How Biden can heal America’s divisions at work

People in an office setting

President-elect Joe Biden wants to mend the divisions apparent in American society.  One good place to start is in the workplace. By focusing on improving Americans’ experiences on the job, a Biden administration can make the workplace a channel for healing a divided nation.

Here’s are six steps Biden can take:  

  1. Increase opportunities for workers and management to collaborate. Building and supporting collaborative forms of labor-management relations should be a core principle of future labor policy — and Biden has already made a good start on this by convening a meeting of CEOs and labor leaders.

An example of the kind of collaborative labor-management relationships the U.S. economy needs is in place at the health care provider Kaiser Permanente. Kaiser has the largest and longest-lasting labor management partnership in American history, and labor and management leaders work together on issues affecting the delivery of patient care. These parties are working together to introduce new technologies and workflows as Kaiser opens a new generation of clinics. As the pandemic erupted, union and management leaders also collaborated to adjust safety, scheduling and compensation to support changes in care delivery. 

Our research at Kaiser and elsewhere documents the value of such labor-management partnerships. A good place to start fostering partnerships right now is worker-management safety and health committees, with a focus on maintaining safe conditions during COVID-19.

  1. Incentivize government contractors to provide good jobs. The centerpiece of the Biden plan for rebuilding the economy is its “Build Back Better” plans for investing in infrastructure and climate change mitigation. One way to ensure that government investments result in high-quality jobs is to include employment standards in the government contracting process. Research has shown that there are two ways companies can compete successfully, either by keeping labor costs low or by investing in and engaging the workforce and working together to achieve the high levels of productivity needed to support good wages and benefits. Requiring compliance with minimum labor standards and including incentives (points in the bidding process) for companies to meet good jobs standards would ensure that government spending helps drive improvements in job quality.
  1. Listen to what workers want. Recent research we conducted at MIT found that a majority of American workers have less influence than they believe they should over important workplace topics such as compensation, job security and how new technology is introduced. Almost half of nonunionized workers surveyed would join a union if they could — a substantial increase from prior decades.

When asked what forms of workplace representation they want, workers expressed strong support for collective bargaining at the firm and industry levels, but they also indicated interest in having input into how work is done and in labor-management committees and worker representation on corporate boards. The bottom line: Workers today are eager to have a stronger voice to improve both workplace conditions and the performance and governance of the organizations that employ them. This suggests a top priority for the Biden administration should be to update and strengthen both labor laws and their enforcement to provide workers access to the forms of representation they seek.

  1. Invest in lifelong learning. Establishing high-quality, accessible lifelong learning systems is a priority for business, government, labor and the workforce, as changing technologies are increasing the premium on skills and call for improvements in both technical and behavioral skills. Researchers at MIT and elsewhere have identified effective collaborative training systems at the local and regional levels involving a range of stakeholders, from employers and community colleges to unions, workforce intermediary organizations and government agencies. Research has shown what works, and it is time to move beyond demonstration efforts. The Biden administration should work to bring these effective workforce development efforts to national scale.
  1. Extend pandemic-related unemployment benefits and make the temporary paid sick and family leave policies permanent. Unlike most other industrialized nations, the U.S. doesn’t have a uniform requirement that employers offer paid sick leave. That has disastrous public health effects when sick employees can’t afford to stay home. America needs to make permanent the temporary paid sick and family leave benefits rushed into place in the stimulus packages passed in March, as well as extend the pandemic-related unemployment benefits through the winter. Doing so will signal that society respects and appreciates the contributions of our most vulnerable and essential workers.
  1. Encourage, rather than discourage, inclusivity in the workplace. The Black Lives Matter movement is awakening many companies to the need for racial justice at work. President Trump took a step backward by issuing an executive order banning some diversity training programs in federal agencies and contractors. While the evidence on the effectiveness of diversity training is mixed at best, training that is combined with empowering employees to take actions to improve workplace cultures has a better track record. One technique for doing so is bystander training that empowers observers of racial or gender discrimination or other offensive behaviors to intervene when they occur. Encouraging rather than discouraging these approaches to diversity and inclusion would be positive steps for government and business.

Research shows that there are numerous ways to use better employment relations and practices to heal divisions in the workplace and, by extension, in society. It’s time to put this evidence to work.

Thomas A. Kochan is the George M. Bunker Professor of Management at the MIT Sloan School of Management. Barbara Dyer is a senior lecturer and executive director of the Good Companies, Good Jobs Initiative at MIT Sloan. Kochan is the one of the authors of the book “Healing Together: The Labor-Management Partnership at Kaiser Permanente” (Cornell University Press, 2009). More recently, Kochan and Dyer received funding from the Kaiser Permanente Labor Management Partnership to write a case study about some of Kaiser’s new clinics.

Tags Collective bargaining Donald Trump Employment Joe Biden Kaiser Permanente Labor relations Trade union Workforce development workplace

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