the division of labor, it also increases the availability of job turf.  So, simplifying jobs and producing job turf do indeed go hand-in-hand, as a single process of detailed division of labor.

I also show that, in the organizations in my data, the workers who lose out from job simplification are different from those who gain from new job turf.  The division of labor affects workers’ bargaining positions inconsistently and unequally.  I then show that as workers gain more job turf, their pay increases.  This holds even when the same worker remains in the same job, with the same job title: gaining more turf raises bargaining power.

The upshot of this is that job design is indeed important for understanding worker bargaining power and workplace-level inequality.  It really matters how organizations assemble tasks into jobs.  But, it is trickier than Braverman’s classic theory implies.  Less complex jobs are exposed to more competition.  But jobs that are more unique within a workplace also accumulate leverage.  The workplace division of labor affects bargaining power by reducing job complexity but increasing job turf.  These effects typically impact different jobs, which drives workplace-based inequality.

Nathan Wilmers is Sarofim Family Career Development Professor and Assistant Professor of Work and Organization Studies at the MIT Sloan School of Management

This article is based on Nathan Wilmers, “Job Turf or Variety: Task Structure as a Source of Organizational Inequality.”Administrative Science Quarterly, 65(4): 1018-1057 (2020).

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