When companies prize investors above all, they’ll do anything to increase their stock price, and that’s not good for workers.
In December, 2015, a new startup called Juno entered the ride-hailing market in New York City with a simple proposition: it was going to treat its drivers better than its competitors, notably Uber, did theirs—and do “something that was socially responsible,” as one of Juno’s co-founders, Talmon Marco, told me last fall. In practice, that meant drivers would keep a bigger part of their fares and be eligible for a form of stock ownership in the company. But, on April 26th, when an Israeli company named Gett announced that it was buying Juno for two hundred million dollars, that changed. The merged company is dropping the restricted stock plan for drivers, and those who already hold stock are being offered small cash payments, reportedly in the hundred-dollar range, in exchange.
Juno’s founders had adopted the language of a doing-well-by-doing-good philosophy that has spread in the business world in recent years. Some call it conscious or socially responsible capitalism, but the basic idea is that any business has multiple stakeholders—not just owners but employees, consumers, and also the community—and each of their interests should be taken into account. The idea arose in response to an even more powerful principle: the primacy of investor rights. In a new book, “The Golden Passport,” the journalist Duff McDonald lays much of the blame for that thinking at the feet of a Harvard Business School professor named Michael Jensen, whose “agency theory,” developed in the nineteen-eighties, sought to align the interests of managers with those of the company’s investors. (Gordon Gekko spoke eloquently on its behalf in the movie “Wall Street.”) This alignment led to huge stock-option pay packages for top corporate managers and, McDonald argues, provided an intellectual framework that justifies doing anything (within the law) to increase a company’s stock price, whether that be firing workers or polluting the environment.
In this philosophical tension, the investors-above-all doctrine seems to have triumphed over the more inclusive approach. “I think what’s recent is maybe being so completely blatant about it,” Peter Cappelli, a professor and labor economist at Wharton, said. When American Airlines agreed to give raises to its pilots and flight attendants in April, analysts at a handful of investment banks reacted bitterly. “This is frustrating,” a Citigroup analyst named Kevin Crissey wrote in a note that was sent to the bank’s clients. “Labor is being paid first again. Shareholders get leftovers.” Jamie Baker, of JPMorgan, also chimed in: “We are troubled by AAL’s wealth transfer of nearly $1 billion to its labor groups.”