What should we celebrate on Labor Day 2020 when tens of millions of US workers are jobless, the desperately needed extra $600 per week unemployment compensation is being reduced, and millions of jobs will never return? What should the US majority – employees – do as employers cut their wages and benefits, threatening to replace them from millions of jobless desperate for paid work? To answer such questions, we must face the real conditions of the working class today.
The profiteers – the big, corporate firms that dominate the US economy – have gained greatly at workers’ expense, especially over the last 40 years. They installed technology that cost millions of jobs. They relocated production overseas where wages and other costs are lower. The combination of fewer jobs and more people looking for them kept wages from rising for a long time. Skilled, secure, and well-paid jobs gave way to low-skill, insecure, and poorly paid positions. Labor unions lost members and power.
Meanwhile, the income of the top 5% – employers and their top executives – grew dramatically at everyone else’s expense. US capitalism redistributed wealth upwards, from the middle and the poor to the rich. Employers and the Republican Party together deprived unions of their former power. The Democratic Party proved unwilling or unable to protect labor’s interests; it kept promising but not delivering.
Automation, outsourcing jobs, and shrinking union memberships and power produced workers’ mounting hardships, bitterness, and anger. Taking on mountains of debt (for mortgages, autos, credit cards and college educations) only worsened their hardships. Then US capitalism’s 2008 crash exposed how the richest used the government to bail themselves out and further deepen inequality. Employees saw the US becoming a small knot of the super-wealthy surrounded by a sea of economic pain.
Some upset and angry workers voted for Trump in 2016. They wondered whether a Trump/GOP government would deliver on its promises to “make America great again” by reversing the long decline of its working class majority. By now it should be clear that Trump’s promises may be more, louder and extreme, but they too have been broken. Inequality has gotten worse, government failure to prepare for or contain Covid-19 is catastrophic, and managing capitalism’s 2020 crash is another gross exercise in unjust economics.
The last 40 years show that expecting protection or support for labor’s economic well-being from Republicans or Democrats is a tragic mistake. Labor leaders writing protest op-eds in newspapers will not work. Making some protest remarks while endorsing yet another Democratic Party ticket just repeats past mistakes.
US capitalism’s decline continues as competing economies rise (China, the European Union, the BRICS countries, and so on). The rich in the US use their wealth to grab and hold everything they can amidst decline. Without a changed strategy, working class conditions will be taken down with and by the system’s decline.
What the working class can do is move into the streets to stop “business as usual” until steps are taken to reverse the last 40 years’ redistribution of wealth. Workers must also stop endorsing and voting for candidates who do not serve their interests. Nothing would better show workers’ seriousness about reversing the last 40 years than building a new labor-based political party to change US politics.
Labor Day 2020 needs honest self criticism and radically different, new strategies for labor in the US.
Together with the Democracy at Work team, I will continue our work in bringing these analyses to you. We hope it helps our collective effort to assess the world around us and to envision the future. We can do better than capitalism.
Richard D. Wolff
[email protected] Board of Directors Member
Learn more about Prof Wolff's latest book, The System is the Sickness: When Capitalism Fails to Save Us from Pandemics or Itself, that is coming out in a few weeks: www.democracyatwork.info/books