Slip slidin’ away—that is what tends to happen to pro-worker reforms in our economic system. Things are structured so that without constant vigilance and struggle on our part, gains are gradually undone. A case in point: overtime pay.
It wasn’t that long ago that most workers in the US were eligible for time and half pay for every hour worked beyond a 40-hour work week. Employers didn’t agree to overtime pay out of the goodness of their hearts. They did it because worker organizing and activism pressured Congress to pass a labor law requiring, although with some important exceptions, the payment of overtime wages. Now, a significant number of workers no longer have the right to overtime pay. For example, in 1975 more than 60 percent of salaried workers automatically qualified for time and half pay. That share fell to a low of 4 percent in 2000 before slowly rising to 15 percent in 2020.
If you follow the news it must seem like joining a union is a step outside the norms of US law. Afterall, the media is full of stories about how big companies like Starbucks and Amazon threaten their pro-union workers with dismissal, spy on their employees and deny them the right to meet and share information during legally mandated break and meal times, require their workers to participate in 1-on-1 and group meetings with managers where they are routinely told lies about what unions do and the consequences of unionization, find ways to delay promised union elections, and refuse to negotiate a contract even after workers have successfully voted for unionization.
Yet, the National Labor Relations Act, which is the foundational statute governing private sector labor law, boldly asserts that workers should be able to freely organize to improve the conditions of their employment. As the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) states:
The National Labor Relations Act forbids employers from interfering with, restraining, or coercing employees in the exercise of rights relating to organizing, forming, joining or assisting a labor organization for collective bargaining purposes, or from working together to improve terms and conditions of employment, or refraining from any such activity.
So, one might reasonably ask, how do businesses get away with the kind of behavior highlighted above? One answer is that a series of Supreme Court decisions and NLRB rulings have reinterpreted the country’s labor laws in ways that have given employers a free pass to engage in a variety of anti-worker actions. Another is that Congress has refused to adequately fund the NLRB, leaving the organization unable to hire sufficient staff to do the needed investigations of worker complaints and oversee elections even during the rare periods when the NLRB has actively sought to protect worker rights.
President Biden’s 2022 State of the Union Address included a call for a $15 federal minimum wage. According to an Economic Policy Institutestudy, a phased increase to a $15 federal minimum wage by 2025 would raise the earnings of 32 million workers—21 percent of the workforce, no small thing.
The current federal minimum wage is $7.25. The federal minimum wage was established in 1938, as part of the Fair Labor Standards Act. Congress has voted to raise it 9 times since then, the last time in 2007. That last vote included a mandated three step increase that brought it to its current level in July 2009.
It has been 13 years since the last increase in the federal minimum wage, the longest period since its establishment without an increase. Taking inflation into account, workers paid the federal minimum wage in 2021 earned 21 percent less than what their counterparts earned in 2009, and prices keep rising. Outrageously, this eroding federal minimum wage continues to set the wage floor in 20 states. Where is the justice in that?
The Green New Deal has become a rallying cry for activists seeking to build a mass movement capable of addressing our ever worsening, and increasingly interrelated, climate and social crises. Building such a movement is no simple task, but I believe that our organizing efforts can greatly benefit from a careful study of the rapid transformation of the US economy from civilian to military production during World War II.
In two recent publications, with links below, I describe and evaluate the planning process responsible for the wartime transformation and offer my thoughts on some of the key lessons to be learned. In what follows I highlight some of the reasons why I believe Green New Deal advocates would benefit from careful study of the wartime experience.
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.
We face many big challenges. And we will need strong, bold policies to meaningfully address them. Solving our child-care crisis is one of those challenges, and a study of World War II government efforts to ensure accessible and affordable high-quality child care points the way to the kind of bold action we need.
The child care crisis
A number of studies have established that high-quality early childhood programs provide significant community and individual benefits. One found that “per dollar invested, early childhood programs increase present value of state per capita earnings by $5 to $9.” Universal preschool programs have also been shown to offer significant benefits to all children, even producing better outcomes for the most disadvantaged children than means-tested programs. Yet, even before the pandemic, most families struggled with a lack of desirable child-care options.
Many activists in the United States support a Green New Deal transformation of the economy in order to tackle the escalating global climate crisis and the country’s worsening economic and social problems. At present, the Green New Deal remains a big tent idea, with advocates continuing to debate what it should include and even its ultimate aims. Although perhaps understandable given this lack of agreement, far too little attention has been paid to the process of transformation. That is concerning, because it will be far from easy.
One productive way for us to sharpen our thinking about the transformation is to study the World War II-era mobilization process. Then, the U.S. government, facing remarkably similar challenges to the ones we are likely to confront, successfully converted the U.S. economy from civilian to military production in a period of only three years.
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.
This is the first in a series of posts that aim to describe and evaluate the World War II mobilization experience in the United States in order to illuminate some of the economic and political challenges we can expect to face as we work for a Green New Deal.
This post highlights the successful government directed wartime reorientation of the U.S. economy from civilian to military production, an achievement that both demonstrates the feasibility of a rapid Green New Deal transformation of the U.S. economy and points to the kinds of organizational capacities we will need to develop. The post also highlights some of the strategies employed by big business to successfully stamp the wartime transformation as a victory for “market freedom,” an outcome that strengthened capital’s ability to dominate the postwar U.S. political economy and suggests the kind of political struggles we can expect and will need to overcome as we work to achieve a just Green New Deal transformation.
It wasn’t that long ago that the country celebrated frontline workers by banging pots in the evening to thank them for the risks they took doing their jobs during the pandemic. One national survey found that health care workers were the most admired (80%), closely followed by grocery store workers (77%), and delivery drivers (73%).
Corporate leaders joined in the celebration. Supermarket Newsquoted Dacona Smith, executive vice president and chief operating officer at Walmart U.S., as saying in April:
We cannot thank and appreciate our associates enough. What they have accomplished in the last few weeks has been amazing to watch and fills everyone at our company with enormous pride. America is getting the chance to see what we’ve always known — that our people truly do make the difference. Let’s all take care of each other out there.
Driven by a desire to burnish their public image, deflect attention from their soaring profits, and attract more workers, many of the country’s leading retailers, including Walmart, proudly announced special pandemic wage increases and bonuses. But as a report by Brookingspoints out, although their profits continued to roll in, those special payments didn’t last long.
There are three important takeaways from the report: First, don’t trust corporate PR statements; once people stop paying attention, corporations do what they want. Second, workers need unions to defend their interests. Third, there should be some form of federal regulation to ensure workers receive hazard pay during health emergencies like pandemics, similar to the laws requiring time and half for overtime work.