Help Wanted

I have never seen anything like the employment situation now. There are help wanted signs prominently displayed at every business in America, yet hardly any takers. What’s going on?

Perhaps giving America workers a year off to contemplate their employment situation wasn’t such a great idea? One of the outcomes of the pandemic has been that workers seem less willing to tolerate low wages and challenging work conditions. The pandemic has also revealed that the most important people in the economy are those who actually produce and transport goods and foods; they are also among the worst paid and treated people in our society. Now many hourly workers want more pay and/or better conditions. However, many employers think the answer lies in finding more desperate prospects.

I suspect a lot of people found that the money they made from their Mcjob was easily offset by a higher quality of life. Such people may be lured into job situations that don’t stress or incur child care costs but they are unlikely to rush back to serving maskless assholes at Starbucks for 10 bucks an hour.

Companies like FedEx, Amazon, Uber etc, who rely on this ‘race-to-the-bottom’ desperation model and screw their workers are now “struggling to hire people” and are being forced to pay higher wages.

What’s clear is that 40 odd years of neoliberal infestation has made work for many a living hell. In this neoliberal period, the ‘labour shortage’ narrative is often just a mask to hide what the employers really want or do not want. Neoliberalism offered up an ideological justification to a way to attack trade unions and start to undermine the full employment system (ie. New Deal) that had delivered such gains to workers. The neoliberal ideology relied on the creation of a fictional world where cutting wages, cutting job security, denying rights of association, imposing onerous key indicators (delivery times etc) was the way forward to prosperity.

The so-called ‘labour shortage’ is also an indicator of management greed and short-sightedness. Rather than being a shortage of workers, there is a shortage of workers who will tolerate the indignity of low wages, onerous conditions and capricious management. It is also a union versus non-union type of discussion where the unionised work places generate high productivity and worker attachment, while the non-unionised workplaces find it hard to attract reliable staff and blame it all on ‘labour shortages’. Corporate America calls this a “labor problem” whereas those of us who’ve paid attention know it is a management problem. Unsurprisingly, it turns out that unfettered greed backfires.

This is the neoliberal ideology that corporate America has embraced. The profound reluctance of companies and managers to accommodate reasonable demands of employees they’ve been able to squeeze harder and harder over decades isn’t about commercial logic or inability to pay more. Corporate profit share as a percentage of GDP has been at insanely high levels for over a decade. Most can pay more, which is the change that would demand least of managers. It’s that it offends their sensibilities. Remember that the last decade in particular has featured the worst sort of electronic-Taylorism: employees being monitored intensively and held to explicit output standards. After being able to impose sadistic work pacing (see Amazon warehouses), facing a worker revolt is intolerable. They can’t believe it happened and reassure themselves that it won’t happen again.

Here’s the thing–corporate America’s profits are soaring while American workers share of the pie has dwindled. If corporate America was serious about solving the labor shortage they could offer higher wages, and given the gap between labour productivity growth and real wages growth, that has seen massive redistributions of national income away from wages to profits, that would hardly be ‘unaffordable’. They could also offer work to unemployed workers and offer them training.

A recent Rand Corp study conceptualized the transformation in power relations between capital and labor. It showed that the wealthiest 1% have taken $50 trillion from working Americans during this period, making our country less secure, (and, I would argue, setting the stage for the election of Donald Trump). The reason for this is that the New Deal/Post War Liberalism created a large middle class, and even manufacturing workers could support a four person family on one salary, while neoliberalism produced a society where the good working class jobs were lost and families needed two salaries and a lot of debt to get along, while all unavoidable costs like healthcare and housing and education (since almost all good jobs are closed without it) skyrocketed.

This wealth transfer (theft) occurred as the Democrats transformed from a political party that represented workers to one that represented the Professional/Managerial/Class. Hmmm. I wonder if these two developments are related?

Like I’ve stated repeatedly–politics is who in our society gets what and who in our society pays the costs of these policies.

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