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Sherrod Brown: Trick after trick to pay people less

“If even a global pandemic will not get corporations to rethink their exploitative business model, it’s time to stop letting them run the economy.”

By: U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown

In the early months of this pandemic, as businesses and feel-good news stories hailed America’s workers as the heroes of our time, I published an open letter to America’s corporate leaders, imploring them to live up to their ad campaigns and invest in the workers who make their businesses successful. I wrote: If you truly believe that workers are essential to your companies, then treat them that way.

All that has changed are that corporate profits have gone up.

Since then, CEOs have not been beating down my door to discuss renewed efforts to invest in their workers. It has been six months, and all that has changed are that corporate profits have gone up, hazard pay has disappeared, and more workers have died. Since the pandemic started, hundreds of thousands of American workers have died of COVID-19 after contracting the virus on the job.

Even as small businesses have shuttered in communities all over the country, profits for the largest retail companies have soared during the pandemic. Workers’ pay, predictably, has not. The Brookings Institution studied the 13 biggest retailers in the country and found that their earnings have shot up 39% compared with last year, and stock prices are up 33%. But wages have only gone up by about $1 an hour. 

Trick after trick to pay people less 

Amazon’s quarterly profits increased by close to a staggering 200%. Yet it rolled back its still-meager $2-per-hour raise in June, and announced a one-time bonus of just $300 per worker. Yes, you read that correctly — not $3,000, but $300, from a company that brought in $280 billion in revenue last year. 

The company also has no plans to change its broader business model built on exploiting workers, largely workers of color and women, and busting unions. Amazon makes ample use of contractors, including what it calls “Amazon Flex” drivers — and as with other “gig economy” jobs, “flex” is just corporate PR speak for denying workers their rights as employees. 

Of course Amazon is far from alone in its treatment of workers, nor is this problem new. For decades, corporations have used trick after trick to pay workers less and deny them health careretirement savingspaid leave and basic job security. We’ve seen the results of this corporate business model that treats workers as expendable: Profits go upCEO pay soars, and stock buybacks explode. And the middle class shrinks. 

Profits go up, CEO pay soars, and stock buybacks explode. And the middle class shrinks.

If even a global pandemic, where America’s workers have been on the front lines, will not get corporations to rethink their exploitative business model, it’s time to stop letting them run the economy. They had their chance. They failed. If corporate America won’t deliver for its workers, then government and unions must.

In this presidential election, American voters made it clear they’ve had enough of the current system, where Wall Street runs the show. Joe Biden ran a campaign appealing directly to what he called the backbone of our country: hardworking people who get their money from a paycheck, not the stock market. And he won a commanding victory — over 81 million Americans gave him a 7-million-vote margin, more votes than any other presidential candidate in U.S. history, and a mandate for change. 

It’s time for us to deliver results.

An economy that reflects our values

We can’t go back to business as usual before the pandemic, when it wasn’t working for a whole lot of people. If we are to build back better, we must create a new system centered on the dignity of work.

In my open letter in June, I laid out actions corporations could take on their own, like raising base pay to $15 an hour. Since many of them refuse, we must raise the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour. Workers are still not safe on the job, so President-elect Biden must immediately issue an OSHA Emergency Temporary Standard forcing corporations to protect their workers from contracting or spreading the virus in the workplace and strengthen overall enforcement, so workers don’t have to worry about getting injured or becoming ill just for doing their job. 

Many companies still deny their employees paid sick days, even during a pandemic.

Many companies still deny their employees paid sick days, even during a pandemic, so we must pass a national paid family leave plan. Corporations are expanding rather than ending the exploitative “independent contractor” business model, so we must use the law to make them treat their workers as the true employees that they are. Corporations continue to coerce workers out of forming unions, so we must pass the PRO Act to guarantee workers a voice in their workplace.

We can deliver on every measure of economic security I outlined in June, with or without corporate CEOs’ blessing. The economy isn’t physics — it’s not governed by scientific laws outside our control. It’s made up of people making choices about our values and what kind of society we want to live in.

We have the power to change how the economy works, so it rewards work instead of greed. We can create more jobs at middle class wages. We can give people power over their lives and schedules. We can expand economic security and opportunity for everyone. Americans voted for this change, and we will not wait for corporations to reform themselves on their own. They never have. They never will. It’s up to the rest of us create a country where all work has dignity.

U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH), a lifelong Ohioan, is the Ranking Member of the U.S. Senate Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs. Brown was born and raised in Mansfield, Ohio.

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