Friday, January 5, 2018

Uncovering the Financialization Roots of Contingent Work

A Politico story by Danny Vinik was published this week with the headline “The Real Future of Work” and a provocative subtitle: “Forget automation. The workplace is already cracking up in profound ways, and Washington is sorely behind on dealing with it.” This is an important story that deserves to be read widely. Automation has the potential to shake-up the labor market, but as this story carefully documents, there is a more immediate trend that is already here and needs to be reckoned with. Yet, to mix my metaphors, I would add to this that there are still more layers to peel back to find underlying root causes.

But let’s back up. How is the workplace “already cracking up in profound ways”? This quote from the article summarizes it nicely:

Over the past two decades, the U.S. labor market has undergone a quiet transformation, as companies increasingly forgo full-time employees and fill positions with independent contractors, on-call workers or temps—what economists have called “alternative work arrangements” or the “contingent workforce.” Most Americans still work in traditional jobs, but these new arrangements are growing—and the pace appears to be picking up.

Indeed, the data suggest that between 2005 and 2015, “all net job growth in the American economy has been in contingent jobs.” The article also does a nice job of convincingly showing that this is a much bigger issue than the gig economy, which might only account for 10 percent of the growth in contingent work. My friend David Weil has also captured the breadth of the “fissured workplace” in his book, and as recounted in this article, did a heroic effort at the Department of Labor during the Obama Administration trying to combat worker misclassification in which firms classify workers as contractors to avoid labor standards that apply to regular employees.

So there is really a twin phenomenon at work here: 1) the actual subcontracting of work and increased reliance on contingent workers, and 2) paperwork maneuvering to misclassify regular workers as contractors and temps. In both cases, the fissured workplace is a serious issue because “For many employees, their new status as “independent contractor” gives them no guarantee of earning the minimum wage or health insurance,” and the negative effects of insecurity are far-ranging. It’s hard to imagine a robust, democratic society with healthy families and communities when so many workers are stuck in insecure, contingent work arrangements. Anyone still doubting the pervasiveness of the trend toward contingent work arrangements needs to read Danny Vinik’s article. And remember that what happens at work, often doesn’t stay at work so the importance of bad work is magnified in our communities.

But what’s behind this powerful shift? The article doesn’t say. My own answer: in a (long) word, financialization. Financialization represents a multidimensional shift away from industrial capitalism in which corporations focused on making a profit by producing valuable goods and services, to financialized capitalism in which financial markets, motives, results, and institutions become dominant. An important part of financialization has been the rise of the ethos of shareholder value maximization.

In response to Japanese production methods, U.S. industry rationalized its operations in the 1980s; with the rise of digital technology, employment has been increasingly marketetized; and in response to globalization, employment has been globalized.  Each of these trends were initially driven by corporate strategies to restore competitiveness by restructuring the productive capacity of their workforce in the face of changing technology and competition. But under the pressure of maximizing shareholder value, these efforts turn into cost-cutting exercises for the sake of increasing short-term profitability and driving up stock prices. Workers face wage and benefit concessions, jobs are subcontracted and made contingent, the workplace fissures, and workers are intentionally misclassified—even when companies are profitable.

This is because under the banner of maximizing shareholder value, investors are insatiable in their demands for perpetually higher financial returns. I submit that this represents a fundamental shift in values. We can also see the importance of values in the private equity dimension of financialization in which the shareholder value ethos is pushed to the extreme by seeing companies solely as assets to be traded for maximum profit. All of this is important because values are hard to legislate. If I’m correct, then this means that while efforts to address worker misclassification and other abuses, to make benefits more portable, and other initiatives are important, they do not get at the heart of the problem (or at the lack of a heart).

With that said, this shift in values has been accompanied by institutional practices, specifically deregulated financial institutions, shareholder-friendly laws, corporate governance structures with outside directors, activist shareholders, and massive stock incentives for corporate executives. Consider this last element: these incentives can lead to stock repurchases, which have grown tremendously in recent years. Rather than retaining and reinvesting cost savings and earnings back into the business as was the norm before the shareholder-value movement, cost savings and earnings are increasingly being used to repurchase shares of the company’s stock. This “downsize and distribute” strategy drives up the stock price which not only benefits investors, but also top executives because of their sizable stock options.

To really confront the key trends undermining stable and rewarding work that supports healthy families and communities, we need to dig into the roots of these trends. Financialization is likely a key root, if not the taproot. The better we can do identify causes, the better will be the discussions over what can be done. If financialization is important, then combating contingent work requires a combination of normative shifts (that are hard to legislate) and public policy changes (that are hard to implement). So where to start? Recognizing the harm of shutting workers out of corporate governance and of massive stock options are just two possibilities. Work is too important to be left to Wall Street.

Saturday, December 16, 2017

Employment with a Human Face: Delivered on Christmas, Enduring as a Teenager

I just received news that my first book—Employment with a Human Face: Balancing Efficiency, Equity, and Voice—will be translated and published in Turkish. I have Dr. Fuat Man, a professor of HRM at Sakarya University to thank for this, and I’m particularly grateful and honored because he has already translated my The Thought of Work (Çalışma Düşüncesi). For personal reasons, I often think about Employment with a Human Face around the holidays (I’ll return to this below), and this news about a Turkish language edition has magnified these reflections.

I can’t believe that it’s been 14 years since Employment with a Human Face was published. It’s now a full-fledged teenager! How is it holding up? Here are the first two paragraphs of the book:

Employment is a critical feature of modern society. The nature of employment determines the quality of individuals’ lives, the operation of the economy, the viability of democracy, and the degree of respect for human dignity. It is therefore essential that modern society establish societal goals for employment. Economic prosperity demands that employment be productive, but should economic performance be the sole standard of the employment relationship? No. Work is not simply an economic transaction; respect for the importance of human life and dignity requires that the fair treatment of workers also be a fundamental standard of the employment relationship—as are the democratic ideals of freedom and equality. Furthermore, the importance of self-determination for both human dignity and democracy mandate employee input and participation in work-related decisions that affect workers’ lives. In short, the objectives of the employment relationship are efficiency, equity, and voice. This book is about these objectives, and the alternative ways in which they can be achieved.

In some situations, efficiency, equity, and voice are mutually reinforcing. A productive workforce provides the economic resources for equitable working conditions that include employee voice in decision making. And equitable treatment and employee participation can provide the avenues for reducing turnover, increasing employee commitment, and harnessing workers’ ideas for improving productivity and quality. But the more important question is: What should happen when efficiency, equity, and voice conflict with each other? This is the critical question that makes the analysis of the employment relationship a dynamic topic with diverse perspectives. Should efficiency—and the closely related property rights of employers—automatically trump equity and voice concerns? Or should the reverse be true—should equity and voice have priority over efficiency needs? Neither of these extreme options is preferable; rather, a democratic society should seek to balance efficiency, equity, and voice. The power of free economic markets to provide efficiency and economic prosperity is important and should be encouraged, but respect for human dignity and democratic ideals further require that the power of economic markets be harnessed to serve the quality of human life and provide broadly shared prosperity. As such, the imperative for the drivers of employment—individuals, markets, institutions, organizational strategies, and public policies—is to provide employment with a human face—which I define as a productive and efficient employment relationship that also fulfills the standards of human rights. The International Labour Organization (1999) calls this simply “decent work.”

Maybe I’m biased, but I think this is as true as ever. Indeed, in recent years there has been an increased recognition of the deep importance of work, which magnifies the need to think seriously about the goals of the employment relationship, imbalances in this relationship, and to reject pure commodification and efficiency approaches. And there remains a pressing need to strive for a better balance in the workplace and in our societies. In fact, I just received a press release from the World Inequality Lab that confirms the tremendous increase in inequality that has occurred over the last few decades around the world, and calls for “more ambitious policies to democratize access to education and well-paying jobs in rich and emerging countries alike.” In other words, we need to actively strive for a better balance between efficiency, equity, and voice in and out of the workplace, even though this can be difficult, it requires institutional innovation, and there are diverse perspectives on how to best achieve this.

Since the time I wrote Employment with a Human Face, there has been increased thinking around citizenship rights as an alternative to human rights. Although the differences can be subtle, citizenship rights stem from membership in a human community such as a nation, rather than from being part of overall humanity, and thereby more clearly place obligations on the nation to provide citizenship rights. Moreover, whereas human rights are seen as universal, citizens have obligations as well as rights; so characterizing workers’ rights as citizenship rights rather than human rights also makes it easier to allow for workers’ interests such as equity and voice to be balanced with other objectives such as efficiency. The teenage Employment with a Human Face could be slightly more nuanced that the original by connecting equity and voice to citizenship rights rather than focusing on a human rights narrative. 

But in either case, I think the imperative is clear. I started with the introduction, and I can close with the book’s concluding passage, to which the teenage Employment with a Human Face would also add pressures from financialization as further impetus for new thinking and new policies:

Public discourse that emphasizes competitive markets, efficiency, and marginal productivity justice; the frequent lack of appreciation for employee voice; the continued turbulence of the 21st century workplace; the focus of employment research on the operation of the existing processes (often solely with efficiency in mind); and the need for “explicitly recognizing the role of moral choices in the labor market” (Osterman et al., 2001, 12) all make it imperative to ground the study of employment in the objectives of the employment relationship—efficiency, equity, and voice. This grounding provides the basis for a fuller understanding of all aspects of the employment relationship, including the alternative behaviors, strategies, institutions, and public policies for balancing efficiency, equity, and voice. From such analyses can come workplace governance practices and systems that fulfill the economic and human needs of a democratic society and foster broadly shared prosperity.

And if you are curious about why I often think about Employment with a Human Face around the holidays, here is my story. The very first copy of the book (so the very first copy of any book I had written), was delivered to my home on Christmas Eve in 2003. But no one heard the delivery person. My wife and I were up late getting things ready for Christmas morning. At around 1 in the morning (so it actually is Christmas by this point) a light snow is falling and for some reason I opened our front door, and a package falls into our front entry. Completely unexpectedly it was the very first copy of Employment with a Human Face. I won’t go so far as to say that it was a Christmas miracle because that would cheapen the significance of the holiday season, but it was a touching moment, complete with a gentle snow on an otherwise still night, that I will always remember.

Happy Holidays, and may your 2018 be filled with efficiency, equity, and voice.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Lessons for Resolving Conflict from the NFL Players Anthem Dispute and Papal Conclaves

With Thanksgiving comes football, and with football comes…well, this year, maybe politics. While perhaps not as heated as in September and October, the NFL player anthem protest controversy has not been completely resolved. Before reading further, I’d like you to think about what underlies this dispute. Have you thought about it? Once you have thought about it, be honest—how many factors did you identify? My hypothesis is that most people would identify one main cause, or maybe two at most. People might differ in what cause they identify, but my point here is that it’s common to not think very deeply about the diverse factors that contribute to any particular conflict. Rather, the emphasis is typically on dispute resolution mechanisms.

There is a long history of this. New popes are elected through a papal conclave. “Conclave” comes from the Latin cum clave which means “with key.” Following the death of Pope Clement IV in 1268, cardinals met in Viterbo in central Italy to choose a successor. But political infighting prevented an agreement for many months. As the dispute dragged on, frustration with the lack of progress led city officials to lock the cardinals in the Palazzo dei Papi di Viterbo (hence “with key”), reduce their food rations, and even to remove the palazzo’s roof to expose them to the weather. After 33 months, Gregory X was elected pope, and he implemented rules for papal conclaves that included seclusion, food rations reduced to a single meal after three days, further food reductions after eight days, and the stoppage of any payments to them from the papal treasury during the conclave.

Using their bully pulpits, U.S. political leaders have occasionally tried similar strategies to force labor negotiators to reach agreements. President Lyndon Johnson called labor and company negotiators from the steel industry (1965) and copper industry (1968) to Washington, DC, and pressured them to negotiate in the Executive Office Building until they reached agreements. In 2016, Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton called negotiators from Allina Health and the nurses union to the governor’s residence and asked them to keep negotiating in that location until they settled their strike, which they did. While these political leaders don’t have the legal authority to sequester the negotiators cum clave, and they were not deprived of food or a roof, the spirit of these tactics are similar to the conclave pressures—increase the pressure on negotiators to settle a dispute.

By itself, these pressures do nothing to address, or even consider, the underlying factors leading or contributing to a particular dispute. Rather, these tactics assume that the dispute is structural in nature—a power struggle between groups with competing interests—and the solution is increased pressure to compromise. Of course, there are many other options for resolving disputes, including mediation, arbitration, rules, and legal proceedings. Mediation is perhaps the only one that has a chance to address the root causes of a dispute, and even in this case I assert that we need a greater explicit attention on the root causes of a dispute.

Returning to the NFL players anthem protest, when the focus is on rights (“is this legal?”) and consequences (“they should be fired or suspended”), this implicitly reduces the dispute to its structural aspects—who has the power to do what? But there many other layers. For example, miscommunication has contributed to the dispute, as when one of the team owners said “We can’t have the inmates running the prison,” and then issued a statement saying that this was not what he meant. There are also diverse cognitive aspects, including cultural differences that shape people’s judgements, interpretations, and priorities, often magnified by emotional reactions. It’s not just one thing, and how to best or fully resolve a dispute requires tailoring dispute resolution processes to these underlying causes.

So if you find yourself in a conflict on Thanksgiving as relatives with clashing political views gather, or on any other day in myriad other situations, pay more attention to the multiple contributing causes to a dispute before either escalating or jumping to a dispute resolution intervention. And watch this space for more about these issues because I'm working with Alex Colvin (Cornell) and Dionne Pohler (Toronto) to address the frequent oversimplification of, if not lack of attention to, the roots of conflict. Happy Thanksgiving. 


Further reading: For an early view of our research on the causes of conflict, see our conference paper "Advancing Dispute Resolution by Unpacking the Sources of Conflict: Toward an Integrated Framework," which we were honored to present earlier this month at the ILR School conference honoring David Lipsky.