In 2005, I was shopping for an acoustic piano. Back then, piano shopping worked like this: Go to a showroom. Play every instrument. Pick one, and negotiate a price. Have it shipped to your house. Everyone understood that a piano store does not maintain much inventory on site.
Apparel shopping was completely different. Shoppers went to the store, tried things on, then paid and left with their purchase in a shopping bag.
Last week, Sen. Elizabeth Warren unveiled a comprehensive set of proposals to provide basic employment policy protections and income security benefits to those working in the so-called “gig” economy and others in subcontracted or franchised arrangements. Whether one agrees with her specific ideas or not, the nation owes her a debt of gratitude for putting these issues front and square on the table for a discussion that is long overdue.
The gig economy, best embodied by Uber, Lyft and Task Rabbit, may account for less than 1 percent of the workforce, but it has sparked a debate over what to do about all those who make their living outside of standard employment relationships.
Standard employment relationships are ones in which there is a clearly defined and identifiable employer that is responsible for complying withthe range of employment laws put on the books since the New Deal: unemployment insurance, Social Security, minimum wage and overtime rules, and the right to unionize and gain access to collective bargaining. To be clear, the vast majority of American workers, about 85 percent to be exact, still work in this type of employment relationship.
Discussions about the future of work are clearly in the air.
This week, Secretary of Labor Tom Perez is convening a three-day symposium on the issue. Simultaneously, the Brookings Institution hosted a discussion about the implications of the “gig” economy for work and employment policy. At MIT, we are also planning a similar conversation for early next year.
And in Silicon Valley, leaders of high-tech companies and worker advocates have recently started discussing new ways to offer benefits to contract workers following several high-profile cases in which Uber drivers and others have sued to be considered regular employees and gain the accompanying benefits.
All this couldn’t come at a better moment, but time is of the essence. Unless talk leads to actions to change the course of the economy and labor market, the next generation of workers is destined to experience a lower standard of living than their parents – the opposite of the American Dream.
Imagine high-level executives, store managers, clerks, and warehouse workers standing outside their stores side by side for a month demanding their CEO be reinstated and the business model that made the company thrive be maintained. And imagine their customer base cheering them while they had to shop elsewhere at considerable inconvenience and expense.
That is exactly what happened this summer at Market Basket, a highly successful New England family-owned grocery chain with 71 stores and 25,000 employees. On Wednesday night, Arthur T. Demoulas struck a triumphant deal to buy his warring cousins’ share of the family grocery empire, ending a six-week standoff between thousands of employees and management.
Though not everyone may have heard of this story, it is indeed the biggest labor story of the year. And if it emboldens others to speak out for similar workplace causes, it may turn out to be the most important workplace event to come along so far in this century.
Thomas Kochan is the George Maverick Bunker Professor of Management, a Professor of Work and Employment Research and Engineering Systems, and the Co-Director of the MIT Sloan Institute for Work and Employment Research at the MIT Sloan School of Management.
When Chinese officials recently announced plans to support investment in robots in China’s manufacturing industries, the reaction in some US circles was one of astonishment, if not incredulity. Much of China’s attraction as a manufacturing powerhouse, after all, has been low labour costs, so turning towards robots would seem like relinquishing a key competitive advantage. In fact, several key drivers explain why this is a very intentional and strategic move.
One key factor is that while China’s labour costs still lag behind those in other key economies, Chinese labour has become relatively expensive compared to nations such as Vietnam and Indonesia. Moreover, Chinese labour costs are increasing at a much faster rate than in the US and, while the gap is still considerable, it is narrowing at a relentless pace. China also faces a labour scarcity in its economic boom centres.