Workers today are increasingly powerless. A decades-long attack on unionization has eroded workers’ agency over their work and economic lives. At the same time, employers have expanded their influence in the labor market, gaining the discretion to set wages and working conditions on their own terms without fear that workers could check their power by finding another job.
Even in times of a seemingly robust and healthy economy, as indicated by headline measures including GDP growth and low unemployment, diminished worker power—made clear through stagnant wages, fissured workplaces, and stunted workplace voice—means that workers do not share in our nation’s prosperity. And when the economy contracts, workers’ economic pain is compounded, and they are shut out of political and policymaking debates as to how we address these economic challenges.
Today’s distorted labor market stands upon a higher education system that is broken—by design. America’s student loan program, for example, is driven by the cemented idea that higher education is an essential pathway to economic security, regardless of how much it costs. This notion—that more degrees leads to more income—is fueling America’s $1.7 trillion student debt crisis without the added benefit of higher paying jobs. These flawed assumptions and miscalculations have driven policymaking, so students are entering an employer-dominated job market in massive debt and with little choice, economic mobility, or power at work and in their lives.
We cannot have an inclusive and equitable society until we reclaim worker voice and ensure public goods—like higher education—remain in public hands. Once policymakers commit to addressing broken power dynamics—in higher education, the labor market, and far beyond—they can move us toward the transformative structural change that our skewed economy demands and our society needs.