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.
According to an Economic Policy Institutereport, between 28 and 47 percent of U.S. private sector workers are subject to noncompete agreements. In brief, noncompete agreements (or noncompetes) are provisions in an employment contract that ban workers from leaving their job to work for a “competitor” that operates in the same geographic area, for a given period of time. In a way, it’s an attempt to recreate the power dynamics of the employer-dominated company towns of old—with workers unable to change employers if they want to continuing working in the same industry.
It is not just top executives that are forced to accept a noncompete agreement. Companies also use them to restrict the employment freedom of many low wage workers, including janitors, security guards, fast food workers, warehouse workers, personal care aids, and room cleaners. In fact, the Economic Policy Institute estimates that almost a third of all businesses require that all of their workers sign noncompetes, regardless of their job duties or pay.
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.
A battle is slowly brewing in Washington DC over whether to raise corporate taxes to help finance new infrastructure investments. While higher corporate taxes cannot generate all the funds needed, the coming debate over whether to raise them gives us an opportunity to challenge the still strong popular identification of corporate profitability with the health of the economy and, by extension, worker wellbeing.
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.