Steven L. Dawson
Episode 3 Steven L. Dawson - The Pinkerton Papers and the Changing World of Work
Steven L. Dawson has worked in the field of low‐income community and cooperative economic development for 45 years. He has helped create and lead a range of for‐profit and nonprofit social enterprises and written extensively on low‐wage workforce issues.
In that time he has become one of the nations most thoughtful and respected voices on workforce development.
He has been a Senior Fellow at the world renowned Aspen Institute; co-chaired the NYC Workforce Strategy Group’s “Re-envisioning the New York City Workforce System,” and was a member of Mayor de Blasio’s Jobs for New Yorkers Workforce Task Force. In 1978, he founded the Industrial Cooperative Association (now The ICA Group), which consults to worker- and community-owned enterprises.
In 2013, Steven Dawson was inducted into the National Cooperative Hall of Fame for his decades of leadership in developing low-income worker cooperatives.
Dawson was a key figure in laying the intellectual and structural groundwork of the worker cooperative movement. He helped found two nationally significant organizations: the ICA Group, the first professional consulting group for worker ownership, and Cooperative Home Care Associates, the largest worker co-op in the U.S. His work has changed the lives of thousands of workers and some of the foremost worker co-ops in the U.S. attribute their success to his influence. Dawson also understood that much of what affects the quality of work for direct care workers emanates from public policy and so helped start the Paraprofessional Healthcare Institute, a national research, policy analysis, and technical assistance organization that works for the benefit of all direct care workers.
The Pinkerton PapersBad Jobs: "a bad job is not simply the absence of a good job. A bad job destabilizes the individual, her family and the community. . . . "In short, bad jobs are a core driver of inequality, and it is left to the rest of us to pick up the costs."
> A redesign of scheduling procedures to provide greater consistency and predictability of hours.
> Access to financial literacy and financial planning assistance.
> Review and enforcement of strong safety standards.
> A company-sponsored emergency loan fund to cover a few hundred dollars in an employee’s unforeseen expenses.
> Employer-facilitated access to public benefits and tax credits—particularly the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), which can provide a working family more than $6,000 in federal cash benefits annually, and even more in those
“Success for low-income workers should be broadened to include helping families move from instability to stability.”
Show notes: As Dr. Zeynep Ton of MIT has underscored in her job-quality research the logic is that employees must be treated “not as expenses to be minimized, but assets to be leveraged.”
Show Notes: What are the implications for workforce practitioners? First, workforce developers must not sell themselves short in their transactions with employers: High-quality practitioners who can deliver carefully selected, well-trained applicants are of increasing value to employers, particularly within a tightening labor market. Second, workforce development organizations must expand their range of technical capacities in order to know how to help employers make bad jobs better. And third, workforce developers must join other organizations whose missions are aligned with strengthening low-income communities—from community development financiers to social entrepreneurs, and from labor organizers to “high road” employers.
Show notes: "More Jobs—but Wages Remain Stagnant...” Yet it is worth reading beneath that headline. Stagnant wages nationwide do not mean that the wages of low-income workers have remained stable. On the contrary, over the past five years the occupations that employ the largest numbers of low-income youth and adult workers have experienced higher than average real wage declines—from -5.0 percent for retail workers, to -6.6 percent for personal care workers, to -7.7 for food prep workers."
Instead, the true street-level narrative of low-income work for many in America is one of near-constant instability: part-time work; seasonal work; variable hours; unpredictable schedules; wage theft. A detailed study by the U.S. Financial Diaries of 235 low- and moderate-income households revealed that 77 percent stated “financial stability” was of greater importance than “moving up the income ladder.” And a 2015 Pew Charitable Trusts study of 7,000 U.S. households noted: “When asked whether they would prefer to have financial security or move up the income ladder, the vast majority of Americans (92 percent) chose security…”
1. Building a job-quality narrative: Craft a unified public narrative that insists on the necessity for decent, stable jobs—simultaneously benefitting the worker, the employer and all residents within a region’s economy. The province of defining job quality should not be ceded solely to employers, but should in addition be articulated by all those in the community who seek an equitable society and a robust economy.
2. Support a unified policy agenda: Advocate an interconnected set of public policies, including minimum wage levels, essential benefits, safe working conditions, and worker self-advocacy guarantees—along with aggressive enforcement of all labor laws protecting low-wage workers.
3. Negotiate quid pro quo investments: When offering public or philanthropic resources and investments in specific businesses, require in return job-quality benefits for frontline workers. Those public/philanthropic resources can include not only access to well-trained applicants, but also investment dollars from community development finance agencies, and expanded markets through public-agency purchasing agreements. In return, practitioners can leverage not only “The solution to bad jobs is not education— at least not education alone.” The Pinkerton Foundation 4 The Pinkerton Papers higher wages and benefits, but also other essential job-quality elements such as predictable scheduling, better supervision, safer workplaces and greater worker voice and participation.
4. Build business expertise: Offer to employers a sophisticated level of technical expertise to craft a combination of business and labor strategies that benefit both the employer and the frontline workers. As noted earlier, these strategies can range widely, from a simple emergency loan fund and employer-facilitated access to public benefits, to more extensive job redesign and self-managing work teams. Admittedly, this “business expertise from a labor perspective” is not easy to find, but to date has been drawn from such disparate sources as semi-retired social entrepreneurs, progressive management consultants, and former union staff with decades of experience in sector-specific training and labor-management partnerships.
5. Highlight exemplars: Identify and lift up both high-road employers and low-income workforce initiatives that offer concrete examples of how good jobs can be beneficial to all. A few nationally-known examples are listed at the end of this paper, but with a bit of asking around, many more exemplars can be found, even within the local community.
"Social enterprises: In a burst of entrepreneurial spirit, the workforce development field is showing new enthusiasm for an old idea: creating “social enterprises” to employ low income jobseekers. The theory is enormously appealing. We can create good jobs for constituents who have a hard time finding work elsewhere and the profits will help fund our nonprofit organization. The reality, however, is far more complicated. "
"For 45 years I’ve worked to create better jobs for low-income workers. I have supported African-American enterprises in rural Virginia and North Carolina, worker buy-outs of threatened factories in New England, and large-scale service cooperatives in the inner cities of the South Bronx and Philadelphia. In those 45 years, I have never witnessed a labor market as tight as today’s:
> Hilton Head hotels in South Carolina are bussing workers with five-hour commutes to meet tourist industry demands.1
> In Wisconsin, one out of seven direct-care positions is vacant, forcing nursing homes to turn away elderly clients— and in several cases, to close completely.2
> Zimmer Biomet—a manufacturer in Indiana’s Kosciusko County where the unemployment rate is 2.0 percent—recently “invited” 30 workers from Puerto Rico to join their company.
> During President Trump’s “Made in America” week, his Mar-a-Lago Club requested U.S. Department of Labor approval to hire 70 foreign workers, claiming they could not find enough U.S.-based cooks, waiters and housekeepers.
> This spring, the Governor of Maine commuted the sentences of 17 prisoners, explicitly in response to the state’s labor vacancies. This isn’t just an opportunity for workforce developers, it is a call to action. The self-interests of low-income jobseekers and employers are now wholly aligned—a once-in-a-generation convergence. To take lasting advantage of that alignment, job quality, not just job placement, must become the primary goal of our workforce field.
"Change the Public Narrative about Employer “Success.” Unfortunately, today’s image of a savvy employer remains a business person who pays his or her workers as little as possible. Despite decades of evidence to the contrary, that image is still embraced not only by the public, but by many employers as well. When labor was abundant, perhaps that image was justified. If your competitor down the street is paying $9.00 an hour for store clerks—scheduling those workers with “just-in-time” software, and failing to train them adequately—why should you do anything differently? That is, so long as neither of you is having trouble recruiting workers.
The calculation changes, or at least should change, when the labor market tightens and people are no longer lining up for your jobs. Workforce organizations must fundamentally reverse the prevailing public narrative about what makes a “smart” businessperson: Today’s successful entrepreneur is one who creates a market advantage by building a quality workforce. Today’s smart employer not only invests in his or her workforce, but then leverages that investment to maximize productivity, efficiency, and market share. It is the second half of that equation—knowing how to leverage investment in the frontline workforce—that is all too often forgotten. As Zeynep Ton of MIT has emphasized, compensating and supporting frontline workers well is essential, but insufficient. To leverage those investments, the wise employer must also redesign other core operations, from information systems to inventory control, and from cross-training to frontline decision-making. Only then will the costs of higher investments in job quality be justified by generating the efficiencies and opportunities necessary to secure higher productivity and profitability. Simply paying people more, but then failing to create “operational excellence,” is exactly what gives job-quality strategies the reputation for being softhearted, if not plain softheaded. Our workforce field must instead articulate and drive a hard-nosed, sophisticated public narrative that emphasizes both sides of the job-quality equation. Essential to that narrative will be profiling small- and medium-sized employers who are already implementing successful job-quality strategies. There are a number of examples—such as the 200-worker Universal Woods manufacturing company headquartered in Louisville, Kentucky16—and we must position these pioneers to share their own stories directly with other employers.
The Pinkerton Papers: All PapersSteven L. Dawson was founding president of PHI in the South Bronx, and currently consults nationally to foundations and workforce programs on job-quality issues. In March 2016, he was appointed Visiting Fellow at The Pinkerton Foundation.
Contact information: This opinion brief is the first in a series on job-quality issues for The Pinkerton Papers. For reactions, disagreements, questions and competing strategies, go to the Pinkerton Papers tab at www.thepinkertonfoundation.org, or directly to the author at: StevenLDawson@outlook.com
The Pinkerton Papers
Synopsis and links to individual Pinkerton Papers
The National Cooperative Hall of Fame