The year 2020 has brought extreme hardship for millions of people throughout the United States and the world. Millions are out of work while wealth concentrations have reached new highs. Our already unstable healthcare system is at the brink while the global pandemic is expanding. Regardless of the outcome of the 2020 election, it is clear that the fundamental pillars of our democracy are challenged.
As Chair of Amalgamated Bank’s Board of Directors, I have been reflecting on our role as America’s socially responsible bank and as an employer in addressing the issues facing working families across the country. I go back to the guiding principles that have been instilled in me over many years of leadership and sparked by my father’s traumatic experiences that never extinguished his love and hope for humanity.
As I step back and look broadly at our world, I am struck by two key lessons:
- The workers in our economy whose voice is often valued last and paid the least finally became recognized as obviously essential to keep our economy afloat and provide the services that were needed most.
- Employers have learned the hard way that they need to value the lives of their employees first as a key component of business continuity and corporate citizenship.
It’s clear in this moment that corporations and corporate directors need to put their values first in leading during this moment of uncertainty.
While the country hunkered down, essential workers, including our own bank tellers, were on the frontlines providing vital services to keep the basic functions of our economy running, support marginalized communities, respond to emergencies, keep us fed, and care for the sick. The irony is that the voice of these workers is often the last to be considered by corporate power brokers or the halls of the Capitol in Washington, D.C. They regularly must fight for a fair minimum wage and critical benefits. Their needs consistently go unheard and unaddressed.
To really address the inequalities in our country, corporations need to advocate on the side of their workers, not just their balance sheets. Corporate tax, big golden parachutes, and unequal access to capital are contributing factors to the vast wealth inequality that our country is facing, especially amongst Black, Indigenous, and people of color. On average, white households hold 10 times more wealth than Black households. Corporations play an important role in either reinforcing or breaking down these trends. A greater value-driven voice from top leadership can go a long way in making macro change. It is time for corporations to realize that to be truly successful, we all need to be on the same page.
For 97 years, Amalgamated has been a different type of corporation. We were founded on clear values of social justice, economic inclusion, and the core belief that workers have power. We have implemented these values in many ways over our nearly 100 year history by being the first bank to raise our minimum wage to $20 per hour or one of the first institutions to launch a grantmaking fund to support frontline workers or in our shareholder activism work to combat supply chain slavery, to name just a few. But our values extend beyond workers’ rights to a belief that banks have an important role in climate change and in eliminating structural racism and sexism within the corporate sector. Amalgamated’s list of accomplishments is long and reflective of our values, but the work is never done.
Throughout my 25 years in the labor sector and for the last 20 years as a Board member for Amalgamated Bank, I have sought to instill a clear set of principled values to the organizations in which I serve. I am grateful for the mentors who opened doors for me and embedded their values within my leadership style. I seek to do the same for others.
Our bank must also reflect those intentions and values too. One of the core tenants I seek to instill is that employees should focus on their families first. If you don’t allow those who work with you the space to take care of their families, then you will not get the best that they have to offer at work. This work-family balance has become even more pressing during COVID. Understanding the demands of our employees – their health, fears, and responsibilities they are facing outside of work is critical to being a good leader
Moments of hardship shine a spotlight on those things that are working and those that need fixing. I believe a key element to forward progress is having clearly defined principles and action-oriented goals to back them up. We are all on a continual path toward being better stewards of our people and planet, especially those who are critically important on the frontline. My sincere hope is that others in the banking and corporate sector will join Amalgamated Bank in the never-ending quest for greater corporate responsibility.