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Seneca, Selma, Stonewall and Haymarket too

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 to 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 US is relegated to the first Monday of September. But still a nod to labor would have been essential to really claim that this is a president 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 against 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 although slow, it’s clear that active fiscal and monetary policies stemmed a comparable fall in employment.
But that should not lead us to believe that thinks are all picture-perfect. Not only employment will take a long while to return to the pre-crisis level, but also the rate of unemployment (at 7.8 percent or so) is considerably higher than it is often understood. Since the late 1990s the participation rate, 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 that 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 in the figure below.
The adjusted 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. The so-called “right-to-work” (RTW) laws, which are laws that prohibit unions from requiring a worker to pay dues even when the worker benefits from a union negotiated collective bargaining agreement, continue to expand, and with Michigan’s recent addition, now almost half States 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), and discouraging union membership then should have a negative impact on the wage mass. Note also that unionization does NOT really 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 the evidence is that 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 campaign by corporations, that use 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 so-called Wagner Act, which protected the rights of unions, and spearheaded the prosperity of the so-called 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, define who we are.

Originally published in Bob Pollin's Back to Full Employment Blog


  1. Excellent point. However, Haymarket wouldn't have worked, since it doesn't start with S. Perhaps San Francisco, in reference to the successful General Strike supporting the longshoremen, in 1934?

    In California, it has gotten so bad that many wage-earners work as "independant contractors," forced to pay the employer's share of the FICA tax. This is illegal, but the NLRB doesn't do anything to stop it. The administration has been almost completely AWOL on workers' rights issues. They seem to accept the premise that individuals' incomes reflect their marginal productivity, though this is demonstrably false. And now the supreme court has seemed to re-embrace the spirit of its Slaughterhouse and Lochner rulings, and attacked even a mildly active NLRB.

    Our present circumstance bears a close resemblance to the early 1930s. We can study how, in that period, working people demanded and received significant concessions, in the United States, in France, and in Mexico (to name three cases I'm familiar with). In the US, this happened with only implicit support from the Roosevelt administration (although the USSR's growth numbers probably also helped). This record should be our blueprint today.

    1. Well we don't have Francis Perkins in the Labor Department, and unionization efforts in services have been way less succesful than in industry. Remember that the increase in unionization in the 1930s came at a time when AFL split (and the more militant CIO was formed) because of the reluctance to spread from craft to industry. If you need a name with S to represent oppressed workers I would go with Spartacus.


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