As I was planning the overall narrative arc of last month’s Shift Forum, it became quite clear we needed to address the question of how our society manages its workforce — in particular, the role technology, AI, and automation plays, as well as the massive role of government policy. I’m not a huge fan of panels, per se, but small ones run by nimble moderators can really bring a topic to life. As I was pondering the best way to do just that, I spoke to Fred Wilson, co-founder of Union Square Ventures. Turns out Fred was deeply interested in the topic, and volunteered to moderate the discussion. I’m certainly glad he did — his panel featured Maya Rockeymoore, Ph.D. Founder, President & CEO, Center for Global Policy Solutions, and Stephen DeWitt CEO, Work Market. Rockeymoore is an expert in labor policy, and DeWitt has pioneered a new approach to labor through his company’s Work Market platform. Below is the conversation in both video and as a text transcript, edited for clarity.
Fred Wilson (FW): We’ve been dancing around this issue all morning long — We get to actually have the headline. We’re going to talk about the future of work. Everyone else was talking about it too, but we got that headline.
Henry Ford famously made inexpensive cars and paid his workers enough so they could afford to buy those cars. Ford aimed for a sort of virtuous cycle, in which a growing business would support a prosperous customer base that could in turn help the business grow further.
In the century since Ford’s heyday American business leaders have largely abandoned this approach, but it’s beginning to creep back into the conversation. Writing in The Atlantic, law professor Michael Dorff argues that too often today’s mission-driven corporations wear their ideals on their sleeves — giving to charity, promoting sustainability initiatives — but fail to build their businesses around a fundamental commitment to the well-being of workers and the wider community, the way Ford at his best did. (He had some execrable traits, too.)
Barefoot miners clamber down tunnels so we can have cheap batteries. Apple, like everyone who else who makes devices that depend on rechargeable batteries, needs cobalt. 60 percent of the world’s cobalt comes from Congo — from places like Kolwezi, in southern Congo, which features in an in-depth (and beautifully designed) Washington Post report on the cobalt supply chain. Cobalt here is mined by hand, almost always by impoverished people working in inhuman conditions — an “informal army” of barefoot “artisanal miners,” a euphemistic label for the subsistence-level work. Children wash the raw cobalt (in the same water their communities use to bathe and water their crops) and then it’s shipped off to China, where it gets put into lithium-ion batteries. Those batteries power phones, laptops, and now electric autos. The supply chain is complex and involves lots of handoffs from one company to another, which makes accountability hard. Many of the companies the Post contacted acknowledge that they need to set and enforce higher standards. The tough part is insuring that such demands actually translate to better conditions for the Congo miners at the other end of the chain.
Blue Apron’s warehouse woes. Like many startups, Blue Apron, the meal-kit delivery service, has scaled up fast, building warehouses and hiring workers to meet demand. Along the way, it also faced fines for an unusually large number of health and safety violations. That’s according to an investigation in Buzzfeed that focuses on Blue Apron’s facility in Richmond, Calif. Blue Apron created a lot of jobs in Richmond, and the hardscrabble city badly needed them. But the company “was unprepared to properly manage and care for those workers,” and the “chaotic, stressful environment” in its refrigerated warehouse made work an ordeal. The problems peaked one day in Aug. 2015 with two separate threats of violence and the conclusion of a tough review by workplace safety regulators. Since then, things have improved to some degree. But for Blue Apron, as for so many other companies seeking to transfer the efficiencies of the digital realm into the physical world, the Facebook mantra of “move fast and break things” turns out to be lousy advice. Food prep is difficult and potentially dangerous work. Blue Apron and its peers owe it to their workers and customers to find a better balance between scale and humanity.
Lately I’ve been writing about the relative virtues of basic income and child allowance proposals to counteract poverty and inequality. These seem like novel ideas on the American scene today. But in fact, there was a time when both of these ideas were seriously proposed on Capitol Hill. After forty-five years of lost faith in government, we are simply rediscovering the ambitions we once held.
In August 1969, President Richard Nixon unveiled a basic income scheme for needy families with children called the “Family Assistance Plan.” (FAP) Under Nixon’s FAP, a family of four would receive $1,600 annually from the federal government, or about $10,500 in 2016 dollars. For families deriving income from work, the FAP would gradually phase out above a certain level. Indeed, FAP included a work requirement for most “employable” individuals.