Even as political earthquakes begin to rumble this week, it seems relevant and worth asking: Is the capital-labor power dynamic beginning to reverse and lean a bit toward workers?
Strikes, protests and other workplace confrontations, for old and new reasons – with both traditional and new types of employees – are proliferating. The range of the new-age labor spectrum was illustrated this week by the General Motors strike and the Amazon employee-demanded decision to become carbon neutral by 2040.
First, the economic propellants:
“In the US, organized labour (sic), which had declined by both membership and activity over several decades, is back because large numbers of people are fed up with soaring inequality, retirement insecurity … rising costs for healthcare … and a sense of economic vulnerability.”
That’s Financial Times columnist Rana Foroohar “Organized labor has returned” .
Ms. Foroohar explains:
“It’s not just old, white or more comfortable workers who are striking. Younger, multicultural, underemployed millennials have been behind the recent gains in union membership … [that] they can’t afford to pay down student debt and buy a home at the same time, are among the many reasons that support for trade unions recently climbed to a 15-year high in the US. Given politics and demographics, this is a trend that will not subside any time soon.”
“Wealth creation and wealth distribution, after all, come in cycles. At some point, the pendulum must shift. … It is a shift that could make the US economy less volatile and more bust. That is something both workers and management should cheer.”
Employee activism on social issues
The millenials are also an important factor in the parallel nascent employee activism movement on major social issues. They and other employees are increasingly making it clear to management what is, and what is not, a “responsible” way to conduct business.
(Just this week, not incidentally, Financial Times launched its Moral Money newsletter to report on the “fast expanding world of socially responsible business, sustainable finance, impact investing, environmental, social and governance (ESG) …” .)
Especially in the new “knowledge economy”, companies are facing petitions, demonstrations, pseudo-strikes – and, perhaps, most important – public embarrassment as employees raise questions on social- issue policies. The hot-button issues have ranged from climate change (think, Amazon carbon neutral/2040), gender and ethnic opportunity, and company relationships with the military, media and “security community.” And, of course, sexual harassment in the workplace.
Business for Social Responsibility has provided impressive guidance on this burgeoning employee activism “Exploring employee activism: Why this stakeholder group can no longer be ignored”
“Employees are speaking out on questions that relate to company values and investment decisions, and they [are] calling out hypocrisy when and where they see it … Today’s employees are empowered to dissolve traditional boundaries — both physical and knowledge-based — between companies and the societies in which they operate.
“Management should respond with a robust, strategic approach to stakeholder engagement, placing their own employees squarely at the center of the effort.”
Seems like a good business strategy.