Worker rights are shaping up a key issue in 2020. Who has the best ideas?

From today’s New York Magazine:

Never before have I seen Democratic candidates do so much to woo workers and win over union leaders. Elizabeth Warren kicked off her campaign at the site of the famous 1912 Bread and Roses textile strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts. Julián Castro marched in Durham, North Carolina, with fast-food workers demanding a $15 wage, while Pete Buttigieg spoke outside Uber headquarters in San Francisco alongside drivers demanding to be considered employees. Joe Biden held his first official campaign event at a Teamsters union hall in Pittsburgh. Kamala Harris has called for a raise averaging $13,500 for the nation’s schoolteachers, while Bernie Sanders has bolstered labor’s cause by using his email lists to urge supporters to join union picket lines.

Why all this sudden attention and affection for workers and unions — far more than I’ve ever seen during my nearly 25 years of writing about labor? Part of it is that this year’s Democratic candidates are doing what any smart politician would do when the field is so large — court one of the party’s largest constituencies, i.e., unions and their members. Part of it is that the candidates see that something is seriously broken in our economy: that income inequality, corporate profits, and the stock market have all been soaring while wages have largely stagnated for decades. Also, Democrats realize that a big reason Hillary Clinton lost in 2016 was that she didn’t show enough love to labor. The field seems to recognize that if a Democrat is going to win the presidency in 2020, the surest route is to win back the three longtime union strongholds — Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — that were key to Donald Trump’s victory. So the candidates have loosed a flood of pro-worker ideas, not just to make it easier to unionize, but to extend paid sick days and family leave to all workers, provide protections to pregnant workers, and safeguard LGBTQ+ Americans from discrimination on the job.

Four of them — Bernie Sanders, Beto O’Rouke, Pete Buttigieg, and Cory Booker — have put forward remarkably detailed platforms of pro-worker and pro-union proposals, while Elizabeth Warren’s elaborate plan on trade goes far beyond what many union leaders have called for. Andrew Yang says his universal basic income will be a boon for workers, providing a lifeline to those who lose their jobs because of artificial intelligence and robots. Biden has been vague so far on labor matters, calling himself a union man and saying he supports a $15 minimum. Booker has introduced a fairly radical bill, the Worker Dividend Act, which would require corporations that do stock buybacks to pay out to their employees a sizable chunk of the money going to the buyback.

Considering how many candidates there are and how many proposals and speeches they’ve made, it’s hard to keep track of who stands for what — and which plans are substantively the most pro-labor. Below, I give grades to the Democratic front-runners, based not just on the positions they’ve espoused during the campaign, but also on their track records. (Some candidates seem to have discovered the cause of workers only after announcing that they were running for the presidency.)

Read the complete article here.

Thousands of Furloughed Federal Workers File for Unemployment Benefits

From today’s New York Times:

On the second day of the year, Danielle Miller gave up on the federal government.

Furloughed from her Internal Revenue Service job near Cincinnati and fearful of running out of money during the partial government shutdown, she filed for unemployment benefits: $414 a week, about $200 less than usual.

“Once Christmas came and went, after New Year’s, I was like, I can’t go on,” said Ms. Miller, a single mother who has worked for the I.R.S. for almost 14 years. She spent part of this week calculating when her first unemployment check would arrive. “It’s disappointing, and it’s frustrating,” she said. “I have a job.”

The shutdown, the longest on record, is prompting tens of thousands of federal employees to seek jobless benefits. As the impasse meanders through its fourth week and more bills come due, their numbers have been growing.

On Thursday, two days after the White House doubled its projections and warned that the shutdown was reducing quarterly economic growth by 0.13 percentage points per week, the Labor Department reported 10,454 initial claims by federal workers for the week that ended Jan. 5, doubling the previous week’s figure. Thousands more have applied since, state officials said.

Read the complete article here.

With 8 Years of Gains, Unemployment Is Lowest It Has Been Since 1969

From today’s New York Times:

The unemployment rate fell to a nearly five-decade low in September, punctuating a remarkable rebound in the ten years after the collapse of Lehman Brothers set off a global financial crisis.

The 134,000 jobs that employers added in September reflected the slowest pace of growth in a year, and the growth in wages cooled slightly from August.

But there is little evidence that those mildly disappointing figures suggest a broader slowdown. The report on Friday extended the current run of monthly job growth to eight straight years, double the previous record.

By nearly any measure, today’s labor market is the strongest since the dot-com boom of the late 1990s and early 2000s. Job growth has repeatedly defied economists’ predictions of a slowdown. African-Americans, Latinos and members of other groups that often face discrimination are experiencing some of their lowest rates of joblessness on record.

“I view this as the strongest labor market in a generation,” said Andrew Chamberlain, chief economist at the career site Glassdoor. “These really are the good times.”

The current economic expansion is already one of the longest on record, and there is no sign that it is losing steam. Economic output last quarter increased at its fastest pace in four years, and the current quarter looks strong as well. Yields on United States government bonds have risen sharply in recent days, an indication that investors expect faster growth, and more inflation, in coming years.

For months, the one knock on the economy has been that strong hiring has not yet translated into robust pay gains for many workers. There are signs that that could finally be changing.

The 2.8 percent increase in average hourly earnings last month compared with a year earlier was down slightly from the 2.9 rate in August. But earnings growth has drifted upward in recent months, and other measures show stronger growth.

Workers at the bottom of the earnings ladder are seeing particularly strong growth: Amazon announced this week that it would raise the minimum wage for all of its employees in the United States to at least $15 an hour.

Read the complete article here.

Amazon is considering up to 3,000 cashierless AmazonGo stores by 2021

From today’s Los Angeles Times:

Amazon.com Inc. is considering a plan to open as many as 3,000 new AmazonGo cashierless stores in the next few years, according to people familiar with the matter, an aggressive and costly expansion that would threaten convenience chains such as 7-Eleven Inc., quick-service sandwich shops such as Subway and Panera Bread, and mom-and-pop pizzerias and taco trucks.

Amazon is considering up to 3,000 cashierless AmazonGo stores by 2021

Amazon Chief Executive Jeff Bezos sees eliminating meal-time logjams in busy cities as the best way for Amazon to reinvent the brick-and-mortar shopping experience, during which most spending still occurs. But he’s still experimenting with the best format: a convenience store that sells fresh prepared foods as well as a limited grocery selection similar to 7-Eleven franchises, or a place to simply pick up a quick bite to eat for people in a rush, similar to the U.K.-based chain Pret a Manger, one of the people said,

An Amazon spokeswoman declined to comment.

The company unveiled its first cashierless store near its headquarters in Seattle in 2016 and has since announced two additional sites in Seattle and one in Chicago. Two of the new stores offer only a limited selection of salads, sandwiches and snacks, showing that Amazon is experimenting with the concept simply as a meal-on-the-run option.

Read the complete article here.

Further Thoughts on a Job Guarantee

From today’s New York Times “Opinion” Section by Paul Krugman:

As I wrote the other day, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez may call herself a socialist and represent the left wing of the Democratic party, but her policy ideas are pretty reasonable. In fact, Medicare for All is totally reasonable; any arguments against it are essentially political rather than economic.

A federal jobs guarantee is more problematic, and a number of progressive economists with significant platforms have argued against it: Josh BivensDean BakerLarry Summers. (Yes, Larry Summers: whatever you think of his role in the Clinton and Obama administrations, he’s a daring, unconventional thinker when not in office, with a strongly progressive lean.) And I myself don’t think it’s the best way to deal with the problem of low pay and inadequate employment; like Bivens and his colleagues at EPI, I’d go for a more targeted set of policies.

But I’m fine with candidates like AOC (can we start abbreviating?) proposing the jobs guarantee, for a couple of reasons. One is that realistically, a blanket jobs guarantee is unlikely to happen, so proposing one is more about highlighting the very real problems of wages and employment than about the specifics of a solution. Beyond that, some of the critiques are, I think, off base.

Here’s the way some of the critiques seem to run: a large share of the U.S. work force – Baker says 25 percent, but it looks like around a third to me – makes less than $15 an hour. So offering these workers a higher wage would bring a huge rush into public employment, implying a very expensive program.

What’s wrong with this argument? The key point is that all those sub-$15 workers aren’t just sitting around collecting paychecks: they’re producing goods and (mostly) services that the public wants. The public will still want those services even if the government guarantees alternative employment, so the firms providing those services won’t go away; they’ll just have to raise wages enough to hold on to their employees, who would now have an alternative.

Now, that doesn’t mean zero job loss. Employers might replace some workers with machines; they would have to raise prices, meaning that they would sell less; so private employment might go down.

But all this is true about increases in the minimum wage, too. And we have a lot of evidence on what minimum wage increases do, because we get a natural experiment every time a state raises its minimum wage but neighboring states don’t. What this evidence shows is that minimum wage hikes have very little effect on employment.

So if we think of a job guarantee as a minimum wage hike backstopped by a public option for employment, we should not expect a mass migration of workers from private to public jobs.

Read the complete article here.

 

Democrats’ Next Big Thing: Government-Guaranteed Jobs

From today’s New York Times:

Prominent Democrats — stung by their eroding support from working-class voters but buoyed by the deficit-be-damned approach of ruling Republicans — are embracing a big idea from a bygone era: guaranteed employment.

The “job guarantee” plans, many of them pressed by Democratic White House hopefuls, vary in scope and cost, but they all center on government-sponsored employment that pays well above the $7.25-an-hour federal minimum wage — a New Deal for a new age, absent the bread lines and unemployment rates of the Great Depression. The most aggressive plans seek to all but eradicate unemployment and to set a new wage floor for all working Americans, pressuring private employers to raise wages if they want to compete for workers.

How such guarantees would be paid for is still largely unresolved. And criticism of the idea has emerged not only from conservatives who detect a whiff of socialism but also from liberals who say guaranteed employment is the wrong way to attack the central issue facing workers in this low-unemployment economy: stagnant wages.

But Democratic leaders hope the push will help their party bridge the growing political divide between white and minority workers, and silence the naysayers who accuse the party of being devoid of new, big ideas.

The employment plans, along with single-payer “Medicare for all” health care, free college, legalized marijuana and ever less restrictive immigration rules, are parts of a broader trend toward a more liberal Democratic Party in the Trump era.

“It’s going to create a more competitive labor market where people are going to start getting living wages, not just minimum wage,” said Senator Cory Booker, Democrat of New Jersey, who unveiled a job-guarantee planin April. “Giving people the dignity of work, of being able to stand on their own two feet, there’s such a strengthening element of that.”

Read the complete article here.

The Case for a Federal Jobs Guarantee

From the New York Times “Opinion” Section by Eric Loomis:

Employment numbers may look solid now, but economists, physicists and industrial engineers all say that automation will, in the not-so-distant future, drive higher unemployment. The Columbus Dispatch recently calculated that in Ohio, out of total state employment of about 5.5 million workers, 2.5 million jobs are at risk of automation.

How do we prepare for such disruption and the future of work? We might revisit an idea from the 1970s: a federal guarantee of employment. In recent weeks, three Democratic senators (and likely presidential contenders) — Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, Cory Booker of New Jersey and Bernie Sanders of Vermont — have either expressed their approval of the idea or unveiled initial ideas about how an updated version could work.

They are building on the legacy of the Humphrey-Hawkins Act, introduced in the 1970s by Senator Hubert Humphrey, Democrat of Minnesota, and Representative Augustus Hawkins, Democrat of California. In addition to the guarantee of employment, their initial bill allowed citizens to sue the government if they could not find a job.

Resurrecting Humphrey-Hawkins can help pre-empt a technology crisis and even future labor dislocation from globalization. In the original Humphrey-Hawkins bill — not the watered-down version that ultimately passed in 1978 — the president would submit an annual plan to Congress to achieve full employment, and local committees would coordinate job needs in their communities. The bill would have spurred private-sector job creation and a New Deal-style federal job creation program. Private employment would limit government investment, while federally mandated wage and price controls would fight inflation.

The final bill fell far short of this. Unions stripped out the wage and price controls in exchange for their support and put a priority on negotiating better contracts for their members over the fate of the nation’s poor. The Carter administration fretted about the potential impact on inflation from a bill without those controls. President Jimmy Carter never truly supported it, and the bill that passed committed the nation to ending inflation more than to full employment. Since then, the idea of full employment has largely disappeared from the American political system.

The arguments against Humphrey-Hawkins in 1978 are largely irrelevant today. After decades of low inflation, wage and price controls are unlikely to be problems. Mr. Booker’s pilot plan to test these ideas in 15 areas of the country builds on the Great Society belief in community control over federal resources.

Read the complete article here.

Market Update: Why Rising Wages Are Scaring the Hell Out of Stock Investors

From today’s Slate Magazine:

On Friday, the U.S. Department of Labor released a strong jobs report showing wages rising at their fastest rate since the Great Recession. Then, the stock market promptly began to plummet. The Dow Jones fell an amusingly on-the-nose 666 points—its worst day since the U.K.’s Brexit surprise. Global markets subsequently took a beating, and U.S. equities are still sliding as I write this today.

Why is good news for workers turning into bad news for shareholders? The answer is a useful illustration of why the stock market is often a poor guide to the overall health of the economy.

Right now, traders seem to be worried that if wages rise too fast, it will cause the Federal Reserve to hike interest rates in order to head off inflation down the road. When, earlier this year, the central bank suggested that it would raise rates, much of the market was skeptical, in part because inflation has been so subdued for so long. But faster pay gains for workers make it more likely the Fed will follow through, both because rising wages are a sign that the whole economy is heating up and because employers will eventually have to raise prices to keep up with the cost of labor.

Read the complete article here.

Op-Ed: Should we set up New Deal-style work camps for the needy?

From today’s LA Times:

They are sending out emergency calls for shoes, underwear, sleeping garments, household equipment, mattresses, springs and bedding,” a Los Angeles Times story reported from Southern California. Do-gooders were doing what they could to help the destitute. “They have no sanitation,” a volunteer said. “No running water. Before the storms this week, we had set into motion a campaign in their behalf.”

The above reads like an article about the homeless from this month’s California section. But the dispatch actually dates from 1938, and the needy were the most mythologized of Golden State refugees: the Okies. Some 16,000 had settled in Montebello and Bell Gardens, the Times wrote, and the “distress … [was] terribly acute.”

Dust Bowl migrants have been on my mind recently, mostly because I just finished “California and the Dust Bowl Migration” by Walter J. Stein, a 1973 book that’s one of the earliest academic surveys about how that momentous exodus changed the state. It’s a great, if dry, read, and the Canadian professor puts more blame on the New Deal for pushing Oklahomans from their farms than he should.

But the book offered me perspective. The most recent estimate of California’s homeless population, by the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s annual Point in Time Census, is 114,000. That number pales in comparison with the estimated 350,000 Okies who flooded California, mostly during the second half of the Great Depression. And, despite initial hiccups, we came out of it just fine.

Stein’s tome also provides a way forward: workers’ camps. Yes, that sounds politically incorrect, somehow, but stay with me.

The Farm Security Administration (FSA) built about 15 such camps to house Okies who were getting booted out of the shantytowns known as Hoovervilles. The government-sponsored camps were refuges from hate, with running water and clean living quarters and an ordered way to find work. Most even printed monthly newsletters. They sprang up in the Imperial Valley and Sonoma, the Central Valley and near Indio. Only one remains in operation: the Sunset Labor Camp just outside Bakersfield, which served as the inspiration for the Rooseveltian eden that the Joads find in “The Grapes of Wrath.”

Now’s the time to bring them back, especially since Orange County officials plan to evict the hundreds of homeless along the biking trails of the Santa Ana River, within eyesight of the 57 and 5 freeways. Similar schemes are in the works across the state. Advocates are already warning that the homeless will have nowhere to go: There’s not nearly enough shelter space, and many are in no condition to reenter society, which means they will set up their tents in residential neighborhoods, whose inhabitants will just call the cops and offer no help.

Read the complete article here.

MLK Day 2018, A Time to Reflect on Socio-Economic Injustice In All Forms

In honor of MLK Day, we post a short educational video here with excerpts from Martin Luther King, Jr. and James Baldwin that draw the connection between racial injustice and economic inequality in the United States. Their insights are as true today as they were fifty years ago, showing just how far we’ve come and how far we have to go. If we want peace, we must work for justice in all its forms.