Story by Josh Eidelson Data analysis and graphics by Christopher Cannon Bloomberg Businessweek
For Americans with a less fancy résumé than the typical physician or Google engineer, the coronavirus has exacerbated an already dire lack of employment security. A great many essential workers have been growing, picking, tending, slaughtering, packing, preparing, and delivering food throughout the country without paid sick days. While other countries moved quickly to backstop payrolls and freeze their economies more or less in place, the U.S. let 40 million people go unemployed and has kept many of them waiting months for temporary assistance.
In January, Harvard Law School’s Labor & Worklife Program, following a year of discussions among working groups of activists and scholars, released a sweeping proposal to reboot labor law from a “clean slate,” including by ending at-will employment, installing elected “workplace monitors” in every U.S. workplace, and establishing a “sectoral bargaining” process à la Europe. Advocates say such a system, in which labor and management hash out industrywide standards, would help fix one of the flaws baked into the NLRA: As long as collective bargaining rights are limited to the individual companies where workers have won a unionization election, executives have an overwhelming incentive to fight like hell to stop that from happening, and they have cause to fear they’ll be outcompeted by lower-cost rivals if they don’t.
Decades of economic trends and legal shifts have tilted the balance of power in the employer-employee relationship toward corporations and away from workers. This means that, months into the pandemic, millions of low-wage workers are still facing an impossible choice: their lives or their livelihood.
“Economic issues are life-and-death issues,” says Sharon Block, the executive director of the Labor and Worklife Program at Harvard Law School. “What COVID has done is illustrate the life-or-death nature of those economic issues in a very accelerated time frame.”
Clean Slate for Worker Power, an advocacy group led by Block and Benjamin Sachs of Harvard Law School, is pushing for new rules to require open businesses to have a worker-elected “safety steward,” who would make sure a given workplace is complying with local and federal laws. They also propose that the government set up commissions to negotiate workplace-safety standards, business sector by business sector rather than one burger joint or nursing home at a time, and to help workers organize online.
Block and Sachs point to flaws in the social safety net, an indifferent OSHA, and a system that favors employers over employees.
As the economy reopens after the COVID-19 shutdowns, businesses are taking a varied, often patchwork approach to ensuring health and safety for their workers, and much uncertainty persists regarding employers’ obligations and employees’ rights. The Gazette spoke with labor law experts Sharon Block, executive director of the Labor and Worklife Program, and Benjamin Sachs, the Kestnbaum Professor of Labor and Industry at Harvard Law School (HLS), about how the pandemic has turned a spotlight on the lack of clear workplace protections in general, and in particular for women and people of color, who were disproportionately represented among those deemed essential. Block and Sachs recently co-authored a report urging that U.S. labor law be rebuilt from the ground up. On June 24, they will release the report “Worker Power and Voice in the Pandemic Response.”
Working conditions, low pay and lack of safety protections have triggered protests across various industries
Food delivery workers have become essential in New York after the city closed restaurants and bars to the public on 16 March. Photograph: Johannes Eisele/AFP via Getty Images Wildcat strikes, walkouts and protests over working conditions have erupted across the US throughout the coronavirus pandemic as “essential” workers have demanded better pay and safer working conditions. Labor leaders are hoping the protests can lead to permanent change.
Sharon Block, executive director of the Labor and Worklife Program at Harvard Law School, said it was too early to tell if these worker actions around the US will have a lasting impact.
“These walkouts show that essential workers don’t want to be treated any more as if they were disposable. They are demanding a voice in how their companies respond to the pandemic. Having a voice is a life-and-death matter now more than ever,” said Block. “Success will be a matter of whether consumers and policymakers will be inspired by these workers’ courage.”
Today, scholars from Harvard Law School’s Clean Slate for Worker Power project and the Roosevelt Institute unveil a plan that channels the indignation—and expertise—of those who are underpaid while taking on the risks during this perilous time.
“The medical folks need to take care of stopping the virus, but policymakers need to get the structural problems with the economy under control,” says Sharon Block, the executive director of Harvard’s Labor and Worklife Program, which runs the Clean Slate project. “Maybe what we’re going through now will open up some imaginations.”
In the coronavirus era, the heroes drive delivery trucks, bag groceries, and clean hospital floors. As those employees have stayed on the job, risking their lives to ensure others can stay comfortable in seclusion, a new movement is underway to help those workers.
Foundations that have long supported labor groups are stepping up their funding and recruiting others to join a movement that some experts think could lead to sweeping policy changes.
The Clean Slate for Worker Power at Harvard University Law School’s Labor and Worklife Program, for instance, used grants from the Ford, Hewlett, Kellogg, and Public Welfare foundations to produce a 130-page set of policy recommendations that would help worker groups generate revenue, provide better or portable health coverage for workers, and require that 40 percent of corporate board seats are chosen by workers, among other things.
Sharon Block, the program’s executive director, says the project will continue to flesh out a labor agenda.
In recent weeks, tensions are on the rise between grocery workers and their employers, spurring many to take public action. Employees at Amazon-owned Whole Foods planned a “sick out” Tuesday, while some drivers who deliver Whole Foods groceries are calling for more protections. Thousands of people have signed an online petition circulated by Trader Joe’s employees. On Monday, some Instacart workers held a nationwide strike. And a major grocery union, United Food and Commercial Workers Union, is advocating for workers to have access to coronavirus testing and protective gear.
Grocers don’t have the depths of experience dealing with dangerous work, said Sharon Block, executive director of Harvard Law School’s Labor and Worklife Program and a former Obama advisor.
Benjamin Sachs and Sharon Block Ask a Professor Podcast Harvard Magazine
WHY WOULD IT TAKE AN AMAZON WORKER, employed full time, more than a million years to earn what its CEO, Jeff Bezos now possesses? Why do the richest 400 Americans own more wealth than all African-American households combined? And how are these examples of extreme income inequality linked to the political disenfranchisement of the lower- and middle-income classes? The established “solutions” for restoring balance to economic and political power in the United States have...
For too many American workers, this crisis is happening to them, not with them. With only approximately 6 percent of the American private-sector workforce in unions, the vast majority of workers have no voice in the decisions that businesses are making in response to the pandemic.
Isabelle Ferreras, Tenured fellow of the Belgian National Science Foundation, professor at the University of Louvain, and a senior research associate of the Labor and Worklife Program at Harvard Law School, answers, "Clearly not: Capitalism, as we can see across the globe, is compatible with all different kinds of political regimes: liberal democratic, communist, autocratic — and now illiberal democracies, too....We have a clear choice before us: either expand our democratic commitment to include corporations, through democratizing them internally (by including the representation of labor investors along the current representation of capital investors), or forfeit our democratic rights to those who own capital — a possibility looming on the horizon, particularly in the United States."... Read more about DO DEMOCRACY AND CAPITALISM REALLY NEED EACH OTHER?