Although there have been plenty of reports of rising labor militancy in the US—teachers’ strikes, tech and delivery app organizing—it’s sadly not showing up in the strike data.
In its annual release, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that there were just 7 major “work stoppages” (which include lockouts as well as strikes) in 2020, tied with 2017 for the second-lowest number since 1947, and beaten only by 2009’s 5. What strike action there was, says the BLS, was mainly against state and local government employers (5 of them), not private ones (2).
Here’s a graph of the grim trajectory. Over the period shown, total employment has tripled, meaning that the collective power of these strikes is a fraction of what it once was. If you adjust for employment growth, last year’s 7 would have been just over 2 by 1950’s standard. That year, there were over 400 strikes.
Another measure, known as days of “idleness” (a nice Victorian touch)—the share of total workdays lost to strikes or lockdowns—was immeasurably small: 0.00%, rounded to two decimal points, which is how it’s published. Last year the twelfth in the last twenty that scored a 0.00%; that never happened before 2001.
Presented with these stats, people sometimes point to smaller strikes as where the action is. That’s probably not the case, but numbers are hard to come by. Another agency, the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, publishes data on stoppages involving fewer than 1,000 workers, but they’re presented in a very user-hostile format: monthly spreadsheets listing strikes underway that month, with no aggregated summary numbers like the larger-strike data. When I last looked at the data, in 2018, it was telling the same story as larger strikes.
I don’t want to come across as somebody sitting in a comfy desk chair lecturing, Spartacist-style, about what labor should do. US law and business practice have made it very difficult to mount strikes. Bosses and their politicians understand that without the option to withhold labor, workers are nearly powerless, and they’ve mounted innumerable obstacles to walkouts.
But for those of us who think you can’t have a better society without stronger unions, these symptoms are dire. Jane McAlevey’s mentor at 1199 New England, Jerry Brown, says that the strike is labor’s muscle and if you don’t exercise it regularly it atrophies. Strike just for practice, even if you don’t really need to, he says. The strike muscle is looking very atrophied.
Union density—the share of employed workers belonging to unions—rose in 2020 for the first time since 2007 and 2008. Before that, you have to go back to 1979 to find another uptick. Those four years are the only increases in density since the modern BLS series begins in 1964.
Sadly, though, the rise wasn’t the result of any organizing victories. Union membership declined by 2.2% last year—but the pandemic drove down employment even more, 6.7%. As a result, density rose from 10.3% to 10.8%, bringing it back to where it was in 2016.
The increase was driven mainly by the public sector. In 2020, 6.3% of private-sector workers were union members, up 0.1 for the year (though still below 2018’s 6.4%). In the public sector, 34.8% of workers were union members, up 1.2 from 2019, and the highest since 2015. Here’s a graph of the full history. Private sector union density peaked in 1953 and has been declining with little interruption since. It’s now about where it was in 1900 (though those pre-BLS stats should be taken with a grain of salt).
Here’s a graph showing the change in total and union employment from 2019 to 2020. Note that while employment was down overall and in the private and public sectors, employment for union members fell less in the private sector and actually rose in the public. There’s an important message here: besides increasing wages, which you can read about in last year’s installment, having a union increases job security.
Finally, here’s a map of union density by state. There’s a notable geographic pattern, with unions most present in the Northeast, upper Midwest, and Pacific coast, and weakest in the South and interior West.
As with many things, 2020’s union density figures look to be an artifact of the pandemic. As I said last year:
There are a lot of things wrong with American unions. Most organize poorly, if at all. Politically they function mainly as ATMs and free labor pools for the Democratic party without getting much in return. But there’s no way to end the 40-year war on the US working class without getting union membership up….
And “up” doesn’t mean through COVID-19 quirks.
Just added to my radio archive (click on date for link):
January 21, 2021 Réka Juhász, co-author of this paper, on the shift from home to factory as a precedent for the shift from office to home today • Vanessa Williamson, author of this article, on the roots of “taxpayer” discourse in Southern elites’ successful attempt to disenfranchise black citizens and reverse Reconstruction
[Here’s what I had to say on this week’s radio show about the marvelous Leo Panitch, who died on December 19. The show consists of two interviews, one from 2012 with Leo and Sam Gindin talking about their book, The Making of Global Capitalism, and the other from 2018, Leo solo talking about Trump specifically and the US empire generally.]
I was planning to do a rerun for this week’s show, to give myself a little holiday break, but I wasn’t planning this one: a memorial to Leo Panitch, the Canadian political scientist who died on December 19 at the age of 75. Last month, he was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a blood cancer, but the prognosis looked good for ten years of relatively normal life. But he caught covid in the hospital, and the pneumonia it induced killed him. This has been a truly awful year.
Leo was on this show many times, both alone and with his long-time friend and collaborator Sam Gindin. He was a marvelous human in every dimension—a wonderful thinker, comrade, and friend. I met him just over 20 years ago, when he was living in New York for the year, doing research that would eventually figure in the book he and Sam published in 2012, The Making of Global Capitalism. We would see each other several times a year, either in Toronto, where he lived, or in New York, on his frequent visits. Unlike many high-end intellectuals, he was unfailingly warm and generous. My now teenage son, who mocks our dinner-table conversations as “capitalism, bourgeoisie, blah blah blah,” always liked Leo, and vice versa: they could talk about baseball and hockey in between our yammering about the law of value.
Leo was born to a working-class family in 1945 in Winnipeg. He got his bachelor’s degree from the University of Manitoba, and then did graduate work at the London School of Economics, where he studied with Ralph Miliband. Leo took up Miliband’s interest in the political side of capitalism—the role of the state in shaping the system, and the role of political parties in shaping both the ruling class and the system’s supposed gravedigger, the working class. He also wrote extensively about the US-dominated international order. Leo always resisted narratives of US decline, arguing that it was still the center of an imperial system—not one like the old European empires, which involved the subjugation of colonial populations, but one which incorporated other nations into a hierarchical system that still allowed them a considerable degree of autonomy, especially the second-tier powers of Western Europe as well as Japan and Canada. (Latin America, however, was often not so lucky.)
Leo spent most of his professional life at York University in Toronto, where he taught from 1984 until his retirement in 2016. He created a splendid, largely Marxist, political science department there; a visit to York was always stimulating—and fun as well. Leo and his colleagues were not ones to don the hair shirt.
As a memorial to Leo, I’m running excerpts of two interviews. The first is from an interview recorded in 2012 with Leo and Sam on the publication by Verso of The Making of Global Capitalism: The Political Economy of American Empire. It’s hard to think about Leo without also thinking about Sam, his lifelong friend and collaborator. Sam spent many years as an economist with the Canadian Auto Workers, which he eventually left for a stint teaching at York. These are just excerpts from a long interview, so there may be some discontinuities and missed antecedents, though I hope they’re not too serious. Leo Panitch and Sam Gindin.
That’s it for me, Doug Henwood. My first bit of break music was mournful; this is anything but. Leo loved jazz, though I’m not sure how he would have felt about this instance of the genre, Stephane Grappelli’s “hot jazz” version of The Internationale. But it seems a good note to go out on. The best way to memorialize Leo is to think hard, fight for socialism, and have some fun along the way.
Just added to my radio archive (click on date for link):
December 24, 2020 a memorial to a great thinker, comrade, friend: Leo Panitch (1945–2020): two interviews, one with him and Sam Gindin from 2012, and on with him alone in 2018
As the job market loses steam, and Congress dithers over a new bailout package, Americans are having a harder time paying their bills.
First the job market. Employers added 245,000 jobs in November, the least since the recovery from the March–April crash. As the graph below shows, that recovery has been losing momentum since June, when employment rose by 4.8 million. What looks to be happening is that the easy recalls after the initial shutdown have happened, and with the giant stimulus of the CARES Act receding, there’s not much fuel for more. It would not be a surprise to see some minus signs starting early next year, as sickness and death march across our great land.
Of the 22.2 million jobs lost between February and April, we’ve now regained 12.3 million, or not quite 56% of the loss. Despite the recovery, November employment was still 6.4% below February’s, which would qualify as a savage recession in itself. At the low point in the aftermath of the Great Recession, February 2010, employment was 6.3% below the its pre-recession peak in January 2008. Public employment has not seen any recovery; governments at all levels shed 969,000 workers in March and April, and another 344,000 since, for a total of 1.3 million. More than half those losses come from local government education, and another quarter from state government education. COVID-19 is ravaging our schools, and the state and local fiscal crises have yet to bite fully.
As the graph below shows, the initial drop in jobs took us back to the early 2010 low, meaning the entire comeback from Great Recession’s depths was undone in just weeks. Next to that, the 2008–2010 decline looks mild, though it was anything but. Recovering just over half those jobs takes us back to the late Obama years. Trump will leave office the only post-World War II president with fewer people working than when he took office.
The story is similar for unemployment: a rapid initial drop from April’s 14.7%, the highest since 1940, and well above 1982’s 10.8% and 2009’s 10.0%, to 6.9% in October. November, however, saw just an 0.2 point drop to 6.7%, a number that’s higher than three-quarters of all the months since 1950. (Graph below.) And that’s the official, aka U-3, unemployment rate, which requires you to be actively looking for work. The broader U-6 rate, which adds workers who’ve given up the search as hopeless and those who want full-time work but can only find part-time, was 12.0% in November—down sharply from April’s 22.8%, but down just 0.1 point from October. U-6, and its not-strictly-comparable U-7 predecessor, were higher only during the Great Recession and the early 1980s slump. In other words, even with recovery, unemployment remains near severe recession levels.
Despite the improving overall unemployment numbers, the story under the surface is less encouraging: more workers are reporting themselves as permanent job losers (rather than being on temporary layoff), and we’re developing a serious long-term unemployment problem. The average duration of unemployment in November was 23.2 weeks, higher than at any point before 2009, when the Great Recession was setting records.
Unemployment is an important indicator, but it doesn’t reflect the full picture: if people give up on the job search, they’re not counted as jobless. The participation rate—the share of the adult population either employed or actively searching for work— was 61.5% in November, an improvement from April’s 60.2%, but not that much of one, and a level we haven’t seen since 1978, when there were many fewer women in paid work. (Women were about 40% of the workforce then, and are 50% now.) The low participation rate suggests that a lot of people aren’t trying because things look so miserable.
Rather than the unemployment rate, another way of measuring slack in the labor market—as employers think of it: they love a “slack” job market because it means they can more easily dictate terms—is the employment/population ratio (EPOP), the share of the adult population working for pay. As the population ages and boomers retire, the ratio will trend downwards over time. It peaked around 2000, and the expansions of 2002–2008 and 2009–2019 never recovered the ground lost in the recessions that preceded them. But the drop from February to April was fierce, taking the EPOP to an all-time low of 51.3%; it had barely been below 55% in its seven-decade history. It’s recovered to 57.3%, a level it frequented forty to fifty years ago.
There’s demographic variety under the EPOP’s headline level. Here’s what its recent history by race, sex, education, and age looks like. Several points deserve mention.
• The ranking by race/ethnicity and sex may surprise some. Hispanic/Latino men are employed at a significantly higher rate than white men, which you’d never know if you listened only to Donald Trump. The lowest EPOP is found among white women (though they’re now tied with Hispanic/Latina women).
• Despite everything you hear about the pointlessness of going to college, people with bachelor’s degrees (43% of the workforce) are employed at higher rates than those with only some college (25%), and those with some college more than those with only a high school diploma (25%). Though they’re not graphed, the unemployment rates of people with bachelor’s degrees are more are consistently about half that of those with only high school. And those without a high school diploma, just 7% of the employed, are less likely to be employed than not.
• EPOPs of all demographic groups took a severe hit in the early months of the crisis and have yet to claw back their losses.
Here’s a measure of how well the various groups have recovered. Men have done more poorly than women, and black people worse than whites or Hispanics/Latinos. Aside from those who didn’t finish high school, education hasn’t had much bearing on the rate of recovery, or age except for teenagers. (Both of those are small groups.) At 43%, black men lag the average by 18 percentage points; if they matched that average, 1.6 million more would be working. For the entire population, if we could get back to February’s EPOP, almost 10 million more would be working.
Yes, there’s been some recovery, but the job market, which is what most people rely on to pay their bills, is still a wreck. The table below is derived from the Census Bureau’s experimental Household Pulse Survey, before the pandemic, 72% of respondents reported having enough of the food they wanted. That fell to 55% in mid-May, recovered into October, and has been sliding in recent weeks to 58% on the latest reading. In numbers, about 20 million people sometimes or often had trouble getting all the food they wanted; now 26 million do. Pre-pandemic, about 175 million could get enough of what they wanted; that’s now down to 125 million, a decrease of 50 million. According to the same survey, 83 million people, or 35% of the population, is finding it somewhat or very difficult to pay their regular bills. Unfortunately there’s no pre-pandemic baseline to compare this to, but it’s almost certainly a deterioration from an inexcusably high number.
|enough, but not|
|change from |
Housing stress is rising too. CoreLogic, a credit-tracking firm, reports that 6.3% of mortgages were past due in September, up from 3.8% a year earlier, and 3.3% were 120 or more days past due, more than triple September 2019’s 1.0%. Every state is showing a rise in serious delinquency rates. If it weren’t for the forbearance programs enacted in the early pandemic days, foreclosures would be rising, but we’re not there yet.
Renters, who are generally poorer than homeowners, are showing more stress. The Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia reports that 4% of renter households, representing 4 million people, are significantly behind on their rent, owing an average of $5,400 each. That number would have been much higher had it not been for the $1,200 payments and $600 weekly unemployment benefits that were part of the CARES Act. Now that those have expired, trouble is rising. If there’s no aid forthcoming, and no significant recovery in the job market, 10% of all renters will find themselves seriously behind on their rent in a few months. A renewal of CARES-style payments would cut those numbers to less than 1%.
COVID-19 is bad enough. If we had a civilized government, we could mitigate its economic effects, but alas we don’t have one of those.