Worker power: A critical component of fair scheduling

By Liz Ben-Ishai

Unpredictability. Fluctuating hours. On-call work. Lack of input into schedules. Early dismissal without pay.

One of the threads that ties together these and other scheduling challenges commonly experienced by low-wage workers is the fact that millions in the U.S. feel profoundly disempowered in the workplace: they fear speaking up when they are mistreated or raising their voices when they want change. And when it comes to workers’ schedules, employers’ willingness to hear and be responsive to workers’ needs is a huge part of the issue. But workers fear speaking up for good reason—many experience retaliation. Sometimes scheduling is the retaliation—hours are cut and less desirable shifts assigned. But all too often employers also retaliate by firing workers. With so many workers living on the edge of poverty, the threat of job loss is a powerful silencing force.

EPIC’s new brief on income volatility and unstable scheduling outlines important solutions. Many of these are promising specifically because they try to remedy that pervasive disempowerment by giving workers greater voice, protecting them from retaliation, and reducing the practices that undermine workers’ ability to assert their rights. Of the solutions discussed, public policies that require employers to adopt better scheduling practices are most clearly linked to the goal of building worker power; they establish legal rights for workers, which include protection from retaliation. Technological solutions, also discussed in the brief, can be important add-ons to public policies, in some cases facilitating implementation of fair scheduling laws. And high-road employers can voluntarily change the climate in their workplaces to allow for greater worker power.

But there’s another key tool for improving workers’ schedules while building worker power: organizing. Around the country, workers who have organized to form unions are using collective bargaining to improve their schedules and elevate their voices. (The EPIC brief makes note of Macy’s workers’ success in pushing for better scheduling practices.) Worker centers and other community groups are also playing a critical role in helping workers have more of a say about their working conditions. Moreover, in most cases, worker-leaders from community and labor groups have been important drivers behind the growing number of fair scheduling laws that have passed or are under consideration in recent years.

The specifics of unfair scheduling practices are important—we need to understand what workers are facing to craft the policies that are most likely to address their challenges. Yet we should not forget that underlying virtually all unfair scheduling practices—and their accompanying income volatility— is a lack of worker voice and a vast imbalance in power between employers and employees. Combined with public policy, technology, and employer solutions, worker organizing to build greater collective power is an essential strategy that will help to address both unfair scheduling and ensuing income volatility.

This article was originally published on The Aspen Institute’s blog.