One of the key slogans used by right wingers, whether Republican or Democratic, against programs like welfare, universal basic income, or Medicare for All is the supposed dignity of work, the notion that the rugged individual who breaks up virgin soil and rips out weeds to grow wealth earns nobility — despite the reality that soil without owners is increasingly rare, and in fact, the ground used by the pioneering heroes of yore was stolen from the peoples who owned it already. Anyone who points out that millions of Americans are out of work due to the pandemic or to increasing automation, in need of healthcare that is currently too expensive, or unable to participate in the stock market that sets barriers of minimum purchases is called lazy and commanded to get a job.
The truth is that Americans are not lazy. The people are instead beaten down by politicians and corporate executives who collude to rig the rules in their favor to transfer ever more wealth upward.
Doubt what I am saying? Consider the evidence. Productivity in the decades since the Second World War has increased steadily, but from the 1970s onward, wages have all but flattened out. Who is absorbing the benefits of greater productivity? Corporate executives. They have seen their compensation grow by 940% since 1978 and now make well over two hundred times what their ordinary employees take home. While unemployment rates were low prior to COVID-19, forty-four percent of workers earn wages so low that their median annual income is around $18,000. And with the richest twenty percent holding seventy-seven percent of the country’s wealth — of which the three richest Americans, Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, and Warren Buffet, possessed more than the bottom half prior to gains that Bezos in particular has made during pandemic — the picture is clear: Hard work is rewarding someone, but that person is not the typical American worker.
All of this is to say that I am not interested in hearing any talk about the dignity of labor that comes with the implicit assumption that obedience is its own reward. Sadly, the effrontery of the wealthy in telling us that it is our duty to keep them rich is exceeded by the willingness of ordinary Americans to be cheated. Voters keep returning the Republicans and the Democrats to office, the very politicians who maintain the system as it is. Of course, “No” is the consistent winner of election after election, since many eligible voters are too busy trying to survive to become politically active, but the breadth of support for Bernie Sanders’s two campaigns for president suggests a way out.
As I have said before, a third party can win. This is only possible outside the Democratic Party, given the latter’s commitment to Third Way liberalism, but with social media providing a route around the gatekeepers of traditional media and with Sanders’s method of fundraising on the basis of small donations, a viable and powerful alternative can be achieved.
What must this party do to deserve to win? Medicare for All has to be a primary goal, but I have said much about that in the past. Of specific application to workers would be two sets of programs designed to bring the rewards of labor more into line with the value that labor produces.
One includes policies like universal basic income and paid sick leave. The immediate argument will be that businesses cannot afford to accommodate workers having such time off and that we cannot afford to guarantee income for all — even if we can get people to agree that this is a good idea. But most countries manage at least some level of paid time off for sick workers, and when we are able to find money for a 705.4 billion dollar military budget as proposed for 2021 and tax cut after tax cut, concerns over running out of cash when that money is to be used for the good of the people are disingenuous. This is especially the case if we decide on an income floor. Lower income people return a lot of what they earn into the economy immediately, and this results in greater economic activity over what we get when the rich park wealth offshore.
The second group of policies would be to change the legal balance of power in favor of workers. As things stand, organizing workers into unions faces heavy obstruction in the law. A repeal of the Taft-Hartley Act would be a good place to start. The formation of worker cooperatives should then be something that the federal government actively supports through grants and loans to break the control of the traditional banking system that always has money for people who do not need it. Workers who can combine to negotiate their wages and benefits and who have a say in who leads their companies and how those companies are run will have greater commitment to their company’s success.
If we want hard workers, it is not enough to make moralistic pronouncements about dignity. It is not enough to lock workers into a miserable crawl through life, as all the while they watch the wealthy enjoy the blessings of their labor. Make the rewards of work reflect the value that labor brings to the economy, and American workers will astonish the world with our productivity and dedication.