“By choice, or out of necessity, how people make a living is undergoing fundamental change,” said Marina Gorbis, Executive Director of the Institute for the Future (IFTF), a 50-year-old nonprofit research and educational organization based in Palo Alto, CA. Her remarks closed the 14th annual conference, held this past April at The Center for Transformative Action at Mills College.
The conference, titled “The Great Awakening: Redefining Work, Values, and Purpose,” featured current questions, problems, and opportunities regarding the world of work. In light of the intense economic shift underway as workers continue to resign in record numbers and the labor movement experiences renewed energy, the conference sought to identify shifting perceptions about work, values, purpose, and justice. Its wide-ranging audience and participants—including grassroots leaders, business owners, politicians, social movement activists, and entrepreneurs—shared their insights, successes, and struggles to survive during unprecedented times.
Featured speakers included directors and leaders at several major nonprofit organizations—including the Institute for the Future, Common Future, Jobs with Justice, the Ford Foundation, Conscious Culture, and others— all of whom iterated variations on Gorbis’ concluding theme: “The way we work is not pre-ordained.”
Reworking Our Future
In 2021, Amazon CEO Andy Jassy made almost $213 million, or 6,474 times the company’s median worker salary of $32,855. The company claimed that the lion’s share of that number came from a stock award that Jassy received when he was made CEO after Jeff Bezos stepped down. This practice is not particular to Amazon: in the past three decades, CEO pay has soared by over 1,322 percent, while typical worker compensation has risen only 18 percent. These figures are so disproportionate because stock options have become an outsized form of compensation for those in the C-suite.
What this means, Marina Gorbis explained in her keynote address, is that while income inequality is a popular paradigm for understanding what is wrong with the economy, wealth inequality is ten times worse. Wealth derives in large part from income, but it also consists of assets such as pension funds, savings accounts, and homeowner equity. Before the onset of deindustrialization in the 1970s, which was accompanied by a political assault on the labor movement, jobs in the US afforded those workers who were allowed to belong to unions benefits and security, creating the middle class. In contrast, according to research done by IFTF’s Equitable Enterprise Initiative, most businesses in the US today do not enable their employees to build wealth for long-term economic security.
To understand why work has changed, we must look to the economy at large. For one, newer platform technology companies—such as Uber, Airbnb, and Snapchat—are much smaller than the manufacturing giants of decades past. Some of America’s wealthiest, highest-wage companies—including Apple and Microsoft—have fewer than half a million employees. For example, Meta Platforms, better known as Facebook, employs just over 70,000 staff, with an average salary of over $250,000. In contrast, mega-corporations like Amazon and Walmart, which together employ over three million people, pay median salaries of around $30,000. This means that the largest employers in the United States are low-wage ones.
The organization and operation of the wealthiest businesses in the US drive both income and wealth inequality, Gorbis stated. The only solution to rectify this inequality is a shift towards more equitable enterprise, defined by IFTF as “business structures and strategies that equitably distribute economic assets among those who contribute to the value of the business.”
The keynote address emphasized that the way we work can change because it is based on things that are always in flux: social and cultural norms, available technologies and scientific knowledge, regulatory regimes, power dynamics, labor availability, and the social safety net. Work has been shifting towards an “asset-poor” model, Gorbis explained, ruled by short-term contracts, poor pay, and minimal benefits, and constituted by piece-meal tasks—a trend that will eventually reach all sectors.
How do we rework the future? As an organization, IFTF’s mission is to offer skills and context to forecast what will happen in the economy, public policy, and technology. “As futurists,” Gorbis declared, “we’re not just looking at the future. A lot of our work is going into the past and understanding history, and why this is happening in larger patterns.” To guide this work, the Equitable Enterprise Initiative maps out the following levers with which to shape economic transformation:
- Labor: How do we give voice and representation to informal workers?
- Capital: How do we encourage the creation of non-extractive capital institutions, such as public, community cooperative banks?
- Ownership: How do we promote enterprise forms that expand access to key assets?
- Code: How do we create public foundational digital technology infrastructure?
- Community: How do we create incentives for community instead of individual wealth creation?
- Learning: How do we redesign business education so that it prioritizes not shareholders, but equity?
Guided by these questions, the nonprofit sector can mitigate inequality by transforming the economy, labor, and technological infrastructure.
Revaluing Our Time
About a year ago, UK think tank Autonomy released a report on a groundbreaking experiment: the four-day work week. The trial was conducted in Iceland with 2,500 participants—more than one percent of the country’s workforce—and was a massive success. Participants reported lowered stress levels, more energy and focus, and better work-life balance. Supervisors too said that employees were happier and worked harder.
The four-day work week and other workplace policy changes were discussed at “Transforming Time and Space: Organizational and Policy Innovations that Center Human Wellness,” a panel moderated by Alex Soojun-Kim Pang, Global Programs Manager at 4 Day Week Global—the nonprofit coalition that ran the Iceland trial. Four US-based nonprofit panelists discussed their experiences with workplace changes that were implemented to enhance employee wellbeing. Hilary Abell, co-founder and Chief Policy and Impact Officer at Project Equity, an organization that builds economic resiliency in low-income communities, set the tone: income and wealth inequality, the worsening racial wealth gap, and the decline and concentration of homeownership are all happening in a financialized economy where working people lose and investors win big.
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In this context, we have an opportunity to “examine assumptions” about organizational structure and policy, said VP of Common Future, Joanna Lee Wagner. “As an organization that often speaks truth to power—whether it’s to philanthropy or funders, or just the way that nonprofits operate in general—we really saw it as a chance to look into and challenge these assumptions.” Common Future is mostly led by women of color. Changing its priorities to include the team’s wellness was a way to better realize the organization’s project of realizing racial and economic justice. Policy changes aim to recognize the “invisible labor that is involved, not only in the work that we do…in a justice-oriented organization, but also the invisible labor that happens at home as caretakers, as leaders in our community.” It isn’t just about changing working hours, the panelists agreed, it’s about changing our attitude towards work and what makes a good worker.
“Business as usual is not only no longer appealing—it’s no longer effective,” said Heatherly Bucher, Executive Director of Conscious Culture. Bucher encouraged managers and leaders to follow the organization’s motto to “bridge execution with humanity,” warning that prioritizing productivity at the expense of employees leads to burnout. Instead, organizations can use time as a “forcing function,” limiting hours to get work done in less time while also allowing for leisure.
Revaluing time at work is a win-win for both organizations and the people that work at them. When asked to share her experience working at a company with a four-day workweek, Panelist Tamilore Oladipo, a content writer at Buffer, put it succinctly: “I have more time to be a person outside of work.”
Repurposing Our Economy
What could workers do if they had more control over their time? Right now, most US employees work at low-wage jobs with long hours, leaving them little time for leisure, let alone participation in civil society. If workplaces are run in undemocratic and authoritarian ways, so are the societies in which they exist and operate.
In a “fireside chat,” Sarita Gupta, Director of the Future of Work(ers) at the Ford Foundation, and Erica Smiley, Executive Director of Jobs with Justice, discussed the economic piece of democracy, how to actualize the vision of multiracial democracy in the US and how working people can apply their collective bargaining power outside the workplace. “What would it take for the majority of working people to negotiate their conditions, not only with their employers, but also with the other powerful entities that control their lives?”
Centering the struggles of people who have been historically left out of labor protections is a strategy to combat the ways that government and capital reproduce racism and other forms of exclusion. Gupta pointed to the domestic workers’ movement as key to understanding the central role of the labor movement in struggles against white supremacy and gender discrimination. “We should be clear that there is entrenched white supremacy and patriarchy that has shaped labor laws in this country,” Gupta explained. Domestic workers, like nannies, are excluded from some of the most foundational legislation for worker rights, such as the National Labor Relations Act and the Fair Labor Standards Act. This deliberate exclusion, which also applies to agricultural workers, is a direct legacy of sexism and of slavery and political compromises between politicians who sought to appease plantation owners during the formation of the New Deal.
In the last decade, however, the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA) has advocated for and built a strong movement to secure basic protections and benefits for house cleaners and care providers. The organization has won standards for fair treatment—such as the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights, for example, which requires employers to provide workers with written agreements covering wages, benefits, sick leave, and other matters pertaining to employment—in 10 states.
This work is not happening in the policy arena alone, Gupta added. NDWA has also advanced changes to Handy, the biggest online platform for cleaning workers, where housecleaners can book cleaning jobs and other domestic employment. The Gig Worker Advocates of the NDWA piloted an agreement with the app that guarantees paid time off, a $15 hourly minimum wage, occupational accident protections, and monthly meetings to discuss workplace issues—the first agreement of its kind negotiated with a platform company.
Pointing to a map titled “Path to Power,” which provided a visual overview of civic engagement, labor protections, and democratic participation in the US, Smiley explained that one of the most exciting aspects of NDWA’s Handy campaign wins is that they happened in states like Florida, Indiana, and Kentucky, where the erosion of democratic standards is highly advanced. In other words, workers living in places where unions and progressive politicians have limited political power turned a policy weakness into a protective agreement.
Smiley turned to the efforts of essential workers in Harris County, TX— including construction, airport, and retail workers—who built a coalition during the COVID-19 pandemic to advocate for their collective rights outside of traditional labor protections. After being defined as “essential” to the economy, these workers—who were historically underpaid and undervalued—enjoyed newfound political visibility. “They went from a position of exclusion to a position of power,” Smiley explained, demanding decision-making power and negotiating with the government and their respective industries over safety protocols, compensation, and protections.
When Texas was hit with a terrible ice storm in the middle of the campaign, workers fought even harder, pointing out that they were more essential than ever. Working through a pandemic and an extreme weather event, they proved that their contributions to the economy were indeed indispensable. They broadened the scope of their efforts and solidified the case for an essential worker board, which would address workers’ experiences during any crisis, not just the one brought on by the pandemic. What the pandemic proved, Smiley concluded, “is that we’re all better when working people have decision-making ability.” Smiley laughed. “It’s so simple.”
In a healthy democracy, everyday people find power in their collective voice and actions. Smiley and Gupta highlight such collective action in their forthcoming book, The Future We Need: Organizing for a Better Democracy for the Twenty-First Century, pointing out the various contexts and strategies in and through which working people have won better work conditions and more power and autonomy in the workplace.
Overall, the conference drew together these threads of rising inequality, redesigning workplace values, and building worker power. In their mission to realize social equality, nonprofit organizations have an opportunity to change their workplaces and campaigns to reverse inequality, reflect their stated values, and encourage democracy. The event was an excellent overview of the work it will take to do so, and the urgency of the project.