The hunt for profits is driving ever more despicable labor laws and practices. A case in point: the sharp rise in the number of states seeking to rollback restrictions on the use of child labor. We need to fight this trend and if we are to succeed we must be clear on who we are fighting. Advocates for the relaxation of child labor protections are not some fringe wackos; they include some of the most powerful rightwing foundations and profitable corporations in the United States.
Not surprisingly, the consensus from those studying the wartime conversion experience is that a rapid and successful transformation requires aggressive state planning and direction of economic activity. This is indeed an important lesson for our movement to learn. But there is another lesson to be learned from that period, one that deserves more attention than it currently receives. It is that in a capitalist economy, capital’s ownership position greatly enhances its ability to mold state structures and their policies in ways favorable to its interests and to the detriment of workers. In other words, the planning process is a contested terrain, and one not usually favorable to working people.
I will show that, during the war years, corporate leaders were able to rebuff Congress of Industrial Organization (CIO) planning proposals and successfully marginalize the participation of unions in the mobilization agencies that were formed, ensuring that labor would be forced into a defensive and ever weaker position relative to capital as the war progressed. Thus, if our aim is not simply a transformation to a somewhat less carbon consuming economy, but a complete and just transformation, we must prepare ourselves, and the movement that we hope to build, for an ongoing and complex struggle to overcome capital’s structural advantages. It is my hope that this article, which focuses on the class dynamics shaping the Second World War mobilization process, can help that preparation. The history it describes offers a useful primer on how the other side conducts its class war.
The United States is an employment “at-will” country. That means, absent a union contract, a boss can fire a worker for almost any, or even no reason, and without advance notice. Well—with the exception of Montana. As the state’s employment division explains: “Montana is not an ‘at-will’ state. . . generally, once an employee has completed the established probationary period, the employer needs to have good cause for termination.”
While Montana is the exception in the United States, the United States is the exception among developed capitalist economies. In those other countries, most workers can only be dismissed for “just cause,” with just cause statutorily or judicially defined. For example, German workers employed for more than six months by a company with more than ten workers cannot simply be dismissed. The company must have a valid business or personal conduct reason. Moreover, the company is also required to notify the employee in advance, and in writing, of their termination. Many employees also receive severance pay proportional to their length of employment.
So, how big a deal is employment at-will in the United States? According to the results of a recent survey by the National Employment Law Project (NELP), carried out by YouGov, more than two out of three workers who have been discharged received no reason or an unfair reason for their termination. Almost three out of four received no warning before discharge.
The climate crisis has driven our planet into uncharted territory. We are close to breaching critical environmental thresholds, setting in motion destabilizing changes to our global climate system that could well make the earth unlivable for humans and countless other species. We must decrease carbon emissions as rapidly as possible and there is no way to do that without significantly changing the operation and aims of our economy. But not just any change will do. It must be one that also promotes worker empowerment and solidarity, community well-being and security, and democracy.
President Calvin Coolidge, in a January 1925 speech to newspaper editors, asserted that “the chief business of the American people is business.” The claim, although far from true, did capture the short-lived success of business leaders in structuring the country’s social institutions for the benefit of the wealthy.
Tragically, we appear well into another period when business needs and desires are promoted as consistent with American values and enshrined into law. The pro-business orientation of the current Roberts Supreme Court highlights this reality. As Lee Epstein and Mitu Gulati show in their paper “A Century of Business in the Supreme Court, 1920-2020”:
the Roberts Court may be the most pro-business Court in a century. The win rate for business in the Roberts Court, 63.4 percent, is 15 percentage points higher than the next highest rate of business wins over the past century.
Slip slidin’ away—that is what tends to happen to pro-worker reforms in our economic system. Things are structured so that without constant vigilance and struggle on our part, gains are gradually undone. A case in point: overtime pay.
It wasn’t that long ago that most workers in the US were eligible for time and half pay for every hour worked beyond a 40-hour work week. Employers didn’t agree to overtime pay out of the goodness of their hearts. They did it because worker organizing and activism pressured Congress to pass a labor law requiring, although with some important exceptions, the payment of overtime wages. Now, a significant number of workers no longer have the right to overtime pay. For example, in 1975 more than 60 percent of salaried workers automatically qualified for time and half pay. That share fell to a low of 4 percent in 2000 before slowly rising to 15 percent in 2020.
If you follow the news it must seem like joining a union is a step outside the norms of US law. Afterall, the media is full of stories about how big companies like Starbucks and Amazon threaten their pro-union workers with dismissal, spy on their employees and deny them the right to meet and share information during legally mandated break and meal times, require their workers to participate in 1-on-1 and group meetings with managers where they are routinely told lies about what unions do and the consequences of unionization, find ways to delay promised union elections, and refuse to negotiate a contract even after workers have successfully voted for unionization.
Yet, the National Labor Relations Act, which is the foundational statute governing private sector labor law, boldly asserts that workers should be able to freely organize to improve the conditions of their employment. As the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) states:
The National Labor Relations Act forbids employers from interfering with, restraining, or coercing employees in the exercise of rights relating to organizing, forming, joining or assisting a labor organization for collective bargaining purposes, or from working together to improve terms and conditions of employment, or refraining from any such activity.
So, one might reasonably ask, how do businesses get away with the kind of behavior highlighted above? One answer is that a series of Supreme Court decisions and NLRB rulings have reinterpreted the country’s labor laws in ways that have given employers a free pass to engage in a variety of anti-worker actions. Another is that Congress has refused to adequately fund the NLRB, leaving the organization unable to hire sufficient staff to do the needed investigations of worker complaints and oversee elections even during the rare periods when the NLRB has actively sought to protect worker rights.
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.
The news has recently highlighted labor’s growing activism, publishing numerous stories about high quit rates, threatened and actual strikes, and wage gains. While these stories do capture the anger and determination of workers who have suffered through the pandemic with limited compensation for dramatically increased workloads while watching profits soar, they also paint an overly optimistic picture of the gains being made. And now, the media seems mesmerized by the threat of inflation, with those advocating austerity increasingly given prominent play. The reality is that the labor movement has a long struggle ahead and it should not be distracted by unwarranted fears of inflation.
This is far from a “hot take”: financial wealth in the United States is highly concentrated, with most households, especially Black and Hispanic households, owning few financial assets. One consequence is that many Americans are likely to face a very challenging retirement. Sadly, if economic and social conditions remain as they are, we can expect to see an ever-growing number turn to for-profit crowdfunding platforms, like GoFundMe, for help in meeting expenses.
A recently published study by the National Institute on Retirement Security, a non-profit research and education organization, using data from the Federal Reserve’s Survey of Consumer Finances, paints a disturbing picture of the distribution of financial assets by generation, net worth and race.