Leadership & Management

Labor Pains: How Executives Can Help Broker Workers’ Discontent

Union advocate says organizing efforts shouldn't be seen as disloyal.

May 24, 2023

| by Kevin Cool
portrait of Faiz Shakir standing in an empty conference room

Faiz Shakir is executive director of More Perfect Union. | Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images

You probably won’t find it in a book on business leadership, but Faiz Shakir has a dictum for executives of major corporations who really want to understand what their employees’ jobs are like: “Know the coffee.”

CASI Visiting Speakers

The Corporations and Society Initiative (CASI) hosts a variety of events for members of Stanford GSB, Stanford University, and the broader community to discuss the complex and interacting forces that impact corporations and society.

The reference was in the context of unionization efforts by Starbucks employees, and what Shakir, the executive director of More Perfect Union, a nonprofit media organization that reports on labor issues, describes as “a management class buffered from its own employees.”

At a recent talk sponsored by the Corporations and Society Initiative at Stanford Graduate School of Business, Shakir said labor relations with some companies have suffered in part because of the distance, figuratively speaking, that exists between employees and upper management. If C-suite executives are unfamiliar with the everyday challenges their employees face, they may view workers’ grievances as illegitimate or even disloyal. Such an attitude, Shakir says, creates an atmosphere of combat where organizing efforts are seen as “a middle finger to the boss.”

A photo from the CASI event showing (from left): Juan Saez, Anat Admati and Faiz Shakir. Credit: Lisa Sanchez-Corea Simpson

GSB student Juan Saez (left) interviewed guest speaker Faiz Shakir (right), at an event sponsored by the Corporations and Society Initiative, directed by economics professor Anat Admati (center). | Lisa Sanchez-Corea Simpson

The pandemic exacerbated feelings of discontent among working-class people, Shakir says, who felt “their toil and struggle was unseen, unheard, and unappreciated.”

Workers are beginning to push back against what they see as unfair conditions, but often have been met with resistance and anti-union strategies, Shakir says. A better way would be for executives to listen and learn and find ways to help their employees prosper, he adds. Instead, the message that companies often convey is that workers are disposable — “they’re telling people, ‘We only want you for a year.’”

Tens of millions of Americans live paycheck to paycheck, he points out, teetering on the edge of financial catastrophe. Even some who are unionized work for wages barely above the minimum, with no health care or childcare benefits. “There were people working 16 hours a day, seven days a week during the pandemic.”

Although unions have historically improved conditions for workers, declining membership and eroding political power have weakened what was once an important source of employee support, Shakir says. “The structural problem that many unions are dealing with is that they’re on the losing end of labor law. If they haven’t historically had a union at a Kroger’s or wherever it’s very hard to break in and establish a new one and get a first contract.”

“If C-suite executives are unfamiliar with the challenges employees face, they may view workers’ grievances as illegitimate.”

And it’s a mistake to think of unions only in terms of their labor activism, Shakir says. They also bring stability and cohesion to a workforce, provide mentorship and skills development, and play a role in a company’s long-term success, he notes. “It’s a place of gathering and learning from each other and caring for each other and hearing about how to do a job better. Good, healthy unions are critical in helping a workforce improve.”

Shakir was the campaign manager for Sen. Bernie Sanders’ 2020 presidential campaign, and still serves as an advisor to the Vermont senator. One of Shakir’s goals is to “close the gap in understanding the modern economy for working people.” For example, he says, many workers are unfamiliar with corporate strategies such as stock buybacks and their effects.

Shakir acknowledges that he and his organization, More Perfect Union, are not neutral when it comes to organized labor. “We own an advocacy mission. A different consciousness has set in, and I’m glad that we’re playing some role of incentivizing behavior” in matters of economic power, he says.

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