Save Jobs, Safeguard Workers

The efforts to bail out America’s banks may not have kick started the nation’s economy, but they did ignite an explosion in profits.

Corporations have been reporting huge earnings — in some cases, breaking their own previous records — even as the nation’s unemployment rate remains near 10% and nearly one in six Americans report being underemployed or out of work altogether.

As David Leonhardt pointed out in a perceptive piece in the New York Times, traditional measures of the economy show that we are in recovery and growing more quickly than other major industrial nations.

“The gross domestic product here — the total value of all goods and services — has recovered from the recession better than in Britain, Germany, Japan or Russia,” he wrote. But that growth has not translated into job growth. “(A) greatly shrunken group of American workers, working harder and more efficiently, is producing these goods and services.

“The unemployment rate is higher in this country than in Britain or Russia and much higher than in Germany or Japan, according to a study of worldwide job markets that Gallup will release on Wednesday. The American jobless rate is also higher than China’s, Gallup found. The European countries with worse unemployment than the United States tend to be those still mired in crisis, like Greece, Ireland and Spain.”

Economists, Leonhardt writes, have been arguing about why this is the case, but Leonhardt makes it pretty clear that “the basic structure of the American economy … seems to be an important factor. “ The cyclical nature of capitalism, with its periods of growth and recession, are normal, but three straight jobless recoveries is not.

Leonhardt speculates that “the balance of power between employers and employees” is a “possible cause.”

“Relative to the situation in most other countries — or in this country for most of the last century — American employers operate with few restraints. Unions have withered, at least in the private sector, and courts have grown friendlier to business. Many companies can now come much closer to setting the terms of their relationship with employees, letting them go when they become a drag on profits and relying on remaining workers or temporary ones when business picks up.”

Basically, the American worker lacks a voice, lacks any power and is paying for it with stagnant wages (at best) and an economy that views the worker as expendable.

But boosting protections for workers – enhancing workplace safety, making it easier to organize, even extending unemployment insurance and making employers foot the bill – is off the table. We can talk about the need for jobs, but nothing else.

But addressing the imbalance between labor and management must be a part of any effort to restructure the American economy. The growth in corporate profits has come with assistance from the federal government and at the expense of workers, who are finding it harder and harder to pay their bills.

Labor law reform will help, but it ultimately cannot be effective without a rebuilding of the labor movement – which requires, as Jane McAlevey pointed out in The Nation, that unions address “issues where unions can make an immediate difference in people’s lives” and create “the potential for Americans in large numbers to see unions as relevant.”

“Rather than posting links to the websites of housing groups, how about starting direct worker-to-worker conversations about occupying mortgage company headquarters across the country until the banks stop foreclosing on their members’ homes?” she asks. “Rather than suddenly calling for members to picket banks or take seemingly random militant actions, how about sitting down with union members and talking about what actions everyone can take to force solutions to the housing crisis — solutions such as making banks revalue mortgages to the actual value of homes and creating lines of credit so workers can move to places where they might find a job?”

These may seem like radical suggestions, but the sensible solutions offered by so-called pragmatic politicians have done nothing to make life easier for workers.

“People in this country are screaming for a fight, but the only people offering one have been from the right wing,” McAlevey writes. And the right is fighting to smash unions and make it easier for business to boost profits.

McAlevey is right when she proclaims that “It’s time to empower people to get into motion.”

Once mobilized, workers stand a better chance of profiting from the recovery.

Hank Kalet is a poet and a regional editor with in New Jersey. Email; Twitter, @newspoet41;

From The Progressive Populist, February 15, 2011

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