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Companies’ bad response to the pandemic is leading to greater support for worker power

A new survey finds that a large cross-section of people agree that workers shouldn’t be fired for protesting unsafe conditions—and support for unions is growing, as well.

Companies’ bad response to the pandemic is leading to greater support for worker power
People protest working conditions outside of the Staten Island Amazon Fulfillment Center on May 1, 2020. [Photo: Stephanie Keith/Getty Images]

The COVID-19 pandemic has made it painfully clear how small of a voice many American workers have in how their workplaces are run. Essential employees from grocery store workers to garbage collectors have been forced to do their jobs without necessary safety measures that they’ve demanded. Gig and domestic workers, without any labor safety nets at all, have had to choose between going to work, at the risk of their own and others’ health, or going without any income at all. But the spotlight on these issues could also be the inspiration for new fights for worker power.

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Nearly 70% of American voters now say they think workers should have more voice in the workplace, and more than 60% believe labor unions are good for the country and the economy as a whole, according to a new survey from philanthropic investment firm Omidyar Network and the progressive think tank Data for Progress, which spoke to 1,100 likely voters in April.

[Screenshot: Omidyar Network]

The findings build on an October 2019 report Omidyar Network did in partnership with Gallup, Lumina Foundation, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation that aimed to “rethink the way we evaluate work.” Rather than look at how many people have full-time jobs or how much a worker makes, that report wanted to look at the quality of jobs at which Americans work. Fewer than half of U.S. workers are in what the report considered “good” jobs, which the report defines as a job where workers rate their jobs on a scale of 4 out of 5 or higher on characteristics like level pay, control over hours, job security, and having a sense of purpose. And though worker pay has increased in recent years, no more than 37% of workers say any other aspect of their jobs—from benefits to control over hours, career advancement opportunities to the ability to have power to change things in the workplace—has improved during the past five years.

But the report found that workers’ sense of power in the workplace was a strong predictor for how satisfied they were in their jobs and personal lives. So then how do Americans in general feel about policies that would increase that worker power? That was the question this latest survey aimed to answer, says Alexander Hertel-Fernandez, an associate professor of international and public affairs at Columbia University and a fellow at Data for Progress, speaking on a press call to announce the survey findings and Omidyar Network’s commitment to worker power.

This survey shows strong support across partisan lines for listening more to workers’ voices—a point worth underscoring, Hertel-Fernandez says, “because we’re in an era where so much of our public discourse, including around COVID-19, has been polarized, with Democrats and Republicans expressing very different views. And yet this is not what we see when we look to these questions of worker voice.” The 60% of respondents who believe unions are good included nearly eight in 10 Democrats and more than half of all Republicans. Nearly 90% of Democrats and nearly 80% of Republicans said it should be illegal for employers to fire workers for protesting health and safety standards—a prominent tactic workers have used during the pandemic.

Omidyar Network wants to help grow that worker power. The organization launched on Wednesday a blueprint for that effort, called “Our Vision for the future of Workers and Work,” which identifies the systemic issues that have long undermined worker power in the U.S. and a pathway toward an economy that is both stronger and that prioritizes worker voice and collective bargaining. The organization says it will invest $35 million over three years, including investments already made in 2019 and early 2020, such as Omidyar’s work with the National Domestic Workers Alliance’s Alia platform and their Coronavirus Care Fund. The commitment is part of Omidyar’s Reimagining Capitalism work, says CEO Mike Kubzansky, and has been bolstered with $1 million of new contingency funding and $1.5 million in emergency advocacy response in light of the COVID-19 crisis.

“We want to see working people given the same priority as shareholders, where power is better balanced across the economy,” Kubzansky says. “In that world where that power is more balanced, we think we will see wages that working families can actually live on, protections and benefits of employees for all working people, whether the gig economy, care economy, or formerly employed. We see more control over hours and scheduling to make it possible for families to actually plan their lives. We see people who would not be forced to go into work when their health is at risk, whether there’s a pandemic or no pandemic.”

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