Is there still a place for labor at the table of a “Conscious” company?
By Dr. Larry Fedewa (Revised September 7 2020)
My first experience with a union came when I represented the newsroom’s intention to hold a vote for a union to the publisher of a national weekly newspaper. I had a summer job there after my first year as a high school teacher.
Later, as a training developer, I wrote, produced, and oversaw one of the largest industrial training programs in history for the Railway Labor Executives’ Association (a council of all major rail union presidents). I also executed major projects for the Federal Railroad Administration, AMTRAK, Conrail, and others. Still later, I worked very closely with the National Education Association, the professional teachers’ union in a major joint venture, a national research project, and addresses to two national conventions.
The reason I mention all this background is to establish my position as an ardent supporter of the labor movement. My comments come from a firm commitment to the need for workers to take their place at any table which determines their fate. The purpose of this essay is to explore a possible alliance between unions and “conscious” companies.
The first factor in this dialog would be the fact that “Conscious Capitalism” promotes the most expansive view of workers’ rights ever to be advocated by corporate management in the history of capitalism. At last, workers are accorded the respect due to major stakeholders in the organization, whether a corporate giant or an entrepreneurial start-up. Almost always this means sharing in the profits of the company if not outright stock ownership.
This view of the business flows from an idealistic definition of the enterprise which includes, among other things, the function of profits as a necessary means to a greater good. The greater good is the mission of the firm as providing a community service through the sale of its goods or services. Conscious Capitalism challenges everyone in the organization to contribute to the fulfillment of this mission and provides the resources to do so.
Conscious Capitalists also tend to be anti-union.
Most believe with former Whole Foods CEO, John Mackey, that unions introduce an adversarial relationship between management and labor which detracts from the collegial environment necessary for the Conscious Capitalist company to be successful.
True to that description, the unions argue that underneath the sheep’s clothing, Conscious Capitalists are really hiding their power to dictate and enforce their own definition of workers’ rights. The workers ultimately have to accept that definition or find another job. With every company defining workers’ rights in its own way, no standards will be set or recognized. This is just the same old thirst for power presented in modern dress.
So, what’s the answer? Is there a place for unions in a Conscious Capitalist company or not?
The first element of the answer is: if the employees want a union, there is a place for a union. During a transitional period such as the current one, there will continue to be employers who do not accept the new ways. The old paradigm of management versus labor will be in place and needs to be followed.
Over time. however, more and more companies will join the new movement – particularly since there is much evidence accumulating that indicates “Conscious” companies are substantially more successful financially.
In order to maintain its relevance, therefore, labor will have to adapt. The first step in that direction is to find a new answer to the question of a union’s role in a worker-friendly enterprise. Here are some ideas.
First, many companies will be trying to transition to the new style. Unions could help them succeed. But why not hire a consultant or new senior staff to guide the company in the new direction? These may be useful measures, but no one outside the organization has the same motivation and investment in success as the people working there now. However, they are generally as inexperienced as the owners.
Involvement of a knowledgeable and sympathetic third party can be welcome to all sides. However, the union must be truly invested in the cooperative approach in order to be credible. To achieve this posture, unions should be reaching out to the small but growing body of Conscious Capitalism experts. Honest discussions about sensitive issues will profit both sides.
Another role for unions in the new world of work we face is that of advocating national (and international) standards of what constitutes workers’ rights in this new century. As movements like Conscious Capitalism illustrate, 40-hour-workweeks, paid vacations, pensions and health care are not always enough to keep the economy going in the right direction.
Today’s workers want to be part of the company in new ways, ranging from profit-sharing, to shareholders, to open communication with governing bodies, including full financial disclosure, to a “cooperative culture”, and many other new practices. Workers want to be treated as persons, not robots.
This transitional period is reminiscent of the early days of the TQM (Total Quality Management) movement, which can be seen as an earlier step in this direction. The eagerness of workers to become involved in contributing their ideas and expertise to product development and manufacturing was often almost tangible. It revealed to many of us just how much talent had lain dormant in our workforce.
The contention here is, of course, that unions as well as management must embrace this new style of company culture as the means to solving our wealth gap between the rich and the middle class. The reduction of taxes and regulations of the Trump era are doing much to enhance the wages of the lowest income workers.
But from a macro view, the real challenge is to enrich the middle class, which is responsible for much of the consumer economy on which our national wealth ultimately depends. The Leftists want the government to use the tax system as the instrument for re-distributing America’s wealth from the very rich to everybody else (legal or illegal). That would weaken the individual’s motivation to work hard on which America’s free market capitalism has been built and which has created all this wealth.
Conscious Capitalism is an answer to the question of how we solve the wealth gap without turning to socialism. Union support – with an updated agenda – will help America achieve the right outcomes.
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