Earlier this week, the White House hosted a Summit on Worker Voice, welcoming organizers from more traditional labor groups, such as unions, as well as voices from new worker movements, such as Fight for $15. At the summit, President Obama spoke about wages, the power of collective action and the growing “gig” economy.
Many of the summit remarks weren’t necessarily groundbreaking or even entirely surprising. But as the right to organize is increasingly under fire in Congress and in state legislatures — while at the same time, low-wage workers are finding new ways to band together and demand change — the summit and its messages seem particularly timely. Following are just a few of the highlights.
First, here’s Terrence Wise from Fight for $15 talking about his experience as a fast food worker and introducing the president:
Obama spoke on the “1099” economy (i.e., employers such as Uber, which many argue misclassify their workers as independent contractors instead of employees, thus sidestepping all kinds of labor and wage laws):
We’ve got folks who are getting a paycheck driving for Uber or Lyft; people who are cleaning other people’s houses through Handy; offering their skills on TaskRabbit. And so there’s flexibility and autonomy and opportunity for workers. And millennials love working their phones much quicker than I can. And all this is promising. But if the combination of globalization and automation undermines the capacity of the ordinary worker and the ordinary family to be able to support themselves, if employers are able to use these factors to weaken workers’ voices and give them a take-it-or-leave-it deal in which they don’t have a chance to ever save for the kind of retirement they’re looking for, if we don’t refashion the social compact so that workers are able to be rewarded properly for the labor that they put in — people like Terrence — then we’re going to have problems.
Obama on union decline and the rise of “temporary” jobs:
Our culture as a whole started somehow extolling greed is good, instead of, how do we work together to create a good society for everybody. Jobs, as a consequence, began paying less, offering fewer benefits. And in recent years, we’ve seen more companies cut costs by hiring contractors and “permatemps” — workers who are laboring side-by-side with full-time employees but don’t earn the same pay and benefits and job security. That’s a bad phrase — permatemps.
The bottom line is, as union membership has fallen, inequality has risen. Union membership today is as low as it’s been in about 80 years, since the ’30s. And I believe that when folks attack unions, they’re attacking the middle class. They’re attacking cops, firefighters, teachers, nurses, service workers, public servants, auto workers, plumbers, Americans who keep our streets safe and clean, who prepare our food, who clean up after us, who care for our aging parents.
And so, in today’s economy, we should be making it easier, not harder, for folks to join a union. We should be strengthening our labor laws, not rolling them back. And for contractors or workers who can’t join unions, we should be finding new avenues for them to join together and advocate for themselves as well.
Obama on attitudes that pit workers’ rights against economic growth:
We’ve got to change an attitude and mindset that says there’s nothing we can do, or giving workers more voice means inefficiency and we won’t be competitive, or suggests that there’s a contradiction between economic growth and decent wages, or suggests that we should have a race to the bottom with other countries, or suggests that somehow the current arrangements in which a growing amount of what we produce in this country going to the top .001 percent is in the natural order of things and is somehow fair and just.
Those are attitudes that we have to change. And that’s going to happen on the ground. And that will then reflect itself in politics, and that will reflect itself in new laws being passed.
In support of the White House summit, leaders and advocates took the discussion to Twitter with the hashtag #StartTheConvo — a few of those tweets:
— Archive: Tom Perez (@SecTomPerez) October 7, 2015
— AFL-CIO (@AFLCIO) October 7, 2015
— NWLC (@nwlc) October 5, 2015
And here’s the promotional video for the White House’s “Worker Voice” effort:
For good coverage of the summit, its implications and what may have been missing from the event, check out this piece from Justin Miller at the American Prospect. Go here to watch a panel from the White House summit that featured leaders from the National Domestic Workers Alliance, the Unified Taxi Workers Alliance and Austin-based Workers Defense Project. For more on the summit, visit the White House Summit on Worker Voice.
Kim Krisberg is a freelance public health writer living in Austin, Texas, and has been writing about public health for more than a decade.