Disjunctions in labor markets: Capital versus workers

Bob Sheak, November 2, 2021



This post focuses on recent developments in the economy that are pitting workers generally against corporate owners and managers and other businesses. Such conflict is intrinsic to capitalism, especially when guided by the neoliberal economic policies advanced by the Republican Party and, at times, centrist Democrats. After decades of wage cuts, low wages, job insecurity, and inadequately regulated often dangerous workplaces, workers are going out on strike, quitting jobs, while millions are remaining out of the labor force altogether.

Biden, his administration, and most Democrats in the U.S. Congress are advancing policy initiatives designed to address some of the disparities in power and level the playing field between employers and workers, but have thus far been unsuccessful.

To make progress, it will take a powerful social movement, commitments to unionization, the election of progressive legislators, an aroused and informed electorate to alter the trajectory on which the U.S. is now moving.

Capitalism and class conflict

Corporate capitalists are dominant

In capitalist economies, there is typically an inherent conflict of interests between businesses and workers. Employers want to retain managements’ traditional prerogatives and keep labor costs as low as they can, while workers want to bargain over hours, wages, benefits, workplace conditions, and, in some cases, have representation on corporate boards and some influence on corporate policies.

Employers, especially large corporations and their contractors, have a systemic advantage, as they decide where to locate their businesses, what to produce, how to organize production or services, and the price of the products and services. Corporate power extends into the political realm, giving their further advantages over workers. Corporations devote huge resources for political purposes, such as campaign contributions, political ads, lobbying, and hiring former high-ranking government officials, support of trade associations and think tanks.

Through most of U.S. history, business had the dominant hand, though the New Deal, WWII, and a booming economy created an interregnum in business-worker relations from the 1930s up into the 1970s. During these years, workers, especially white male workers, benefitted as never before. Also, in the aftermath of the war, the G.I. Bill helped millions of mostly white veterans get education and training and purchase their own homes. It should not be forgotten that there were always some white workers in the highly racially and gender segregated skilled trades and other occupations who did relatively well. The War on Poverty in the 1960s brought Medicare and Medicaid, and other additional programs to the social safety net. The Earned Income Tax Credit, a government subsidy for lower-income workers and implicitly support for lower-wage employers to have enough employees to stay in business. This was added in the mid-1970s.

In the face of revived international competition in the 1970s, and in reaction to union gains and increased government regulations and spending, corporations coalesced politically and effectively pushed for anti-union legislation and limits on government wage and workplace standards. In manufacturing, corporations accelerated a process of outsourcing manufacturing jobs to non-union southern states, then to Mexico, and later to China and other countries with abundant supplies of low-wage workers and no labor or environmental regulations or enforcement of such regulations.

Republicans in the U.S. Congress and in state legislatures were all too successful in the 1970s, especially after Reagan became president, in passing legislation that benefitted corporations and businesses generally, as reflected in low minimum wage laws, weakly enforced occupation and safety regulations, the use of strike-breakers when unionized workers dared to strike, and the employment of non-union contractors. Additionally, they could intimidate workers who threatened strikes with the threat of closing plants and other workplaces. Business lobbies have also done their best to limit the social safety net so that workers would be even worse off on government assistance than even in a low-wage, no benefit, insecure, and oppressive, if not dangerous, paid work.

Economics professor David Auter, who is the co-director of the M.I.T. Task Force on the Work of the Future,” provides a glimpse of recent history. He writes that “[t]here is ample evidence that for the past 4 decades, the economy ‘has generated vast numbers of low-paid, economically insecure jobs with few prospects for career advancement.” He refers, for example, to how many workers have suffered not only from low pay but also from dangerous working environments, the absence of prior notice of job termination, and no access to paid vacation, sick time and family leave.

Now, surprisingly, in 2021, millions of workers in and outside of the labor force are massively resisting the corporate power that has produced such conditions. The immediate effect has been a wave of strikes as well as a major reduction in the availability of workers for employment who are currently outside of the labor force. And all this is occurring amid high levels of consumer demand. At the same time, the pandemic and the lockdowns have given many workers an additional motive to risk their jobs by going on strike, quitting, or staying out of the labor force.

Millions of jobs are going unfilled

There is thus at present an extraordinary situation occurring in U.S. labor markets. Heather Long, Alyssa Fowers and Andrew Van Dam report that in August [2021] there were 8.4 million on strike or not looking for work while there were 10 million job openings (https://washingtonpost.com/business/2021/09/04/ten-million-job-openings-labor-shortage).

Jobs are being created

Long and her colleagues refer to economists who find that “overall jobs are actually rebounding at a remarkable pace. Over 75 percent of the jobs lost during the pandemic are back, a much faster recovery than almost anyone anticipated a year ago. Private forecasters anticipate all the jobs lost could be back by mid to late 2022 — a rebound of about two years compared to the six-plus years it took for the labor market to recover from the Great Recession.” Job creation has varied, rising in some states and communities but not in others, and there are racial and gender disparities in who lands the jobs and who stays out of the labor force altogether.

Overall, however, Ben Casselman reports that the labor force shrank in September [2021] and shortages aren’t limited to low-wage industries. (https://nytimes.com/2021/10/19/business/economy/us-economy.html).

 “the great strike of 2021”

Evidence of worker resistance

Robert Reich, Professor of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley, columnist, and author, offers the following summary (https://theguardian.com/commentisfree/2021/0ct/13/american-workers-general-strike-robert-reich).

“Hollywood TV and film crews, John Deere workers, Alabama coal miners, Nabisco workers, Kellogg workers, nurses in California, healthcare workers in Buffalo.” Consumer spending is up, but “employers are finding it hard to fill positions.” The Bureau of Labor’s October 8 “jobs report showed “the number of job openings at a record high. The share of people working or actively looking for work (the labor force participation rate) has dropped to 61.6%. Participation for people in their prime working years, defined as 25 to 54 years old, is also down.” At the same time, “job openings have increased 62%…[while] overall hiring has actually declined.”

Labor economist Jack Rasmus identifies the present labor market situation as “the great strike of 2021” (https://thestreet.com/economonitor/news/the-great-strike-of-2021/). Rasmus uses the term strike broadly to refer not only to workers involved in union actions but also to “mostly [but not only] millions of low-paid non-unionized workers.” He posits that the “best definition of a strike is when ‘workers withhold their labor’ for better wages and working conditions. Contrary to convention wisdom, workers go on strike when they withhold the labor, even when they are not members of unions. “That fact is evident today as millions of US workers are refusing to return to their jobs.” Rasmus refers to the following evidence:

“Workers returned to jobs at a rate of 889,000 a month during the 2nd quarter 2021 (April-June) as the economy reopened. That average fell to only 280,000 per month in the just completed 3rd quarter 2021 (July-Sept), according to the Economic Policy Institute.

Rasmus points out that the U.S. Labor Department’s estimate of five million workers who have not returned to employment since the start of 2021 “is a gross under-estimation.” He explains: “It doesn’t count the 3 millions more who have dropped out of the labor force altogether and are no less jobless than those officially recorded as unemployed. Nor does the 5 million include a several million or so workers who were mis-classified by the Labor Dept. as employed in March 2020 when the pandemic began simply because they indicated when surveyed by the government that they expected to return to work even though they weren’t working at the time of survey. The Labor Dept. soon thereafter acknowledged it was an error to count them as employed, but to date it has still refused to correct the numbers. That number of mis-classified as employed today remains around 1 million or so.”

The upshot of Rasmus analysis is this: “there are somewhere around 8 to 10 million workers in the US still without any work at all, (which doesn’t account for the millions more who are underemployed working part time or a few hours a week here and there).”

Moreover, Rasmus points out, workers are not taking jobs in industries like hospitality or retail work, but this is true in lower-wage jobs across nearly all industries. He documents this point as follows.

Comparing the US Labor Dept.’s level of employment as of September 2021 to the pre-pandemic months of January-February 2020, the numbers show workers withholding their labor is widespread across industries and occupations. Here is some of the evidence cited by Rasmus.

“Leisure & Hospitality shows 1.6 million fewer working today, in September 2021, compared with pre-pandemic months of January-February 2020. But the Health Care industry, with hundreds of thousands low paid workers in home health care and clinics, shows 524,000 fewer employed today compared to January 2020. Professional & Personal business services shortfall is 385,000; Education services—with its hundreds of thousands of adjuncts in higher education and millions of K-12 teachers paid low wages in small non-union school districts—is down by no fewer than 676,000. One would think manufacturing was a case to the contrary. But no. Millions of manufacturing workers are employed as ‘temps’ with low pay and no benefits—even in union contracts. Manufacturing has 353,000 fewer jobs today than it had in early January 2020. Ditto for Construction, with 201,000 fewer. And so on.”

“It’s safe to assume,” Rasmus continues, “that at least half of the 9 million with no work whatsoever are refusing to return to work out of choice. That’s 4 to 5 million who are de facto ‘on strike.’” His main point: “The USA is in the midst of the ‘Great Strike of 2021’, involving millions of the low paid and super-exploited US workers across virtually all US industries!” Some are striking and some are quitting or not looking for work at all. He gives these examples of occupations where reflect worker shortages:

“lower paid service workers, independent long-haul truckers, delivery drivers in the cities, hospitality workers in hotel and restaurant service, workers in retail, on local construction projects, teachers and school bus drivers, nurses ‘burned out’ by chronic overtime, warehouse and food processing workers pushed to the limit for the past 18 months, home care aide workers exploited by US middleman ‘coyotes’, and so on. The list is long.”

A rise in the number of strikes

There is in recent months a wave of strikes, as unionized workers are striking for higher wages, better benefits, and less oppressive work conditions.

Jacob Bagage reports that “strikes are sweeping the labor market as workers wield new leverage” (https://washingtonpost.com/business/2021/10/17/strikes-great-resignation). In the second week of October, “10,000 John Deere workers went on strike, while unions representing 31,000 Kaiser employees authorized walkouts. Some 60,000 Hollywood production workers reached a deal Saturday night [October 16], averting a strike hours before a negotiation deadline.”

He refers to other examples of strikes. “The strike drives in 2021 run the gamut of American industry: Nurses and health workers in California and Oregon; oil workers in New York; cereal factory workers in Michigan, Nebraska, Pennsylvania and Tennessee; television and film production crews in Hollywood; and more.”

Bogage adds:

“All told, there have been strikes against 178 employers this year [2021], according to a tracker by Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations. The Bureau of Labor Statistics, which records only large work stoppages, has documented 12 strikes involving 1,000 or more workers so far this year. That’s considerably higher than 2020, when the pandemic took hold, but in line with significant strike activity recorded in 2019 and 2018.”

The strike activity reflects workplace situations where workers have enhanced leverage amid the current labor shortage. Bogage writes: “Workers are now harder to replace, especially while many companies are scrambling to meet heightened demand for their products and manage hobbled supply chains. That has given unions new leverage, and made striking less risky.”

At the same time, not all work stoppages have been successful. “More than 1,000 Alabama miners have been on strike at Warrior Met Coal since April. That same month, 14 oil workers staged a walkout against United Metro Energy in New York; eight have since been fired, according to the local Teamsters branch. And roughly 1,400 workers at Kellogg Co. cereal factories in four states are entering their third week on the picket line.”

A dramatic rise in the number of people quitting jobs or not even looking for jobs

Reich points to some of the evidence. He writes: “Americans are also quitting their jobs at the highest rate on record. The Department of Labor reported on Tuesday [Oct. 12] that some 4.3 million people quit their jobs in August. That comes to about 2.9% of the workforce – up from the previous record set in April, of about 4 million people quitting.” Indeed, “about 4 million American workers have been leaving their jobs every month since the spring.”

A shortage of truck drivers

Vanessa Yurkevich reports for CNN that there is a need for “80,000 truck drivers to help fix the supply chain” (https://cnn.com/2021/10/19/economy/truckiing-short-drivers/index.html). Chris Spear, President and CEO of the American Trucking Association, told Yurkevich that this is a “record high.” Even before the pandemic, “the industry faced a labor shortage of 61,500 drivers.” Going from a shortage of 61,500 drivers to 80,000 is significant. Spear also points to two factors that have produced the shortage. “Many drivers are retiring, dropping out of the industry,” there is a shortage of trucks, and consumers spending is up for products, many of which are imported and must enter the country through a small number of large ports.

In response to the problem, “President Biden directed the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach to move to 24/7 operations. However, the ports can’t yet work round the clock because importers don’t have enough drivers to move their cargo at all hours.” Spear points out that “24/7 operations…[is] an improvement,” but not enough. He makes two other points. First, “…it doesn’t matter if it’s a port in LA or Long Beach, or the last mile of delivery from a train to a warehouse in Wichita. You’re going to have to have a driver and a truck move that freight.” Second, “[i]f nothing is done, the latest figures put the industry on track for a shortage of 160,000 drivers by 2030, and the need for 1,000,000 new drivers over the next ten years, according to the American Trucking Associations.”

Questionable Explanations

The strikes and low supply of workers are not due to “generous” government benefits

Long, et. al., write:  “[b]usiness owners complain they can’t find enough workers, pay is rising rapidly, and customers are greeted with ‘please be patient, we’re short-staffed’ signs at many stores and restaurants.” Many employers blame the situation on generous government benefits. However, Long and her colleagues note that on the weekend of September 4-5, 2021, the employment crisis was expected to “hit an inflection point as many of the unemployed lose $300 in federal weekly benefits and millions of gig workers and self-employed lose unemployment aid entirely. Some anticipate a surge in job seekers, though in 22 states that already phased out those benefits, workers didn’t flood back to jobs.”

Economist, author, and columnist Paul Krugman also responds to the “generous government benefits” explanation (https://nytimes.com/2021/10/14/opinion/workers-quitting-wages.html).  Krugman rebuts this explanation, pointing out that “states that canceled those benefits early saw no increase in employment compared with those that didn’t, and the nationwide end of enhanced benefits last month [September 2021] doesn’t seem to have made much difference to the job situation.”

Economics professor David Auter, who is the co-director of the M.I.T. Task Force on the Work of the Future, also refutes the argument that millions of workers stayed out of the labor force or left their jobs because of generous government benefits (https://nytimes.com/2021/09/04/opinion/labor-shortage-biden-covid.html). Auter makes two points.

He points out that “[m]ultiple analyses find that generous benefits did discourage workers from seeking new jobs. But the effects were small. States that terminated federal pandemic unemployment benefits ahead of schedule this summer saw only a minuscule decline in unemployment relative to those that didn’t.” Evidence from continental Europe and Britain also bear this out. They are experiencing labor shortages similar to those in America, but they have “barely expanded unemployment benefits during the pandemic. (Instead, they covered the paychecks of workers whose hours were cut or who were furloughed.)”

Jack Rasmus points to how Republican officials in “red stateshave now proposed cutting back child care and food stamp benefits. He puts it this way:“Now the drumbeat by employers, politicians, and Red states is that child care benefits and improvement in food stamps are keeping workers from returning. It’s the old employer strike strategy: starve them out and they’ll come back to work.”

It remains to be seen if non-employed workers would seek employment if child care benefits and food stamps are cut. However, there are millions of able-bodied adults who have decided, at least for now, to remain out of the labor force. The lack of affordable or subsidized child care may well figure make it difficult for workers with young children to take a job. Cuts in food stamps negatively affect those with low incomes who receive them.  

More persuasive explanations

As noted, the most telling argument is that many jobs pay too little, offer little security, provide few or no benefits, and are embedded in oppressive, often racially and gender discriminating, workplaces. Indeed, the government in the past have not done much to rectify this situation, especially when Republicans have their way in the federal and state governments. The Biden administration is different in that it has advanced policies that would benefit most workers by supporting unions, creating jobs, and addressing many other important issues.

What accounts for the wave of strikes?

David Auter finds in his research that there has been a change in certain worker values. He writes:

“People’s valuation of their own time has changed: Americans are less eager to do low-paid, often dead-end service and hospitality work, deciding instead that more time on family, education and leisure makes for a higher standard of living, even if it means less consumption.” The implication is that the U.S. has more of a job quality problem than a job supply problem.  

Rasmus compiled the following list of concerns that many union workers and workers who are out of the labor force have and, if enacted, would improve the quality of jobs.

  • unlivable low wages,
  • lack of alternative health care for themselves and their families since returning to work means loss of government COBRA payments or Medicaid,
  • unavailability of or unaffordable child care.
  • employers offering many workers to return to work but at fewer hours and no guarantee of hours needed to ensure sufficient weekly earnings to cover their bills.
  • employers insisting on unstable family-destroying work schedules, no civilized paid leave, and in general no hope for the future ever getting out of what is in effect a system of modern work indenture afflicting tens of millions of US workers today.

Bogage refers to how “Unions increasingly are seeking changes in the workplace and corporate culture. Some strike drives are pushing for better safeguards against sexual harassment and coronavirus safety protocols, including one at El Milagro, a Chicago-based tortilla manufacturer. Workers at a West Virginia producer of industrial pump parts went on strike Oct. 1 seeking better seniority rights.”

Then there are “[s]ome [who] are attempting to claw back perks that vanished years ago during economic downturns. Striking John Deere workers contend that the company’s massive profit during the pandemic — earnings nearly doubled to a record $1.79 billion last quarter — should be reflected in their compensation, particularly retirement benefits.”

“More than 60,000 members of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE), which represents Hollywood production workers, had planned to strike Monday [Oct. 11] unless they reached a deal with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers. The two sides arrived at a tentative agreement Saturday night [Oct. 9] that guarantees workers meal breaks, weekends and breaks between shifts, plus significant raises.”

The strike of unionized workers at John Deere

In an article for The Washington Post, Aaron Gregg delves into the strike by over 10,000 John Deere workers at 14 plants in Iowa, Illinois, Kansas, Colorado and Georgia that started on Thursday, Oct 14, after contract negotiations deadlocked and workers walked off their jobs (https://washingtonpost.com/business/2021/10/14/john-deere-workers-strike).

Gregg reports that “the company’s offer included raises of 5 to 6 percent, but union officials said the proposed contract didn’t meet workers’ retirement and wage goals. With companies nationwide struggling to fill jobs and grappling with supply chain tie-ups, union officials say they are seizing the moment to regain benefits they lost in the late 1990s, when an era of assembly-line layoffs and outsourcing diminished unions’ leverage.”

A bipartisan majority of support the strikes

Sharon Zhang reports on October 26, 2021on a survey conducted by Data for Progress on behalf of the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO). The survey asked nearly 1,300 respondents if they approve or disapprove of workers striking for better wages. “The one-question survey references the John Deere, Nabisco and Kellogg strikes” (https://truthout.org/articles/new-poll-finds-broad-support-for-strikes-across-the-country). Respondents of all political persuasions approved. Here’s what she writes.

“Among all respondents, 74 percent of likely voters say that they either strongly or somewhat approve the strikes, with only 20 percent disapproving — a 54-point margin. Support was strongest among Democrats, where 87 percent of respondents said they approved of the strikes. Still, a majority of Republicans also approved, with 60 percent saying as such and only 30 percent disapproving of strikes.”

“The data suggested something that economists and labor advocates have been indicating in recent years: The U.S. is ripe for a major transformation in how workers are treated and compensated, which has been highlighted by the pandemic.

“For the past two years, coronavirus placed the importance of our nation’s workers at the forefront of voters’ minds,” Ethan Winter, Senior Polling Analyst at Data for Progress, told Truthout. ‘As workers flex their power, our polling shows that Americans across the political spectrum by and large support their fight for better working conditions and pay, a critical indicator of the power of the labor movement heading into 2022.’”

How long can striking workers and workers outside of the labor force hold out?

New York Times columnist David Leonhardt addresses this question. (https://nytimes.com/2021/10/19/business/economy/us-economy.html).

He writes: “The labor shortage of 2021 is both conspicuous and perplexing. How is it, after all, that several million people who were working before the pandemic are now getting by without a paycheck? Some workers have savings and benefitted from the government’s relief checks to help people cope financially with the effects of the pandemic.  But cash reserves are typically limited.

Leonhardt points out “that incomes for the poor, the working class and much of the middle class have grown slowly, failing to keep up with either economic growth or the incomes of the affluent.” The point is that many workers without paid employment due to strikes or other reasons and who have little support from government programs  may not have the resources to go on for extended periods of time in these situations without suffering severe hardship.

Are their solutions?

Not from Trump and the Republicans

One will not find solutions to the problems confronting workers from Trump or the Republican Party. They and their corporate and right-wing allies have put a great deal of effort into pushing cultural issues on guns, anti-abortion, white supremacy, and anti-immigration, but they have been totally reactionary on economic issues relevant to working-class and other Americans. They have long-standing records of opposing raises in the minimum wage, fighting to limit unemployment insurance, supporting anti-union “right-to-work” laws, doing what they can to subvert workplace health and safety laws, resisting improvement in the social safety net, opposing reform of the medical and pharmaceutical sectors, and doing little to curtail the outsourcing of jobs by corporations.

Robert Reich challenges five big lies spread by wealthy corporations and their enablers intended “to stop workers from organizing and to protect their own bottom-lines” (https://www.truthdig.com/articles/the-5-biggest-corporate-lies-about-unions). Here I quote Reich, who makes a case for why unions are beneficial for all workers.

“Lie #1: Labor unions are bad for workers. Wrong. Unions are good for all workers – even those who are not unionized. In the mid-1950s, when a third of all workers in the United States were unionizedwages grew in tandem with the economy. That’s because workers across America – even those who were not unionized – had significant power to demand and get better wages, hours, benefits, and working conditions. Since then, as union membership has declined, the middle class has shrunk as well.

“Lie #2: Unions hurt the economy. Wrong again. When workers are unionized they can negotiate better wages, which in turn spreads the economic gains more evenly and strengthens the middle class. This creates a virtuous cycle: Wages increase, workers have more to spend in their communities, businesses thrive, and the economy grows. Since the the 1970s, the decline in unionization accounts for one-third of the increase in income inequality. Without unions, wealth becomes concentrated at the top and the gains don’t trickle down to workers.

“Lie #3: Labor unions are as powerful as big business. Labor union membership in 2018 accounted for 10.5 percent of the American workforce, while large corporations account for almost three-quarters of the entire American economy. And when it comes to political power, it’s big business and small labor. In the 2018 midterms, labor unions contributed less than 70 million dollars to parties and candidates, while big corporations and their political action committees contributed 1.6 billion dollars. This enormous gulf between business and labor is a huge problem. It explains why most economic gains have been going to executives and shareholders rather than workers. But this doesn’t have to be the case.

“Lie #4: Most unionized workers are in industries like steel and auto manufacturing. Untrue. Although industrial unions are still vitally important to workers, the largest part of the unionized workforce is workers in the professional and service sectors – retail, restaurant, hotel, hospital, teachers–which comprise 59% of all workers represented by a union. And these workers benefit from being in a union. In 2018, unionized service workers earned a median wage of 802 dollars a week. Non-unionized service workers made on average, $261 less. That’s almost a third less.

“Lie #5: Most unionized workers are white, male, and middle-aged. Some unionized workers are, of course, but most newly-unionized workers are not. They’re women, they’re young, and a growing portion are black and brown. In fact, it’s through the power of unions that people who had been historically marginalized in the American economy because of their race, ethnicity, or gender are now gaining economic ground. In 2018, women who were  in unions earned 21 percent more than non-unionized women. And African-Americans who were unionized earned nearly 20 percent more than African-Americans who were non-unionized.”

In an article for On Labor, Kevin Vazquez underlines an obvious point, one that needs to be amplified, that “the Republican Party Has Nothing [good] to Offer the Working Class,” except “cultural wars” (https://onlabor.org/the-republican-party-has-nothing-to-offer-the-working-class).

Vazquez points out that during his presidency and now, Trump and leading Republicans like Ted CruzMarco RubioKevin McCarthyTom CottonBen Sasse, and many other Republican congressmen, governors, and activists have claimed the mantle of “conservative populism,” based on “cultural” not economic policies.

Vazquez rightly points out that this notion of conservative populism is nothing more than an attempt to “rebrand” what are in effect anti-worker policies and mislead voters, especially white workers. It is the Republican Party’s way of offering workers “the same reactionary pro-corporate and anti-worker policies as always, concealed beneath a gilded veneer of culture war and racial grievances.” And they have been successful, in that “[w]hite blue-collar workers are increasingly voting for Republicans,” while in many cases being undermined economically.

Among other examples, Vazquez refers to “Trump himself, who campaigned in 2016 as a tribune of the forgotten and betrayed (white) working class then offered the working-class voters who elected him nothing but more pain and betrayal once in office, Republicans endeavoring to emulate his electoral success by rebranding themselves as protectors of the proletariat are doing little more than placing a pro-worker sheen on top of the same rotten corporate policies. In some cases, such as that of Marco RubioTed Cruz, or many other Republicans, who have a long history of opposition to organized labor and any redistributive social program, this rebranding reaches a level of absurdity that is nearly comical.”

Steven Greenhouse, author and labor and workplace reporter for 31 years for The New York Times,digs into the ample body of evidence that Trump has waged war on workers throughout his time as president. At the same time, Trump was able to dupe millions of white, non-college-educated workers that he was on their side by escalating a trade war with China that ended up doing little to prevent the loss of jobs due to corporate outsourcing, foreign investment, and imports from low-wage countries. The article was published by American Prospect on Labor Day, August 30, 2019 (https://prospect.org/power/worker-s-friend-trump-waged-war-workers).

Greenhouse draws a sample of Trump’s anti-worker actions from a list of more than 50 items compiled by think tanks and worker advocates. I refer below to some of his examples. It’s worth repeating that, well before Trump, the Republican Party had a long historic anti-worker and anti-union record. Trump has built on that misbegotten record.

Trump erased a rule that extended overtime pay to millions more workers, a move that will deprive many workers of thousands of dollars per year. While Trump boasted that he is the best friend of miners, his Labor Department pushed to relax rules for safety inspections in coal mines, but was stopped by a federal circuit court. Trump has made it easier to award federal contracts to companies that are repeat violators of wage laws, sexual harassment laws, racial discrimination laws, or laws protecting workers’ right to unionize.”

“[Trump] has greatly relaxed requirements for employers to report workplace injuries, making it harder for workers to know how dangerous their workplace is and what hazards need correcting. His administration is hurting gay, lesbian, and bisexual workers by urging the Supreme Court to rule that federal anti-discrimination laws don’t cover them, which would give employers a green light to fire them. His administration has rolled back rules that sought to prevent payday lenders from preying on financially strapped workers.”

“Trump’s Labor Department is even allowing many employers who violate minimum wage, overtime, and other wage laws to avoid any penalty by volunteering to investigate themselves. In a blow to workers of color and women, the Trump administration scrapped a rule that let the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission collect pay data from large corporations so it could obtain insights into possible pay discrimination by gender and race.”

“…Trump has done next to nothing to make good on his campaign promise to invest $1 trillion in infrastructure—a promise that had excited many workers. Nor has he lifted a finger to raise the federal minimum wage, which hasn’t been increased in a decade, the longest stretch without such an increase since Congress first enacted the federal minimum wage more than 80 years ago. Nor has Trump done anything to enact a paid sick day law or to increase the earned income tax credit. But, of course, he pushed repeatedly to gut the Affordable Care Act, a move that would jeopardize millions of workers and their families by leaving many more Americans without health coverage.

“Trump’s appointees to the federal courts and federal agencies have moved aggressively to undercut workers and unions. Trump’s first Supreme Court appointee, Neil Gorsuch, cast the deciding vote in the Epic Systems case, which went far to gut workers’ ability to enforce their rights against wage theft, sexual harassment, or racial discrimination. That ruling gives companies the court’s blessing to prohibit workers from bringing class action lawsuits and instead lets employers require workers to resolve their grievances through closed-door arbitrations, which, according to numerous studies, greatly favor employers.”

Biden advances pro-worker initiatives

Executive orders

Nelson Lichtenstein is a professor of history at the University of California, Santa Barbara, where he directs the Center for the Study of Work, Labor and Democracy. He reports on how on Friday, July 9, 2021, “President Biden signed a sweeping executive order intended to curb corporate dominance, enhance business competition and give consumers and workers more choices and power. The order features 72 initiatives ranging widely in subject matter — net neutrality and cheaper hearing aids, more scrutiny of Big Tech and a crackdown on the high fees charged by ocean shippers” (https://nytimes.com/2021/07/13/opinion/biden-executive-order-antitrust.html).

The executive order also features a return to the “antitrust traditions” of the Roosevelt presidencies early in the last century.” This is a tradition, Lichtenstein contends, “that has animated social and economic reform almost since the nation’s founding. This tradition worries less about technocratic questions such as whether concentrations of corporate power will lead to lower consumer prices and more about broader social and political concerns about the destructive effects that big business can have on our nation.”

Lichtenstein emphasizes that “the most progressive part of the executive order is its denunciation of the way in which big corporations suppress wages. They do this both by monopolizing their labor market — think of the wage-setting pressures exerted by Walmart in a small town — and by forcing millions of their employees to sign noncompete agreements that prevent them from taking a better job in the same occupation or industry.” He quotes Biden. “If your employer wants to keep you, he or she should have to make it worth your while to stay. That’s the kind of competition that leads to better wages and greater dignity of work.”

Biden introduces pro-union, pro-worker legislation

At a presidential press briefing on March 9, 2021, President Biden introduced the “Protecting the Right to Organize” (PRO) Act o 2021, strongly encouraging the House to take up and pass the legislation and stating that it would be a major step, if and when approved, “in dramatically enhancing the power of workers to organize and collectively bargain for better wages, benefits, and working conditions” (https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/statements-releases-2021/03/09/statement-by-the-president-joe-biden-on-the-house-taking-up-the-pro-act). You can access the full proposal at https://joebiden.com/empowerworkers.

At the briefing, Biden also said, “We owe it not only to those who have put in a lifetime of work, but to the next generation of workers who have only known an America of rising inequality and shrinking opportunity. All of us deserve to enjoy America’s promise in full — and our nation’s leaders have a responsibility to deliver it.”

Biden believes that the conditions and prospects of ordinary workers starts with rebuilding unions. He states: “The middle class built this country, and unions built the middle class. Unions give workers a stronger voice to increase wages, improve the quality of jobs and protect job security, protect against racial and all other forms of discrimination and sexual harassment, and protect workers’ health, safety, and benefits in the workplace. Unions lift up workers, both union and non-union.  They are critical to strengthening our economic competitiveness.”

And there are almost “60 million Americans [who] would join a union if they get a chance, but too many employers and states prevent them from doing so through anti-union attacks.” There is the precedent of strong action by the federal government in support of unionization, that is, the National Labor Relations Act, passed in 1935 despite unified business opposition. The president pointed out that the NLRA “said that we should encourage unions. The PRO Act would take critical steps to help restore this intent.”

U.S. House of Representatives passes Pro Act

Don Gonyea reports on NPR that on March 13, 2021, House Democrats approved the Pro Act by a 224-206 vote, “with five Republicans joining Democrats in favor of it.” Union leaders support it (https://www.npr.org/2021/03/09/975259434/house-democrats-pass-bill-that-would-protect-worker-organizing-efforts).

Gonyea lists five provisions of the Pro Act.

“1. So-called right-to-work laws in more than two dozen states allow workers in union-represented workplaces to opt out of the union, and not pay union dues. At the same time, such workers are still covered under the wage and benefits provisions of the union contract. The PRO Act would allow unions to override such laws and collect dues from those who opt out, in order to cover the cost of collective bargaining and administration of the contract.

“2. Employer interference and influence in union elections would be forbidden. Company-sponsored meetings — with mandatory attendance — are often used to lobby against a union organizing drive. Such meetings would be illegal. Additionally, employees would be able to cast a ballot in union organizing elections at a location away from company property.

“3. Often, even successful union organizing drives fail to result in an agreement on a first contract between labor and management. The PRO Act would remedy that by allowing newly certified unions to seek arbitration and mediation to settle such impasses in negotiations.

“4. The law would prevent an employer from using its employee’s immigration status against them when determining the terms of their employment.

“5. It would establish monetary penalties for companies and executives that violate workers’ rights. Corporate directors and other officers of the company could also be held liable.”

In an interview with Richard Trumka, the president of the AFL-CIO, described the Pro Act as a potential “game changer,” saying it would a major step in correcting the “wages and wealth inequality, opportunity and inequality of power.”

Gabby Berenbaum considers a poll that finds a majority of voters supporting the legislation (https://www.vox.com/2021/6/16/22535274/poll-pro-act-unioniization-majority-bipartisan). She writes: “The Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act seems unlikely to succeed in the Senate due to a lack of Republican support — but it has the support of the majority of likely voters, according to a new poll from Vox and Data for Progress.” But there is a partisan divide among likely voters. The survey of 1,000 likely voters conducted June 4 to 6 — “found 40 percent of Republicans support the PRO Act, along with 74 percent of Democrats and 58 percent of independents. Overall, the poll found the bill has the support of 59 percent of likely voters.”

However, Republicans in the Senate threatening a filibuster and powerful business lobbying groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and The National Retail Federation have kept the Pro Act from moving forward in the Senate.

Concluding thoughts

Biden’s agenda on workers’ rights is at a legislative impasse. The same is true for his two infrastructure bills and other initiatives. The obstacles are corporate and business opposition, the ability of Republicans in the U.S. Senate to obstruct legislative initiatives by using the filibuster, and the insistence of a couple Democratic Senators who have so far refused to support an end of the filibuster. It doesn’t matter much what the public thinks.

While the Pro Act, if ever passed, would strengthen the positions of unionized workers and make it easier for workers to create unions. That’s all good. But there is much that the legislation doesn’t do. Here are some examples of legislation that would help to democratize workplace relations. Although not in play now, a progressive agenda would include:

  • a living wage provision
  • support for a pro-labor National Labor Relations Board
  • the expansion of corporate boards to include workers’ representatives
  • adequate workplace safety and health standards and enforcement
  • government assistance for worker training and education
  • government assistance for workers who need to relocate for different or better jobs
  • creation and enforcement of laws to end discriminatory gender and “racial” practices by employers
  • enforcement and strengthening of anti-trust laws

So, as of now, many workers will continue to be non-unionized, others will have little choice but to take “bad” jobs, while some will continue to subsist outside of the labor force on inadequate government social/welfare programs, on support from relatives, or being desperately poor. In the absence of the Pro Act, unionized workers will continue to be at a severe disadvantage vis a vis employers. In this eventuality, anti-democratic, right-wing political forces will be further empowered and the society will be that much closer to some type of fascism.

Thom Hartmann argues that “corporate America has been shoving fascism down our throats for decades” (https://commondreams.org/views/2021/05/08/corporate-america-has-been-shoving-fascisn-down-our-throats-decades). Here are some of his reasons.

“It’s when giant corporations are able to control government and thus stop things like a national healthcare system, rational gun control laws, free college, or even the tiniest tax on carbon. When they’re able to push through ‘criminal justice reform’ that makes it nearly impossible to prosecute corporate CEOs when their companies kill workers, consumers, or even poison entire communities.

“It’s when they don’t do it through presenting strong and defendable ideas in the public realm and before Congress, but by pouring cash into the pockets of individual politicians and their parties.

“It’s when corporations and the very rich have seized control of the political process through the use of their considerable economic power, after having used that power to change laws so they can legally buy politicians.”

It doesn’t have to be this way. But, as stated in the Introduction to this post, it will take a powerful social movement, commitments to unionization, the election of progressive legislators, and an aroused and informed electorate to alter the trajectory on which the U.S. is now moving. In the meantime, Steve Fraser offers this advice. “the capacity to envision something generally new, however improbable, has always supplied the intellectual emotional, and political energy that made an advance in civilized life, not matter how truncated, possible” (The Age of Acquiescence: The Life and Death of Resistance to Organized Wealth and Power, p. 419).

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