The fight for workers’ rights in this country and throughout the world has been a long and difficult struggle. Over the last 50 years or so in the United States, we have seen a significant decline in the percentage of the workforce represented by unions and the most dramatic concentration of wealth in the hands of the few in our nation’s history. Too many companies have decided that executives, board members and shareholders deserve outlandish compensation, but the average workers are just costs on a balance sheet that need to be paid as little as possible. The outbreak of COVID-19 has shined an even brighter light on this inequality and the struggle working people must go through to get the pay and benefits they deserve, to be adequately protected in the workplace, and to have their voices heard by their employers.
This pandemic has created more public-policy challenges than most of us could have imagined, but this is one of the most important — workers’ rights. I strongly urge all public policy makers and, more importantly, all employers to step up to this challenge and make sure workers’ voices are heard, that they are protected in the workplace, and that they receive the pay and benefits they deserve. It is especially important that the largest employers — those that have benefitted the most from the astonishing economic growth our nation has experienced in the last 50 years — step up.
Amazon has become the focus of much of the concern over workers’ rights. In some ways this is unfair. It is far from the only company facing complaints about how it treats its workers. Beyond that, Amazon has played a crucial role in helping us, especially those of us in Washington state, respond to the pandemic, and it also has contributed a great deal to the economic prosperity of the Puget Sound region and elsewhere. And a lot of people who work for Amazon make a very good living. But given that Amazon is the richest company in the world, and definitely meets the definition of a company that has benefitted a great deal from that astonishing economic growth, it is not unfair to ask it to do more to lead on advancing workers’ rights.
Warehouse workers, delivery drivers and many other blue-collar workers in the vast business supply chain that makes Amazon’s company function could clearly be paid more. At the Amazon fulfillment center in Kent, workers make $16 an hour to start, with good benefits. However, try finding housing in the Kent area on $16 an hour. Why can’t these workers be paid $25 an hour? Executives at Amazon — and there are a lot them — make millions. The share price at Amazon has made countless people millions more. I have yet to hear a reasonable argument for why a small portion of this wealth couldn’t go to the blue-collar workers at Amazon so they could afford a place to live and to pay for college for their children.
Worker safety is also a concern, especially in the era of COVID-19. This concern over protecting workers from the virus has served to highlight the other big workers’ rights issue — workers having a voice in the decisions that impact their safety and compensation. Personally, I believe strong unions are the best way to ensure this voice. The controversy surrounding the recent firings of Amazon employees, allegedly because they were speaking out about worker-safety issues both related to COVID-19 and preexisting, makes clear that companies without unions need to do much more to ensure fairness in the workplace.
If workers feel respected, listened to, protected and fairly compensated for the work they do, then companies will have a much better chance of fostering an atmosphere in their workplace that enables them to operate their businesses well. This has always been true, but in this pandemic, it will be essential. Workers will only be able to work if they feel safe and if they have confidence in the management team they are working with, and this will be far easier if their voices are heard, not ignored.