Labor Day hit with an extra knife-twist of cruel irony this year, in an America that is barely trying to pretend anymore that the plight of tens of millions of working people merits national concern.
On Friday, the government announced a slowing recovery from the job losses and economic shutdown caused by the pandemic. Nearly 14 million Americans are now unemployed, and almost 8 million more are euphemistically called “involuntary part-time,” meaning they would work more if there were enough work.
In March, as part of a wider stimulus, Congress expanded unemployment aid by $600 per week, a plan that scholars say may have temporarily reduced the nation’s poverty rate. As of mid-August, about 29 million Americans were receiving some form of unemployment assistance.
But the $600-per-week bonus ran out in July, and Senate Republicans have rejected Democrats' bill to extend the payments. The GOP is now working on its own more limited plan, though several Republican senators are reluctant to support even that.
Inaction may prove disastrous. Beth Ann Bovino, chief U.S. economist for S&P Global, told The New York Times last week that federal aid was meant as a kind of economic bridge through uncertain times, but, she added, “it looks like the ravine has widened and the bridge is halfway built, so there are a lot of people stranded.”
Bovino’s image suggests a way out of this mess: Workers should band together and demand, collectively, a bridge across the ravine.
To put it more plainly: It’s time for a general strike. Actually, it’s time for a sustained series of strikes, a new movement in which workers across class and even political divides press not just for more unemployment aid but, more substantively, a renewed contract for working in an economy that is increasingly hostile to employees' health and well-being.
This may be the American worker’s last stand: If we can’t get our government to help us now, when will we ever?
The political case for an expanded safety net is drop-dead obvious. Through no fault of their own, because their government failed to keep the nation safe, millions of Americans have lost jobs, they have lost or may soon lose health coverage, they may lose housing, and many are going without food.
Others are facing threats not just to their livelihoods but their lives. Schoolteachers, college professors, restaurant workers, retail workers, meatpackers and others are being pushed to return to work even though it’s far from clear that doing so is safe. Millions more are suffering extreme versions of the Sisyphean task of achieving work-life balance — the high cost and lack of access to quality child care, for instance, has become a consuming worry of just about every parent in the nation.
It is well within the grasp of the mighty federal government to alleviate many of these problems, and economists generally agree that urgent federal aid would stimulate wider economic activity, benefiting even those of us who do feel economically secure. Passing extra benefits should not be a hard call; in the most terrible economic climate since the Great Depression, it is just about the least the government could do.
And yet our political system is in a state of paralysis. Even worse, the government’s failure to mitigate this suffering is somehow not the main story of the day — nor even, it seems, a pressing issue in the presidential election. The speaker of the House’s haircut has gotten more coverage, recently, than the millions of people looking for work.
Why has the plight of American workers received so little attention? There are some obvious reasons. For decades, corporations waged a sustained assault on labor unions. The assault has worked. Unions were once a key voice of political advocacy for low-income Americans; their decline in membership has left them with far less political power, allowing politicians to more easily ignore working-class voters.
Yet another factor is the corrosive stratification caused by rising inequality. American workers across the class spectrum face many similar problems — expensive or inaccessible health care, child care, loosening workplace safety standards, and lax protections against being fired, among other things.
But intense ideological and class polarization limits our ability to organize across these divides. For many wealthy Americans, the recession is all but over. Even with recent dips, the stock market has recovered much of its losses. Car sales are down — but the cars that are selling are more expensive than ever before. Billionaires are doing better than ever.
These stark class divisions mean that wealthy Americans are often insulated from the plight of the poor. What does it mean to be out of work or poor in pandemic America? Nearly “one in eight households doesn’t have enough to eat,” The Times Magazine reported Sunday, alongside a searing collection of images by Brenda Ann Kenneally, a journalist who has been traversing the world’s wealthiest country to document the lives of its hungry multitudes. Our culture is now so fragmented that it’s possible to live a full life in America blissfully ignorant of our neighbors going hungry.
But I’m newly hopeful for change. For much of 2020, the labor movement has been building momentum. In May, essential workers at Amazon, Instacart and other e-commerce and delivery companies staged a one-day national strike demanding better protections and higher pay. In July, thousands of workers from a range of industries walked off the job in support of the Black Lives Matter movement.
At the other end of the pay scale, professional basketball players got their league to adopt a number of social-justice initiatives after they went on strike last month to protest racial inequality and police brutality. Last week, several large unions announced they are considering authorizing work stoppages to push for concrete measures to address racial injustice.
Strikes won’t solve our problems overnight. But in the long history of American labor, including in the civil rights movement, walkouts have been an indispensable political tool, because when they get going, they’re hard to stop. Strikes bring about economic and social change the way water channels through canyon rock — forcefully, relentlessly and with time.
Farhad Manjoo is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.