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Why American Companies Suddenly Love Workers

Source | The Atlantic : By DEREK THOMPSON

In the past few months, several of America’s largest companies have come to the conclusion that they deeply value their workers and want to publicly celebrate their love of labor. A sample:

  • Walmart, the largest employer in the United States, announced across-the-board raises in February. In a letter to “associates” (the term Walmart uses for its employees), chief executive Doug McMillon said the move was a recognition of hard work, pledging that “there will be no better place in retail to learn, grow, and build a career than Walmart.”

  • Starbucks announced raises and increased benefits for more than 100,000 workers. In a letter to “partners” (the term Starbucks uses for employees), Chairman and CEO Howard Schultz framed his decision in the context of the most recent violent shootings. “Trust, after all, must be earned one human connection at a time,” he wrote.

  • JPMorgan Chase said it was it was raising wages for its lowest-paid workers, such as bank tellers, by 18 percent. In the opening paragraph of an op-ed for the New York Times, Jamie Dimon, the bank’s chief executive, said it was the bank’s civic duty to help its lowest-paid employees to combat “wage stagnation, income inequality, a lack of quality education, [and] insufficient training and skills development.” (For comparative purposes, JPMorgan Chase calls its employees “employees.”)

McDonald’s, Target, and T.J. Maxx have made similar announcements in the last year.

For one multinational corporation to have a conversion moment on wages and benefits might be an insignificant anecdote. But all at once, this feels more like a movement. Chief executives aren’t just raising wages quietly, announcing the bumps in inconspicuous internal memos. They’re trumpeting the wage increases as feats of national integration and human dignity.

What’s behind this?

First, the macroeconomics. Each of these companies had several years after the downturn to show their collective appreciation for low-skilled work, but they are all suddenly discovering their generosity in the same period. It’s not a coincidence: The labor market is tightening, and they have to pay their workers more to keep them from leaving.

This might be the age of abundance, but scarcity is still the most important economic concept. When jobs are scarce, corporations have power over workers. But right now, workers are scarce, and labor is feeling more powerful. As Conor Sen reported, the labor market for cheap service workers may be the tightest since the turn of the century. The number of Americans who voluntarily quit workhit a nine-year high in December 2015 (and is still as high as any point since the recession). Wage growth is at its highest rate in years, according to the Atlanta Fed, and it’s bolstered minimum-wage movements like Fight for $15.

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