This week we celebrated Labor Day. For most people it just marks the end of the summer and a day to maybe cook-out, if you have the day off. But it’s right there in the name – it is a time set aside to note the efforts of those who labor – Specifically unions and those who worked to create a safer and more humane working environment for American workers.
America’s relationship with labor, and with unionized labor, is storied. Labor unions began forming in the mid-19th century in response to the Industrial Revolution. The state of American labor was, quite frankly atrocious. Workers couldn’t depend on having breaks, bathrooms, there was no such thing as a “weekend” as we know it, and even people who did manual labor would work 10–12-hour days. Unions came in and changed all that. Unions made work bearable.
But somehow a creeping distrust of Unions has crept in throughout much of America. Unions are the only reason work in America is anywhere as humane as it is today. Unions benefit everyone – unless you are an owner who treats their workers like crap. So the anti-union sentiment that has grown in America is just a testament to the power of the elite ruling class.
And yet, even with the progress unions made, work in America is leagues behind work in other developed nations. We have higher demands, less vacation, less sick leave, worse health care, and terrible parental support and leave policies. Work in the U.S. is practically inhuman in comparison to our European counterparts.
If we were doing all of this work and improving our lives, it would be one thing – but that doesn’t seem to be the case in America. The middle and working class have been struggling for decades, and their costs have been steadily going up, but the wages for their work have stagnated. We are working ourselves to the bone, and for no good reason.
The pandemic has thrown the work scandal into stark relief here in the United States. As Heather Long, Alyssa Fowers, and Andrew Van Dam of the Washington Post report,
“Workers are shifting where they want to work — and how. For some, this is a personal choice. The pandemic and all of the anxieties, lockdowns and time at home have changed people. Some want to work remotely forever. Others want to spend more time with family. And others want a more flexible or more meaningful career path. It’s the “you only live once” mentality on steroids. Meanwhile, companies are beefing up automation and redoing entire supply chains and office setups”
“Resignations are the highest on record — up 13 percent over pre-pandemic levels. There are 4.9 million more people who aren’t working or looking for work than there were before the pandemic. There’s a surge in retirements with 3.6 million people retiring during the pandemic, or more than 2 million more than expected. And there’s been a boost in entrepreneurship that has caused the biggest jump in years in new business applications.”
Unlike in previous times of economic hardship, the Post observes that,
“Nationwide, most industries have more job openings than people with prior experience in that sector, Labor Department data show. That’s a very different situation than after the Great Recession, when the number of unemployed far outstripped jobs available in every sector for years. To find enough workers, companies may need to train workers and entice people to switch careers, a process which generally takes longer, especially in fields that require special licenses.”
If you listen to store owners and restauranteurs you are likely to hear about a labor shortage that is holding America back from a full recovery. But that’s a complicated story, as well.
Heather Long reports,
“… another way to look at this is that there is a great reassessment going on in the U.S. economy. It’s happening on a lot of different levels. At the most basic level, people are still hesitant to return to work until they are fully vaccinated, and their children are back in school and day care full time. For example, all the job gains in April went to men. The number of women employed or looking for work fell by 64,000, a reminder that child-care issues are still in play.
There is also growing evidence — both anecdotal and in surveys — that a lot of people want to do something different with their lives than they did before the pandemic. The coronavirus outbreak has had a dramatic psychological effect on workers, and people are reassessing what they want to do and how they want to work, whether in an office, at home or some hybrid combination.”
“A Pew Research Center survey this year found that 66 percent of the unemployed had “seriously considered” changing their field of work, a far greater percentage than during the Great Recession. People who used to work in restaurants or travel are finding higher-paying jobs in warehouses or real estate, for example. Or they want a job that is more stable and less likely to be exposed to the coronavirus — or any other deadly virus down the road.”
To further complicate things, Long reports,
“Even among those who have jobs, people are rethinking their options. Front-line workers are reporting high levels of burnout, causing some to seek a new career path. There’s also been a wave of retirements as workers over 50 quit because they don’t want to return to teaching, home health care or other front-line jobs. More affluent Americans say they are retiring early because their retirement portfolios have surged in the past year and the pandemic has taught them that life is short. They don’t want to spend as much time at a desk, even if it is safe.”
We just aren’t convinced that work is worth sacrificing everything for, anymore.
There was a meme or a tweet going around the interwebs a while back where one person asked, “What is your dream job?” and the response was “I do not dream of labor.” And I think we really need to think about that. There’s this idea for some people that we were created to work until we couldn’t anymore, and I want us to question that. Especially in this day and age. The truth of the matter is the vast majority of jobs are unnecessary. Most of our jobs don’t do or produce anything valuable, useful, or helpful. They exist just to keep money moving, and generally in the direction of those who already have most of the money. And those jobs that are necessary and we depend on are quickly being automated.
Work is in a strange place right now. The truth is the reason we all need to be working right now is for the income tax. Otherwise many of us could stop working and the world would survive. This is just indicative of how the lower and middle classes shoulder the burden of the economy while the wealthy, and especially the super wealthy, get away with hardly any responsibilities. The top 1% owns about 39% of the American economy, but only pays about a 3.5 % in income tax. A household that makes $70K pays about 14% in income tax. The middle class is shouldering a hugely unproportional segment of the American economy, so it is essential that they keep working – even though their jobs are essentially meaningless. They are working just to support the system that keeps money flowing into the pockets of those who own the economy.
There are certain functions we can’t live without – like farming. But these are increasingly becoming more automated and small farmers are being run out of business because large corporate farms are taking over the industry. And that which is not automated is farmed out to people who can be taken advantage of like migrant workers and undocumented workers. It’s a corrupt system from top-to-bottom.
How do we address this?
It’s time to start radically re-thinking our notions of work and income. The current system is unsustainable and ideas that once seemed radical may be the only ones that will keep us afloat anymore.
In a world where many jobs are becoming increasingly more irrelevant the idea of a universal basic income no longer seems outlandish. There are some jobs that are necessary – a lot of service jobs keep the private sector running. But those are the very jobs we can automate and make cheaper and more efficient through technology. On the outset that is really bad for people because then they have no way to support themselves. But with a UBI we can afford to automate jobs.
There is a lot of resistance to a UBI. But the resistance to it isn’t reasonable – it’s just clinging to an ideology that doesn’t work anymore. The truth is capitalism as it operates now isn’t sustainable. We’re heading toward a pretty big cliff. And that’s not even getting into the climate crisis capitalism has created for us. I’m just talking about the economic crisis that is coming. We have to think about big changes. We have to radicalize.
Labor in America is also unsustainable for women. Women have born the brunt of the economy for generations and our backs are breaking. I am very lucky to have a spouse who is home and covers a lot of things like childcare and the emotional and mental load that running a household requires. But for the majority of American women who are working, they are also juggling childcare, helping with school, managing a budget, managing the household, and possibly caring for older members of the family as well. The economy runs on the unpaid labor of women. The pandemic showed in technicolor that women were carrying the majority of the household burden when so many women had to leave the workforce to take care of households during lockdowns. The pandemic set women back by who knows how long. Because women have been carrying this economy for decades. This is unsustainable. The economy can’t go on like this. Men have got to step up. We have to address the childcare crisis. We have to stop thinking of people as producers.
But, traditional capitalists cry, how can we afford all of this? We need women to do unpaid labor. We need undocumented immigrants for cheap labor. We need people working to keep the economy running. Work is essential to the American way of life! We can’t afford to pay people for nothing.
We can afford to pay people a UBI if we tax the ruling elite – and I mean a real, substantive wealth tax – and close corporate loopholes. If wealthy people and corporations paid taxes, we would have what we need to re-imagine the economy.
People freak out about paying people for not working. Maybe it’s time to re-define what we mean by work. All those women who are running households, caring for children, caring for parents, taking care of budgets, managing the mental load of a house – are they not working?
If a person is doing something creative or artistic, aren’t they working?
And then let’s say a person isn’t working. Let’s say a person is just enjoying some leisure time. They aren’t causing problems or harming anyone. Why are we so obsessed with how they spend their time? A UBI benefits everyone. Why do some people freak out if some folks choose to take some time off? They will still consume. They will still contribute to the economy. It’s just that they aren’t laboring.
In Utopia (1516), Sir Thomas More depicts a society in which every person receives a guaranteed income. Spanish scholar Johannes Ludovicus Vives (1492–1540) proposed that the municipal government should be responsible for securing a subsistence minimum to all its residents “not on the grounds of justice but for the sake of a more effective exercise of morally required charity.” In the late 18th century, English Radical Thomas Spence and English-born American philosopher Thomas Paine both had ideas in the same direction.
So these ideas about universal income aren’t new. People have been hinting at them for centuries.
Some people want to shift the conversation away from universal basic income to “guaranteed income.” Eileen Guo reports,
“First proposed by philosophers in the 16th century, the idea of an income delivered directly by the state has been seen in many quarters as a balm for all kinds of social ills. Progressives argue that a guaranteed minimum income has the potential to lift communities out of poverty. Some conservatives and libertarians, meanwhile, see universal basic income as a cost-effective alternative to existing social welfare systems.
In the United States, proponents of guaranteed income as a matter of economic justice have included the Black Panthers and Martin Luther King Jr., while the libertarian economist Milton Friedman advocated it as a form of negative income tax. Even President Richard Nixon proposed providing cash directly to families, without conditions. His plan—produced after 1,000 economists urged it in an open letter—twice passed the House but got rejected by the Senate.”
“Tech-sector proponents of UBI tend to be driven by the libertarian model. It aligns both with their core beliefs about the future and with their primary theory of change. While it is not a technological solution per se … it also kind of is. It’s the ultimate hack to get around the complexities of creating equitable social welfare policies. ….
It’s very much “in keeping with modern Silicon Valley’s excitement for alternative policy experiments and ideas,” says Margaret O’Mara, a professor at the University of Washington who has written extensively on the history of the tech industry. “Like, ‘Okay, the regular systems and institutions aren’t working, and here’s this one cool trick.’”
She describes the pandemic effect:
When stay-at-home orders closed many businesses—and destroyed jobs, especially for already vulnerable low-income workers—the chasm of American inequality became harder to ignore. Food lines stretched for miles. Millions of Americans faced eviction. Students without internet access at home resorted to sitting in public parking lots to hook into.
This was all worse for people of color. By February 2021, Black and Hispanic women, who make up only a third of the female labor force, accounted for nearly half of women’s pandemic job losses. Black men, meanwhile, were unemployed at almost double the rate of other ethnic groups, according to Census data analyzed by the Pew Research Center.
All this also changed the conversation about the costs of guaranteed income programs. When the comparison was between basic income and the status quo, they’d been seen as too expensive to be realistic. But in the face of the recession caused by the pandemic, relief packages were suddenly seen as necessary to jump-start the American economy or, at the very least, avoid what Jerome Powell, then chairman of the Federal Reserve, called a “downward spiral” with “tragic” outcomes.
Guaranteed income focuses on poverty stricken and marginalized communities. A UBI is what it says – universal.
Either way would require a radical new approach to capitalism. And ultimately, we are going to have to ask ourselves if capitalism is worth saving.
Labor – work – isn’t some great virtue. You aren’t valuable because you work. You weren’t born to work. If you get satisfaction out of it, that’s great. If it’s what you enjoy, that’s fantastic. But it is not a sign that you are a valuable person that you work yourself to the bone. Ask yourself – am I doing this because I find value in it, or am I doing this because it lines the pocket of someone else?
Our ever-insightful tech guy, Carl, asked me how I saw myself fitting into all of this, and I told him I often thought about my job in the scheme of capitalism, and I never know how to feel about it.
On the one hand, I am part of the establishment for sure. And many people would say my job is to create workers for the system. And that grosses me out a little. Especially in a field like communication, that has a tendency to be rather skills focused and has been very corporatized.
But at the same time, in my classes I am teaching them to question systems. I focus on larger issues and encourage them to analyze big questions that are designed not to make them good workers but good citizens. But I don’t know if that absolves me in any way from being a part of a capitalist system designed to produce cogs in a machine.
It’s an upsetting question and one I struggle with a lot. Am I just helping to line the pockets of the ruling class?
I don’t know.
But I know these systems aren’t sustainable.
Music in this episode is “Fearless First” by Kevin MacLeod at https://incompetech.filmmusic.io/song/3742-fearless-first.