Workers and Corporations

Airplane Worker2

The American Dream did not simply fall from the sky but was won by decades of persistence by workers. It’s no coincidence that upward income mobility– that is, the ability for a child to earn more than their parents did at the same age– and unionization both peaked and fell at the same time: worker rights boost wages, provide benefits, expand choices, and build dignified communities where low-wage workers can more fully participate in economic and social life. Washington’s long history of worker organization– whether from Boeing machinists, longshoremen, timber workers, teamsters, home care workers, teachers and day care workers– once earned the state stellar marks for income mobility, but decades of outsourcing, labor trafficking, regressive taxation, NIMBYism, and over-regulation have cut down our rate of upward income mobility to below the national average.

As a union member, I support the right of every worker to collectively bargain and believe unions are a critical tool for ensuring worker rights, but unions can not and must not be the only way worker rights are protected. Let’s enact a broad array of pro-worker policies and begin to rebuild the upward income mobility which lies at the heart of the American Dream:

Forty-nine states, including Washington, use the policy of at-will employment, meaning workers at private businesses can be fired for any reason or no reason at all. This policy gives employers tremendous power over the personal lives of their employees, allows bosses to discriminate and harass with plausible deniability, limits the speech workers can practically exercise, and leaves the working class with minimal job security and maximal stress.

Let’s give all workers the same protection as state employees, many union workers, and the majority of private-sector executives. Let’s require just cause for termination for all employees who pass an initial six-month probationary period, as is the case in Montana. Just cause would allow termination only for reasonable, timely, work-related reasons such as failure to perform duties, disruption of business operations, or illegal activity during the period of employment. Employers would no longer be able to fire employees for arbitrary reasons or to cover up harassment and discrimination. Workers would no longer fear being fired over something they did decades ago, advocated for online, or because their new boss just doesn’t like the cut of their jib.

Let’s follow the footsteps of California and add political identity as a protected class under state non-discrimination laws. No worker should be fired or customer denied service (excepting explicitly political employment or services) solely on account of their speech and beliefs.

Through my academic research, I gained access to massive datasets which many people believe present significant privacy concerns, such as large-scale smartphone location tracking data. This data has many important and legitimate uses, such as scientific and research purposes or policy implementation and evaluation, but it is most frequently used in commercial applications. While these applications have spurred important innovations, individuals have little say over how their data is used or who can use it, and they receive little direct reward for their participation while large tech firms reap massive profits.

Rather than corporations simply taking our information, let’s recognize that individuals own their data and have rights over it. In doing so, we can flip the present dynamic on its head, compensating individuals in exchange for privacy reductions while still providing innovative opportunities to firms.

First, we need GDPR-like data rights to protect sensitive personal data. Namely, we must guarantee that individuals have the following rights concerning corporate use of their data:

  • The right to access stored personal data
  • The right to update, correct, anonymize, or erase stored personal data
  • The right to authorize and restrict uses of data
  • The right to limit to whom data can be re-sold
  • The right to know to whom data had previously been sold
  • The right to port data
  • The right to object to automated processing of data

Second, personal data is overutilized relative to the social optimum as companies do not fully internalize the cost of its use– economists describe this as an incomplete market.

Let’s create a secure, decentralized data market where companies, researchers, and government pay subscription fees to individuals to use their personal data in their projects. The fee would vary depending on the amount of data the company wished to use, the sensitivity of the data needed, how recent the data had to be, the purpose of the data use, and the individual’s willingness to accept. Individuals would be given an exclusive copyright over their personal data, and any unauthorized use of the data would entitle the individual to recover trebled damages in court along with legal fees.