Mike Kubzansky
Chief Executive Officer
&
Joelle Gamble
Principal, Reimagining Capitalism

The Future of Labor, Work, and Workers Congressional Briefing

March 2, 2020

We believe in a world where work is productive and fulfilling, where all forms of work are respected, and where all people have power in the workplace. How do we get there? 

On Wednesday, February 26, Omidyar Network hosted a Congressional briefing to explore the answers to this question. The event was sponsored by Representatives Rosa DeLauro, Pramila Jayapal, and Andy Levin, and we were joined by Steve Greenhouse, former New York Times labor reporter and author of “Beaten Down, Worked Up”; Damon Silvers policy director and general counsel of the AFL-CIO; and Dorian Warren, president of Community Change and Community Change Action and co-chair of the Economic Security Project.

Greenhouse’s book was the impetus for the discussion, as it provoked a conversation about how we can build a more inclusive workforce for the 21st Century through new ways of organizing and empowering people at work, building on traditional models and new opportunities.

CEO of Omidyar Network Mike Kubzansky moderating the conversation at Wednesday’s briefing.

Even though productivity in the workforce is increasing, wages remain stagnant and job quality, poor. Despite global economic gains, working people are not reaping their fair share of economic success.

The briefing attempted to answer one major question: What will it take for working people to gain greater power and voice?

Here are several takeaways from the event:
 
  1. The status of working people is different than in the past.

Greenhouse dove into the history of the labor movement and lamented how worker power in the United States has grown “woefully weak” in a way that hasn’t been seen since the World War II era.

Steven Greenhouse (center right) speaks about his book and the imperativeness of economic prosperity for working people. Also pictured: Dorian Warren (far left), Damon Silvers (left), and Mike Kubzansky (far right).

Joelle Gamble of Omidyar Network’s Reimagining Capitalism team takes the podium.

People’s ability to unionize is greatly diminished. “Today, only 6 and-a-half percent of the American workforce in the private sector has the ability to sit down with their employer on equal terms with equal dignity about what happens at work,” said Silvers. “And the results of that has been catastrophic.”

“The increasing frequency and severity of financial crises, and the economic crises that follow those financial crises, is directly tied to the fact that our economy does not move wealth into the hands of ordinary people like it used to do,” Silvers went on to say.

“People are making unions and worker organizations their own thing, from their own experiences,” Dorian Warren added. “And what’s powerful is that people without these structures are acting anyway. Political systems can help back them up."

Dorian Warren speaks on diversifying the narrative about working people.

  2.   Working people need to lead the movement.

Before coming to Congress, Representative Andy Levin was a union organizer. He emphasized that we need to restore people’s ability to come together in union and bargain collectively. And it’s these working people who need to be leading the movement especially representing themselves on corporate boards, and worker organizations playing a larger role in society.

“Worker power has died a death of a thousand cuts,” said Levin. “We need a movement in this country to force Congress to do the right thing.”

Representative Andy Levin leads the conversation on labor issues in the legislative space.

“We talk a lot about tech employees organizing, but what’s often left out the conversation are the low-wage workers,” said Warren.

  3.  There are green shoots that give us hope.

Democratic candidates are talking about the importance of strengthening unions more than ever before,” said Steve Greenhouse. Democratic candidates who are talking about labor issues, now have plans.

Representative Rosa DeLauro called the 2017 tax law the “single greatest contributor to income equality that the Congress has passed in a generation” but she said that legislators are “turning the tide.”

Representative Rosa DeLauro addresses the room on the congressional component of supporting legislation for workers.

Despite current economic concerns, there are optimistic signs for working families to obtain economic prosperity in the future:

  • The House passed the PRO Act, which will give workers more power during disputes and penalize companies that retaliate against workers who organize. “It strengthens the rights of working people to come together in unions to secure better wages and better working condition,” said DeLauro. “And we passed the Raise the Wage Act to raise the federal minimum wage to 15 dollars an hour by 2025. It has been ten years since the last increase, the longest period between increases in the history of the federal minimum wage."
  • There has been a surge in unionizing – especially among the young generations. In the past two years, workers aged 35 and under have been the main component of union membership and participation, and those numbers continue to grow. Warren has even seen this spike in his own organization. “Lots of young progressive employees at nonprofits are organizing,” he supported.

To build a broader labor movement that supports a multi-issue agenda, we must test new models for organizing and empowering people at work, including, but not limited to unions, which are held back by outdated labor laws that inhibit worker power and unionization probabilities.

That’s why Omidyar Network is supporting and testing a variety of approaches, including:

  • Innovations in worker organizing
  • New ways to ensure employees have a seat at the table – at the workplace and in policy discussions (e.g., workers on corporate boards)
  • Experiments in cities and states that test ways to broaden collective bargaining
  • Reinvention of national labor law as essential foundation to expand working people’s power and voice
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