Omidyar Network: It’s Time to Give More Power Back to Working People
We need big changes so that dignified work leads to dignified lives.
While some people believe that economic growth in a free market will lead to fair and equitable outcomes, the current reality tells a starkly different story. Despite low unemployment rates, many working people struggle mightily to get by. They haven’t seen their wages increase in decades. Working men and women are the reason so many businesses are so successful, and yet their share of the profits has steadily declined over the last 60 years, dropping even more sharply in the last 20. Despite people’s fundamental role in creating the current economic boom, they are not benefiting nearly as much as they should.
Why? Power. Or lack thereof. At Omidyar Network, we believe that when people are more empowered in the workplace, we will have a stronger, more equitable economy — and, ultimately, a more sustainable democracy.
Mike Kubzansky, who leads Omidyar Network as its chief executive officer, and Tracy Williams, director on the reimagining capitalism team, aim to help workers rebalance a power structure that is fundamentally tilted against them. They sat down for the Chronicle of Philanthropy to discuss how we can change the rules of the game to shift more control to employees and bring greater prosperity to working people in America.
Q: To start, please tell me about Omidyar Network’s focus on reimagining capitalism.
Tracy Williams: At Omidyar Network, we are focused on shaping a new, inclusive economy in which capitalism’s benefits serve the broader interests of people and society. We are looking for opportunities to support new ways to boost the power and voice of working men and women, individually and collectively. In that sense, power and voice in the workplace and reimagined capitalism are inherently tied together.
We believe healthy economies, societies, and democracies are only possible when people are empowered to join together in union to stand up for dignified work and can earn a fair share of our overall economic success. That’s simply not the case today.
What is wrong with work in America?
Mike Kubzansky: Working people are facing significant challenges, especially those who are paid low wages, many of whom are black, brown, immigrants, women, and people with lower levels of education. For decades, working people haven’t seen an increase in their paychecks, even when the cost of things like rent, health care, and childcare are skyrocketing. Compound this with other significant challenges, including unpredictable work schedules, the rise of gig and contracting jobs, and reductions in employer-provided benefits, and it’s clear why these families are struggling to keep their heads above water.
Unsurprisingly, and we think relatedly, these developments have been accompanied by a steady decrease in people’s power and voice in the workplace, most notably the decline of unions. At the same time, we’ve seen a rise in corporate power, most obviously through increased market consolidation, which has tipped the scales in favor of corporations, CEOs, and shareholders at the expense of workers. This does not bode well for our country — for the first time in recent memory, people in the United States are more likely to be worse off than their parents.
Add on a layer: job quality. Much of the growth we’ve seen — and are continuing to see — is in occupations that pay low wages and don’t give people a decent shot at living a decent life. Take, for example, the care industry. These are some of the fastest growing jobs in the United States, and they are critical to the fabric of our society — and unlikely to be automated — but often pay less than $25,000 a year. This low pay means that a family of four is trapped in poverty. We need to turn these types of in-demand jobs into high-quality jobs, ones that pay a living wage, have decent working conditions, support training and career ladders, and provide essential benefits.
While jobs within the care industry are more difficult to be done by automation, we know that many sectors need to contend with this future reality. We need to think now — and think smart — about the future of work and how working men and women can have a greater say in what it looks like. Unchecked, we believe that many business leaders will choose AI over people, when instead we need to be having a more nuanced conversation about how to integrate technology in a way that enables innovation while also giving workers basic protections and stability. Consider what would happen if people in the workplace had a greater voice in this conversation. What if working men and women had financial control of companies? Or a majority of seats on the board? Would CEOs be so quick to blindly move toward AI without really understanding its impacts? We think not.
So, how can we rebalance power in favor of people?
Tracy Williams: First and foremost, working people must be able to advocate for themselves. We can help make that a reality by finding, supporting, and partnering with funders, organizers, unions, and innovators already tackling this critical challenge. Omidyar Network is focusing on a number of areas:
- Innovative ways of organizing people at work: Declining union membership in the United States, coupled with the rise of market consolidation, has allowed employers to more unilaterally set the terms of employment. Bringing together people in new ways, including through new organizing models and coalitions — where traditional labor will continue to play a critical role — can spark new approaches. One of our early bets is The Workers Lab, whose mission is to invest in experiments and innovation that build power for working people to transform industries that pay low wages to rebuild the American middle class. We also support the LIFT Fund, which supports labor innovations for the 21st century by enabling partnerships between unions and non-union groups organizing working people.
- Technology-enabled platforms to bring fragmented bases of people at work together: We can leverage technology to unlock new ways to support organizing. We are inspired by technologies like WorkIt, a chatbot that helps advocates engage with employees and provide critical information on employment policies, and platforms such as Coworker.org that empower employees to come together to advocate for a common cause.
- Government policies that institutionalize people power at work: Effective, lasting change will require both state and federal policies to better address the employer-employee power imbalance. Ballot initiatives like Maine’s Question 1, which would have ensured employees’ representation on governance boards, are ways we can move the needle. Sectoral bargaining — where representative bargaining is on behalf of all people working in a sector, instead of employer-by-employer — is promising; indeed, this model is already common in the rest of the world.
- New coalitions to support working people: One way to build power is to mobilize broader constituencies to support workplace issues. We hope to see more examples in which communities, consumers, co-workers, and others join advocacy coalitions fighting for working families, an approach teachers unions and others have employed, commonly known as “bargaining for the common good.”
- New data to illustrate the current state of our economy: We believe unemployment data masks substantial insecurity and disappointment in the labor markets, especially given wage stagnation (while the cost of living continues to spiral upward) and the rise of populist politics. That’s why we supported a landmark Gallup survey, the results of which will launch later this month that asked people to define what job quality means to them and share how their jobs stack up against that definition. This will give us data to understand the state of job quality in America as defined directly by working men and women.
What other interventions are you considering so people thrive at work and in life, beyond building their voice and power?
Mike Kubzansky: To be sure, there are many important solutions on the horizon for working families, including up-skilling and re-skilling, portable benefits, increased minimum wages, new employment metrics, and employee classifications — and all of these have a part to play. Many of our peers have chosen to focus on advancing such improvements, and we applaud these efforts — but these wins will be made more possible, sustainable, and authentic if working men and women have the power and voice to advocate for their needs. Our work is focused on addressing the fundamental imbalance of power in our current economy and building institutions that will speak up for working people — and allow them to speak up for themselves. This is the only way we can hold employers, elected leaders, state-level enforcers, and others accountable for a more fair and equitable economy.