CEOs sing a new tune, but action must follow

STUART APPELBAUM President, Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union | 8/29/2019, 2:39 p.m.
Business Roundtable—a lobbying organization made up of almost 200 chief executives from Apple, Walmart, JPMorgan Chase, and many more of ...
Stuart Appelbaum

Business Roundtable—a lobbying organization made up of almost 200 chief executives from Apple, Walmart, JPMorgan Chase, and many more of the world’s largest companies—released a statement in August that purports to change the role of corporations in our society. The new stated goal, according to the report, is that corporations should promote “an economy that serves all Americans.”

On the surface, it’s a welcome about-face from the “free-market” corporate identity established in the late 1960s where profit and “shareholder primacy” were the sole, overpowering motivation for corporate America. Since then, profits have driven everything for corporations—at the expense of workers, communities and the environment.

The results have had a staggering effect; over the past five decades, the top 1 percent of American earners has nearly doubled their share of national income. The real value of American wages has flatlined, failing to keep up with increased productivity. And pay for top CEOs is now hundreds of times that of the pay of their employees.

So, it’s good to see some of the world’s richest CEOs declare they are now dedicated to compensating employees fairly and providing them with important benefits while supporting communities and embracing environmentally friendly practices. It’s refreshing to see corporate America declare its dedication to diversity and inclusion and treating workers with dignity and respect. This is language that American workers, and the labor movement, agree with.

We all know, however that talk is different than action. What the Business Roundtable didn’t say was specifically how corporate America is going to change. Income inequality was not addressed in the statement; neither was obscene CEO pay, nor changes in the way companies and management approach labor relations and politics.

Since the late 1960s, when corporate America embraced a draconian free-market, profit-first ethos, union membership has fallen at a steady rate. So too has worker pay and benefits. This is no accident. Corporations have consistently used all of the resources at their disposal to fight workers’ wishes to organize, and to politically hurt unions. With few exceptions, corporations have done everything they can over the past 50 years to ensure that workers lose their union voice—the very “dignity and respect” they now claim to support.

At the RWDSU, we’ve seen the difference it can make when companies stop spending money and resources to intimidate workers and prevent them from joining unions. Through global framework agreements, we’ve seen workers at fast fashion chains H&M and Zara join our union over the past decade, choosing a collective voice to make their jobs and their lives better. When companies agree not to fight their workers by bringing in expensive union-busting “consultants” and don’t intimidate or threaten their employees, workers choose the dignity and respect afforded by union membership.

The statement by the Business Roundtable is a step in the right direction; but so far, it counts only as good PR. American corporations need to lead the way by ending their half-century war against unions and their own workers. That’s how true change will be achieved. That’s how America’s corporations can live up to their new stated purpose.

Stuart Appelbaum serves as president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union. Website: www.rwdsu.org; Twitter: @sappelbaum