The jobs and unemployment numbers released on June 3 by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) paint a grim picture of the situation facing unemployed workers in the United States. According to some capitalist economists, the “Great Recession” supposedly ended in 2009 but the economy remains weak—with the housing, manufacturing, and construction sectors still flat and job creation at a near standstill.
In May the U.S. economy added only 54,000 jobs, and 30,000 of those were the result of a much-publicized hiring binge by fast-food giant MacDonald’s. The economy has to add somewhere between 100,000 and 150,000 jobs per month just to keep pace with new workers entering the workforce. The private sector added 83,000 jobs in May, but this gain was partially offset by the loss of 29,000 public sector jobs.
The offensive against public employees and cutbacks at the federal, state and local levels has meant the loss of a total of 446,000 jobs since September 2008. Layoffs of public school teachers accounted for 40% of the public sector jobs lost in the last year. The period from March 2010 to March 2011 saw the loss of 329,000 public-sector jobs; two-thirds of those jobs were held by women.
Women and oppressed nationalities are hardest hit by this recession. Unemployment percentages for Blacks and Latinos are higher than the average—almost double for Blacks at 16.2 percent, and 12 percent for Latinos. The percentages for youth, especially Black youth, are astronomical. Only one in four (25%) of high school kids seeking a summer job this year will get one—down from 37 percent last year.
The May report revealed that little has changed. Job creation is happening too slowly to turn the situation around for the millions of unemployed and underemployed. To recover the jobs lost in this recession in five years, 380,000 jobs would have to be created per month.
According to the Center for Economic Policy and Research (www.cepr.net), “Taking a longer, three-month snapshot, there is not much that is very encouraging. A loss of 5000 jobs in manufacturing brings the average gain over the last three months to 13,000. Construction added 2000 jobs in May, bringing its average gain to 4000. Job growth in retail has averaged 16,700 over the last three months. Health care has added an average of 28,000 jobs since February. The rate in restaurants has been 23,000.
“Construction employment is likely to remain close to flat for the rest of the year. Manufacturing may go back to adding jobs, but probably only at a rate of around 10,000 per month. At that pace, it will take two decades for employment to return to its pre-recession level.”
According to the BLS, the number of unemployed is 13.9 million workers or 9.1 percent of the workforce. An additional 8.5 million workers are working part-time because they cannot find a full-time job, and another 2.2 million are what the BLS refers to as “marginally attached” to the work forces. That’s an official total of 24.6 million who are unemployed or underemployed. If you understand that government figures tend to miss the long-term unemployed and underemployed, the true figure is likely something like 30 million workers.
In spite of the grim jobs outlook, the politicians of both major parties are wasting very little time on the concerns of the unemployed. In fact, the offensive against public employees and the budget-cutting frenzy at all levels of government are coupled with attacks on programs like food stamps and unemployment compensation, which are the only thing many workers have to fall back on.
The cold calculus of electoral politics enters in here. Republicans are reluctant to do anything to improve the economy in hopes that high unemployment will drive voters to deny Obama a second term. The Democrats, on the other hand, are playing a more subtle game. They emphasize the “progress” made during Obama’s first term while participating in the austerity drive that seeks to balance the cost of recovery on the backs of workers. Obama talks a lot about “shared sacrifice,” but the sacrifices seem only to be made by working people—not the rich and powerful.
It’s important to understand that this crisis is not just the result of greedy bankers and the rich making mistakes. It is the result of the inherent instability of the capitalist system.
The supposed recovery is nothing more than a temporary gain in corporate profits. The continued slack performance of the economy, especially the housing sector, coupled with the debt crisis in Europe, threatens a “double dip” recession. There has been no recovery for the majority of working-class people. We face high unemployment rates, flagging wages, and the continued onslaught against our living standards as the bosses try to increase profits and productivity at our expense.
Politicians and economists speak now of the “new normal,” a situation of permanent high unemployment and insecurity for the majority. Capitalism has created a layer of people whose lives are precarious, living one or two paychecks away from poverty and homelessness. A 20-year wait for the jobs lost in this recession to return is unacceptable. This is an emergency situation and must be treated as such by the labor movement and its allies.
One-sided class war
The bipartisan offensive against public employees is just the latest battle in the one-sided class war waged against the living standards of workers since the 1970s. Over the past 30-plus years, we have seen industrial jobs moved either to the South or overseas, and the power of industrial unions diminished in the process. This process was marked by union busting and several defensive strikes—for example, by meatpackers in Austin, Minn; at Caterpillar; Staley; and Bridgestone/Firestone in Decatur, Il.; the Detroit newspaper strike; and the UPS strike of 1997.
More recently, the potential for a working-class fightback, after years of retreat, was demonstrated by the massive protests following the proposal by Wisconsin Gov. Walker to strip public workers of their right to collective bargaining. The right wing obviously sees an opportunity in the budget crisis to break the power of the unions. Madison was flooded with tens of thousands of protesters and their supporters. Workers took to the streets and occupied the capitol building.
The call for a general strike was raised in a serious way for the first time in decades in the U.S., but the union officialdom made no effort to pursue this tactic. Instead, labor bureaucrats and their Democratic Party allies have done what they could to channel working-class activism and energy into petitioning campaigns and “safe” political activities.
The reliance of the union leadership on the Democrats is a major cause of confusion for U.S. workers. The Democrats are half the problem! In the name of “bipartisan” cooperation they play “good cop” to the GOP’s “bad cop,” and all the while they are taking the same steps to cut workers’ wages and benefits and showing their subservience to Wall Street.
Democratic governors in Massachusetts, Connecticut, Oregon, California, New York, Illinois, Washington, Hawaii, Minnesota, Maryland, and New Hampshire have joined the offensive against public employees. Democrats, for the most part, are not openly attacking collective bargaining. Instead, they hide behind talk of shared sacrifice and responsibility to taxpayers.
The bipartisan anti-union consensus was demonstrated in June in Trenton, N.J. The Democratic-controlled State Assembly passed a law curtailing collective bargaining rights and “reforming” the nearly insolvent pension system. This law was written by Democrats and was signed into law by Tea Party Governor Chris Christie. One of the biggest ironies is that this anti-worker legislation was co-authored by Senate President Sweeney, who is an Iron Workers Union official!
Talk of saving the New Jersey state worker pensions system rings hollow. Past state legislatures and governors of both parties have failed to make the state’s contribution to the system for years. Instead, they have used the pension money for general funds, and each year the pension system has crept closer to bankruptcy.
A mass action strategy for a workers’ recovery
Working people need jobs, education and health care, not false promises. We need jobs and justice, not union busting and unemployment. What is needed is a strategy based on mass action and political independence from the two bourgeois parties. The working class and its allies need to relearn the hard lessons learned in the 1930s with the formation of the CIO.
Gains for the working class can only be won through determined struggle. We need to relearn the method of the general strike and factory occupations. The trade-union leadership is not up to the job. They are too comfortable with their positions and their friendships with Democratic Party politicians. The labor tops use our lives and living standards as bargaining chips with the bosses, while the ranks lose. Rank-and-file control of the unions is crucial if we are to fight back.
A strategy based on class struggle should make concrete demands to protect the gains past generations have fought for—Social Security, Medicare, and the right to form unions and to strike. Beyond these demands, we should be demanding immediate action to create millions of jobs at top union wages. All U.S. wars and occupations overseas should cease, with the troops brought home and the money wasted on these wars used to rebuild our cities.
But these types of reforms might be achieved under capitalism. A mass movement prepared to fight back against the cuts and austerity must raise demands that go beyond mere reforms and pose the question of which class hold political power. We call for the nationalization of the banks and the energy industry. We advocate for a national health care system with free access for all.
Organizing a fight back by workers and oppressed people requires that we have a political instrument capable of carrying forward the struggle. There must be a clean and complete break with the Democratic Party and the building of a Labor party based on fighting unions and mass organizations of the oppressed.
> The article above was written by John Leslie. It first appeared in the July 2011 print edition of Socialist Action newspaper.