Shaping the future of work: A Q&A with Thomas Kochan 

MIT Sloan professor talks “high road” businesses, the decline of unions, and the need for a new social contract

January 21, 2016

Thaomas Kochan

Professor Thomas A. Kochan

Rising inequality. Declining worker bargaining power. Communication breakdown. Is it time for everyone to start taking the high road?

MIT Sloan Professor Thomas A. Kochan’s new book, Shaping the Future of Work: What Future Worker, Business, Government and Education Leaders Need to Do For All to Prosper, proposes “a new social contract suitable to today’s economy and workforce.” Kochan explains why he wrote the book.

You write that we change the future of work if we take decisive action now. What kind of action?
Three elements are critical to decisive action. The first is that we need more companies to follow what I call “high road” business strategies that are capable of being both financially successful for business owners and provide good jobs and career opportunities for the work force.

The second thing is that we’ve got to rebuild bargaining power for workers. We’ve seen a decline in the traditional sources of bargaining in the decline of unions, so we have to think of where the bargaining power will come from in the future. It’s going to require new forms of collective effort—building worker organizations and networks that are more consistent with today’s more dynamic economy.

Shaping the Future of Work

The third thing is that there’s no individual group that can do this alone. We’ve got to rebuild dialogue and negotiations across workers and their representatives, across businesses, across government agencies that are responsible for policies governing the workforce, and across education.

You write that companies are too focused on short-term profit and that workers are being squeezed. How do you overcome that?
We need to educate both our MBAs and existing executives and managers—particularly in the investment community—that there is a high-road strategy, that this is a choice that companies make. We don’t teach this broadly enough across our curricula in business schools.

Secondly, it’s going to require a massive effort on the part of the public to do what we saw at Market Basket [a New England grocery chain where workers staged a month-long, successful walkout in 2014 after the pro-worker CEO was fired], to say: “This is the kind of company we expect to have competing here in the United States.”

That’s going to require some shifts in power. It’s going to require government policy changes: to take away the worst aspects of the low road where wage rules are being violated; to boost the minimum wage to reduce the differential between the high and low roads. I think it’s going to be a growing campaign as more and more voices in society say the way corporations are focused on shareholder value in the short run is not serving our economy well.

You say that you are proposing a new social contract. What do you mean by that?
Basically, it means asking: What is the set of norms that we expect of business, of workers, of all the parties that influence the nature of work and employment relations? We need a lot of dialogue, and a lot of the work that I’m doing is aimed at encouraging that kind of dialogue. We’re going to be more active here at the Sloan school with what we call a “Good Companies, New Jobs” initiative that we hope to launch. This will be a joint venture between ourselves and Hitachi Foundation.

What would that include?
It would include a lot more outreach, more executive education, expanded online offerings, conferences to bring these multiple stakeholders together so that we test for ideas for how to move forward on these issues, more research. It would be a much more proactive outreach effort to people who can make a difference.