Pandemic economic woes continue, but so do deep structural problems, especially the long-term growth in the share of low wage jobs

Many are understandably alarmed about what the September 4th termination of several special federal pandemic unemployment insurance programs will mean for millions of workers.  Twenty-five states ended their programs months earlier, with government and business leaders claiming that their termination would spur employment and economic activity.  However, several studies have disproved their claims.

One study, based on the experience of 19 of these states, found that for every 8 workers that lost benefits, only one found a new job.  Consumer spending in those states fell by $2 billion, with every lost $1 of benefits leading to a fall in spending of 52 cents.   It is hard to see how anything good can come from the federal government’s willingness to allow these programs to expire nationwide. 

The Biden administration appears to believe that adoption of its physical infrastructure bill and $3.5 trillion spending plan will ensure that those left without benefits will find new jobs.  But chances for Congressional approval are growing dim.  Even more importantly, and largely overlooked in the debate over whether the time is right to replace the pandemic unemployment insurance programs with new spending measures, is that an increasing share of the jobs created by economic growth are low-wage, and thus inadequate to ensure workers and their families an acceptable standard of living. 

For example, according to another study, the share of low wage jobs has been steadily growing since 1979.  More specifically, the share of workers (18-64 years of age) with a low wage job rose from 39.1 percent in 1979 to 45.2 percent in 2017.  For workers 18 to 34 without a college degree the share soared from 46.9 percent to 61.6 percent over the same tyears. Thus, a meaningful improvement in worker well-being will require far more than a return to “normal” labor market conditions.  It will require building a movement able to directly challenge and transformation the way the US economy operates.  

The importance of government programs

The figure below provides some sense of how important government programs have been to working people.  Government support was truly a lifeline for working people, delivering a significant boost to total monthly personal income (relative to the February 2020 start of the pandemic-triggered recession), especially during the first months.  Even now, despite the fact that the recession has officially been declared over, it still accounts for approximately half the increase in total monthly income.   

The government’s support of personal income was anchored by three special unemployment insurance programs–the Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation (FPUC), Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation (PEUC), and Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA). 

The FPUC was authorized by the March 2020 CARES Act and renewed by subsequent legislation and a presidential order. It originally provided $600 per week in extra unemployment benefits to unemployed workers in states that opted in to the program. In August 2020, the extra payment was lowered to $300.

The PEUC was also established by the CARES Act. It provided up to 13 weeks of extended unemployment compensation to individuals that had exhausted their regular unemployment insurance compensation.  This was later extended to 24 additional weeks and then by a further 29 weeks, allowing for a total of 53 weeks.  The PUA allowed states to provide unemployment assistance to the self-employed and those seeking part-time employment, or who otherwise did not qualify for regular unemployment compensation.

Tragically, the federal government allowed all three programs to expire on September 4th. Months earlier, in June 2021, 25 states actually ended these programs for their unemployed workers, eliminating benefits for over 2 million.  Several studies, as we see next, have documented the devastating cost of that decision. 

The cost of state program termination

Beginning in April 2021, a number of business analysts and politicians began to aggressively argue that federally provided unemployment benefit programs were no longer needed.  In fact, according to them, the programs were actually keeping workers from pursuing available jobs, thereby holding back the country’s economic recovery. Using these arguments as cover, in June, 25 states ended their participation in one or more of these programs. 

For example, Henry McMaster, the governor of South Carolina, announced his decision to end his state’s participation in the federal programs, saying: “This labor shortage is being created in large part by the supplemental unemployment payments that the federal government provides claimants on top of their state unemployment benefits.”

Similarly, Tate Reeves, the governor of Mississippi, stated in a May 2021 tweet:

It has become clear to me that we cannot have a full economic recovery until we get the thousands of available jobs in our state filled. . . . Therefore, I have informed the Department of Employment Security to direct the Biden Administration that Mississippi will be opting out of the additional federal unemployment benefits as early as federal law allows—June 12, 2021.

The argument that these special federal unemployment benefit programs hurt employment and economic activity was tested and found wanting.  Business Insider highlights the results of several studies:

Economist Peter Ganong, who co-authored a paper that found the disincentive effect of benefits was small, told the [Wall Street] Journal: “If the question is, ‘Is UI [unemployment insurance] the key thing that’s holding back the labor market recovery?’ The answer is no, definitely not, based on the available data.” 

That aligns with other early research on the impact of benefits ending. CNBC reports that analyses from payroll firms UKG and Homebase both found that employment didn’t go up in the states cutting off the benefits; in fact, that Homebase analysis found that employment declined in the states opting out of federal benefits, while it went up in states that chose to retain benefits. In June, Indeed’s Hiring Lab found that job searches in states ending benefits were below April’s baseline.

In July, Arindrajit Dube, an economics professor at University of Massachusetts Amherst, found that ending benefits didn’t make workers rush back. “Even as there was a clear reduction in the number of people who were receiving unemployment benefits — and a clear increase in the number of people who said that they were having difficulty paying their bills — that didn’t seem to translate, at least in the short run, into an uptick in overall employment rates,” Dube told Insider at the time.

Dube, along with five other researchers, examined “the effect of withdrawing pandemic UI on the financial and employment trajectories of unemployed workers in [19] states that withdrew benefits, compared to workers with the same unemployment duration in states that retained these benefits.” 

They found, as noted above, that for every 8 workers who lost their benefits, only 1 found a new job.  And for every $1 of reduced benefits, spending fell by 52 cents—only 7 cents of new income was generated for each dollar of lost benefits. “Extrapolating to all UI recipients in the early withdrawal states, we estimate these states eliminated $4 billion in unemployment benefits paid by federal transfers as of August 6 [2021].  Spending fell by $2 billion and earnings rose by $270 million.  These states therefore saw a much larger drop in federal transfers than gains from job creation.”

An additional 8 million workers have now lost benefits because of the federal termination of these special unemployment insurance programs.  It is hard to be optimistic about what awaits them, given the experience of the early termination states.  And equally important, even if the “optimists” are proven right, and those workers are able to find employment, there is still reason for concern about the likely quality of those jobs given long-term employment trends.

The lack of decent jobs

There is no agreed upon definition of a low wage job.  David R. Howell and Arne L. Kalleberg note two of the most popular in their study of declining job quality in the United States.  One is to define low wage jobs as those that pay less than two-thirds of the median hourly wage.  The other, used by the OECD, is to define low wage jobs as those that pay less than two-thirds of the median hourly wage for full-time workers.

Howell and Kallenberg find both inadequate.  Instead, they define low wage jobs as those that pay less than two-thirds of the mean hourly wage for full-time prime-age workers (35-59).  Their definition sets the dividing line between low wage and what they call “decent” wage jobs at $17.50 in 2017.  As they explain:

This wage is well above the wage that would make a full-time (or near full-time) worker eligible for food stamps and several dollars above the basic needs budget for a single adult in most American cities, but is conservative in that the basic needs budget for a single adult with one child ranges from $22 to $30).

The figure below, based on their definition, shows the growth in low wage jobs for workers 18-34 years of age without a college degree (in blue), all workers 18-64 years of age (in gold), and prime age workers 35-59 years of age (in green).  Their dividing line between low wage and decent wage jobs, equivalent to $17.50 in 2017, is far from a generous wage.  Yet, all three groupings show an upward trend in the share of low wage jobs.  

The authors then divide their low wage and decent wage categories into upper and lower tiers.   The lower tier of the low wage category includes jobs that pay less than two-thirds of the median wage for full-time workers, which equaled $13.33 in 2017.  As the authors report:

Based on evidence from basic needs budgets, this is a wage that, even on a full-time basis, would make it extremely difficult to support a minimally adequate standard of living for even a single adult anywhere in the country. This wage threshold ($13.33) is just above the wage cutoff for food stamps ($12.40) and Medicaid ($12.80) for a full- time worker (thirty-five hours per week, fifty weeks per year) with a child; full-year work at thirty hours per week would make a family of two eligible for the food stamps with a wage as high as $14.46 and as high as $14.94 for Medicaid.  For this reason, we refer to this as the poverty-wage threshold.

The lower tier of the decent wage category includes jobs that pay less than 50 percent more than the decent-job threshold, which equaled $26.50 in 2017.  The figure below shows the overall job distribution in 2017.

The following table shows the changing distribution of jobs over the years 1979 to 2017 for all workers 18 to 64, for workers 18-34 without a college degree, and for workers 18-34 with a college degree.

While the share of upper-tier decent jobs held by workers 18 to 64 has remained relatively stable, there has been a notable decline in the share of workers with lower-tier decent jobs.  Also worth noting is the rise in the share of poverty-level low wage jobs. 

Perhaps most striking is the large decline in the share of decent jobs held by workers 18 to 34, those with and those without a college degree.  The share of poverty level jobs held by those without a college degree soared from 35.7 percent to 53.5 percent.  The share of low wage jobs also spiked for those with a college degree, rising from 22 percent to 39.1 percent, with an increase in the share of both low-wage tiers.

This long-term decline in job quality will not reverse on its own.  And, not surprisingly, corporate leaders remain largely opposed to policies that might threaten the status quo.

So, do we need a better unemployment insurance system? For sure.  Do we need a better funded and more climate resilient social and physical infrastructure?  Definitely.  But we also need a dramatically different economy, one that, in sharp contrast to our current system, is grounded in greater worker control over both the organization and aims of production.  Lots of work ahead.

The latest argument against federal relief: business claims that workers won’t work

A growing number of business and political leaders have found yet another argument to use against federal pandemic relief programs, especially those that provide income support for workers: they hurt the economic recovery by encouraging workers not to work.

In the words of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, as reported by BusinessInsider

“We have flooded the zone with checks that I’m sure everybody loves to get, and also enhanced unemployment,” McConnell said from Kentucky. “And what I hear from businesspeople, hospitals, educators, everybody across the state all week is, regretfully, it’s actually more lucrative for many Kentuckians and Americans to not work than work.”

He went on: “So we have a workforce shortage and we have raising inflation, both directly related to this recent bill that just passed.”

In line with business claims that they can’t find willing workers despite their best efforts at recruitment, the governors of Montana, South Carolina, Alabama, Arkansas, and Mississippi have all announced that they will no longer allow the unemployed in their respective states to collect the $300-a-week federal supplemental unemployment benefit and will once again require that those receiving unemployment benefits demonstrate they are actively looking for work.

In reality there is little support for the argument that expanded unemployment benefits have created an overly worker-friendly labor market, leaving companies unable to hire and, by extension, meet growing demand.  But of course, if enough people accept the argument, corporate leaders and their political allies will have achieved their shared goal, which is to weaken worker bargaining power as corporations seek to position themselves for a profitable post-pandemic economic recovery.

Wage trends

If companies were aggressively seeking workers, we would expect to see the resulting competition push up wages.  The following figure shows year-over-year real weekly earnings of production and nonsupervisory workers—approximately 85 percent of the workforce.  As we can see, those earnings were actually lower in April 2021 than they were in April 2020. 

In short, companies may want more workers, but it is hard to take their cries of anguish seriously if they remain unwilling to offer higher real wages to attract them.  Real average weekly earnings of production and nonsupervisory workers in April 2021 stood at $875.  Multiplying weekly earnings by 50, gives an estimated annual salary of $43,774.  That total is actually 5.7 percent below the similarly calculated peak in October 1972.

Over the last three months, the only sector experiencing significant wage growth due to labor shortages is the leisure and hospitality sector (which includes arts, entertainment, and leisure as well as accommodations and food services).  Wages in that sector grew at an annualized rate of nearly 18 percent relative to the previous three months.  But, as Josh Bivens and Heidi Shierholz explain,

There is very little reason to worry that labor shortages in leisure and hospitality will soon spill over into other sectors and drive economywide “overheating.”  For example, jobs in leisure and hospitality have notably low wages and fewer hours compared to other sectors. Weekly wages of production and nonsupervisory workers in leisure and hospitality now equate to annual earnings of just $20,628, and total wages in leisure and hospitality account for just 4% of total private wages in the U.S. economy. . . . [Moreover] this sector seems notably segmented off from much of the rest of the economy.

Job openings and labor turnover

The figure below, drawn from the Bureau of Labor Statistics’s Job Openings and Labor Turnover Summary (JOLTS), shows the monthly movement in job openings, hires, quits, and layoffs and discharges, with solid lines showing their six-month moving averages.   

As we can see, despite business complaints, monthly hiring (green line) still remains greater than during the last years of the pre-pandemic expansion.  And although job openings (blue line) are growing sharply while the number of hires is falling, the gap between openings and hires is also still smaller than it was during the last years of the previous expansion.  In addition, the number of quits (light blue line), which are an indicator of labor tightness, remain below the last years of the previous expansion and rather stable.  In short, there is nothing in the data that suggests business is facing a dysfunctional labor market marked by an unreasonable worker unwillingness to work.

Even with the additional financial support in Biden’s American Rescue Plan, many workers and their families continue to struggle to afford food, housing, and health care.  Many workers remain reluctant to re-enter the labor market because of Covid-related health concerns and care responsibilities.  Moreover, as Heidi Shierholz points out

there are far more unemployed people than available jobs in the current labor market. In the latest data on job openings, there were nearly 40% more unemployed workers than job openings overall, and more than 80% more unemployed workers than job openings in the leisure and hospitality sector.

While there are certainly fewer people looking for jobs now than there would be if Covid weren’t a factor . . . without enough job openings to even come close to providing work for all job seekers, it again stretches the imagination to suggest that labor shortages are a core dynamic in the labor market.

We need to discredit this attempt by the business community and its political allies to generate opposition to policies that help workers survive this period of crisis and redouble our own efforts to strengthen worker rights and build popular support for truly transformative economic policies, ones that go beyond the stopgap fixes currently promoted.

The failings of our unemployment insurance system are there by design

Our unemployment insurance system has failed the country at a moment of great need.  With tens of millions of workers struggling just to pay rent and buy food, Congress was forced to pass two emergency spending bills, providing one-time stimulus payments, special weekly unemployment insurance payments, and temporary unemployment benefits to those not covered by the system.  And, because of their limited short-term nature, President Biden must now advocate for a third.

The system’s shortcomings have been obvious for some time, but little effort has been made to improve it.  In fact, those shortcomings were baked into the system at the beginning, as President Roosevelt wanted, not by accident.  While we must continue to organize to ensure working people are able to survive the pandemic, we must also start the long process of building popular support for a radical transformation of our unemployment insurance system.  The history of struggle that produced our current system offers some useful lessons.

Performance

Our unemployment insurance system was designed during the Great Depression.  It was supposed to shield workers and their families from the punishing costs of unemployment, thereby also helping to promote both political and economic stability.  Unfortunately, as Eduardo Porter and Karl Russell reveal in a New York Times article, that system has largely failed working people.

The chart below shows the downward trend in the share of unemployed workers receiving benefits and the replacement value of those benefits.  Benefits now replace less than one-third of prior wages, some eight percentage points below the level in the 1940s.  Benefits aside, it is hard to celebrate a system that covers fewer than 30 percent of those struggling with unemployment.

A faulty system

Although every state has an unemployment insurance system, they all operate independently.  There is no national system.  Each state separately generates the funds it needs to provide unemployment benefits and is largely free, subject to some basic federal standards, to set the conditions under which an unemployed worker becomes eligible to receive benefits, the waiting period before benefits will be paid, the length of time benefits will be paid, the benefit amount, and requirements to continue receiving benefits.

Payroll taxes paid by firms generate the funds used to pay unemployment insurance benefits.  The size of the taxes to be paid depends on the value of employee earnings that is made taxable (the base wage) and the tax rate.  States are free to set the base wage as they want, subject to a federally mandated floor of $7000 established in the 1970s.  States are also free to set the tax rate as they want.  Not surprisingly, in the interest of supporting business profitability, states have generally sought to keep both the base wage and tax rate low.  For example, Florida, Tennessee and Arizona continue to set their base wage at the federal minimum value.  And, as the figure below shows, insurance tax rates have been trending down for some time.

While such a policy might help business, lowering the tax rate means that states have less money in their trust funds to pay unemployment benefits.  Thus, when times are hard, and unemployment claims rise, many states find themselves hard pressed to meet their required obligations.  In fact, as Porter and Russell explain:

Washington has been repeatedly called on to provide additional relief, including emergency patches to unemployment insurance after the Great Recession hit in 2008. Indeed, it has intervened in response to every recession since the 1950s.

This is far from a desirable outcome for those states forced to borrow, since the money has to be paid back with interest by imposing higher future payroll taxes on employers.  Thus, growing numbers of states have sought to minimize the likelihood of this happening, or at least the amount to be borrowed, by raising eligibility standards, reducing benefits, and shortening time of coverage, all of which they hope will reduce the number of people drawing unemployment benefits as well as the amount and length of time they will receive them.

Porter and Russell highlight some of the consequences of this strategy:

In Arizona, nearly 70 percent of unemployment insurance applications are denied. Only 15 percent of the unemployed get anything from the state. Many don’t even apply. Tennessee rejects nearly six in 10 applications.

In Florida, only one in 10 unemployed workers gets any benefits. The state is notably stingy: no more than $275 a week, roughly a third of the maximum benefit in Washington State. And benefits run out quickly, after as little as 12 weeks, depending on the state’s overall unemployment rate.

And, the growing stagnation of the US economy, which has led to more precarity of employment, only makes this strategy ever more fiscally “intelligent.”  For example, as the following figure shows, a growing percentage of the unemployed are remaining jobless for a longer time.  Such a trend, absent state actions to restrict access to benefits, would mean financial trouble for state officials.

Adding to the system’s structural shortcomings is that fact that growing numbers of workers, for example the many workers who have been reclassified as independent contractors, are not covered by it.  In addition, since eligibility for benefits requires satisfying a minimum earnings and hours of work requirement over a base year, the growth in irregular low wage work means that many of those in most need of the system’s financial support during periods of unemployment find themselves declared ineligible for benefits.

By design, not by mistake

Our current unemployment insurance system and its patchwork set of state standards and benefits dates back to the depression. While President Roosevelt gets credit for establishing our unemployment insurance system as part of the New Deal, the fact is he deliberately sidelined a far stronger program that, if it had been approved, would have put working people today in a far more secure position. 

The Communist Party (CP) began pushing an unemployment and social insurance bill in the summer of 1930 and, along with the numerous Unemployed Councils that existed in cities throughout the country, worked hard to promote it over the following years.  On March 4, 1933, the day of Roosevelt’s inauguration, they organized demonstrations stressing the need for action on unemployment insurance.

Undeterred by Roosevelt’s lack of action, the CP-authored “Workers Unemployment and Social Insurance Bill” was introduced in Congress in February 1934 by Representative Ernest Lundeen of the Farmer-Labor Party.  In broad brush, the bill mandated the payment of unemployment insurance to all unemployed workers and farmers equal to average local full-time wages, with a guaranteed minimum of $10 per week plus $3 for each dependent. Those forced into part-time employment would receive the difference between their earnings and the average local full-time wage.  The bill also created a social insurance program that would provide payments to the sick and elderly, and maternity benefits to be paid eight weeks before and eight weeks after birth.  All these benefits were to be financed by unappropriated funds in the Treasury and taxes on inheritances, gifts, and individual and corporate incomes above $5,000 a year.

The bill enjoyed strong support among workers—employed and unemployed—and it was soon endorsed by 5 international unions, 35 central labor bodies, and more than 3000 local unions.  Rank and file worker committees also formed across the country to pressure members of Congress to pass it.

When Congress refused to act on the bill, Lundeen reintroduced it in January 1935. Because of public pressure, the bill became the first social insurance plan to be recommended by a congressional committee, in this case the House Labor Committee.  However, it was soon voted down in the full House of Representatives, 204 to 52.

Roosevelt strongly opposed the Lundeen bill and it was to provide a counter that he pushed to create an alternative, one that offered benefits far short of what the Workers Unemployment and Social Insurance Bill offered, and was strongly opposed by many workers and all organizations of the unemployed.  Roosevelt appointed a Committee on Economic Security in July 1934 with the charge to develop a social security bill that he could present to Congress in January 1935 that would include provisions for both unemployment insurance and old-age security.  An administration approved bill was introduced right on schedule in January and Roosevelt called for quick congressional action. 

Roosevelt’s bill was revised in April by a House committee and given a new name, “The Social Security Act.”  After additional revisions the Social Security Act was signed into law on August 14, 1935. The Social Security Act was a complex piece of legislation.  It included what we now call Social Security, a federal old-age benefit program; a program of unemployment insurance administered by the states; and a program of federal grants to states to fund benefits for the needy elderly and aid to dependent children. 

The unemployment system established by the Social Security Act was structured in ways unfavorable to workers (as was the federal old-age benefit program).  Rather than a progressively funded, comprehensive national system of unemployment insurance that paid benefits commensurate with worker wages, the act established a federal-state cooperative system that gave states wide latitude in determining standards.

More specifically, the act levied a uniform national pay-roll tax of 1 percent in 1936, 2 percent in 1937, and 3 percent in 1938, on covered employers, defined as those employers with eight or more employees for at least twenty weeks, not including government employers and employers in agriculture.  Only workers employed by a covered employer could receive benefits.

The act left it to the states to decide whether to enact their own plans, and if so, to determine eligibility conditions, the waiting period to receive benefits, benefit amounts, minimum and maximum benefit levels, duration of benefits, disqualifications, and other administrative matters. It was not until 1937 that programs were established in every state as well as the then-territories of Alaska and Hawaii.  And it was not until 1938 that most began paying benefits.

In the early years, most states required eligible workers to wait 2 to 4 weeks before drawing benefits, which were commonly set at half recent earnings (subject to weekly maximums) for a period ranging from 12 to 16 weeks. Ten state laws called for employee contributions as well as employer contributions; three still do today.

Over the following years the unemployment insurance system has been improved in a number of positive ways, including by broadening coverage and boosting benefits.  However, its basic structure remains largely intact, a structure that is overly complex, with a patchwork set of state eligibility requirements and miserly benefits. And we are paying the cost today.

This history makes clear that nothing will be given to us.  We need and deserve a better unemployment insurance system. And to get it, we are going to have to fight for it, and not be distracted by the temporary, although needed, band-aids Congress is willing to provide.  The principles shaping the Workers Unemployment and Social Insurance Bill can provide a useful starting point for current efforts.

The U.S. recovery on pause, December brings new job losses

A meaningful working-class recovery from the recession seems far away.

After seven months of job gains, although diminishing gains to be sure, we are again losing jobs.  As the chart below shows,  the number of jobs fell by 140,000 in December.

We are currently about 9.8 million jobs down from the February 2020 employment peak, having recovered only 55 percent of the jobs lost.  And, as the following chart illustrates, the percentage of jobs lost remains greater, even now after months of job growth, than it was at any point during the Great Recession. 

If the job recovery continues on its current pace, some analysts predict that it will likely take more than three years to just get back to pre-pandemic employment levels.  However, this might well be too rosy a projection.  One reason is that the early assumption that many of the job losses were temporary, and that those unemployed would soon be recalled to employment, is turning out to be wrong.  A rapidly growing share of the unemployed are remaining unemployed for an extended period. 

As we see below, in October, almost one-third of the unemployed had been unemployed for 27 weeks or longer.  According to the December jobs report, that percentage is now up to 37 percent, four times what it was before the pandemic.  And that figure seriously understates the problem, since many workers have given up looking for work; having dropped out of the workforce, they are no longer counted as unemployed.  The labor force participation rate is now 61.5 percent, down from 63.3 percent in February.

Dean Baker, quoted in a recent Market Place story, underscores the importance of this development:

“This is obviously a story of people losing their job at the beginning of the crisis in March and April and not getting it back,” said Dean Baker, co-founder and senior economist with the Center for Economic and Policy Research.

Those out of work for 27 weeks or more make up a growing share of the unemployed, and that could have enduring consequences, Baker said.

“After people have been unemployed for more than six months, they find it much harder to get a job,” he said. “And if they do get a job, their labor market prospects could be permanently worsened.”

And tragically, the workers that have suffered the greatest job losses during this crisis are those that earned the lowest wages. 

It is no wonder that growing numbers of working people are finding it difficult to meet their basic needs.

There is no way to sugar coat this situation.  We need a significant stimulus package, a meaningful increase in the minimum wage, real labor law reform, a robust national single-payer health care system, and an aggressive Green New Deal designed public sector investment and jobs program.  And there is no getting around the fact that it is going to take hard organizing and mutually supportive community and workplace actions to move the country in the direction it needs to go.

COVID-19 Economic Crisis Snapshot

 Workers in the United States are in the midst of a punishing COVID-19 economic crisis.  Unfortunately, while a new fiscal spending package and an effective vaccine can bring needed relief, a meaningful sustained economic recovery will require significant structural changes in the operation and orientation of the economy.

The unemployment problem

Many people blame government mandated closure orders for the decline in economic activity and spike in unemployment.  But the evidence points to widespread concerns about the virus as the driving force.  As Emily Badger and Alicia Parlapiano describe in a New York Times article, and as illustrated in the following graphic taken from the article:

In the weeks before states around the country issued lockdown orders this spring, Americans were already hunkering down. They were spending less, traveling less, dining out less. Small businesses were already cutting employment. Some were even closing shop.

People were behaving this way — effectively winding down the economy — before the government told them to. And that pattern, apparent in a range of data looking back over the past two months, suggests in the weeks ahead that official pronouncements will have limited power to open the economy back up.

As the graphic shows, economic activity nosedived around the same time regardless of whether state governments were quick to mandate closings, slow to mandate closings, or unwilling to issue stay-at-home orders.

The resulting sharp decline in economic activity caused unemployment to soar. Almost 21 million jobs were lost in April at the peak of the crisis.  The unemployment rate hit a high of 14.7 percent.  By comparison the highest unemployment rate during the Great Recession was 10.6 percent in January 2010.

Employment recovered the next month, with an increase of 2.8 million jobs in May.  In June, payrolls grew by an even greater number, 4.8 million.  But things have dramatically slowed since.  In July, only 1.8 million jobs came back.  In August it was 1.5 million.  And in September it was only 661,000.  To this point, only half of the jobs lost have returned, and current trends are far from encouraging.

The unemployment rate fell to 7.9 percent in September, a significant decline from April.  But a large reason for that decline is that millions of workers have given up working or looking for work and are no longer counted as being part of the labor force.  And, as Alisha Haridasani Gupta writes in the New York Times:

A majority of those dropping out were women. Of the 1.1 million people ages 20 and over who left the work force (neither working nor looking for work) between August and September, over 800,000 were women, according to an analysis by the National Women’s Law Center. That figure includes 324,000 Latinas and 58,000 Black women. For comparison, 216,000 men left the job market in the same time period.

The relationship between the fall in the unemployment rate and worker exodus from the labor market is illustrated in the next figure which shows both the unemployment rate and the labor force participation rate (LFPR), which is measured by dividing the number of people 16 and over who are employed or seeking employment by the size of the civilian noninstitutional population that is 16 and over.

The figure allows us to see that even the relatively “low” September unemployment rate of 7.9 percent is still high by historical standards.  It also allows us to see that its recent decline was aided by a decline in the LFPR to a level not seen since the mid-1970s.  If those who left the labor market were to decide to once again seek employment, pushing the LFPR back up, unless the economic environment changed dramatically, the unemployment rate would also be pushed up to a much higher level.

Beyond the aggregate figures is the fact, as Heather Long, Andrew Van Dam, Alyssa Fowers and Leslie Shapiro explain in a Washington Post article, that “No other recession in modern history has so pummeled society’s most vulnerable.”

As we can see in the above graphic, the 1990 recession was a relatively egalitarian affair with all income groups suffering roughly a similar decline in employment.  That changed during the recessions of 2001 and 2008, with the lowest earning cohort suffering the most.  But, as the authors of the Washington Post article state, “even that inequality is a blip compared with what the coronavirus inflicted on low-wage workers this year.”  By the end of the summer, the employment crisis was largely over for the highest earners, while employment was still down more than 20 percent for low-wage workers and around 10 percent for middle-wage workers.

Poverty is on the rise

In line with this disproportionate hit suffered by low wage workers, the poverty rate has been climbing.  Five Columbia University researchers, using a monthly version of the Supplemental Poverty Measure (SPM), provide estimates of the monthly poverty rate from October 2019 through September 2020.  They found, as illustrated below, “that the monthly poverty rate increased from 15% to 16.7% from February to September 2020, even after taking the CARES Act’s income transfers into account. Increases in monthly poverty rates have been particularly acute for Black and Hispanic individuals, as well as for children.”

The standard poverty measure used by the federal government is an annual one, based on whether a family’s total annual income falls below a specified income level.  It doesn’t allow for monthly calculations and is widely criticized for using an extremely low emergency food budget to set its poverty level.   The SPM includes a more complete and accurate measure of family resources, a more expansive definition of family, the cost of a broader basket of necessities, and is adjusted for cost of living across metro areas.

As we can see in the above figure, the $2.2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, which was passed by Congress and signed into law on March 27th, 2020, has had a positive effect on poverty levels.  For example, without it, the poverty rate would have jumped to 19.4 percent in April. “Put differently, the CARE Act’s income transfers directly lifted around 18 million individuals out of poverty in April.”

However, as we can also see, the positive effects of the CARES Act have gradually dissipated.  The Economic Impact Payments (“Recovery Rebates”) were one-time payments.  The $600 per week unemployment supplement expired at the end of July.  Thus, the gap between the monthly SPM with and without the CARES Act has gradually narrowed.  And, with job creation dramatically slowing, without a new federal stimulus measure it is likely we will not see much improvement in the poverty rate in the coming months.  In fact, if working people continue to leave the labor market out of discouragement and the pressure of home responsibilities, there is a good chance the poverty rate will climb again.

It is also important to note that the rise in monthly rates of poverty, even with the CARES Act, differs greatly by race/ethnicity as illustrated in the following figure.

The need to do more

Republican opposition to a new stimulus ensures that that there will be no follow-up to the CARES Act before the upcoming election.  Opponents claim that the federal government has already done enough and the economy is well on its way to recovery. 

As for the size of the stimulus, the United States has been a lagger when it comes to its fiscal response to the pandemic.  The OECD recently published an interim report titled “Coronavirus: Living with uncertainty.”  One section of the report looks at fiscal support as a percent of 2019 GDP for nine countries. As the following figure shows, the United States trails every country but Korea when it comes to direct support for workers, firms, and health care.  

A big change is needed

While it is natural to view COVID-19 as responsible for our current crisis, the truth is that our economic problems are more long-term.  The U.S. economy has been steadily weakening for years.  In the figure below, the “trend” line is based on the 2.1% average rate of growth in real per capita GDP from 1970 to 2007, the year before the Great Recession.  Not surprising, real per capita GDP took a big hit during the Great Recession.  But as we can also see, real per capita GDP has yet to return to its historical trend. In fact, the gap has grown larger despite the record long recovery that followed. 

As Doug Henwood explains:

Since 2009, the growth rate has averaged 1.6%. Last year [2019], which Trump touted as the greatest economy ever, it managed to get back to the pre-2008 average of 2.1%, an average that includes two deep recessions (1973–1975 and 1981–1982).

At the end of 2019, actual [real GDP per capita] was 13% below trend. At the end of the 2008–2009 recession it was 9% below trend. Remarkably, despite a decade-long expansion, it fell further below trend in well over half the quarters since the Great Recession ended. The gap is now equal to $10,200 per person—a permanent loss of income, as economists say. 

The pre-coronavirus period of expansion (June 2009 to February 2020), although the longest on record, was actually also one of the weakest. It was marked by slow growth, weak job creation, deteriorating job quality, declining investment, rising debt, declining life expectancy, and narrowing corporate profit margins. In other words, the economy was heading toward recession even before the start of state mandated lockdowns.  The manufacturing sector actually spent much of 2019 in recession.   

Thus, there is strong reason to believe that a meaningful sustained recovery from the current COVID-19 economic crisis is going to require more than the development of an effective vaccine and a responsive health care system to ensure its wide distribution.  Also needed is significant structural change in the operation and orientation of the economy.

Racism, COVID-19, and the fight for economic justice

While the Black Lives Matter protests sweeping the United States were triggered by recent police murders of unarmed African Americans, they are also helping to encourage popular recognition that racism has a long history with punishing consequences for black people that extend beyond policing.  Among the consequences are enormous disparities between black and white well-being and security.  This post seeks to draw attention to some of these disparities by highlighting black-white trends in unemployment, wages, income, wealth, and security. 

A common refrain during this pandemic is that “We are all in it together.”  Although this is true in the sense that almost all of us find our lives transformed for the worst because of COVID-19, it is also not true in some very important ways.  For example, African Americans are disproportionally dying from the virus.  They account for 22.4 percent of all COVID-19 deaths despite making up only 12.5 percent of the population. 

One reason is that African Americans also disproportionally suffer from serious preexisting health conditions, a lack of health insurance, and inadequate housing, all of which increased their vulnerability to the virus.  Another reason is that black workers are far more likely than white workers to work in “front-line” jobs, especially low-wage ones, forcing them to risk their health and that of their families.  While black workers comprise 11.9 percent of the labor force, they make up 17 percent of all front-line workers.  They represent an even higher percentage in some key front-line industries: 26 percent of public transit workers; 19.3 percent of child care and social service workers; and 18.2 percent of trucking, warehouse and postal service workers.

African Americans have also disproportionately lost jobs during this pandemic.  The black employment to adult population ratio fell from 59.4 percent before the start of the pandemic to a record low of 48.8 percent in April.  Not surprisingly, recent surveys find, as the Washington Post reports, that:

More than 1 in 5 black families now report they often or sometimes do not have enough food — more than three times the rate for white families. Black families are also almost four times as likely as whites to report they missed a mortgage payment during the crisis — numbers that do not bode well for the already low black homeownership rate.

This pandemic has hit African Americans especially hard precisely because they were forced to confront it from a position of economic and social vulnerability as the following trends help to demonstrate.

Unemployment

The Bureau of Labor Statistics began collecting separate data on African American unemployment in January 1972.  Since then, as the figure below shows, the African American unemployment rate has largely stayed at or above twice the white unemployment rate. 

As Olugbenga Ajilore explains

Between strides in civil rights legislation, desegregation of government, and increases in educational attainment, employment gaps should have narrowed by now, if not completely closed. Yet as [the figure above] shows, this has not been the case.

Wages

The figure below from an Economic Policy Institute study, shows the black-white wage gap for workers in different earning percentiles, by education level, and regression-adjusted (to control for age, gender, education and regional differences).  As we can see, the wage gap has grown over time regardless of measure. 

Elise Gould summarizes some important take-aways from this study:

The black–white wage gap is smallest at the bottom of the wage distribution, where the minimum wage serves as a wage floor. The largest black–white wage gap as well as the one with the most growth since the Great Recession, is found at the top of the wage distribution, explained in part by the pulling away of top earners generally as well as continued occupational segregation, the disproportionate likelihood for white workers to occupy positions in the highest-wage professions.

It’s clear from the figure that education is not a panacea for closing these wage gaps. Again, this should not be shocking, as increased equality of educational access—as laudable a goal as it is—has been shown to have only small effects on class-based wage inequality, and racial wealth gaps have been almost entirely unmoved by a narrowing of the black–white college attainment gap . . . . And after controlling for age, gender, education, and region, black workers are paid 14.9% less than white workers.

Income

The next figure shows that while median household income has generally stagnated for all races/ethnicities over the period 2000 to 2017, only blacks have suffered an actual decline.  The median income for black households actually fell from $42,348 to $40,258 over this period.  As a consequence, the black-white income gap has grown.  The median black household in 2017 earned just 59 cents for every dollar of income earned by the white median household, down from 65 cents in 2000.

Moreover, as Valerie Wilson, points out, “Based on [Economic Policy Institute] imputed historical income values, 10 years after the start of the Great Recession in 2007, only African American and Asian households have not recovered their pre-recession median income.“  Median household income for African American households fell 1.9 percent or $781 over the period 2007 to 2017.  While the decline was greater for Asian households (3.8 percent), they continued to have the highest median income.

Wealth

The wealth gap between black and white households also remains large.  In 1968, median black household wealth was $6,674 compared with median white household wealth of $70,768.  In 2016, as the figure below shows, it was $13,024 compared with $149,703.

As the Washington Post summarizes:

“The historical data reveal that no progress has been made in reducing income and wealth inequalities between black and white households over the past 70 years,” wrote economists Moritz Kuhn, Moritz Schularick and Ulrike I. Steins in their analysis of U.S. incomes and wealth since World War II.

As of 2016, the most recent year for which data is available, you would have to combine the net worth of 11.5 black households to get the net worth of a typical white U.S. household.

The self-reinforcing nature of racial discrimination is well illustrated in the next figure.  It shows the median household wealth by education level as defined by the education level of the head of household. 

As we see, black median household wealth is below white median household wealth at every education level, with the gap growing with the level of education.  In fact, the median black household headed by someone with an advanced degree has less wealth than the median white household headed by someone with only a high school diploma.  The primary reason for this is that wealth is passed on from generation to generation, and the history of racism has made it difficult for black families to accumulate wealth much less pass it on to future generations. 

Security

The dollar value of household ownership of liquid assets is one measure of economic security.  The greater the value, the easier it is for a household to weather difficult times not to mention unexpected crises, such as today’s pandemic.  And as one might expect in light of the above income and wealth trends, black households have far less security than do white households.

As we can see in the following figure, the median black household held only $8,762 in liquid assets (as defined as the sum of all cash, checking and savings accounts, and directly held stocks, bonds, and mutual funds).  In comparison, the median white household held $49,529 in liquid assets.  And the black-white gap is dramatically larger for households headed by someone with a bachelors degree or higher. 

Hopeful possibilities

The fight against police violence against African Americans, now being advanced in the streets, will eventually have to be expanded and the struggle for racial justice joined to a struggle for economic justice.  Ending the disparities highlighted above will require nothing less than a transformational change in the organization and workings of our economy.

One hopeful sign is the widespread popular support for and growing participation in the Black Lives Matter-led movement that is challenging not only racist policing but the idea of policing itself and is demanding that the country acknowledge and confront its racist past.  Perhaps the ways in which our current economic system has allowed corporations to so quickly shift the dangers and costs of the pandemic on to working people, following years of steady decline in majority working and living conditions, is helping whites better understand the destructive consequences of racism and encouraging this political awakening. 

If so, perhaps we have arrived at a moment where it will be possible to build a multi-racial working class-led movement for structural change that is rooted in and guided by a commitment to achieving economic justice for all people of color. One can only hope that is true for all our sakes.

The economy: we are still in big trouble

The announcement by the Bureau of Labor Statistics that the federal unemployment rate declined to 13.3 percent in May, from 14.7 percent in April, took most analysts by surprise.  The economy added 2.5 million jobs in May, the first increase in employment since February.  Most economists had predicted further job losses and a rise in the unemployment rate to as high as 20 percent.

This employment gain has encouraged some analysts, especially those close to the Trump administration, to proclaim that their predicted V-shaped economic recovery had begun.  But there are strong reasons to believe that the US economy is far from recovery.

Long term trends and the coronavirus

Predictions for a V-shaped recovery rest to a considerable degree on the belief that our current economic collapse was caused by state mandated business closures to battle the coronavirus which unsurprisingly choked off our long expansion.  Now that a growing number of states are ending their forced lockdowns it is only natural that the economy would resume growing.  Certainly, the stock market’s recent rise suggests that many investors agree. 

However, there are many reasons to challenge this upbeat story of impending recovery.  One of the most important is that the pre-coronavirus period of expansion (June 2009 to February 2020), although the longest on record, was also one of the weakest. It was marked by slow growth, weak job creation, deteriorating job quality, declining investment, rising debt, declining life expectancy, and narrowing corporate profit margins. In other words, the economy was heading toward recession even before the start of state mandated lockdowns.  For example, the manufacturing sector spent much of 2019 in recession.   

Another reason is that the downturn in economic activity that marks the start of our current recession predates lockdown orders.  It was driven by health concerns.  As Emily Badger and Alicia Parlapiano explain in their New York Times article, and as illustrated in the following graphic taken from the article:

In the weeks before states around the country issued lockdown orders this spring, Americans were already hunkering down. They were spending less, traveling less, dining out less. Small businesses were already cutting employment. Some were even closing shop.

People were behaving this way — effectively winding down the economy — before the government told them to. And that pattern, apparent in a range of data looking back over the past two months, suggests in the weeks ahead that official pronouncements will have limited power to open the economy back up.

In some states that have already begun that process, like Georgia, South Carolina, Oklahoma and Alaska, the same daily economic data shows only meager signs so far that businesses, workers and consumers have returned to their old routines.

Thus, while some rebound in economic growth is to be expected given the severity of the downturn to this point, it is unlikely that the May employment jump signals the start of a powerful economic recovery.  Weak underlying economic conditions and health worries remain significant obstacles.

In fact, even the optimistic US Congressional Budget Office predicts at best a long, slow recovery.  As Michael Roberts describes:

It now expects US nominal GDP to fall 14.2% in the first half of 2020, from the trend it forecast in January before the COVID-19 pandemic broke. Then it expects the various fiscal and monetary injections by the authorities and the end of the lockdowns to reduce this loss from the January figure to 9.4% by end 2020. The CBO still expects a sort of V-shaped recovery in US GDP in 2021 but does not expect the pre-pandemic crisis trend in US economic growth (already reduced in the Long Depression since 2009) to be reached until 2029 and may not even return to the previous trend growth forecast until after 2030! So there will be a permanent loss of 5.3% in nominal GDP compared to pre-COVID forecasts – $16trn in value lost forever. In real GDP terms, the loss will be about 3% cumulatively, or $8trn in 2019 money.  And this assumes no second wave in the pandemic and no financial collapse as companies go bust.

Depression level unemployment

Although President Trump has celebrated the May employment gains, the fact is we continue to suffer depression level unemployment.  The following figure from the Washington Post provides some historical perspective.  The current official unemployment rate of 13.3 percent is more than a third higher than the highest level of unemployment reached during the Great Recession. 

But even the Bureau of Labor Statistics acknowledges that because of the unique nature of the current crisis the official announced unemployment rate for each of the last three months is flawed.  The unemployment rate is based on household surveys.  For the past three months, in an attempt to better understand the impact of the coronavirus, interviewers were supposed to classify people not working because of the virus as “unemployed on temporary layoff.” However, as the Bureau of Labor Statistics acknowledges, many of those people were incorrectly classified as “employed but absent at work,” which is the classification used when a person isn’t coming to work because of vacation, illness, bad weather, a labor dispute, or other reasons.  People in this latter category are not counted as unemployed.

The BLS has determined that correcting the classification error would boost the official April unemployment rate to 19.7 percent and the May rate to 16.3 percent.  And, it is important to note that this unemployment rate does not include those workers who have stopped looking for work and those who are involuntarily working part-time.  Including them would push the May rate close to 25 percent.  

Stephen Moore, an economic adviser to President Trump, has stated that the May job numbers take “a lot of the wind out of the sails of any phase 4 [stimulus bill] — we don’t need it now. There’s no reason to have a major spending bill. The sense of urgent crisis is very greatly dissipated by the report.”  This is crazy.

Danger signs ahead

There are three reasons to fear that without substantial new federal action May employment gains will be short-lived. 

First, it has been relatively low-wage production and nonsupervisory workers who have suffered the greatest number of job losses.  That has left many businesses relatively top-heavy with managers and high-income professionals. A number of business analysts are now predicting a new wave of layoffs or firings of higher-income and management personal to bring staffing levels back into pre-coronavirus balance.

The following figure shows that almost 90 percent of the jobs lost from mid-February to mid-April were in the six lowest paid supersectors as defined by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The May employment gains were also in these six sectors.

Economists with Bloomberg Economics are now warning of a second wave of job losses that will include “higher-paid supervisors in sectors where frontline workers were hit first, such as restaurants and hotels. It also includes the knock on-effects to connected industries such as professional services, finance and real estate.”

As Bloomberg explains:

The pandemic isn’t finished with the U.S. labor market, threatening a second wave of job cuts—this time among white-collar workers. . . .

For the analysis, [Bloomberg Economics economists] looked at job losses by sector in March and April—with affected industries dominated by blue-collar, hospitality and production workers—and determined how those layoffs would move to supervisory positions, since management cuts tend to lag the frontline workers.

The economists then took government data on relations between industries to compute the ones most reliant on demand from the most-affected sectors. Combining that information with the hit to employment in the most affected sectors they extrapolated to other jobs at risk, most of which were higher-skilled, white-collar roles.

The second reason to downplay the significance of the May employment gains is that critically important stimulus measures–in particular the one-time grant of $1200 for individuals and the $600 a week additional unemployment benefit (which expires at the end of July)–appear unlikely to be renewed.  If that boost to earnings is withdrawn, economic demand and employment will likely fall again.

As Ben Casselman, writing in the New York Times, points out:

Research routinely finds that unemployment insurance is one of the most effective parts of the safety net, both in cushioning the effects of job loss on families and in lifting the economy. In economists’ parlance, the program is “well targeted” — it goes to people who need the money and who will spend it. Various studies have found that in the last recession, the system helped prevent 1.4 million foreclosures, saved two million jobs and kept five million people out of poverty.

The impact could be greater in this crisis because the program is reaching more people and giving them more money. The government paid $48 billion in benefits in April and has reached $86 billion in May, according to the Treasury Department.

As the following figure shows, almost all workers have suffered significant declines in employment income with low income workers taking the biggest hit.

Yet, the increase in food insecurity has been relatively small, especially for low income workers.

It is, as highlighted in the next figure, the massive individual benefit boosts included in the March stimulus package that has so far kept the decline in employment income from translating into dramatic spikes in food insecurity. If Congress refuses to pass a new stimulus that includes direct aid to the unemployed, the odds are great that the economic recovery will stall and unemployment will grow again.

The last reason for pessimism is the likely further contraction in state and local government spending and, by extension, employment and services, as a result of declining revenue.  State and local government employment fell by 1 million from February to April, and by an additional 600 million in May.  Looking just at state budgets, the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities estimates a shortfall in state budgets of $765 billion over fiscal years 2020-22, “much deeper than in the Great Recession of about a decade ago” (see the figure below).

And unfortunately, as the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities also notes, the federal government has, up to now, been unwilling to do much to help state governments manage their ballooning deficits:

Federal aid that policymakers provided in earlier COVID-19 packages isn’t nearly enough. Only about $65 billion is readily available to narrow state budget shortfalls. Treasury Department guidance now says that states may use some of the aid in the CARES Act of March to cover payroll costs for public safety and public health workers, but it’s unclear how much of state shortfalls that might cover; existing aid likely won’t cover much more than $100 billion of state shortfalls, leaving nearly $665 billion unaddressed. States hold $75 billion in their rainy-day funds, a historically high amount but far too little to meet the unprecedented challenge they face. And, even if states use all of it to cover their shortfalls, that still leaves them about $600 billion short.

States must balance their budgets every year, even in recessions. Without substantial federal help during this crisis, they very likely will deeply cut areas such as education and health care, lay off teachers and other workers in large numbers, and cancel contracts with many businesses. . . . That would worsen the recession, delay the recovery, and further harm families and communities.

Without a new stimulus measure that also includes support for state and local governments, their forced reduction in spending and cuts in employment can only add to the existing pressures working against recovery.

In sum, the crisis is real.  A new stimulus that included a renewal of special unemployment payments as well as direct support for state and local governments and other critical services like the postal service could help stabilize the economy.  But real progress will require a major effort on the part of the federal government to ensure adequate production of COVID-19 test kits and PPE as well as nationwide testing and contact tracing programs and then, most importantly, a fundamental reorganization of our economy.

The 1930s and Now: Looking Back to Move Forward

My article What the New Deal Can Teach Us About Winning a Green New Deal is in the latest issue of the journal Class, Race and Corporate Power.  As I say in the abstract,

While there are great differences between the crises and political movements and possibilities of the 1930s and now, there are also important lessons that can be learned from the efforts of activists to build mass movements for social transformation during the Great Depression. My aim in this paper is to illuminate the challenges faced and choices made by these activists and draw out some of the relevant lessons for contemporary activists seeking to advance a Green New Deal.

Advocates of a Green New Deal often point to the New Deal and its government programs to demonstrate the possibility of a progressive state-directed process of economic change.  I wrote my article to show that the New Deal was a response to growing mass activity that threatened the legitimacy and stability of the existing economic and political order rather than elite good-will, and to examine the movement building process that generated that activity.

Depression-era activists were forced to organize in a period of economic crisis, mass unemployment and desperation, and state intransigence. While they fell short of achieving their goal of social transformation, they did build a movement of the unemployed and spark a wave of militant labor activism that was powerful enough to force state policy-makers to embrace significant, although limited, social reforms, including the creation of programs of public employment and systems of social security and unemployment insurance.

Differences between that time period and this one are shrinking and the lessons we can learn from studying the organizing strategies and tactics of those activists are becoming ever more relevant.  The US economy is now in a deep recession, one that will be more devastating than the Great Recession.  US GDP shrank at a 4.8 percent annualized rate in the first quarter of this year and will likely contract at a far greater 25 percent annualized rate in the second quarter.  While most analysts believe the economy will begin growing again in the third quarter, their predictions are for an overall yearly decline in the 6-8 percent range.   As for the years ahead—no one can really say.  The Economist, for example, is talking about a 90 percent economy for years after the current lockdown ends.  In other words, life will remain hard for most working people for some time.

Not surprisingly, given the size of the economic contraction, unemployment has also exploded. According to the Economic Policy Institute, “In the past six weeks, nearly 28 million, or one in six, workers applied for unemployment insurance benefits across the country.”  More than a quarter of the workforce in the following states have filed for benefits: Hawaii, Kentucky, Georgia, Rhode Island, Michigan, and Nevada.  And tragically, millions of other workers have been prevented from applying because of outdated state computer systems and punitive regulations as well as overworked employment department staff.  Even at its best, the US unemployment system, established in 1935 as part of the New Deal reforms, was problematic, paying too little, for too short a time period, and with too many eligibility restrictions.  Now, it is collapsing under the weight of the crisis.

Yet, at the same time, worker organizing and militancy is growing. Payday Report has a strike tracker that has already identified over 150 strikes, walkouts, and sickouts since early March across a range of sectors and industries, including retail, fast food, food processing, warehousing, manufacturing, public sector, health care, and the gig economy.  As an Associated Press story points out:

Across the country, the unexpected front-line workers of the pandemic — grocery store workers, Instacart shoppers and Uber drivers, among them — are taking action to protect themselves. Rolling job actions have raced through what’s left of the economy, including Pittsburgh sanitation workers who walked off their jobs in the first weeks of lockdown and dozens of fast-food workers in California who left restaurants last week to perform socially distant protests in their cars.

Rather than defending workers, governments are now becoming directly involved in suppressing their struggles. For example, after meatpacker walkouts closed at least 22 meat plans and threatened the operation of many others, triggered by an alarming rise in the number of workers testing positive for the virus, President Trump signed an executive order requiring companies to remain open and fully staffed. It remains to be seen how workers will respond.  In Pennsylvania, the Governor responded to nurse walkouts at nursing homes and long-term care facilities to protest a lack of protective equipment by sending national guard members to replace them.

Activists throughout the country are now creatively exploring ways to support those struggling to survive the loss of employment and those engaged in workplace actions to defend their health and well-being.  Many are also seeking ways to weave the many struggles and current expressions of social solidarity together into a mass movement for radical transformation.  Despite important differences in political and economic conditions, activists today are increasingly confronting challenges that are similar to ones faced by activists in the 1930s and there is much we can learn from a critical examination of their efforts.  My article highlights what I believe are some of the most important lessons.

Another sign of the deepening social crisis: The decline in US life expectancy

US life expectancy is on the decline, falling from 2014 to 2017—the first years of decline in life expectancy in over twenty years.  And according to Steven H. Woolf and Heidi Schoomaker, authors of the recently published “Life Expectancy and Mortality Rates in the United States, 1959-2017” in the Journal of the American Medical Association, “A major contributor has been an increase in mortality from specific causes (e.g., drug overdoses, suicides, organ system diseases) among young and middle-aged adults of all racial groups, with an onset as early as the 1990s and with the largest relative increases occurring in the Ohio Valley and New England.”

Declining life expectancy

In 1960, the US had the highest life expectancy of any country in the world.  By 2017 US life expectancy significantly trailed that of other comparable countries, as illustrated below.

In 1980, the difference between average life expectancy in the US and that of comparable countries was not large–73.7 years versus 74.5 years.  However, as we can see in the next figure, the gap steadily grew over the following years.  The US gained 4.9 years in average life expectancy from 1980 to 2017; comparable countries gained 7.8 years on average.

As researchers for the Kaiser Family Foundation point out, “The U.S. and most comparable countries experienced a slight decline in life expectancy in 2015. By 2016, life expectancy for these comparable countries rebounded to pre-2015 numbers, but in the US, such a bounce back did not occur.”  After averaging 78.9 years in 2014, averaged life expectancy in the US fell to 78.7 years in both 2015 and 2016, and then dropped again in 2017 to 78.6 years. These declines mark the first decreases in US life expectancy in more than 20 years.

Moreover, this growing gap and outright decline in average life expectancy holds for both US males and females, as we see from the following figure.

The growing social crisis

Woolf and Schoomaker drew upon 50 years’ worth of data from the US Mortality Database and the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s WONDER database in an attempt to explain why US life expectancy has not kept pace with that of other wealthy countries and is now falling.  Their primary finding, as noted above, is that US life expectancy is being dragged down by “an increase in mortality from specific causes (eg, drug overdoses, suicides, organ system diseases) among young and middle-aged adults of all racial groups.”

More specifically, while over the period 1999-2017, infant mortality, mortality rates among children and early adolescents (1-14 years of age), and age-adjusted mortality rates among adults 65-84 all declined, individuals aged 25-64 “experienced retrogression” beginning in 2010, as we can see in the following figures taken from their article.  Between 2010 and 2017, these midlife adults experienced a 6 percent total increase in mortality rate. This increase overwhelmed gains experienced by the other age cohorts, dragging down overall US average life expectancy.

Woolf and Schoomaker concluded that there were multiple causes for this rise in mortality rates among individuals 25-64.  However, they highlighted drug overdose, alcohol abuse and suicide as among the most important.  This age cohort experienced a nearly four-fold increase in fatal drug overdoses between 1999 and 2017.  Their suicide rates went up nearly 40 percent over the same period. The rate of alcohol-related disease deaths soared by almost 160 percent for those 25-34 years.

In an interview with BusinessInsider, Woolf wrestled with why the country is experiencing such a dramatic rise in mortality rates among young and middle aged adults. “It’s a quandary of why this is happening when we spend so much on healthcare,” Woolf said, adding: “But my betting money is on the economy.”

That seems like a pretty safe answer.  It also raises the question: how do we help working people understand the increasingly toxic nature of the workings of the US economy and build the ties of solidarity necessary to advance the struggle for system transformation.

What the New Deal can teach us about winning a Green New Deal: Part V—summing up the New Deal experience

Growing awareness of our ever-worsening climate crisis has boosted the popularity of movements calling for a Green New Deal.  At present, the Green New Deal is a big tent idea, grounded to some extent by its identification with the original New Deal and emphasis on the need for strong state action to initiate social-system change on a massive scale.  Challenges abound for Green New Deal activists.  Among the many, how to:

  • create supportive working relationships between the different movements currently pushing for a Green New Deal
  • develop a sharper, shared vision of the aims of a Green New Deal
  • increase popular support for those aims as well as participation in those movements
  • build sufficient political power to force a change in state policy along lines favorable to the Green New Deal
  • ensure that the resulting trajectory of change strengthens the broader struggle to achieve a socially just and ecologically sustainable political-economy

While there are great differences between the crises and political movements and possibilities of the 1930s and now, there are also important lessons that can be learned from the efforts of activists to build mass movements for social transformation during the Great Depression.  My aim in this series, including in this fifth and last post, is to illuminate the challenges faced and choices made by these activists in order to draw out some of the relevant lessons.

In previous posts I argued that the despite the severity of the Great Depression, it took sustained, left-led, mass organizing and actions to force the federal government to accept responsibility for improving economic conditions.  Unfortunately, First New Deal relief and job creation policies were inadequate, far from what the growing movement of unemployed demanded or was needed to meet majority needs.  However, continued mass activity by the unemployed, those on relief, and those employed eventually forced the Roosevelt administration to undertake a Second New Deal, which included its widely praised programs for public works (WPA), social security (Social Security Act), and union rights (National Labor Relations Act).

These Second New Deal programs were unprecedented and did improve conditions for working people.  But, as I argue in this final post, both the WPA and the Social Security Act again fell short of the transformative changes demanded by activists.  And while the NLRA did offer workers important legal protections that made it safer for them to unionize their workplaces, its effect was to encourage a top-down system of labor-management relations that suppressed rank and file activism and class consciousness. Thus, despite their pathbreaking nature, these programs were far from revolutionary.  Rather they were designed to ameliorate the suffering caused by capitalism’s crisis without threatening capitalist control over economic activity.

Tragically, changes in the political and economic environment, as well as strategic choices made by the left in response to those changes led to the weakening of popular movements, leaving them unable to push the Roosevelt administration into yet a Third New Deal.  As a result, the upsurge of the 1930s failed to advance the socialist-inspired transformation that motivated many of its participants. In the end, it proved only able to force the state to adopt policies that reformed the workings of the system, a not inconsiderable achievement, but one that still left working people vulnerable to the vicissitudes of capitalism.  Hopefully, a careful study of the New Deal experience will help Green New Deal activists build movements able to avoid the trap of limited reform while fighting for the massive, interconnected, and empowering social-system change we so desperately need.

The Second New Deal

It is easy to understand why supporters of a Green New Deal look to the New Deal as a touchstone.  Growing numbers of people have come to the conclusion that our problems are too big to be solved by individual or local efforts alone, and that once again innovative and transformative state-led actions will be needed to solve them.  Quite simply, the New Deal experience inspires people to believe in the possibility of a Green New Deal.

When people talk about the innovative and transformative policies of the New Deal they normally mean the core policies of the Second New Deal: the WPA, the Social Security Act, and the National Labor Relations Act.  As innovative as these policies were, they were, as discussed in Part IV, largely forced on the Roosevelt Administration by left-led mass movements.  And, as we see next, they were, by design, meant to blunt more radical demands for change.  In short, they were important reforms, but no more than reforms, and as such offered only partial solutions to the problems of the time.  Sadly, workers today continue to suffer from their limitations.

Works Progress Administration

One of the most important Second New Deal programs was the Works Progress Administration (WPA). Established in May 1935, it employed millions of unemployed to carry out public projects such as construction of public buildings and roads.  Federal Project Number One, a much smaller program that also operated under the WPA umbrella, employed musicians, artists, writers, actors and directors in large arts, drama, media, and literacy projects. These included the Federal Writers’ Project, the Federal Theatre Project, the Federal Music Project, and the Federal Art Project.

Roosevelt’s decision to replace the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA) with the WPA was a clear sign that he recognized that his First New Deal employment and relief programs — FERA and the Civil Works Administration (CWA) — had done little to satisfy fast growing left-led unemployed movements that were demanding a federal jobs program under which unemployed workers would be directly put to work, at union wages, producing a wide range of needed goods and services.

FERA had provided loans and grants to states which then offered relief work to those that qualified for relief.  As discussed in Part III, the program required workers to submit to demeaning financial investigations, often paid those chosen for relief with coupons that could only be redeemed for select food items, made no attempt to match worker skills with jobs, and often employed those on relief in make-work tasks.  While FERA marked the first direct federal support for relief and enabled states to greatly expand their relief rolls, it also required states to provide matching funds to receive FERA money.  Limited state resources meant that relief covered only about one-third of those unemployed.

CWA was a far more popular program, most importantly because it involved direct federal employment, had no relief requirement, paid relatively well, and sought to match workers’ skills with jobs.  However, it was, by design, a short-term program that lasted only 6 months, with most employment creation ending after 4 months.

The WPA was a federal program that operated its own projects in cooperation with state and local governments, which were required to cover some 10 to 30 percent of their costs.  In some cases, the WPA took over ongoing FERA state and local relief programs.  But, despite its impressive accomplishments, it also fell short of movement demands.

Although the WPA combined elements of both FERA and the CWA, it was far more like the former than the latter. For example, in contrast to the CWA, participation in WPA projects required a state means test.  Thus, unemployment alone was not enough to qualify a person for the program.  Moreover, as under FERA, participants were subject to demeaning monitoring of their spending habits and living conditions.

Again. unlike the CWA, little effort was made to match workers’ skills with jobs.  Workers were divided into two broad categories of skilled and unskilled.  The unskilled were assigned construction jobs even if they had no construction experience.  The skilled were assigned a variety of writing or teaching jobs regardless of whether they had experience in those areas.  The program did pay market wages.  However, limits were put on maximum allowable hours of weekly employment in addition to an overall limit on total earnings.

WPA employment opportunities were also limited.  Its average monthly employment was approximately 3 million workers.  The CWA, at its peak, employed over 4 million a month.  The WPA, like FERA, employed only about one-third of the unemployed.  Moreover, because of unstable program financing, even those employed by the WPA would sometimes suffer layoffs.

The unemployed movement wanted a permanent federal employment program that would guarantee full employment.  And they wanted that program to employ people to produce needed goods and services as a direct counter to private production.  This was far from the vision of the Roosevelt administration.  As Harry Hopkins, chief administrator of the WPA, explained:

Policy from the first was not to compete with private business. Hence we could neither work on private property, set up a rival merchandising system, nor form a work outlet through manufacturing, even though manufacturing had contributed to relief rolls hundreds of thousands of workers accustomed to operating machines and to doing nothing else for a living.

Operating under these limits, the WPA had little choice but to focus its efforts on the construction of public buildings and roads.  Post offices accounted for close to half of the more than 3000 public buildings constructed.

Moreover, despite its limitations, the unemployed had to fight to sustain the program.  Congress decided to provide funds for the program one year at a time.  Sometimes allocations fell short of planned spending, resulting in layoffs.   Other times, militant demonstrations by an alliance of unemployed groups forced Congress into making supplemental appropriations.

The number of public works projects and WPA participants began a steady decline in 1939.  The next year the Roosevelt administration decided to reorient program activity to projects of direct use to the military, including construction of base housing and military airfields as well as expansion of naval yards. The WPA was quietly terminated in 1943, with unemployment problems seemingly solved thanks to the demands of wartime production.  Sadly, the unemployed never developed the political weight or broader social movement needed to push the government into embracing a more expansive and ongoing program of national planning and public production.

The Social Security Act

The Social Security Act is widely considered to be the New Deal’s crown jewel.  According to his Secretary of Labor, “[President Roosevelt] always regarded the Social Security Act as the cornerstone of his administration . . . and . . . took greater satisfaction from it than from anything else he achieved on the domestic front.”

Roosevelt appointed a Committee on Economic Security in July 1934 with the charge to develop a social security bill that he could present to Congress in January 1935 that would include provisions for both unemployment insurance and old-age security.  An administration approved bill was in fact introduced in January and Roosevelt called for quick Congressional action.  The bill was revised in April by a House committee and given a new name, “The Social Security Act.”  After additional revisions the Social Security Act was approved by overwhelming majorities in both Houses of Congress, and the legislation was signed by the President on August 14, 1935.

The Social Security Act was a complex piece of legislation.  It included what we now call Social Security, a federal old-age benefit program; a program of unemployment benefits administered by the states, and a program of federal grants to states to fund benefits for the needy elderly and aid to dependent children.  It was a cautious beginning, as explained by Edwin E. Witte, the Executive Director and Secretary of the President’s Committee on Economic Security:

Because we were in the midst of a deep depression, the Administration and Congress were very anxious to avoid placing too great burdens on business and also to avoid adding to Government deficits. It was these considerations that resulted in the low beginning social security tax rates and the step-plan of the introduction of both old-age and unemployment insurance and also in the establishment of completely self-financed social insurance programs, without Government contributions–to this day a distinctive feature of social insurance in this country.

Before examining the way Roosevelt’s concerns for the well-being of business placed limits on the timeliness, coverage, and support provided by these programs, it is important to recognize that, as with the WPA, Roosevelt’s commitment to social security was a response to the efforts of the Communist Party (CP), which authored a far more progressive bill, one that would have significantly shifted the balance of class power towards workers.

The CP began pushing its Workers Unemployment Insurance Bill in the summer of 1930, and it, as well as the Unemployment Councils, worked hard to promote it over the following years.  On March 4, 1933, the day of Roosevelt’s inauguration, they organized demonstrations stressing the need for action on unemployment insurance.

Undeterred by Roosevelt’s lack of action, the CP authored a bill–the Workers Unemployment and Social Insurance Bill–that was introduced in Congress in February 1934 by Representative Ernest Lundeen of the Farmer-Labor Party.  In broad brush, as Chris Wright summarizes, the bill:

provided for unemployment insurance for workers and farmers (regardless of age, sex, or race) that was to be equal to average local wages but no less than $10 per week plus $3 for each dependent; people compelled to work part-time (because of inability to find full-time jobs) were to receive the difference between their earnings and the average local full-time wages; commissions directly elected by members of workers’ and farmers’ organizations were to administer the system; social insurance would be given to the sick and elderly, and maternity benefits would be paid eight weeks before and eight weeks after birth; and the system would be financed by unappropriated funds in the Treasury and by taxes on inheritances, gifts, and individual and corporate incomes above $5,000 a year. Later iterations of the bill went into greater detail on how the system would be financed and managed.

Not surprisingly, the bill enjoyed strong support among workers, employed and unemployed.  Thanks to the efforts of unemployed and union activists it was soon endorsed by 5 international unions, 35 central labor bodies, and more than 3000 local unions.  Rank and file worker committees also formed across the country to pressure members of Congress to pass it.

When Congress refused to act on the bill, Lundeen reintroduced it in January 1935. Because of public pressure, the bill became the first unemployment insurance plan in US history to be recommended by a congressional committee, in this case the House Labor Committee.  It was voted down in the full House of Representatives, 204 to 52.

Roosevelt strongly opposed the Lundeen bill and it was to provide a counter that he established his Committee on Economic Security in July 1934 and pressed Congress to approve the resulting Social Security Act as quickly as possible.  Roosevelt’s Social Security Act fell far short of what the Workers Unemployment and Social Insurance Bill offered, and it was strongly opposed by movement activists and organizations of the unemployed.

The part of the bill that established what we now call Social Security suffered from five main weaknesses.  First, it was to be self-financing because of administration fears of deficit spending, a decision which placed downward pressure on benefit levels.  Second, it was to be financed by contributions from both workers and employers.  Thus, workers had to shoulder half the costs of the program.

Third, the system was not universal.  The act covered only workers in commerce and industry, about half the jobs in the economy.  Among those left out were farm and domestic workers.

Fourth, the act provided for monthly retirement benefits payable only to the primary worker in a family when they retired at age 65 or older. Moreover, the amount received depended on the value of wages earned in covered employment starting in 1937.

Finally, the act mandated that monthly benefit payments would not begin until 1942.  A 1939 amendment did allow benefit payments to begin in 1940 and added child, spouse, and survivor benefits to the authorized retirement benefits.

In sum, this was a program that offered too little, too late, and to too few people.  And while improvements were made over the years, the current system pales in comparison to the kind of security and humane retirement workers would have enjoyed if the workers’ movement had been powerful enough to secure passage of its preferred bill.

The unemployment system established as part of the Social Security Act was also structured in ways unfavorable to workers compared with the proposed benefits of the Workers Unemployment and Social Insurance Bill.  Rather than set up a comprehensive national system of unemployment compensation, as workers desired, the act established a federal-state cooperative system that gave states wide latitude in determining standards.

More specifically, the act levied a uniform national pay-roll tax of 1 percent in 1936, 2 percent in 1937, and 3 percent in 1938, on covered employers, defined as those employers with eight or more employees for at least twenty weeks, not including government employers and employers in agriculture.  Only workers employed by a covered employer could receive benefits.

Covered employers were given a federal credit on up to 90 percent of the tax if they paid their credit amount into a certified state unemployment compensation fund.  The act left it to the states to decide whether to enact their own plans, and if so, to determine eligibility conditions, the waiting period to receive benefits, benefit amounts, minimum and maximum benefit levels, duration of benefits, disqualifications, and other administrative matters. It was not until 1937 that programs were established in every state as well as the then-territories of Alaska and Hawaii.  And it was not until 1938 that most began paying benefits.

In the early years, most states required eligible workers to wait 2 to 4 weeks before drawing benefits, which were commonly set at half recent earnings (subject to weekly maximums) for a period ranging from 12 to 16 weeks. Ten state laws called for employee contributions as well as employer contributions.

Just like with social security, over the following years the program was expanded in a number of positive ways, including by expanding coverage and benefits.  However, the unemployment program established by the Social Security Act fell far short of the universal, progressively funded social safety net that workers were demanding.

The National Labor Relations Act

In the spring of 1934, Senator Robert Wagner introduced a bill to establish a new labor relations board that, unlike the one established by the First New Deal’s National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA), would have enforcement authority.  Few in Congress supported the bill; President Roosevelt also opposed it.

Wagner reintroduced a revised version of his bill a year later and to a dramatically different outcome.  In May 1935 it received unanimous support in the Senate Labor Committee, followed by strong support in both the Senate and House.  As reported by the editors of Who Built America?, President Roosevelt remained opposed to the bill up until the very end:

“It ought to be on the record,” his labor secretary noted, that the bill was “not a part of the President’s program.  It did not particularly appeal to him when it was described to him.”  But when the US Supreme Court struck down the NIRA in May and Wagner’s National Labor Relations bill was passed by one house of Congress, FDR finally endorsed the bill.

In broad brush, the National Labor Relations Act established a set of laws and regulations designed to guarantee the right of private sector workers to peacefully organize into trade unions of their choosing and engage in collective bargaining and actions such as strikes.  The act also created the National Labor Relations Board to organize and oversee the process by which workers decide on whether to join a union as well as determine whether collective bargaining agreements are being fairly bargained and enforced.

The turnaround in support for the NLRA owes much to the growing militancy of workers, and the threat that this militancy posed to the established order.  Section 7a of the NIRA had promised workers that they would “have the right to organize and bargain collectively through representatives of their own choosing . . . free from the interference, restraint, or coercion of employers.”  Unfortunately, with no mechanism to ensure that workers would be able to exercise this right, after a short period of successful union organizing, companies began violently repressing genuine union activity. By 1935, growing numbers of workers were calling the National Recovery Administration (NRA), which had been established to oversee the NIRA, the National Run Around.

However, it was not the corporate campaign of violence directed against workers that was the catalyst for the change in government policy.  Rather it was the explosion of powerful left-led worker victories in three major labor struggles in early 1934.  The first was in Toledo, Ohio, where American Workers’ Party sponsored unemployed organizations joined with striking auto workers seeking to unionize a major auto parts manufacturer.  The workers battled special deputies and National Guard troops for weeks, maintaining an effective strike.  Fearful of the possibility of an even larger strike, the Roosevelt administration finally sent federal mediators to Toledo, forcing the company to recognize the union and agree to significant wage increases.

At almost the same time, an even bigger struggle began in Minneapolis. A Trotskyist-led Teamster local, fighting to unionize a number of trucking and warehouse companies, effectively shut down commercial transport in the city.  Days of violence followed as police and special deputies tried to break the strike.  Faced with a growing threat of a general strike, federal mediators again were forced to intervene, and again forced the employers to recognize the union.

A general strike did take place in San Francisco.  Led by Communist and other radical rank and file activists, San Francisco longshoremen rejected a secretly negotiated deal between the national leadership of the International Longshoremen’s Association and the waterfront employers.  Their strike was quickly joined by dockworkers in every other West Coast port as well as many sailors and waterfront truckers.

Police attempts to break the San Francisco strike led to a full-scale battle and the death of two strikers by police on what became known as Bloody Thursday.  In response, the labor movement declared a general strike.  Some 150,000 workers went out, essentially bringing San Francisco, Oakland, Berkeley and other nearby municipalities, to a halt.  Again, federal intervention was required to bring the strike to a halt, with a victory for the workers.

These struggles, all with important left leadership, showed a dramatic growth in worker militancy, solidarity, and radicalism that sent shock waves throughout the corporate community as well as the government.  And it was to head off the further radicalization of the labor movement that the Congress and Roosevelt agreed to support the NLRA and its mechanisms to regularize the unionization process.  In the words of Steve Fraser:

The Wagner Act helped institutionalize a form of industrial democracy that steered clear of any frontal assault on the underlying political economy. It legitimated collective bargaining, imposed responsibilities on both management and trade union officialdom, and worked to establish peace on the shop floor.

Union leaders were to police their members, instilling a disciplined commitment to the terms of the contract. Control of life on the shop-floor remained with management. Militants who thought otherwise were soon enough reigned in. The much-maligned (not without cause) trade union bureaucracy was, after all, the fruit of a mass movement, an institution, created where there had been nothing, the slowly solidified residue of fiery desires.

For a few years, it appeared that worker militancy, a willingness to directly challenge corporate rights with no concern for issues of legality, would continue despite the NLRB’s existence.  For example, in early 1936 rubber workers in Akron, Ohio disregarded both union leadership and a court injunction to surround the eleven-mile perimeter of a Goodyear plant with pickets.  They shut down the plant in protest over recent wage cuts and layoffs of activists and rejected federal attempts at mediation.  When word came that the sheriff might come with armed deputies to open the plat, the strikers armed themselves.  Finally, after four weeks, Goodyear settled, agreeing to reinstate the fired workers, reduce the workweek, and recognize the authority of union shop committees.

Not long after, inspired by the rubber workers, auto workers began staging walk-outs and strikes at several different Chrysler and GM plants over firings and unionization.  The biggest action came at the end of 1936 with the Flint sit-down strike.  The workers held the plant for 44 days, during which time they fought off attempts by armed police to evict them and ignored injunctions issued by the courts demanding that they leave.  In the end GM agreed to recognize the UAW as the exclusive bargaining representative for all GM workers.

The number of strikes grew dramatically from 2,014 in 1935 to 4,740 in 1937, with workers increasingly winning unionization not through the machinery of the NLRA, but through direct action.  For example, the number of sit-down strikes lasting more than a day grew from 48 in 1936 to some 500 in 1937.

Unfortunately, this upward trajectory of militant, class conscious activity would not be sustained.  The reasons are complex.  One part of the explanation concerns the evolving political orientation of the CP.  Responding to the new strategic orientation of the Communist International, which stressed the importance of building coalitions with all progressive and liberal forces to check the rise of fascism, the CP began pursuing an anti-fascist popular front policy that included support for Roosevelt’s 1936 re-election and the New Deal more generally.

This new orientation also translated into an increasingly conservative line regarding labor activism.  Party activists were encouraged not only to support the new CIO union leadership but also to oppose militant organizing tactics.  As Frances Fox Piven and Richard A. Cloward describe:

The Communists, by now well into their Popular Front phase and some of them into the union bureaucracy as well, endorsed the call for union discipline. Wyndham Mortimer issued a statement early in 1937 saying: “Sit-down strikes should be resorted to only when absolutely necessary.” And the Flint Auto Worker, edited by Communist Henry Kraus, editorialized that “the problem is not to foster strikes and labor trouble. The union can only grow on the basis of established procedure and collective bargaining.”

At the same time, corporate leaders were taking direct aim at the new labor reforms.  One of their first big victories was a 1938 Supreme Court ruling that said companies had the right to hire permanent replacement workers when workers went on strike.  The following year it ruled sit-down strikes illegal, even if undertaken in response to an illegal corporate action.

States also joined in.  In 1939, as Piven and Cloward report:

state legislatures began to pass laws prohibiting some kinds of strikes and secondary boycotts, limiting picketing, outlawing the closed shop, requiring the registration of unions, limiting the amount of dues unions could charge, and providing stiff jail terms for violations of the new offenses. By 1947 almost all of the states had passed legislation imposing at least some of these limitations.

Finally, corporate leaders also launched an anti-Communist attack against union activists, especially those in leadership positions in the newly created unions of the CIO.  Their efforts were amplified by House Un-American Activities Committee hearings which began in 1938.  The 1947 Taft–Hartley Act codified all these developments, outlawing wildcat strikes, solidarity or political strikes, secondary boycotts, secondary and mass picketing, and closed shops, as well as requiring union officers to sign non-communist affidavits as a condition for their union to secure NLRA rights.

In sum, as left and union leadership began to rely ever more heavily on the NLRA to win gains for workers, corporate and political elites began aggressively narrowing the acceptable boundaries of legal action.  As a consequence, although there would still be periods of worker militancy, the frequency of rank and file-led actions, open rebellion against the law, and moments of cross-union and class solidarity became increasingly rare.  Thus, the NLRB succeeded, as its supporters hoped, in creating a more stable system of labor relations that was consistent with and supportive of the needs of capitalist production.

The Movement’s Decline

The workers movement of the 1930s was a mass movement that, thanks to left leadership, encouraged class solidarity and support for a program of radical social change.  The movement was, as described in this and past posts, powerful enough to force the Roosevelt administration into adopting successively more progressive programs that, although flawed, did improve working and living conditions for many.

However, even as its different political tendencies began to unify, creating a national organization of the unemployed, the movement began to suffer a loss of militancy and vision that left it unable to further influence political developments.  As a consequence, the reforms of the Second New Deal came to define the limits of change.

In 1934 the Communist Party organized Unemployed Councils tightened their organizational form, finally adopting a written constitution.  In early 1935, Socialist Party organized unemployed organizations and a number of Musteite organized Unemployed Leagues joined together to create a national organization of the unemployed, the Workers Alliance.  The following year, the Workers Alliance reached agreement with the Unemployed Councils and several other small unemployed organizations to form a new, larger national organization of the unemployed, the Workers Alliance of America (WAA). This unity was possible in large part because of the CP’s newly adopted popular front policy which led it to seek alliances with other political tendencies and groups that were seen as anti-fascist.  This included the Socialist Party and Muste’s Conference for Progressive Labor Action and their associated movements of unemployed.

The Workers Alliance of America, critical of the WPA, continued to fight for the unemployed and those on relief.  For example, when the Roosevelt administration announced planned cuts in WPA employment for 1937, the organization organized a number of sit-ins and demonstrations at city relief offices throughout the country.  The President, under pressure from big city mayors, rescinded the cuts.

However, defending an existing program is not the same as winning a new, improved one.  And this the movement could not do for several reasons.  One is that the rank and file base of the unemployed movement was shrinking because of the growth in the economy and the expansion in relief opportunities.  Another is that many of the movement’s most experienced activists were now employed as organizers in the growing trade union movement.

A third reason is that changes in the relief system undermined the movement’s ability to mobilize the unemployed and win gains through collective action.  The system had become professionalized, with relief officials in city after city establishing rules about the size of delegations that would be allowed in offices and the number of times each week that delegations could seek meetings with officials. Moreover, relief office workers were instructed not to meet clients if they were accompanied by a delegation or grant relief if a delegation was present in the office.

This left local unemployed organizers in the position of either accepting the new ground rules to ensure that their members received relief or continuing their mass activity hoping that their old strategy would be more effective in winning gains.   Increasingly, members advocated for the former, leaving organizers with no choice.  In fact, as a sign of the growing sophistication of the New Deal relief effort, a number of relief offices actually offered jobs to local activists with the unemployed movement with the promise that they could help make the system work more efficiently and effectively for those seeking relief.  In many cases, those offers were accepted.

Perhaps the most important reason for the movement’s growing political weakness was the Communist Party’s decision to pursue an alliance with the Roosevelt administration as part of its anti-fascist popular front policy.  This led the party to organize support for Roosevelt’s 1936 election and his New Deal policies, and to deemphasize oppositional and militant mass actions in support of social transformation in favor of more established political activity such as petition drives and lobbying for improvements in existing programs. In fact, hoping to win Roosevelt’s good will, the CP often organized rallies designed to show worker support for the WPA and other New Deal programs.  Roosevelt was actually invited to give the main speech at the WAA’s second annual convention.  When he turned down the invitation the honor was given to the WPA’s Director of Labor Relations. In 1938, WAA locals even campaigned for pro-New Deal candidates.

Increasingly the WAA became integrated into the New Deal.  As Piven and Cloward point out:

The [WAA became] recognized as the official bargaining agent for WPA workers, and alliance leaders now corresponded frequently with WPA administrators, communicating a host of complaints, and discussing innumerable procedural questions regarding WPA administrative regulations. Some of the complaints were major, having to do with pay cuts and arbitrary layoffs. Much of the correspondence, however, had to do with minute questions of procedure, and especially with the question of whether WPA workers were being allowed to make up the time lost while attending alliance meetings. Alliance leaders also wrote regularly to the president, reviewing the economic situation for him, deploring cuts in WPA, and calling for an expansion of the program.

The WAA continued to make demands on the administration, drafting their own bills calling for greater public spending and employment at union wages, advocating for their own far more sweeping social insurance program, and calling for the establishment of a national planning agency to oversee a permanent public works program.  But the movement no longer threatened Roosevelt, and its demands were largely ignored.  The WAA dissolved itself in 1941.

The labor movement, riding the growth in the economy, soon replaced the unemployed movement as the most powerful social force for change.  However, for reasons noted above, it also underwent its own moderation despite the efforts of rank and file activists.  For example, CIO leaders established Labor’s Non-Partisan League in 1936 to support President Roosevelt’s reelection and his New Deal program. World War II; the post-war vicious anti-communist attacks on all critics of capitalism, especially in the labor movement; and the strength of the post-war economic expansion finally buried the promise of a radical transformation.  There would be no transformative Third New Deal.

Lessons

The New Deal experience holds a number of important lessons for those advocating a Green New Deal.  First, the existence or even recognition of a crisis cannot be counted on to motivate a change in government policy if that change threatens the status quo.  It took years of mass organizing to force the federal government to acknowledge its responsibility to respond to the devastating social consequences of the Great Depression.  The challenge will be even greater today since, as opposed to the 1930s, the capitalist class continues to enjoy lucrative opportunities for profit-making.

Second, a broad-base mass movement that threatens the stability of the system can force a significant change in government policy.  The driving force for change in the 1930s was the movement of unemployed, and its early power came from the Communist Party’s ability to establish a network of local Unemployed Councils that provided unemployed workers with the opportunity to better understand the cause of their hard times, build class solidarity through collective actions in defense of local needs, and become part of broader campaigns for public policies on the national level that were directly responsive to their local concerns.

It is likely that activists for a Green New Deal will have to engage in a similar process of movement building if they hope to force a meaningful government response to our current crises.  Despite the fact that we face a number of interrelated social, economic, and ecological crises, activists must still find ways to weave together different local organizations engaged in collective actions in defense of their local needs into a nation-wide political force able to project a vision of responsive system change as well as define and fight for associated policies.

Third, government responses to political pressure can be expected to fall far short of movement demands for transformative change.  The Roosevelt administration’s First New Deal programs fell far short of what working people demanded and needed.  It took sustained organizing to win a Second New Deal, which while better, was still inadequate.  It the movement for a Green New Deal succeeds in forcing government action, it is safe to assume that, much as in the 1930s, the policies implemented will be partial and inadequate.  Thus, movement activists have to prepare participants for a long, and ongoing campaign of mobilization, organizational development, and pressure.

Fourth, because of the importance of government policy and the natural attraction of wanting to exert personal influence on it, movement activists must remain vigilant against becoming too tied to the government bureaucracy, thereby losing their political independence and weakening the movement’s capacity to continue pushing for further changes in state policy.  WAA leaders understandably wanted to influence New Deal policy, but their growing embrace of the Roosevelt administration, pursued for broader political objectives as well, ended up weakening the movement’s organizational strengthen and effectiveness and perhaps even more importantly, vision of a more egalitarian and democratic society. Green New Deal activists can be expected to face the same kind of pressures if a progressive government comes to power and begins to initiate its own reform program and movements must be alert to the danger.

Fifth, and finally, movements have to be careful not to become too policy oriented. The New Deal included a number of different programs each designed to address different problems.  This created a natural tendency for the different organizations that comprised the broader social movement to narrow their own focus and concentrate on finding ways to respond to the policy shortcomings that most affected their members.  Thus, while the unemployed, those on relief, and those fighting for unionization initially shared a sense of common struggle, over time, in large measure because of their success in winning reforms, they became separate movements, each with their own separate concerns. As a consequence, the overall power, unity, and commitment of the broader social movement for massive societal change was weakened.

This is a challenge that the movement for a Green New Deal can expect to face if it is successful enough to force meaningful government reforms, especially given the multiplicity of the challenges the country faces. The only way to minimize this challenge is to ensure that movement organizing, from the very beginning, encourages participants to see the need for the broader transformative change inspired by the notion of a Green New Deal, and to draw from their struggle an ever more concrete understanding of how that change can be advanced and how real improvement in their lives depends on its achievement.