Americans value work. We celebrate work. It drives innovation, supports our families and communities, structures our daily lives, and creates the backbone for our economy. We believe that with hard work, everyone should have access to the American Dream, regardless of where they start. And yet, for years our elected officials have not heard workers’ voices, which are filled with concern about rising instability, disappearing opportunity, and the diminishing rewards of hard work.
Across the board, workers’ wages have stagnated, even though their productivity has risen. Family incomes have become more volatile, as family members’ hours and wages fluctuate in a post-recession economy. Many workers have witnessed the link between work and wealth being severed, making it more difficult for them to save for emergencies, retirement, and more.
Working parents dream of providing their children with a better future through education, but they are limited by their lack of time and resources to support them. And even education is not a guarantee of stable employment. American workers are more educated than they ever have been, yet they still face immense barriers to economic security.
In short, working families are stuck. They have little opportunity to climb the ladder of success without stable footing below. In this already historic election of 2016, candidates have the chance to hear the voices of working families. If they listen, they will realize that it’s not enough to help individual workers climb ladders: we need a new system to restore the promise of work.
The Economic Opportunities Program at the Aspen Institute believes that systemic change requires diverse stakeholders to be at the table. Two powerful stakeholders are government and business.
The role for government is clear: reflect America’s enduring value of work in the law. Americans have long held that government should set and consistently enforce basic standards for work. For example, the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 placed limits on child labor. We now take for granted that young children should not have to work in dangerous environments to help support their families. We also don’t believe that working people should risk their health or their lives for a paycheck, and the Occupational Safety and Health Act, passed in 1970, led to a substantial reduction in workplace injuries and fatalities.
Basic standards do not only protect workers from abuse and exploitation. They can also ensure that hard work is rewarded with economic security through adequate wages, reasonable hours, and insurance against harm. Such standards allow employers to invest in their workers and support their businesses without any fear that their competitors can get ahead by cutting corners.
The government’s efforts to support working families is well complemented by business efforts. Employers have choices about how to invest in their employees, and many have seen that they can succeed by investing in and relying on their frontline workforce. Rather than taking a short-term view of reducing wages, benefits and other labor expenses in order to give more to shareholders in the current quarter, these companies invest in and reward their workforce in order to engage their employees in the enterprise, boost productivity and achieve consistently excellent business performance over the long term.
Take Quiktrip, for example, which focuses on providing its frontline workers with “an opportunity to grow and succeed” through above-average wages, benefits, and development. Its leaders have realized that good jobs are good business, resulting in better customer service, less turnover, and more efficient processes. QuikTrip has been succeeding with this model for many years, but start-ups can do it too. Managed by Q, a fast-growing office cleaning company, provides significantly better wages, benefits and advancement opportunities in order to engage the employees in the business, provide a superior service to the customer, have better retention of both clients and workers, and ultimately run a more successful company—and so far it seems to be working.
For candidates, the most important stakeholders in our economy are their voters—the vast majority of whom are workers. These voters should look carefully at candidates’ plans for the economy and hold elected officials accountable for keeping their needs—needs for decent, stable and honest employment that can be done with dignity and respect—in the forefront. If an economy grows without providing decent livelihoods that can support strong families and communities, is that economic success? We do not need to make false tradeoffs between the success of business and the success of working people, and just as business asks for rules to protect their interest—for everything from intellectual property to the enforcement of contracts—workers also need rules to protect their interests in fair pay, safe working conditions and opportunities to benefit from their work and build a better future.