Worker voice is resurgent in the American economy. From the Google offices in Silicon Valley to Amazon warehouses in Alabama, from Walmart shareholder meetings to the analyst floors of Goldman Sachs, workers are demanding to be heard and heeded.
It is too early to tell whether these trends will lead to a rewiring of American capitalism or whether business leaders and investors will treat them as cosmetic updates in pursuit of shareholder value. It is clear though, that an overwhelming majority of the public expects companies to prioritize workers.
But prioritizing workers will require a transformation of the American economy, not just a tune-up. Researchers at RAND recently found that had incomes of workers at the bottom 90 percent kept up with GDP growth since 1975, they’d have collectively taken home $2.5 trillion more in income in 2018 alone. It goes without saying that correcting for 43 years and trillions of dollars worth of economic inequality will not happen quickly or with half measures.
And wages are just the beginning. Worker voice in 2021 transcends blue vs white collar dichotomies. Workers are weighing in on a remarkable range of issues, revealing new risks and opportunities for companies. Workers are demanding more say in corporate decision-making and seeking ways to hold their employers accountable.
- Nearly four in 10 employees (38%) report that they have spoken up to support or criticize their employers’ actions over a controversial issue that affects society.
- Digital workers are “feeling the moment,” at the same time as the Amazon union drive is changing the politics of labor.
- Over 80% of companies predict a rise in workforce activism.
- New coalitions of investors are joining blue-collar workers and labor organizers to get the attention of boards and executives.
- And for some companies, the pandemic demonstrated the value of worker voice when it is heard and harnessed.
A generation ago, business leaders would likely have rejected or minimized these worker-led trends. Today’s business leaders have good reason to embrace them. Many CEOs recognize that their role inside the company and in society is changing. Many understand that more inclusive, collaborative, and participatory leadership is the future. They know that more diverse, equitable, and purpose-driven companies make for a better brand of capitalism.
Worker voices have been instrumental in bringing business leadership to this new frontier. It has often been when worker voices finally break through on things like DEI, corporate purpose, environmental sustainability, health and safety, and economic inequality, that corporate leadership has recognized these opportunities to improve. Workers are eager to contribute their insight and knowledge. It is time to take seriously the possibility that fostering worker voice and including workers at the table can make corporate leadership—and American capitalism—better.
Stay tuned for more on worker voice from the Aspen Business & Society Program’s Ideas Lab on Worker Voice in Corporate Governance.