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Reconnecting Workers with the Wealth They Create

Reconnecting Workers with the Wealth They Create

The future of unions is inextricably tied up with the relationship between workers who do different kinds of work within a single process of value creation. This relationship has always been critical to the success or failure of the labor movement in settings as different as hospitals and auto plants. But the digital age has raised it in ways that are not yet recognized and understood.

One way to look at this question of unity across skill and job description is to examine the most promising developments in recent years in the global labour movement—the Google strike and its aftermath. As probably most readers know, in the autumn of 2018, Google employees around the world undertook a day-long walk out and teach-in to protest the toleration of sexual harassment by Google management following huge payouts to disgraced Google executives. The sense of empowerment generated by the strike led to an ongoing conversation among Google employees about both the values they wanted to see Google embody and the way they wanted to be heard within Google—a conversation that grew to include questions like Google’s role in state surveillance and whether workers should sit on Google’s board.

While initially Google management was, on the surface, tolerant of organising among Google workers, in recent weeks Google has hired an old-fashioned union busting firm and proceeded to fire worker activists. Firing workers for union organising is illegal in the United States, but the playbook for getting away with it is well known among anti-union consultants and law firms.

What has been overlooked in this story is the relationship between this movement of Google employees and the larger issue of what is happening to people who do the work at Google. There are some Google employees who are a relatively privileged group—highly paid, with benefits and access to stock options. There are other people who do Google’s work - from contract software engineers to bus drivers and landscape workers — who receive pay and benefits that are more consistent with those of a marginal small business.

The fact that you can be a key participant in the value creation processes of the world’s most technologically sophisticated and profitable companies and yet be among the working poor is one of the most important facts about the contemporary global labor market. The fact that millions of people around the world that create value for Apple, Amazon, Google and Facebook do not necessarily earn a decent income or enjoy any level of economic security is a consequence not just of the weakening regulation of the workplace, but of a decades long vogue in global business for disintegrating the firm itself. That long term process of firm disintegration ends up leaving only those who are perceived as the most highly value added employees inside the employment relationship and the collective bargaining system, where it still exists. And this same trend creates the illusion that its high performing firms that account for wage disparities, whereas what has actually happened is that the value creation process has been disaggregated in ways that allow those with power within what is actually a much larger integrated production process to capture all the value.

Of course there have been efforts around the world to try and reconnect the money and the work. This was at the core of various efforts to organize fast food franchises and involve the ultimate owner of the brand in the bargaining process. This is what efforts to bring private equity firms into collective bargaining with the employees whose firms they control, are about. This is what supply chain organizing is about—dealing with the global geographic dispersion of the production process. And reconnecting the money and the work is what animates the push in the United States to close the loopholes in the definition of who is a worker—a push with profound implications for the most powerful companies in the digital economy from Uber to Amazon.

Some would argue that the way to solve inequality and the decline of job quality in the digital economy is through abandoning the fight for decent work and instead looking to redistribution to correct structural injustice in the workplace. There are a lot of reasons why this is both a mirage and a bad idea. But perhaps the most compelling reason not to despair is that the world of work continues to involve processes by which workers create vast wealth together. The real solution is unions and bargaining systems that reconnect working people with each other and with the wealth they create.

Damon Silvers is the current policy director and special counsel for AFL-CIO, he is also a Visiting Professor in Labour Markets and Innovation at the UCL Institute for Innovation and Public Purpose.