Viewpoint: Rebecca Armstrong — New labor perspective • Northwest Indiana Business Magazine

Viewpoint: Rebecca Armstrong — New labor perspective

A pandemic, a strike and a new perspective for Indiana business

“We stand upon the ground that the workers are entitled to a just proportion of the proceeds of their labor. Wage reductions have been made until employees earn barely sufficient wages to live … public sympathy is with the striking employees, who are merely contending for the right to receive living wages …”

Rebecca Armstrong
Rebecca Armstrong

You would be forgiven for assuming the above words are from a speech by UAW President, Shawn Fain, but actually, the words were spoken more than 100 years ago by a Hoosier who also had a vision for a different kind of relationship between corporations and workers. Eugene Debs spoke those words to the railway workers of America who were striking against the Pullman company. Despite a century separating Debs and Fain, they share a common vision.

“I’m at peace with the decision to strike if we have to because I know that we are on the right side in this battle. It’s the battle of the working class against the rich…” (Shawn Fain, speech to workers in September 2023)

Pandemic precipitates a new perspective

The pandemic tore open deep wounds in the fabric of American society that have yet to be mended. It took an actual plague to reveal the disturbing truth that the distance between the haves and the have-nots has grown increasingly wide — to the point we risk destabilizing society. As Fain emphasized in his speech to the UAW members prior to the strike:

“Living paycheck to paycheck is hell. Choosing between medicine and rent is hell. Working seven days a week for 12 hours a day for months on end is hell … Enough is enough. It’s time to decide what kind of a world we want to live in …”

The symptoms of this plague – like “The Great Resignation” of 2021-22 and the subsequent “Quiet Quitting” of 2023 – are forcing a re-write of the script for both employers and employees. In 2021, 48 million workers quit their jobs followed by 50 million more in 2022 — the highest turnover rate on record — leading to a reframing of what it means to be a part of American enterprise.

Cinderella gets her shoe

A succinct summary of the new power shift is a recent Facebook post by a GenZ worker who declared:

“It used to be that corporations wanted you to be grateful that you had a job. Now we want corporations to be grateful that they have our labor!”

You can feel the shoe slipping off one foot and the opposite foot finding it a good fit! When workers are not afraid but emboldened, a whole different scenario begins to unfold. It may be that the pandemic forced a re-evaluation of values; a brush with death often has this curious effect of bringing such thoughts to the surface. Work now must take a backseat to life: a radical shift of priorities. As a result, businesses are having to adjust expectations accordingly.

The new rules of engagement

Public support for unions is at a new high and the success of recent strikes has galvanized many workers across various sectors. New niche unions and more creative strike tactics suggest that the union movement may be entering a new phase of efficacy. Two years of working from home has created a sense of autonomy for workers, which has had a psychological effect on their demands.

While Indiana has historically been seen as a state that is pro-business and anti-labor, the post-pandemic climate favors a rebalance in which workers gain back some of the ground they’ve lost. We see signs of this in the effects of the recent UAW strike where an increase in wages, both from local and foreign companies with plants in Indiana, has occurred.

What success now looks like

Businesses that want to stay strong must re-assess their fundamental viewpoint and begin to see workers not as “human resources” – a demeaning and dehumanizing metaphor – but as partners in the quest for sustainable models of success. As Fain affirmed at the end of the UAW strike:

“I’m proud of the results. I think it’s a testament to the companies that they better understand that workers have high expectations and are tired of watching companies make billions … in profits at the expense of their lives. We want companies to succeed. Our members take pride in the companies they work for. … But we’re not going to be the sacrificial lambs.

And the newly empowered American worker is not likely to be led to the slaughter again. As Eugene Debs rightly observed: “Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization.”


    • Rebecca Armstrong

      Dr. Rebecca Armstrong is on the faculty at Indiana University Northwest where she teaches courses in philosophy and ethics. She has taught business ethics for the university since 2013 and has also taught business ethics in the MBA program for Purdue University as well as at DePaul University in Chicago.

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