In the month of March 2020, more than 10 million Americans filed for unemployment benefits, a staggering turnabout from near full employment just weeks earlier. We have only begun to see the devastating effects of COVID-19 on people’s lives and livelihoods. The sudden end to so many jobs is the result of a public health crisis brought on by a virus imperceptible to the human eye. But the vulnerability of American workers is a crippling crisis that has been in plain view for decades.
Long before the pandemic, the United States had a job quality problem. Since the late 1970s, real wages for typical American workers have seen little growth and have not kept pace with increasing productivity, and workers’ share of the economic pie has declined. “What has been true for many decades is the persistence of a large low-wage job market that many millions of adults are trapped in,” explains MIT Sloan Professor Paul Osterman in the introduction to the new book Creating Goods Jobs: An Industry-Based Strategy. As a result, even in times of economic growth, increasing numbers of workers have struggled to support their families, and those workers have no financial buffer to weather an economic crisis like the current one.
How did we get here? A convergence of forces over several decades beginning in the late 1970s including globalization, increased pressure from financial markets for short-term profits, and rapidly paced technological change tell part of the story. But the decline of unions during this period is also important. Union membership has fallen from 23% of American workers in 1970 to 10.3% in 2019—and to only 6.2% in the private sector. As a result, unions’ diminished powers of collective bargaining are no longer able to bolster wages, assure benefits like health insurance, and improve training and working conditions to the extent they once did. The cumulative effect of all these forces for American workers has been diminished voice, reduced power, and eroded job quality.
But change is in the wind as workers are again seeking to have more say over their economic lives. A 2017 survey conducted as part of a Good Companies, Good Jobs Initiative at MIT Sloan research project found that a majority of US workers report having less influence than they think they should have on a wide range of work-related issues, from compensation to job security to respect for employees. The study also found that nearly half (48%) of non-unionized American workers would join a union if given the opportunity – up from about one-third of the non-unionized workforce who reported that preference in previous decades. And in 2019, Gallup reported that general public approval of unions, at over 60%, was the highest it has been since 2003.
That doesn’t mean that all those workers are likely to join a union anytime soon. America’s labor law framework, designed largely in the 1930s for a very different economy than today’s, is hopelessly out-of-date, and the rules governing unions do not reflect the needs of 21st-century working people. That’s one of the reasons numerous labor policy experts, including those taking part in the Clean Slate for Worker Power project based at Harvard Law School’s Labor and WorkLife Program, are calling for significant reforms to US labor law to bring a voice to all American workers. The deep economic distress that the pandemic is causing many low-wage workers and their families makes the need for labor law reform even more apparent and urgent.
But workers aren’t waiting for laws to be changed. Dozens of innovative worker advocacy groups have been springing up in recent years, bolstered by the power of online networks. Experimentation is paving the way for working people to connect and address specific issues of critical concern in real-time within companies, across sectors and even society-wide, through movements like #MeToo. Coworker.org, for example, is a platform that enables workers within companies to initiate campaigns to improve their workplace. On wide-ranging issues, from providing paid sick leave to modifying dress codes, Coworker.org creates capacity for workers to find common ground and join together to make a difference at work.
The National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA) takes a sector-based approach, addressing the poor wages and working conditions common to domestic workers who under our current labor laws are exempt from many basic protections. Through its platform, NDWA connects affiliate organizations and thousands of workers across all 50 states to fight for improved conditions and greater dignity for workers.
Innovative approaches like these are testimony to the dynamism and can-do spirit of American workers, even under difficult conditions. With each new approach being tested – both within and outside of unions – we are gaining greater clarity about what makes sense for a new 21st-century framework for labor policy. Institutions like the Aspen Institute, through its Economic Opportunities Program, enable this testing and learning to mature and generate greater value. The Economic Opportunities Program’s Job Quality Fellows are helping us to see what’s possible for a nation committed to making work work for everyone. In particular, several of this year’s Job Quality Fellows are advancing knowledge through their innovative worker advocacy programs:
As deputy director of the nonprofit Jobs to Move America (JMA), Linda Nguyen worked to ensure that public contracts related to US infrastructure yield good jobs for American workers. At JMA, Nguyen led negotiations that have resulted in an infrastructure-related community benefits agreements in Chicago, where a railway vehicle manufacturer building a new plant committed to hiring about 300 union workers from the surrounding community and launching a pre-apprenticeship training program for community residents. In collaboration with partners, JMA has also developed a procurement tool that helps analyze the quality of jobs offered by transportation equipment makers – thus enabling the creation of good jobs for American workers to easily be a criterion in the procurement process for public transportation projects. Linda is now the chief of staff at UFCW Local 770.
Amanda Ream is the strategic campaigns director for the United Domestic Workers of America (UDW/AFSCME). In that capacity, she has been advocating for a universal long-term care benefit plan in the state of California – as a way of both expanding access to long-term care services and, through proposed wage and training standards, improving job quality for home health care workers.
Tanya Wallace-Gobern is the executive director of the National Black Worker Center Project, a network supporting Black worker centers in eight American cities. The NBWCP works on campaigns to improve job quality for workers, prevent racial discrimination in hiring and other workplace practices, and reduce barriers to employment. Wallace-Gobern is developing plans to expand the network of Black worker centers and launch a program focused on the future of work for Black workers.
In addition to worker advocacy groups, there are also groups that work as intermediaries serving both workers and employers. Their focus is usually on improving the work experience and lives of today’s low-wage workers by linking them to local services and programs and by advocating for changes in employer policies and practices. Two of this year’s Job Quality Fellows lead not-for-profits that exemplify this approach:
Milinda Ysasi is executive director of The Source, an employer-led collaborative in Grand Rapids, Michigan that has about 20 companies as paying members. The Source, in turn, provides the front-line employees of its member organizations with assistance in connecting to resources in the community that can help with issues such as transportation, child care, housing, and training – saving the employees much-needed time and helping lower turnover for employers. The Source also engages in what Ysasi calls “quiet advocacy” for workers – letting employers know about changes they could make to improve the quality of their front-line workers’ jobs.
Justine Zinkin is CEO of Neighborhood Trust Financial Partners, a nonprofit that provides low-to-moderate income workers with financial coaching. One of the ways the organization delivers this coaching is through TrustPlus, an employee benefit that companies can offer to help employees manage their finances; the benefit blends financial coaching and digital money management tools.
Both advocacy and support are important aspects of addressing the economic distress faced by many low-wage workers. As the crisis caused by COVID-19 makes clear, our society must create a better social contract and working future for all Americans, one where workers have more say and their health, well-being, and economic welfare are better protected. Groups that advocate for and support low-wage workers have an important role to play in the process of creating the new social contract; to develop it, we need to bring together leaders in business and entrepreneurship, labor and worker advocacy, government, education, and technology. We must leverage the collective wisdom of all of these stakeholders to create a working future for America that is more equitable, more resilient, and more inclusive.
About the Authors
Barbara Dyer (@BDyer_MIT) is a Senior Lecturer and Executive Director of the Good Companies, Good Jobs Initiative at the MIT Sloan School of Management. Thomas Kochan (@TomKochan) is the George Maverick Bunker Professor of Management at the MIT Sloan School and Co-Director of the MIT Institute for Work and Employment Research.
Tweet We’ve only begun to see the effects of #COVID19 on people’s lives and livelihoods. But the vulnerability of workers has been in plain view for decades. @BDyer_MIT and @TomKochan of @MITSloan share their insights.
The Job Quality Fellowship is a project of the Aspen Institute Economic Opportunities Program.
Learn how the Economic Opportunities Program is helping low- and moderate-income Americans connect to and thrive in a changing economy. Follow us on social media and join our mailing list to stay up-to-date on publications, blog posts, and other announcements.