Republicans Need a New Role Model for Business. We Offer a Suggestion.

Our friends on the Right often quote Scripture to support positions they take. And while Shakespeare noted that the Devil can quote Scripture for his own purposes, we recalled this verse in the midst of the Right to Work battle in Missouri, an issue which the Republican-dominated Legislature was afraid to put to a vote of the people.

“The Workman is Worthy of his Hire.” Luke 10:7

A lot of talk last year about Wall Street seemed to really be about executive salaries and income inequality. Salaries have been flat-lining since the 1970s, which not coincidentally, is when the concept of ‘executive compensation as a multiple of average worker salaries’ began to take off. Stock options, and the need to think quarterly, made employees a ‘negative’ on the balance sheet. Cutting jobs became a positive for Wall Street.

There’s a much better way to think about the value of employees and the contributions they make. Take a look at one of the most successful companies in America, Southwest Airlines, and its visionary founder, Herb Kelleher. In 1971, Kelleher changed the airline industry. He rejected the standard ‘hub and spoke’ system in favor of ‘point to point’ air travel. But equally as important, he changed the sour workforce culture rife in the airline business. As a result, for most of its corporate history, Southwest has been profitable. It has one of the most successful and enviable management-labor relationships in business. Unlike other airlines, it has never had furloughs or workforce reductions. And yet it has a labor force that is 85% unionized with among the best-paid pilots, mechanics, and flight attendants in the industry. Southwest is routinely ranked among the Top 10 Best Places to Work in the United States.

What’s the secret? Of course, company culture is a term that comes up regularly. Southwest continuously proves to its employees that it cares about them, and not just when they’re at work. “You cannot buy dedication, devotion, and loyalty,” says Kelleher. “You have to pay personal attention to your people.” Southwest has a monthly recognition program for its employees and actually wants them to have some fun while they take care of customers.

“It’s not one of the enduring mysteries of all time,” says Kelleher. “Your employees are your first customers. A motivated employee treats the customer well. Customers are happy, so they’ll keep coming back, which pleases the shareholder. It’s just the way it works.” So employees first, then customers, then shareholders. That’s a good model for all business owners to follow.

There’s a YouTube video where Kelleher is a guest speaker at Stanford’s Business School. A student asks for an example of the Southwest culture. Herb tells the story of a flight attendant who missed work because her car was repossessed, due to some divorce-related problems. First, she ends up talking to the CEO, who immediately calls his legal department and tells the lawyers to get her car back that day. And they do. What’s her attitude about Southwest going to be? What would she tell her friends, neighbors and co-workers about working at Southwest?

Why aren’t more businesses treating their employees like this? Why did employees move from the asset column to the debit side of the ledger? When did managers decide that paying people less was a good way to motivate them? Republicans don’t seem to understand these concepts.

As Democrats, we work to change the owner-worker culture. A good paying job at a place where your contribution is recognized, if not celebrated, is a great place to start.

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