The GM Score: $25 Billion for Stockholders vs. $0 for UAW Members
By Mike Kubzansky, CEO, and Tracy Williams, Director, Reimagining Capitalism
Fifty thousand General Motors employees bravely used their power — the power of their work and the power of their voice — to go on strike this week, demanding to be treated with dignity and respect. They join a growing chorus of union members who are willing to boldly say, “no more.” No more wages that don’t reflect their worth. No more paltry benefits that don’t allow them to take care of themselves and their families. No more temp workers who can be paid lower wages. No more working conditions that put their health and safety at risk. No more robots usurping people (GM spent $300 million on robots to build Cadillacs).
No more. And no less.
No less than what they deserve as people who have dedicated their lives to a company that over the past four years has spent $25 billion in stock buybacks and dividends to shareholders.
That’s the power of unions. And that’s why, in recent years, despite efforts to undermine their power, they are growing once again in strength and support. A recent Gallup poll found that public approval for unions has climbed to 64 percent, up from 48 percent a decade ago and near its highest level in 50 years. An M.I.T. study last year found that nearly 50 percent of nonunion workers say they would vote to join a union if they could, up from 32 percent in 1995.
Omidyar Network stands in solidarity with these UAW members who are putting their lives and livelihoods on the line to stand up for what’s right. We believe that people who work hard should not struggle to live a dignified life. We believe working men and women should have a fair share of our nation’s economic success because they are the backbone of that very success. And we believe that hardworking men and women deserve power and voice to fight for better wages and conditions, when they believe they are not getting a fair share.
From both sides of the aisle, we hear about the need to rewrite the rules, to unrig the economy. We agree. But for this to work in a way that allows more working families a chance to thrive, they need to have the right to have that a voice…and use it. And they need to build power, individually and collectively. That means using that voice and power to advocate for their needs and hold employers — like General Motors — as well as elected leaders, state-level enforcers and others to account.
With the precipitous decline of union members — from 1982 to 2017 it dropped from 20 percent to 6.5 percent in the private sector — people are losing their ability to advocate for themselves on the job. The rise of corporate concentration and labor market monopolies exacerbates this trend and increases the ability of employers to influence government policies and more unilaterally set the terms of employment. This power imbalance is reinforced by policies like forced arbitration clauses and non-compete agreements, which further weaken people’s ability to hold employers to account or find better job opportunities. In addition, the ability to outsource work allows corporations to walk away from the bargaining table, while global trade gives them access to labor pools in other countries, a practice which contributes to stifled wages and increased unemployment in the United States.
But there is a shift in the air that gives us hope: The overwhelming success of the Fight for $15; victories for teachers in West Virginia, Oklahoma, Arizona, Kentucky, Colorado, and Los Angeles; a strike last Fall by 7,700 Marriott employees in eight cities to protest pay increases that fell woefully short of soaring housing costs which inspired 30,000 Stop & Shop employees to strike in New England this past April.
Which leads us to the latest strike at General Motors — an opportunity to add to people’s power and voice on the job — what we believe is essential to address what is a structurally wrong with a distorted interpretation of capitalism.
At ON we are doing a deep dive into what it looks like to reimagine capitalism so that our economy is in balance and working families can earn a good life for themselves and future generations. And while the strike of General Motors workers shows the power traditional organizing can have, it is a power that is limited to too few working men and women. We need to broaden the ways in which working people can exercise voice and power against their employers.
That’s why we are thinking about innovative ways of organizing people that build on both traditional and new models, including innovations in how to organize and bring people together through worker centers, new approaches to traditional labor unions and organizations, and new mass-market organizations that advocate for working people’s interests.
We are also taking a hard look at the possibilities of organizing by sector rather than workplace-by-workplace, which has only gotten harder in a world where having a “factory floor” is increasingly rare coupled with the rise of fissured, gigged, and fragmented work. As in many other countries in the world, we should be able to set standards at the level of the sector, which would also give companies a level playing field in which everyone is playing by the same rules and compensating employees fairly
We hope to contribute to a world where working people of every income level, race, gender, and age feel empowered to bargain for fair outcomes in how they are compensated and how they engage in the workplace, where people are empowered to leave bad jobs in search of better ones, and where people continually exercise a sustained collective voice in our politics.