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Why American workers are having a moment

If capitalism isn’t working for your employees, it isn’t working.

Why American workers are having a moment
Samuel Harris, driver lead, Carvana [Photo: Lynsey Weatherspoon]
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Even before the pandemic brought to a head the challenges faced by essential employees (low wages, inadequate safety gear, nonexistent sick leave), a diverse set of workers started to rebel against decades of management policies that expand profits and enrich shareholders, often at the expense of workers and their families. Fight for $15—a coalition of fast-food workers, home health aides, childcare providers, airport workers, retail employees, and adjunct college professors—has been pushing for a $15-per-hour national minimum wage since 2012, and it has successfully lobbied for higher hourly wages in at least eight states. Teachers staged walkouts and gained concessions on pay and health benefits. Google employees demanded greater accountability from management on issues ranging from diversity to ethics, culminating in the formation of a union at the beginning of this year.

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Workers are having a moment, and Fast Company set out to understand the factors contributing to the groundswell. Senior editor Morgan Clendaniel’s profile of Sara Nelson, international president of the Association of Flight Attendants, illuminates a new kind of labor leader—one embracing progressive issues that unions have traditionally dismissed (climate change, racial justice) while going on the offensive against corporate counterparts. We also explore the creative alliances that unionized and nonunion employees are forging to eke out gains. And photojournalist Lynsey Weatherspoon traveled to Bessemer, Alabama, to capture the diverse faces of the American workforce in a town where Amazon warehouse employees this spring voted against a unionization effort that attracted global attention.

If you consider it radical or anti-capitalist for a business publication to elevate the concerns of workers and strip them of their anonymity, think again. Fortune magazine published a seminal feature called On a Saturday Afternoon in Detroit—portraits of workers by photographer Walker Evans, who called the images “the physiognomy of a nation”—back in 1946. And even the CEOs of Business Roundtable pledged in 2019 to invest in employees as part of its new, stakeholder-driven statement of purpose. The rationale is simple: If capitalism isn’t working for everybody, it isn’t working. The new worker moment isn’t just good for labor. It is good for business.

This issue also features the winners of our annual World Changing Ideas program. The ideas put forth represent the best of human ingenuity, and we are delighted to announce that Fast Company has partnered with Genpact, which will donate its time and expertise to give a “digital makeover” to one World Changing Ideas honoree to help it accelerate its impact on people and communities. Fast Company and Genpact share a belief that technology can be a powerful force for change, and together we hope to hasten the deployment of a promising idea, one that could change the world.