Forging a new workplace compact: An optimistic Labor Day message

Forging a new workplace compact: An optimistic Labor Day message
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I approach this Labor Day optimistic that a broad cross-section of American workers and leaders are ready to negotiate and build a new workplace compact that reduces income inequality, restores dignity and respect for all who work, narrows the divides that separate us and ushers in a new era of sustained prosperity.

Workers and labor organizations are taking action to rebuild their bargaining power in new ways, business leaders are calling for a more balanced view of corporate responsibility than they have been espousing throughout the era of financial capitalism, educational institutions are offering new ideas and concrete programs to prepare for the future of work and Democratic candidates for president are determined to win back the support of the workers who abandoned them in 2016. 

I see a common thread in these developments — a thirst for building a new workplace compact that focuses on our shared values and aspirations and that recognizes the political crisis we are living through must end before we destroy our democracy. But making this happen will require bringing all these parties together to start a dialogue focused on the interests that bind rather than divide them. 

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The place to start such a process is by listening to what the American workforce is telling us. In both our research and in their direct actions, workers across the country are telling us they want a stronger and more meaningful voice at work and are determined to take the actions necessary to achieve it. 

In national surveys conducted by our research group at MIT, we found that a majority of workers want more say and influence over the bread and butter economic issues of wages, benefits and job security, and on ways to regain respect, end sexual harassment and discrimination and participate in how new technologies will be deployed to improve their work and support their careers. 

They also want a stronger voice in corporate governance and workplace decisions, whether that be achieved through representation on company boards of directors, broad-based workplace committees or councils or other means. And they want the unions of the future to provide health, retirement, training and legal services that move with them as they change jobs over the course of their careers. 

They are delivering these same messages through a growing number of direct actions. Teachers are bargaining and striking for both overdue wage increases and increased student budgets using the framing of “bargaining for the common good.” Google employees are demanding reforms of company policies dealing with sexual harassment and gender pay equity, an end to forced arbitration and a voice on the company’s board.  Wayfair employees are demanding their company stop selling their products to agents that separate families at our southern border. And only a few years ago Market Basket executives and employees  joined forces with their customers to demand reinstatement of their CEO to save the company from abandoning its commitment to good jobs, low prices and great customer and community service. 

These data and actions tell us that the workforce is ready to come to the table if given a respected and meaningful seat to start negotiating a new workplace compact that addresses the broad set of issues of interest to them.

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Business is beginning to listen. Just this month the Business Roundtable announced it was replacing its mantra that the sole purpose of the firm is to maximize shareholder wealth with a commitment to attend to the interests of employees, suppliers, communities and the planet as well as to shareholders.  This is a first step — in my view an opening offer that should be followed up by expanding their “roundtable” by engaging these other stakeholders in discussions of how to translate their words into actions.

Labor leaders, both those in the labor movement and the growing number of other worker advocates, are experimenting with new ways to mobilize today's and tomorrow’s workforce to engage employers in tackling contemporary workplace issues. The AFL-CIO will soon release the results of a yearlong internal study called “The Future of Work and Unions.” UNITE-HERE has achieved breakthrough agreements for hotel workers, protecting housekeepers from sexual assaults and gaining a voice in the how new technologies will affect their jobs. Advocacy groups are capitalizing on the power of social media and artificial intelligence tools to win the “Fight for $15” minimum wage in an expanding number of states and to win changes in employment conditions at Walmart, Starbucks  and Toys r Us, as well as for domestic workers and immigrant farmworkers

The academic community is likewise poised to play a more activist and constructive role in supporting a new workplace compact. MIT is about to issue initial findings of a task force charged with figuring out how to use advancing technologies to help achieve a more broadly shared prosperity. A broad-based coalition of labor law scholars convened by Harvard’s Program on Labor and Worklife will soon issue a report outlining a “clean slate” approach to updating the nation’s woefully outdated labor laws. 

Academics on the West Coast are leading the campaign to enshrine into employment law new standards for supporting gig workers who lack coverage under our basic labor and employment laws. Community colleges across the country are building alliances with employers to prepare the next generation workforce with the skills needed for the jobs in highest demand and universities are using online courses to deliver life-long-learning opportunities for those needing to update their skills and knowledge as technologies change. Given the importance of knowledge, skills and continuous learning in today’s economy, education leaders also need a seat at the table in building a new workplace compact.

Politicians are also listening. Every Democratic presidential candidate is professing her or his support for workers and for labor, some with quite comprehensive plans, and others with more rhetorical promises and symbolic actions like walking picket lines. But they will need to do more than give fiery speeches at Labor Day rallies and parades. As they express their determination to fight for workers, they also need to bring business, labor, education and government to the table and hold all these stakeholders’ feet to the fire to forge a new workplace compact that addresses each of their needs and interests.

So on this Labor Day, I ask leaders across these groups to sit down with each other to start the process of negotiating a new workplace compact capable of launching an era of shared respect and prosperity, and in doing so perhaps save our democracy from those who would lead it into a ruinous abyss.

Thomas A. Kochan is the George M. Bunker professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management and co-director of the MIT Institute for Work and Employment Research.