What’s Left 5: Let’s Declare War on Economic Insecurity

Ted Rall says it better than I can - The New York Times

            Wages high enough to cover basic expenses are only the beginning of the Left’s struggle to eliminate economic insecurity.

            We must also fight for workers’ rights on the job as well as a robust and sturdy social safety net to protect people when they find themselves out of work. Americans suffer the worst worker benefits of major developed countries; we are tied with Botswana, Iran, Mexico, Pakistan. Our safety net also comes in dead last.

            For as long as anyone can remember, the balance of power between labor and management has been radically tilted in favor of capital. While nine out of ten workers are not organized, employers not only form cartels to set prices for labor, they enjoy outsized influence in Washington and state capitals through campaign contributions to politicians.

            Globalization has exacerbated this imbalance; an apparel company like Nike may manufacture goods in low-wage, anti-union countries like Vietnam or Indonesia and ship them to high-income/high-price markets like Europe or the United States on container ships whose expenses are subsidized by taxpayers of the latter. As much as an ambitious worker might be willing to abandon her family and native culture to move to a higher-wage place like Norway or Qatar, however, it is nearly impossible to obtain the necessary working permits, much less citizenship. Capital is fluid; labor is stationary.

            The Left seeks to level the playing field between labor and management.

            U.S. labor laws are “at will,” meaning that you can be fired for any reason other than discrimination because of your race, sex, sexual orientation or other legally-protected class. At-will is a license for companies to overhire during booms and impose mass layoffs when the economy cools down, as we saw tech companies do after the COVID-19 pandemic. It enables bosses to vote themselves a raise at the same time they let workers go, many of whom disrupted their lives to take those jobs, lost other opportunities, and who have no responsibility for poor management decisions.

            At-will must go. An employer who wants to get rid of an employee should have to prove to the Department of Labor either that the move is required due to the company’s finances—and then only after upper management have absorbed pay cuts and stockholders lose their dividends—or that he did something wrong, in which case he should be entitled to a hearing before an impartial court system established to litigate labor-management disputes before a jury.

            Workers’ power relies first and foremost on the right and ability to withhold labor after contract negotiations break down. Therefore, every American worker in an enterprise with ten or more employees ought to be legally guaranteed the right to join a union—even if they are the only member of their company’s workforce who wants to sign a union card. Existing laws prohibiting employer retaliation against union organizers and members, which are weak and rarely enforced, must be strengthened to the point where it is nearly impossible to fire someone for standing up for higher wages and working conditions. Needless to say, state “right to work“ laws that allow workers in union shops to withhold union dues while receiving negotiated benefits, should be eliminated.

            Laws like the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947, which ban solidarity strikes and strikes by the military and other public-sector workers and have been expanded by courts and presidential executive orders to include “essential” workers like coal miners and rail workers, go far beyond regulations in other developed nations and must be abolished. If workers are truly essential to the functioning of the nation, like firefighters and postal workers, they should be remunerated accordingly. In the case of exceptional categories of workers deemed essential in matters of life and death, which should be highly limited, the loss of the right to strike should be compensated by guaranteed raises pegged to the inflation rate.

            U.S. workers are divided into arbitrary classifications designed to allow corporations to treat them like dirt. I work at least 40 hours a week as a cartoonist and columnist yet my syndicate misclassifies me as an “independent contractor.” Same for Uber and Lyft drivers, though there’s nothing independent about a job which specifies everything about your tasks down to the model of car you must drive, though you pay for it yourself.

            The system is random and arbitrary. When I lost my W-2 job as a syndicate executive, I qualified for unemployment even though I had only worked half-weeks. If my syndicate cans me as a cartoonist and writer, I do not.

            For the Left, all work is work, all work has value and all workers must be protected. The “independent contractor” loophole should be closed. A 20-hour-a-week job should come with at least half medical benefits. A third of U.S. citizens are self-employed; they should qualify for unemployment benefits when work dries up, just like people who work for other people.

            And work will dry up. Because boom-and-bust cycles are intrinsic to capitalism, until the Revolution comes the Left should agitate for a safety net that reflects this reality. Jobless benefits should be far more generous than they are now. They should expire when you find a new job, not after the six-month limit set by most state legislatures. By way of comparison, countries like Denmark, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal and Spain provide up to 24 months of unemployment payments. Iceland gives 30.

            As we’ve seen with robotics and are seeing with artificial intelligence, disruptive technologies destroy entire lines of business at once, rendering hard-earned education and experience worthless overnight. The heartland has plunged into despair and drug addiction after decades of deindustrialization fueled by pro-globalization policies. Surely we could use the lost productivity of these millions of fellow citizens who have filed for federal disability checks because they have no hope of ever being gainfully employed! Those who are willing to take classes to be retrained for positions that will be needed in the near future must currently bear all or most of the cost themselves. Retraining programs should be gratis, and the government should pay them a living stipend so people can focus on their studies.

            The ultimate manifestation of economic insecurity, the abject poverty that leads to homelessness, hunger and death, ought to be impossible in this wealthiest of all countries in history. Even if they “want” to do so, the Left should not allow people to sleep outside, for the freedom to die in the cold is no freedom whatsoever.

            Next: How to abolish homelessness.

(Ted Rall (Twitter: @tedrall), the political cartoonist, columnist and graphic novelist, co-hosts the left-vs-right DMZ America podcast with fellow cartoonist Scott Stantis. You can support Ted’s hard-hitting political cartoons and columns and see his work first by sponsoring his work on Patreon.)

3 Comments. Leave new

  • alex_the_tired
    February 26, 2024 6:43 PM

    I think Ted has the right idea but the wrong grasp of the issues.

    Benefits should be decoupled from employment. Period. Start small, then build. I should have the right to an economically secure retirement regardless of whether I swept streets or stole other people’s work on my arduous path toward the presidency of Harvard.
    I should have a guarantee of health care.

    That shouldn’t come about as a result of debate between labor and management. it should come about as legislative fiat. The ignant unwashed masses need to be slapped, hard, across the chops and told: “You are, genuinely, so stupid you are a danger. We’ll give you free cable. Vote for us this ONE time. And if we don’t give you free cable? We’ll go away. But if we do give you free cable, you have to keep voting for us. Just as long as we keep giving you more benefits. Deal?”

    Regrettably, I suspect that we are approaching the breaking point. How much more can the “sick man of America” that is the middle class take? Keep in mind, once the middle class collapses, it’ll be the biggest catastrophe in human history. It’ll make the Black Plague look like a paper cut.

  • “We” declare, at least perform, perpetual war precisely TO CREATE perpetual economic insecurity.
    See “austerity economics”: the cleanest & most efficient “weapon of mass destruction.”

  • I’m terrible at coming up with solutions for social problems. But I think about homeless a lot because I see them everywhere and I learned two years ago about a movement called “hostile architecture” to make it difficult for people to sit or sleep in cities. After I learned what to look for I saw it everywhere. What it leads me to think about is that people want homelessness as a problem to go away and wish they just didn’t have to deal with the human part of the problem. And I try to come up with a solution but I can’t. I’m sure there is one and I’ll read Ted’s piece on it and hopefully be enlightened. I’m sure that smart people who study social and economic problems have ways to solve the weird separation between people with the resources to be safe and comfortable and people without those resources. My brain just always winds up running in circles and not figuring out an answer that works.

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