There is a lot of talk lately about the federal budget, with Democrats and Republicans arguing over whether to raise the debt ceiling and allow the government to borrow enough money to fund already approved agency budgets and programs. But you know what they never argue about—financing the military.
Showing the love
In December 2022, President Joe Biden signed into law the National Defense Authorization Act, approving “national defense” spending of $858 billion for fiscal year 2023. The act covers Pentagon spending as well as work on nuclear warheads at the Department of Energy. That total represents a 4.3 percent increase over the previous year’s authorization, the second biggest increase in inflation-adjusted terms since World War II. If spending on other military-security related programs were added, such as homeland security, veterans’ care, and Ukraine related military aid, the total would exceed $1.4 trillion.
The National Defense Authorization Act was overwhelmingly approved by both houses of Congress. The House of Representatives passed it 350 to 80. The Senate 83 to 11. In fact, Congress actually voted to give the military $45 billion more than what Biden and the Pentagon had originally requested. Now, that is showing the love!
In March, the military proposed a national defense budget for fiscal year 2024 of $886 billion. We shall see how much that figure will grow once Congress takes it up.
The hunt for profits is driving ever more despicable labor laws and practices. A case in point: the sharp rise in the number of states seeking to rollback restrictions on the use of child labor. We need to fight this trend and if we are to succeed we must be clear on who we are fighting. Advocates for the relaxation of child labor protections are not some fringe wackos; they include some of the most powerful rightwing foundations and profitable corporations in the United States.
President Biden is winning praise for his State of the Union defense of social security. But while he correctly called out Republicans for their machinations, it was not so long ago that Democratic Party leaders—for example, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama—appeared willing to support plans for weakening the program. Thus, we need to be vigilant and always prepared to defend the program, especially since, as the economist Paul Krugman commented:
I’ve seen numerous declarations from mainstream media that of course Medicare and Social Security can’t be sustained in their present form. And not just in the opinion pages: There’s been at least some reversion to the early 2010s practice of including anti-social-insurance editorializing in what are supposed to be straight news reports, with highly disputable claims about these programs’ futures presented as simple facts.
Don’t let the critics fool you. Our Social Security system remains sound. Moreover, there are simple steps we can take to expand its benefits.
Not surprisingly, the consensus from those studying the wartime conversion experience is that a rapid and successful transformation requires aggressive state planning and direction of economic activity. This is indeed an important lesson for our movement to learn. But there is another lesson to be learned from that period, one that deserves more attention than it currently receives. It is that in a capitalist economy, capital’s ownership position greatly enhances its ability to mold state structures and their policies in ways favorable to its interests and to the detriment of workers. In other words, the planning process is a contested terrain, and one not usually favorable to working people.
I will show that, during the war years, corporate leaders were able to rebuff Congress of Industrial Organization (CIO) planning proposals and successfully marginalize the participation of unions in the mobilization agencies that were formed, ensuring that labor would be forced into a defensive and ever weaker position relative to capital as the war progressed. Thus, if our aim is not simply a transformation to a somewhat less carbon consuming economy, but a complete and just transformation, we must prepare ourselves, and the movement that we hope to build, for an ongoing and complex struggle to overcome capital’s structural advantages. It is my hope that this article, which focuses on the class dynamics shaping the Second World War mobilization process, can help that preparation. The history it describes offers a useful primer on how the other side conducts its class war.
The United States is an employment “at-will” country. That means, absent a union contract, a boss can fire a worker for almost any, or even no reason, and without advance notice. Well—with the exception of Montana. As the state’s employment division explains: “Montana is not an ‘at-will’ state. . . generally, once an employee has completed the established probationary period, the employer needs to have good cause for termination.”
While Montana is the exception in the United States, the United States is the exception among developed capitalist economies. In those other countries, most workers can only be dismissed for “just cause,” with just cause statutorily or judicially defined. For example, German workers employed for more than six months by a company with more than ten workers cannot simply be dismissed. The company must have a valid business or personal conduct reason. Moreover, the company is also required to notify the employee in advance, and in writing, of their termination. Many employees also receive severance pay proportional to their length of employment.
So, how big a deal is employment at-will in the United States? According to the results of a recent survey by the National Employment Law Project (NELP), carried out by YouGov, more than two out of three workers who have been discharged received no reason or an unfair reason for their termination. Almost three out of four received no warning before discharge.
With the Federal Reserve pushing up interest rates, we appear headed for a new recession. Sadly, our unemployment insurance system remains broken: too few unemployed receive benefits and the benefits are far too low. As a result, the next recession, when it comes, will again bring unnecessary suffering to millions of workers and their families.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Federal action during the recent pandemic crisis shows how our unemployment system can be dramatically improved. The problem is that many business and political leaders are content with the system as it is now. That means it is up to us to start agitating for reform, and the sooner the better.
The climate crisis has driven our planet into uncharted territory. We are close to breaching critical environmental thresholds, setting in motion destabilizing changes to our global climate system that could well make the earth unlivable for humans and countless other species. We must decrease carbon emissions as rapidly as possible and there is no way to do that without significantly changing the operation and aims of our economy. But not just any change will do. It must be one that also promotes worker empowerment and solidarity, community well-being and security, and democracy.
President Calvin Coolidge, in a January 1925 speech to newspaper editors, asserted that “the chief business of the American people is business.” The claim, although far from true, did capture the short-lived success of business leaders in structuring the country’s social institutions for the benefit of the wealthy.
Tragically, we appear well into another period when business needs and desires are promoted as consistent with American values and enshrined into law. The pro-business orientation of the current Roberts Supreme Court highlights this reality. As Lee Epstein and Mitu Gulati show in their paper “A Century of Business in the Supreme Court, 1920-2020”:
the Roberts Court may be the most pro-business Court in a century. The win rate for business in the Roberts Court, 63.4 percent, is 15 percentage points higher than the next highest rate of business wins over the past century.
Slip slidin’ away—that is what tends to happen to pro-worker reforms in our economic system. Things are structured so that without constant vigilance and struggle on our part, gains are gradually undone. A case in point: overtime pay.
It wasn’t that long ago that most workers in the US were eligible for time and half pay for every hour worked beyond a 40-hour work week. Employers didn’t agree to overtime pay out of the goodness of their hearts. They did it because worker organizing and activism pressured Congress to pass a labor law requiring, although with some important exceptions, the payment of overtime wages. Now, a significant number of workers no longer have the right to overtime pay. For example, in 1975 more than 60 percent of salaried workers automatically qualified for time and half pay. That share fell to a low of 4 percent in 2000 before slowly rising to 15 percent in 2020.
If you follow the news it must seem like joining a union is a step outside the norms of US law. Afterall, the media is full of stories about how big companies like Starbucks and Amazon threaten their pro-union workers with dismissal, spy on their employees and deny them the right to meet and share information during legally mandated break and meal times, require their workers to participate in 1-on-1 and group meetings with managers where they are routinely told lies about what unions do and the consequences of unionization, find ways to delay promised union elections, and refuse to negotiate a contract even after workers have successfully voted for unionization.
Yet, the National Labor Relations Act, which is the foundational statute governing private sector labor law, boldly asserts that workers should be able to freely organize to improve the conditions of their employment. As the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) states:
The National Labor Relations Act forbids employers from interfering with, restraining, or coercing employees in the exercise of rights relating to organizing, forming, joining or assisting a labor organization for collective bargaining purposes, or from working together to improve terms and conditions of employment, or refraining from any such activity.
So, one might reasonably ask, how do businesses get away with the kind of behavior highlighted above? One answer is that a series of Supreme Court decisions and NLRB rulings have reinterpreted the country’s labor laws in ways that have given employers a free pass to engage in a variety of anti-worker actions. Another is that Congress has refused to adequately fund the NLRB, leaving the organization unable to hire sufficient staff to do the needed investigations of worker complaints and oversee elections even during the rare periods when the NLRB has actively sought to protect worker rights.