Beyond money, striking workers seek respect

Our modern-day economy is a vast and complex network – one that we’ve been learning not to take for granted amid events like the pandemic and the fraying of U.S.-China trade relations. But at its heart, it’s about people collaborating to get things done.

A willing investor puts up money to try something. Willing suppliers or customers make contracts. And not least, willing workers are needed every step of the way. The ideal is that everyone will benefit from these exchanges. But living up to that ideal isn’t guaranteed. And even when people are generally gaining, questions of fairness recur.

Those questions have become more visible in the United States in the past year. Our Aug. 28 cover story, by Laurent Belsie and Patrik Jonsson, is about organized labor on the move.

“The main thing we want is respect from upper management, the way that we can talk, the way we get talked to,” Marshawna “Shae” Parker told Patrik in an interview. The Waffle House employee participated in a short strike recently. She says she’s experienced good days as well as challenges, but “I feel like with the Waffle House corporation, there is no empathizing with us – just ... ‘I need you to work; do this, do that.’ We’re not just the bodies in this building. We’re maintaining this building. If it wasn’t for us, the door would be closed.”

From UPS to United Airlines, legions of workers have similar concerns. Unions are seeking, and often winning, big pay hikes. With workers often in short supply, their leverage has risen after years of declining clout. Add in some wider changes – rising minimum wages in many states, a president who is pro-labor to a rare degree, and rising public support for unions – and the result is a shift that goes beyond any particular company or union. According to one new study, income inequality has been on the decline since 2015.

Labor’s resurgence is about the balance of power between employers and employees. But as Ms. Parker suggests, it may also be about something even deeper: the importance of respectful relationships.

The corporate representatives we interviewed said that they are trying to be responsive to worker concerns, that employees are valued, and that relations are constructive. Certainly many employees feel that way.

And economist Tyler Cowen is among those offering counternarratives about oft-criticized corporations. His audaciously titled 2019 book, “Big Business: A Love Letter to an American Anti-Hero,” argues that such companies have been beneficial, though not flawless.

Still, rich-poor income gaps, while they have declined somewhat, remain wide. These questions of balance and respect deserve a place on our watchlist, whatever happens in the near-term ebb and flow of the economy and labor relations.

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