New Frontiers for Empowering Workers and Business

Silhouettes of construction workers standing on scaffolding as the sun sets behind them

Today, a record number of workers are raising their voice on the job: over the last two years, workers have filed thousands of petitions to vote to form a new union in their workplace and public support for unions is higher than almost any point in the last 60 years. It’s no surprise that workers want to join unions — according to the Treasury Department, unions boost workers’ wages by 10-15%, and independent research shows that the union advantage is especially important for working women and people of color. Empowering workers also helps the department fulfill our mission, because those workers are more likely to know their rights and ensure compliance with the law.

At the Department of Labor, we know that worker voice on the job benefits everyone. Recently, we welcomed businesses, investors and workers to the department for a convening, “New Frontiers for Empowering Workers & Business.” What we heard is from them is that businesses and investors are increasingly recognizing how worker voice and collaborative labor relations can also help build stronger businesses and financial markets. The stories they shared are backed by hard data: Studies show that unions can be key partners in innovation and productivity, while helping draw, develop and retain top talent in the industries we need to grow our economy and secure our supply chains.

A great example is Microsoft; last year, the company publicly announced a set of principles explaining how the company would approach employee organizing and engage with unions, affirming that a strong partnership with its employees and collaborative labor relationships would help the company compete in the global economy. Later that year, Microsoft put those principles into practice when workers at video game manufacturer ZeniMax said that they wanted to form a union — and together, Microsoft and ZeniMax workers are pioneering a new, collaborative path to collaborative labor relationships in the technology industry. That collaboration is producing results, as Microsoft executives and worker leaders shared with us at our event.

Microsoft and ZeniMax workers are not alone. Recently, Akash Systems, a company developing and manufacturing the next generation of semiconductors here in the United States, announced a new commitment to neutrality if semiconductor manufacturing workers express an interest in joining a union. Akash also agreed to a pre-hire project labor agreement covering the local construction workers who will build company’s new plant in California. As part of the agreement with the Communications Workers of America, Akash will partner with the union to develop pre-apprenticeship and other workforce development programs to build the skilled workforce we need to bring semiconductor manufacturing back to American shores — and they are already partnering to make sure that local Oakland workers benefit from these new jobs and training programs.   

Businesses and workers are also building other innovative avenues to lift up worker voice, such as community benefits agreements. For example, in Anniston, Alabama, and Ontario, California, electric bus manufacturer New Flyer and a community coalition led by Jobs to Move America and Greater Birmingham Ministries negotiated a Community Benefits Agreement that establishes a joint safety and health committee, a dispute resolution mechanism, and commitments to dramatically scale up new hires and promotions from historically disadvantaged groups. 

And the Department of Labor is encouraging new ways for workers to be heard in the data that informs businesses and policymakers — including by signing a Memorandum of Understanding to work with the Groundwork Collaborative as they develop a new data source, the Worker Sentiment Survey — to capture workers’ experiences of the labor market and in the workplace. 

Investors are also increasingly recognizing that respecting and protecting workers’ rights reduces risks, helps businesses succeed and strengthens their investments. As New York City Comptroller Brad Lander explained, the city is reducing risks in its investments by paying attention to whether that companies in its portfolio are fostering collaborative labor relations and recognizing workers’ labor rights. Comptroller Lander, along with Trillium Asset Management and other investors representing $1-2 trillion under management, announced a new network of investors urging companies to respect labor rights during our event. The investors recognize that respecting labor rights makes good business sense, reaping “many benefits, such as greater productivity, safer workplaces, and improved employee engagement. 

When companies flout labor rights, investors and shareholders are taking action to hold them accountable. Earlier this year, investors holding a majority of Starbucks shares forced Starbucks to commission an independent assessment of the company’s record of violating workers’ right to freedom of association. 

At the Department of Labor, lifting up workers is our North Star. The business leaders we heard from are proving that the old playbook is misguided — worker voice can be a competitive opportunity, not a cost. Together, we can do our part to build thriving businesses, make sure that workers get a just day’s pay for a hard day’s work, and grow a thriving, resilient economy that works for all. 


Trudy Rebert is a policy advisor in the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Policy.

Sejal Singh is an honors attorney in the Office of the Solicitor.