Moldy Bread Is Not Enough

With nearly 40 million un- or underemployed workers in the U.S., what will prevent endless calamity? When the economy restarts and stays restarted surely many will get their jobs back. But 1) How many now out of work won’t get rehired? And 2) How good will getting rehired be for those who do?

Take the second question first. Most jobs were not only insufficiently paid before Corona, they were also soul crushingly boring and debilitating and did tasks not worth doing. Returning to that – good? And escalated un- and under employment remains, all workers will be weaker and more under threat of reprisal than they were before the shutdown. Conditions will get worse. Pay will decline. The social usefulness – as compared to the profitability – of work will not rise. What people did pre-Corona, the old normal, produced despair. What will still worse post-Corona work situations produce? Not just for New York, but for Arizona. Not just for the U.S., but for countries worldwide?

Take the first problem second. For many the old job won’t return and unemployment will continue. I have no good idea how many will endure this, but let’s say 15% of the U.S.workforce will be un- or underemployed in the Fall – where even that high figure assumes the economy opens fully and doesn’t shut back down – and ignores that if we counted those out of work but no longer looking, 15% would be low.

So, what might be done about these two entwined problems? Who works? Doing what?

People gotta eat. Gotta heal. Gotta take care of dependents. Gotta have a roof. Gotta have some dignity. Gotta have some influence. And however aggressive and radical what follows may sound, seeking food, health, home, dignity, and influence is bare bones. So if insufficient employment remains 15%, how is even bare bones going to occur for those 15% and their younger or elder dependents? And for that matters, how is it going to occur even for the “lucky ones” who get their jobs back but face employers who will threaten to fire anyone who even slightly resists because there will be an army of people ready to fill any vacancy? Employers who will push wages below prior levels? Employers who will intensify work pace and harshen work conditions even more aggressively than earlier?

Beyond winning incredibly important universal health care, a wealth tax, expanded social security, and extensive budget reallocations:

  1. Dramatically raise the minimum wage to $20 or better $25 an hour.

In a world that wasn’t upside down, working people should be paid for how long they work, for how hard they work, and for the onerousness of their work conditions. They should not be paid for property, power, or output related to luck, technology, or genetics. Those in currently lowest income jobs should actually have higher incomes than those working fewer hours with more breaks and an easier pace at better conditions. But while the world is still upside down, winning better is a step toward winning best.

  1. While working toward full employment, increase unemployment insurance to provide 100% of prior wage income for three months, and thereafter 75%.

Of course if an economy can’t provide jobs the cause is the economy, not the person without a job – but, meanwhile, winning better is a step toward winning best.

  1. Provide a universal basic income at least for youth, elderly, and those otherwise unable to support themselves.

Having a socially valued job with dignified conditions and worthy income is part of life for those able to work, but for those not able to work being unemployed should not mean interpersonal deprivation or burdensomeness. Life itself warrants everyone having worthy living conditions.

  1. To attain full dignified employment, reduce work week duration – and require employers to provide triple pay overtime so they will have motive to make up for missing hours by hiring additional employees.

So, perhaps set the work week 30 but not 40 hours. But that would drop people’s income by a fourth, you might rightly worry. Right, so let’s make it forty hours pay for 30 hours work. But shouldn’t those getting less make up some gap toward those getting more? Right, so let’s make it 40 hours pay for 30 hours work for all but those earning over $100,000 a year, and for them, proportionately reduced pay for reduced work load. But won’t employers just drop hourly wages? Okay, impose a wage freeze – or rather, a no reducing wages restriction – though raising is just fine.

  1. To attain full dignified employment, also create new social jobs, with the government as employer and with humane work conditions, humane pay schedules, and workers producing things that matter: Green New Deal work, social caring work, and social reconstruction work all for ample pay and with dignified condition.

Hell, let’s put tenants to work maintaining and improving apartment complexes, and then let’s lower rents accordingly since owners no longer have to pay for maintenance the government finances. Let’s put the army to work too, not training to kill, but building new housing, renovating infrastructure, facilitating energy conversion and aiding in times of crisis. But, you might wonder, with these new job options available, why would anyone want to work at low wage, horrible conditions, regular economy jobs? Exactly. They wouldn’t. And with full employment they could fight for much better. That is half the point. Empower workers to improve their jobs throughout the economy.

So, that’s five multi-part but only roughly conceived improvements that we might well refine, demand, strike, and occupy for. It is steps to move from a pending economic catastrophe for 80% and windfall for 20% into an economic windfall for 80% and a return to being humane for 20%. So suppose activists augment, adapt, and refine such aims? Suppose we make such aims mutually consistent? Might we then have some shared worthy program?

You might think, yes, maybe we would, but what about having an inspiring slogan for a refined, augmented, and corrected economic program? Could we formulate worthy aims that could galvanize rather than bore the public?

I suspect such formulations would emerge from people in motion. Perhaps “$25 an Hour or Strike and Occupy,” “Unemployment Is Their responsibility, Not Our Fault,” “40 Hours Pay for 30 Hours Work,” or “Dignified Work on Worthy Products,“ or catchier and better.

People fighting for changes would better express their aims and rights and certainly refine, improve, and augment their arguments and proposals. To resonate, yes, they would need artistry. But mostly, people do need to pronounce, chant, demand, and win a positive program. If not, the millions of people, perhaps even billions of people world wide, returning to jobs will be returning to pain, suffering, and a road to more crises. And they would be the lucky ones.

1 comment

  1. avatar
    Michael June 12, 2020 10:13 pm 

    Great insight and ideas. Is it anywhere near possible for a country and culture like that of the US to do such things?

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