Sherrod Browl column: A message to corporate executives


WASHINGTON — Many of your employees have been on the front lines of this pandemic. Those who care for our loved ones, stock our shelves and deliver our packages have kept our society going.

You recognize that. We have all seen your TV ads, proclaiming that America’s corporations say “thank you” to “our heroes.” You’ve encouraged people to make homemade signs, touted the millions of slices of pizza you’ve donated, and promoted feel-good hashtags: #ThanksforDelivering and #OutThereForUs. But workers don’t need PR campaigns. They need fair pay, power in the workplace and protections on the job.

Editor’s note: This commentary appeared last week in the Wall Street Journal. It is used here with permission.

We’ve seen this before. Last summer the Business Roundtable announced a new “Statement on the Purpose of a Corporation,” signed by 181 CEOs who committed to leading their companies “for the benefit of all stakeholders—customers, employees, suppliers, communities and shareholders.” It made a good press release, with no follow-through and no real changes. As I write, some stock indexes have erased their 2020 losses. Yet I have seen no announcement from companies that the proceeds from this historic rebound will be invested in bonuses for employees who are working through a pandemic and have made the gains possible. Many companies are doing the opposite, ending hazard pay for workers, if they extended hazard pay at all.

The pandemic has laid bare how corporations treat employees not as essential to their success but as a cost to be minimized. One grocery store worker in Ohio told me recently, “I don’t feel essential. I feel expendable.”

Today’s crisis isn’t happening in a vacuum. It comes after a half-century of economic trends that have eroded Americans’ power in the workplace and undermined their economic security. And that’s if they had any power to begin with. It’s no coincidence that the workers companies treat as expendable are disproportionately black and Latino. Their hard work often hasn’t paid off the way it should, and recent trends have only made it worse. Workers’ share of income has fallen over the past four decades, and wage inequality has risen, especially at the largest companies. Productivity and wages—once closely linked—no longer rise together. Corporations spend billions buying back stock and handing out executive bonuses, while laying off workers or cutting their pay.

When executives make decisions in boardrooms, your choices directly affect millions of Americans. Yet you consider only the interests of shareholders.

You have the power to change that.

If you truly believe that workers are essential to your companies, then treat them that way. If you mean what your ad campaigns say, then commit to the people who make your companies successful:

  • Raise base pay for all employees to a living wage for the area where each business is located, a minimum of $15 an hour.
  • Stop forcing people to choose between their jobs and their families. Grant paid sick days and paid family leave to all employees.
  • Implement the strictest safety standards to protect workers from Covid-19 and to protect them from workplace injuries and future infectious-disease outbreaks.
  • Give employees power over their lives and schedules. Guarantee them advance notice of and input over their work schedules, so they can plan day-care pickups and doctor’s appointments and transportation. Pay workers when they work overtime or odd hours.
  • Diversify your top executives and corporate boards. A tiny group of mostly white men shouldn’t be making decisions that affect the livelihoods of millions of diverse workers.
  • End the “independent contractor” business model that absolves you of responsibility for your workers. If you have hundreds of “independent contractors,” those are your employees, and you need to treat them that way.
  • Allow workers to save for retirement, and help them do it. Match contributions to retirement accounts for all your employees, not just white-collar, salaried workers.
  • Stop fighting your employees’ efforts to form unions. Stay neutral in all union elections and stop pressuring workers who dare to organize.
  • Take responsibility for your actions. End the push for corporate immunity laws and drop the forced arbitration clauses that deny your employees the ability to hold their employers accountable when they’re mistreated.
  • Pay your fair share. Stop lobbying Congress for yet more tax breaks, and stop shoveling money into political campaigns to defeat anyone who disagrees.

I have heard many of you argue that you don’t need government rules forcing you to make these changes. That will stifle growth, you claim. We’ll have to raise prices, you say. Yet when you’re paying yourselves, you never seem to worry much about price increases or the larger implications for society.

Prove me wrong. Do right by your employees.

Our economy is supposed to reward people whose talents are in high demand. That’s what we’re all taught and that’s what you always tell us, right? It should now be abundantly clear to everyone that the skills of U.S. workers—of the caregivers and shelf stockers, the bus drivers and checkout clerks, the customer-service representatives and custodians, the low-paid and the overlooked—are essential to your businesses and to our economy.

And if you don’t start treating them that way, know that the calls for change will only grow louder. It’s time you recognized that all work has dignity. No exceptions.

Brown, a Democrat, is a U.S. senator from Ohio.

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