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What's Left 5: Let's Declare War On Economic Insecurity

Ted Rall on

Wages high enough to cover basic expenses are only the beginning of the Left's struggle to eliminate economic insecurity.

We must also fight for workers' rights on the job, as well as a robust and sturdy social safety net to protect people when they find themselves out of work. Americans suffer the worst worker benefits of major developed countries; we are tied with Botswana, Iran, Mexico and Pakistan. Our safety net also comes in dead last.

For as long as anyone can remember, the balance of power between labor and management has been radically tilted in favor of capital. While nine out of 10 workers are not organized, employers not only form cartels to set prices for labor, they enjoy outsize influence in Washington and state capitals through campaign contributions to politicians.

Globalization has exacerbated this imbalance; an apparel company like Nike may manufacture goods in low-wage, anti-union countries like Vietnam or Indonesia and ship them to high-income/high-price markets like Europe or the United States on container ships whose expenses are subsidized by taxpayers of the latter. As much as an ambitious worker might be willing to abandon their family and native culture to move to a higher-wage place like Norway or Qatar, it is nearly impossible to obtain the necessary working permits, much less citizenship. Capital is fluid; labor is stationary.

The Left seeks to level the playing field between labor and management.

U.S. labor laws are "at will," meaning you can be fired for any reason other than discrimination because of your race, sex, sexual orientation or other legally protected class. At-will is a license for companies to overhire during booms and impose mass layoffs when the economy cools down, as we saw tech companies do after the COVID-19 pandemic. It enables bosses to vote themselves a raise at the same time they lay off workers, many of whom disrupted their lives to take those jobs, lost other opportunities and have no responsibility for poor management decisions.

 

At-will must go. An employer who wants to get rid of an employee should have to prove to the Department of Labor either that the move is required due to the company's finances -- and then only after upper management have absorbed pay cuts and stockholders lose their dividends -- or that the employee did something wrong, in which case they should be entitled to a hearing before an impartial court system established to litigate labor-management disputes before a jury.

Workers' power relies chiefly on the right and ability to withhold labor after contract negotiations break down. Therefore, every American worker in an enterprise with 10 or more employees ought to be legally guaranteed the right to join a union -- even if they are the only member of their company's workforce who wants to sign a union card. Existing laws prohibiting employer retaliation against union organizers and members, which are weak and rarely enforced, must be strengthened so that it is nearly impossible to fire someone for standing up for higher wages and working conditions. Needless to say, state "right to work" laws allowing workers in union shops to withhold union dues while receiving negotiated benefits should be eliminated.

Laws like the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947, which ban solidarity strikes and strikes by the military and other public-sector workers and have been expanded by courts and presidential executive orders to include "essential" workers like coal miners and rail workers, go far beyond regulations in other developed nations and must be abolished. If firefighters and postal workers, for example, are truly essential to the functioning of the nation, they should be remunerated accordingly. In the case of exceptional categories of workers deemed essential in matters of life and death, which should be highly limited, the loss of the right to strike should be compensated by guaranteed raises pegged to the inflation rate.

U.S. workers are divided into arbitrary classifications designed to allow corporations to treat them like dirt. I work at least 40 hours a week as a cartoonist and columnist yet my syndicate misclassifies me as an "independent contractor." Same for Uber and Lyft drivers, though there's nothing independent about a job which specifies everything about your tasks down to the model of car you must drive, though you pay for it yourself.

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