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We should turn to Frances Perkins—FDR’s secretary of labor, and the first woman to serve in the U.S. Cabinet—for the elements of a new forward-looking labor and employment policy.
Editors’ Note: This essay was adapted from remarks given in accepting the Intelligence and Courage Award from the Frances Perkins Center on August 19, 2018.
It can be tempting to see our current political moment as unique. The 2016 election and the actions that have followed laid bare how deeply divided our nation is by income, region, and political ideology. Trust in government and the key institutions in civil society—business, labor, education—has fallen to some of the lowest levels observed in years. Political discourse has devolved, and our labor and employment policies are woefully out of date and ill-prepared to address changes in work. Meanwhile, longstanding political gridlock in Washington continues to block any efforts to update them.
No secretary of labor since Frances Perkins has been as influential in economic policy making.
Yet, in many respects, these conditions are quite similar to what Frances Perkins, the country’s most innovative, influential, and accomplished secretary of labor, observed in the years before she took office. As in the 1920s, the U.S. economy has been booming for the past five years with rising stock prices, strong profits, and robust employment growth. Now, as then, the majority of U.S. workers and families are not sharing in the prosperity—wages continue to lag growth in profits and productivity while income inequality has returned to the high levels of 1928. Similar to the farmers who lost their land to the Dust Bowl and the industrial workers whose jobs evaporated in the aftermath of the stock market crash, workers, families, and communities that have been hardest hit by globalization and trade have been ravished by today’s economic forces.
Indeed, the United States today faces a similar dearth of courageous and intelligent action that Perkins rose up to fill. “Most of man’s problems upon this planet, in the long history of the race,” she wrote, “have been met and solved either partially or as a whole by experiment based on common sense and carried out with courage.” If we look to Perkins today, and if we learn from all that she accomplished on behalf of U.S. workers, we just might be ready to similarly rise to the occasion when the next window of opportunity to do so opens.
If that window of opportunity feels distant at the moment, it is crucial to note that Perkins’s history-making relationship with President Franklin Roosevelt started long before he was elected. It was grounded in their shared experiences in New York. So too we now need to begin the task of finding and working with candidates running for president and for Congress who are ready to stand up for workers, families, and communities most in need of a new voice—candidates who, once elected, can be trusted to follow through.
Perkins recognized that her vision could not be fully realized without the support of the president and without having a seat at the table of economic policy making. She famously warned Roosevelt not to nominate her for secretary of labor unless he was prepared to work with her to translate her labor protections into national policy. He heartily accepted her challenge, and no secretary of labor since has been as influential in economic policy making nor has had the access and ear of the president like she did. This allowed her to win many internecine battles with the men in the cabinet who saw her as an unwelcome rival.
And there were battles. When Perkins took office union membership was down to 7.4 percent of the workforce. Many economists and other experts said labor’s day was over—the economy had changed and unions were no longer relevant. Fast forward to today and we see the same trend. Union membership has been in steady decline for years and is down to 10.7 percent.
We need new employment policies that are as ambitious and broad-based as those Perkins envisioned.
Once again, some believe labor’s day is over—the economy has changed they say and labor leaders are woefully out of date with the changing workforce and changing nature of work. Perkins would, I believe, agree with part of this argument: the economy and workforce have changed and labor unions have been slow to adapt. Yet she would also recognize and applaud the fact that labor is opening up to new ideas and approaches and that a new generation of worker advocates—inside and alongside the labor movement—are using the tools of modern communications to give workers a voice.
As industrial commissioner in New York—in the years before she went to Washington—Perkins helped foster such innovative thinking. She reached out to fellow progressives in states such as Wisconsin and Massachusetts in order to experiment with and test new policy ideas for unemployment insurance, minimum wages, overtime, and safety and health. These state-level policies, as her periodic advisor Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis said, served as “laboratories for democracy.”
Today, we see similar experimentation with states increasing minimum wages, enacting paid sick and family leave policies, and testing new approaches to retirement insurance. Once again, we are well situated to translate these state-level innovations into national policy.
Any national progress, however, has to start by framing the challenges and opportunities we face in ways that resonate with those who are frustrated and angry about being ignored and left behind as they bear the brunt of changes beyond their control. In my own writing, I have framed the task ahead as the need to build a new social contract or compact between U.S. workers and leaders in business, labor, education, and government—a compact that allows people to pursue their aspirations and expectations for work while also holding each other accountable for structuring employment relationships that achieve a more productive and inclusive economy, broadly shared prosperity, and a just society.
Whether this metaphor or some other one helps communicate the broad idea, it needs to be backed up with specific actions capable of delivering on its promise. We need new employment policies that are as ambitious and broad-based as those Perkins envisioned.
First, a modern employment policy has to be grounded in labor standards built for the modern labor force. The vast majority of Americans support increasing minimum wages and providing paid family and sick leave—just as states across the country are now doing. We need to learn from those innovations and make these bedrock principles of national policy so all who work earn a living wage and all who work can afford to start a family and care for family members when needed. The time has come to end the embarrassment of being the only industrialized country that does not ensure paid leave is available to all who work.
But closing the existing gaps between the winners and losers of globalization is not enough. We also must ensure we don’t make the same mistakes in the future as digital technologies continue to transform work. This will require two more initiatives.
Closing the existing gaps between the winners and losers of globalization is not enough.
First, we need investments in community economic development and innovation that build on local competitive advantages at a scale equivalent to the infrastructure and job creation investments of the New Deal. Anyone who travels overseas recognizes just how far behind the United States’s physical and digital infrastructure already is—and it will continue to lag behind if adequate investments are not forthcoming. This is perhaps the one area of near consensus across business, labor, and party lines—a consensus that needs to move from words to actions.
Second, we need forward-looking policies that ensure everyone shares in the potential of the digital revolution. This starts by ensuring the workforce of today and tomorrow have the skills and on-gong training—what many call life-long-learning—needed to participate effectively in the digital economy. That is why some form of jointly funded program (with contributions from workers, employers, and public) to support taking time needed for training and continuous education is so critical.
Training alone, however, will not ensure that workers will share in the benefits of new technologies. Workers also need to have a voice in defining the problems these technologies address and in the early stage design decisions that will affect their jobs. Today, as our research at MIT is discovering, more workers than ever before want to join a union. About half of the nonunion workforce—the equivalent of 58 million workers—have told us this in surveys, and the courageous teachers in states such as West Virginia, Oklahoma, and Arizona are speaking out more publicly for their right to fair pay.
I have no doubt that Perkins would be hearing these calls from the workforce—and she would be acting. The forms of worker voice and representation these workers want and need go far beyond those envisioned in the 1935 labor law. That law is now so out of date and failing so miserably that a new “clean slate” approach, as colleagues at the Harvard Center for Labor and Work Life have labeled it, is needed. This doesn’t mean we start in a vacuum, however. Just as the 1935 law built on innovations in collective bargaining that had been tested in the clothing industry, so too the best companies and the best union-management relationships in the U.S. today can serve as models for how to implement collaborative design processes that both generate improvements in productivity and new ways of working with advancing technologies. We can build, for instance, on successes such as the one that has served Kaiser Permanente and its workers and patients so well for the past twenty years.
We can also go beyond the current boundaries of collective bargaining and allow new emerging models of worker voice and representation to grow and be tested. We should learn from the biggest and boldest labor mobilization of our century: the broad-based coalition of workers, managers, and customers at Market Basket who, in the summer of 2014, stood up to save the good company they helped build from being taken over by greedy shareowners. Their courageous actions sent a message heard across the country: U.S. workers and customers value successful companies that produce good profits, good jobs, good customer service, and are good citizens in their communities. These employees and customers ignored the constraints of labor law and in doing so successfully illustrated what is possible if we let people exercise their voices in new ways.
Workplace justice is too important to leave in the hands of a sham arbitration system.
A new “clean slate” law could account for much of this, but any new set of labor laws will only be as good as the tools and avenues available to enforce them. Given the current makeup of the Supreme Court—and, indeed, the entire federal judiciary—some new approaches will be needed to ensure workplace justice is served. A new integrated system of justice has to be grounded on fair, effective conflict resolution systems at the workplace that are available to all who work regardless of their employment status. These systems can draw on and embody the tried and true principles of due process developed over the years in labor arbitration and on the best practices of organizations that provide multiple options for addressing workplace issues such as ombuds’ advice, peer counseling and review, affinity group networks, and mediation.
Workplace systems, in turn, need to be backed up by specialized labor courts staffed with knowledgeable, experienced, and trusted judges. Workplace justice is too important to leave in the hands of the current and likely future judges dominating the federal judicial system or in the hands of sham arbitration systems lacking due process protections that many firms have implemented.
These, I believe, are the elements of a new forward-looking labor and employment policy that would live up to the legacy of Frances Perkins. Many of the conditions we face today are similar to those she recognized as needing decisive action and, with wisdom and courage, she took up the mantel of challenging the powerful forces favoring the status quo. Inspired by her today, we must do the same.
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