In his second inaugural President Obama referred to iconic events in the history of gender, race and gay rights, putting the idea of equality at the center of his agenda. While several pundits were surprised or offended–depending on their political leanings–with the liberalism of Obama’s discourse, and a few noted the momentous effect of pairing gay rights with gender and race, nobody (at least to my knowledge) complained about the conspicuous absence of workers’ rights.
Okay, so maybe citing the notorious Haymarket riot and the martyrs of the Knights of Labor was too much to expect from an American president. In fact, Samuel Gompers and the American Federation of Labor (AFL), as it is well known, never had a positive view of the anarchists associated with more combative labor tactics. In part, that’s why while the whole world, knowingly or not, commemorates the Haymarket affair every May Day, Labor Day in the U.S. is relegated to the first Monday of September. But still a nod to labor would have been essential to really claim that the president is moving in a liberal direction.
Don’t get me wrong, I think the speech was great, and understand the difficulties of pushing a progressive agenda in the face of a Republican party that refuses to engage in rational politics. But I’m still surprised of how low the idea of labor rights has sunk, that nobody even notices that they are not mentioned at all, this in a week in which we are told that the union membership rate was 11.3 percent, the lowest in almost a century.
Obama did talk about jobs, and the difficulties ahead, it’s true. And we should count our blessings, since things could have been much worse (not really a good campaign slogan though). The graph below shows the recovery in employment now compared with the Great Depression, and it’s clear that active fiscal and monetary policies stemmed a potentially more drastic fall in employment.
But that should not lead us to believe that things are all picture-perfect. Not only will employment take a long while to return to the pre-crisis level, but also the rate of unemployment (reported at 7.8 percent or so) is considerably higher than it is often understood.
Since the late 1990s the participation level–the number of workers in the labor force–has decreased from around 67 percent of population to less than 64 percent. In other words, discouraged workers who cannot find jobs simply leave the labor market. If one were to recalculate the unemployment rate, but assume that those discouraged workers were still in the labor force (that is, using a participation rate similar to the late 1990s) then the level of unemployment would look like this:
The adjusted (for seasonal variations) unemployment rate would be close to 12.5 percent. More importantly, it is clear that the labor market has been in bad shape throughout the whole 2000s. And, if anything, things are getting worse for workers. So-called “right-to-work” (RTW) laws, which prohibit unions from requiring a worker to pay dues even when the worker benefits from a union negotiated collective bargaining agreement, continue to expand. With the recent addition of Michigan, now almost half of the states have passed this union busting legislation. Also, restrictions on the ability of public employees to bargain collectively have been on the rise, as was prominently displayed in Wisconsin.
Note that RTW legislation seems to have a clear negative effect on real wages. If nothing else, because union workers make more than non-union workers (the wage premium for union workers is 13.6 percent; see Table 4.33 in EPI’s State of Working America), discouraging union membership should have a negative impact on wages overall. Note also that unionization does not have a negative effect on employment (if this were true Swedes would all be unemployed), as noted by Jared Bernstein. By the way, this suggests that, in reality, right-to-work legislation is to work creation as right-to-bear-arms is to security of children in school. But we do live in a doublespeak world in which job creators do not create jobs after all.
To stop this unrelenting anti-union campaign by corporations–using state-level legislation to undermine workers’ rights–we need a national party willing to stand for those rights. So if not Haymarket, at least a reference to the National Labor Relations Act of 1935, the ‘Wagner Act,’ which protected the rights of unions, and spearheaded the prosperity of the post-war ‘golden age.’ It’s great to expand the liberties of minorities, but it is also important not to forget that workers’ rights have been undermined by the rise of corporate power, and that work, as much as gender, race, ethnicity and sexuality, defines who we are.