The backbone of the 21st century economy, like the backbone of every century’s economy, is labor. (Photo by Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images)
The one issue Republicans in Nevada and nationwide ran on with one voice, all Borg-like, more than any other in 2022 was the economy.
Adam Laxalt, Joe Lombardo, Jim Marchant, Michele Fiore, and Republican congressional candidates in Nevada and from coast to coast all thought people whose vote had not already been determined by Hunter’s laptop might at least turn out for Republicans because of “Bidenflation.”
The overall U.S. inflation rate for the last 12 months was 3%, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported Wednesday.
Recent government reports (whether Elon Musk believes them or not) also show job growth has continued to be strong, and unemployment remains at near-historic lows.
Month to month, from May to June, overall inflation went up 0.2%, according to the BLS. Over three of the last six months, it rose 0.1%.
As it happens, hourly wages rose exactly as much inflation from May to June, 0.2%, the BLS had said in a report a day earlier.
Year over year, however, wages were only 1.2% higher, not enough to keep pace with the aforementioned 3% inflation over the same period.
There’s nothing new about wages failing to keep pace with inflation. That’s been going on for decades.
Well, the economy is structurally designed to rip off working people and redistribute wealth upward, a result of more than 40 years of policy choices advocated by the rich, corporate, and Republican, all too often with support or at least acquiescence from Democrats.
But measured against what public and political opinion has come to accept as a standard for economic performance over those decades, the current economy is far from the omnishambles Republicans would like you to believe it is.
Unfortunately, gratifying as it might be to see Republicans now going all “um, never mind” about inflation specifically and the economy generally, schadenfreude doesn’t pay the rent or put food on the table any better than Republican trickle-down economics does.
Which brings us back to working and wages. And the condition the country is in.
Labor movements old & new, and laws
The backbone of the 21st century economy is not tech bros (sorry Elon) or venture capitalists. It’s not even professional sports, much as Nevada elected officials of both parties think otherwise. It’s not even Biden’s beloved lithium.
The backbone of the 21st century economy, like the backbone of every century’s economy, is labor.
Last week employees at a third Southern Nevada Starbucks voted to unionize, as workers at Trader Joe’s, Amazon, and a host of other chains nationwide have been doing, all part of a “new” labor movement.
But although workers have voted to unionize in more than 300 Starbucks stores nationally, a contract has yet to be negotiated and signed in any of them. And although workers at Starbucks, Amazon, et al have been successful at proving improper and illegal union-busting tactics in National Labor Relations Board proceedings, punishments meted out to the companies are barely even slaps on the wrist. Contemporary U.S. labor law is deliberately designed to let companies stall and delay and derail unionization efforts.
As Walmart workers learned a quarter century ago.
Some advocates for better pay and working conditions in service and other traditionally low-paying employment sectors suggest the 20th century organized labor model is past its sell-by date, at least as a means of reversing declining union membership and expanding better wages, protections and benefits to traditionally non-union pockets of the workforce.
One corollary to that argument is that the key to livable wages and benefits and treating employees with dignity is not the negotiation of collective bargaining agreements between one set of workers and one company or industry, but through laws.
But even a new law to make collective bargaining easier can’t get passed in Washington.
The labor movement (old and new) and sympathetic elected officials, including Democrats in Nevada’s congressional delegation, have backed the federal PRO (Protecting the Right to Organize) Act. It would attempt to reform the nation’s overly company-friendly labor laws and make it easier for workers to organize and negotiate collective bargaining contracts.
The bill of course has no chance in the Republican controlled House. And in the last Congress when Democrats controlled the House and passed the bill, it couldn’t pass in the then-Democratically controlled Senate, thanks not to serial suspect Joe Manchin, but to other Democratic (or Democrat-adjacent) senators – Virginia’s Mark Warner, along with Mark Kelly and Kyrsten Sinema from Arizona.
If a bill to make it easier to organize and negotiate contracts can’t pass, legislation directly mandating improved working conditions can be an even harder lift. For example, you may remember the aforementioned Sen. Sinema’s curtsy while giving a thumbs down to raising the federal minimum wage.
All hands on deck
The best-case outcome of the results of next year’s election may well be the status quo. The less-best-case scenario would be Democrats retaining the White House but Republicans holding the House and winning the Senate. Of course the worst-case scenario is the sociopolitical equivalent of hell opening up and swallowing civilization whole.
After the pandemic put so many economic inequities in brutally harsh relief, Washington, specifically Biden and congressional Democrats, did much to literally save Nevadans – an especially needed salvation for a place where the top priorities of politicians of both parties rarely deviate from serving the state’s most politically powerful industries.
Nevadans can’t count on the federal government to save them again.
Recently afforded the exceedingly rare opportunity of controlling both the governor’s office and both houses of the legislature for four years, Nevada Democrats demonstrated little appetite for saving much of anything beyond their party’s political prospects.
The latest Gallup poll found public support for unions at 71%, an approval rating that’s been consistently rising for more than a dozen years. The new labor movement will hopefully keep growing, and national popular support for labor along with it – not just support for unions full of white guys with lunch pails and hardhats who politicians like to identify with when they say the word “labor,” but actual 21st century labor.
Rising public support can make a difference.
Politicians, you see, love to say they’re “leading” some “fight” or other. Yeah, not so much. They’re almost always following a path plotted by others, often as not some deep-pocketed special interest.
But on occasion, when public opinion forces the Overton window to open a little more, elected officials will follow someone completely different, like maybe those 24 employees who voted to unionize a North Las Vegas Starbucks the other day. Those workers and their colleagues, not just in Nevada but everywhere, deserve to be treated not in the manner so much of the 21st century economy has treated labor – as a disposable commodity – but with dignity.
It promises to be a long hard slog against powerful and stubborn opposition. But options are slim. And the alternative – more and more economically inequality – is unacceptable. Or it should be.
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