You don’t often hear about it, but every day, in countless workplaces, people make difficult choices to do the right thing by standing up for co-workers—often at great risk to their careers. These workers are the true heroes of this and any other Labor Day. Which is why what happened recently at Market Basket is so unusual: labor won a major victory, and it got a lot of press.
For those who don’t live in the Northeast, Market Basket is a family-owned New England grocery chain. A bitter family feud led to the ouster of the revered CEO, Arthur T. Demoulas. Market Basket’s workers backed his reinstatement with protests and rallies, which ratcheted up after the company threatened to fire some of them. Public opinion was heavily in the workers’ favor. Today the majority owners of the company announced their decision to sell their shares to Demoulas, who not only gets his job back but control of the company to boot.
It’s not everyday that you see relatively low-paid supermarket workers demonstrating on behalf of their CEO. But what’s really unusual here is the display of an all-too-rare commodity in an American workplace: trust between workers and management.
The Great Recession should have been dramatic evidence to those who manage and staff the nation’s workplaces that we’re all in this together. But, of course, it wasn’t. Employers cut payrolls and benefits—remember defined benefit pensions?—some of which perhaps was unavoidable. They also outsourced jobs and even entire operations to lower-cost markets, creating armies of freelancers who work without full salaries or even a 401(k) plan. Yet many companies, if not most, continued to provide upper-management lavish pay packages and perks that further distanced them from the people whose labor was essential to their long-term success.
Some people feel workers will never recover the ground they’ve lost. But there are encouraging signs that labor may be gaining some leverage.
Like an economist who has correctly predicted nine of the past two recessions, I have repeatedly stressed that the U.S. economy is running out of workers. Even though many Baby Boomers are continuing to work past traditional retirement age, the numbers of boomers who have retired exceeds the flow of new entrants into the labor force.
Up till now labor shortages were masked by steep employment declines during the recession. But the recovery has slowly reduced unemployment. The Congressional Budget Office just forecast improved economic growth rates over the next few years. And the Wall Street Journal, among others, recently reported that shortages of unskilled labor are forcing up wage rates in some parts of the economy. And other indicators show that the job picture is brightening for those looking for work.
No question, this recovery remains very disappointing. We haven’t recovered enough lost jobs. Real wage gains remain elusive. There are few if any signs that the economic gap between rich and poor is narrowing. But even abysmal growth will, over time, lead to spot labor shortages. And with immigration reform stalled, boosting the nation’s labor supply with more newcomers is not going to happen anytime soon, which will give workers more bargaining power.
Employers may already be responding. Gallup reports that 58% of workers—both full- and part-time—are “completely satisfied” with their job security. That’s a new high, which exceeds levels just before the recession and even the levels during the dot-com euphoria of the late ’90s. Gallup also found that 71% of workers were completely satisfied with their relations with co-workers, 63% with the flexibility of their working hours, and even 60% with their boss or immediate supervisor.
Confident employees are more likely to push back against their bosses and to seek other jobs if current employers fail to meet their needs. If today’s attitudes do translate into more employee assertiveness, we can expect to see not only higher wages and improved retirement benefits, but also increased demands for restructuring jobs and job responsibilities. This would mean jobs with more flexibility, jobs that use technology to allow teams to work together from different locales, and jobs that measure outputs and judge workers on results, not the number of hours they worked or time spent at meetings in the office.
Achieving such results will stretch both managers and employees. And it will require major efforts to rebuild trust. For now, I will just wish you a happy Labor Day, with a special shout-out to the folks at Market Basket.
Philip Moeller is an expert on retirement, aging, and health. He is an award-winning business journalist and a research fellow at the Sloan Center on Aging & Work at Boston College. Reach him at [email protected] or @PhilMoeller on Twitter.