Jul 7, 2020 - Economy

The pandemic exposed workers' lack of power

Workers in California protest Amazon's pandemic-era policies.

Workers in California protest Amazon's pandemic-era policies. Photo: Valerie Macon/AFP via Getty Images

The coronavirus is spotlighting longstanding shortcomings in worker power at big companies — and that could lead to lasting change, experts say.

What's happening: "When the pandemic hit us and the protests emerged, it just illustrated that workers don’t have a voice," Tom Kochan, a professor of industrial relations, work and employment at MIT, tells Axios.

  • "Whether it's economic conditions or dignity at work or ways of appealing safety concerns or freedom from discrimination or freedom to speak their minds," workers have little power to change their fates, and recent events have made that starkly clear, he says.

The big picture: Amazon fired employees who protested for safer working conditions amid the outbreak.

  • A Vox investigation found a disconnect between what CEOs are saying about safety standards and what workers are experiencing on the ground at Walmart and Kroger, among other places.
  • On top of that, conversations spurred by the recent anti-racism protests have highlighted how Black workers are disproportionately dealing with the hazards of essential work during the pandemic.

What's next: "The key to going from isolated protests at a place like Amazon or Walmart to a force that’s really going to get the company to respond is the customer," says Kochan, whose brief on how the U.S. can bolster worker power after the pandemic will publish tomorrow as part of M.I.T.'s Work of the Future report. "Customers are the hidden source of power for workers."

  • We've seen plenty of examples of companies changing their ways because of protesting consumers.
  • Consumer outrage against giants like Amazon and Walmart aren't yet loud enough for these firms to open a dialogue with their workers, but the pandemic's exposure of conditions at these workplaces could push us to that tipping point, Kochan notes.

Yes, but: There are major barriers to workers organizing at big companies.

  • Unions have steadily gotten weaker in the U.S., and big firms have shown that they're determined to stop unionization campaigns, says John Logan, a U.S. labor historian at San Francisco State University.
  • "The law makes it virtually impossible for employees to unionize in the private sector if the company has the resources and the stomach for a fight," he says.

Go deeper: "Disposable workers" doing essential jobs

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