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The “Labor Shortage”: Workers Must Go on the Offensive!

In the early days of the global pandemic, workers were told that the “new normal” was temporary. Sacrifices had to be made, but things would eventually go back to how they were before. However, the “new normal” is fundamentally the same “old normal” of capitalist exploitation—on an even higher level.

Throughout the crisis, there has been a sharp increase in the exploitation of the working class. Worker productivity in the US increased 11.6% in the fourth quarter of 2020 as output rose 23.1% and hours worked increased 10.3%. This represents the most significant quarterly increase in the nonfinancial corporate sector since the second quarter of 1975. According to recent research [1], “Nearly 70% of professionals who transitioned to remote work because of the pandemic say they now work on the weekends, and 45% say they regularly work more hours during the week than they did before.”

In other words, fewer workers are generating more profits than ever for the bosses. During the pandemic, the world’s 2,365 billionaires used the workers’ spirit of sacrifice to increase their wealth by a whopping 54%. On the other end of the spectrum, 4 in 10 Americans say their income remains impacted by the pandemic. Oxfam has reported [2] that globally, the billionaires increased their wealth by $3.9 trillion during the pandemic while workers lost $3.7 trillion.

But even this is not enough for the capitalists, who, on pain of extinction, must expand their capital and profits at the expense of the working class. Lockdown measures are being quickly rolled back before the population can be fully vaccinated, and the capitalists seek every way possible to cement the increased rate of exploitation. They want workers to accept making ever-more sacrifices for the bosses’ profits. They want us to swallow unsafe working conditions, low wages, and longer working hours.

The capitalists have always used the regular crises of their system to ratchet up exploitation. For instance, during World War II, there was a massive propaganda campaign to sacrifice for the war effort. Meanwhile, the “war effort” made the bosses huge profits. During such crises, most capitalists cynically lean on the idea of national unity—that “we’re all in this together [3]” to increase the already enormous gaps in wealth inequality.

But there is a problem for the capitalists: low-wage workers are less than eager about rushing back to “normal.” During the pandemic, thousands of essential workers staged strikes and walkouts to protest unsafe conditions and low wages. Now, those who could avoid the front lines are being cudgeled back into the workforce—where dangerous conditions and low wages remain.

Nearly 600,000 people have been killed so far by COVID-19 in the US. More than half of these were people of working age. The professions most at risk of death from the coronavirus are cooks, agricultural workers, construction, and industrial production workers. These professions have seen a higher rate of death than healthcare workers, who suffered over 3,600 deaths since the beginning of the pandemic. No wonder workers are not lining up to get back to work in dangerous jobs—where many of them lost coworkers.

To help support the capitalists in their effort to corral workers, there has been a flood of articles about the so-called labor shortage. They complain that there are an estimated 8.2 million jobs left to recover from the 20 million jobs lost since the start of the pandemic—and that the “job-creating” bosses are eager to fill them.

The Republicans are livid that the Democrats have not yet revoked the $300 weekly federal pandemic assistance that topped up most states’ miserly unemployment benefits. They argue that the additional money keeps people from going back to work because they can make more money on unemployment than working. This is absolutely true in many cases. But this says far more about workers’ wages than it does about unemployment benefits! For its part, the GOP is doing its utmost to deliver millions of low-paid workers to the capitalists as soon as possible, with 22 Republican-led states discontinuing [4] the enhanced federal assistance early. As a result, roughly 3.6 million out-of-work Americans will forgo a total of $21.7 billion in benefits, according to an analysis by The Century Foundation.

The Democrats, on the other hand, plan on allowing the enhanced federal assistance to expire on Labor Day, September 6. What a wonderfully appropriate “Labor Day” gift to the workers from the capitalists: “screw you, get back to work!” This harkens back to the role played by Bill Clinton and his infamous “welfare reform,” as Democrats used the racist imagery of the “welfare queen” to sway public opinion against the poorest layers of the working class.

So although much is made of the Democrats’ alleged defense of workers’ rights, they actually agree with their Republican colleagues that millions of workers need to return to their terrible jobs. Their only disagreement is whether this should happen in June or September.

Like the wages they are based on, unemployment benefits are far too low to get by, and repealing the $300 top-up will force millions of workers into dangerous conditions and economic precarity. Marxists reject any reduction in benefits—which were only granted by the state to stave off the political and social unrest that would have otherwise followed the sudden economic collapse and botched response to the pandemic. While we fight for [5] universal employment with union wages and protections, we will continue to defend living unemployment benefits until full employment is a reality.

By reducing the workweek to 20 hours with a guaranteed weekly income of $1,000, society could evenly spread out the work that needs doing, and everyone could have a decent quality of life. No company would have a hard time hiring if those were the terms of employment. Needless to say, this is an impossibility under capitalism.

Instead, many companies are offering part-time work at $7.25 an hour “plus tips.” Little wonder social media is awash with images [6] of Dollar Trees and McDonald’s franchises pasted with pieces of paper that read: “we all quit” and “closed due to understaffing.” The notice affixed to a Chipotle location sums it up: “Want to know why we are closed? Ask our corporate offices why their employees are forced to work in borderline sweatshop conditions for 8+ hours WITHOUT BREAKS. We are overworked, understaffed, underpaid, and underappreciated. Almost the entire management and crew have walked out until further notice. People should be > Profits.”

The situation is even more disgusting when you consider that Chipotle raked in $355 million in profits in 2020, which is roughly $5,420 per employee if you divide by the number of employees they had pre-pandemic. The actual average is likely significantly higher because many employees were laid off or quit due to the pandemic.

On May 10, Chipotle announced that they are increasing their starting wage to $15 an hour. Funny how all of sudden, they can afford this! This is only a modest victory in the grand scheme of things, but it shows that even small-scale organized walkouts and wildcat strikes can win concessions. It is now up to the broader labor movement to generalize this fight on behalf of all low-wage workers. The bosses are vulnerable—now is the time to go on the offensive!

The AFL-CIO should immediately launch a nationwide campaign to organize unions in the most vulnerable industries. SEIU, UFCW, Teamsters, IBEW, AFSCME, and every other union has an obligation to lend their offices, paid staffers, and resources to support their brothers and sisters in struggle. This would be a considerable undertaking, but the members’ dues money could not be put to better use. Successful organizing campaigns would have a knock-on effect and put upward pressure on wages in every sector. Solidarity has always been a cornerstone of the labor movement—there is strength in unity, and a rising tide of a labor offensive lifts all ships!

When strikes are forced on the workers by the bosses’ intransigence and greed, they should be carried out on class-struggle lines, aiming for a total disruption of production—regardless of what the capitalists’ laws and courts have to say about it. Such militant tactics would represent a sharp break with the recent past—but the recent past of the labor movement must be broken with. Since 1983, union representation has dropped from 20.1% of the workforce to 10.8%. The strategy of class collaboration, making concessions and allowing porous picket lines have decimated organized labor. However, there is a historical precedent for the efficacy of bold class-struggle methods.

In the early 1930s, the labor movement found itself with a similarly low unionization rate. But by breaking with the narrow craft-union strategies and adopting militant class-struggle tactics that understood that the interests of the bosses and the workers are diametrically opposed, the percentage of organized workers shot up to 26% of the labor force by 1940. Labor’s future lies not with the practices of the recent past but with the resurrection of the methods that built our movement in the first place.

Some on the left argue that the refusal of millions to go back to work represents a “low key” general strike. While there is some vague truth in this assertion, we must remember that the general strike is a tool used by the consciously organized working class, which poses the question: who really runs society? The objective conditions for a general strike are maturing. The frustration of the workers who have quit en masse is indicative of the general sentiment among many low-paid workers. But this general and unfocused sentiment must be given a conscious and organized expression. With bold leadership, the labor movement could congeal the general feelings of anger and malaise into an actual general strike!

The class struggle is the struggle between the classes over the surplus wealth generated by the workers’ labor. The fight for higher wages at the expense of the bosses’ profits is a crucial part of this struggle. But this must be generalized into a fight of, by, and for all the workers against all the bosses—i.e., a struggle between broad social classes.

As part of this generalization, economic struggle must be combined with political struggle. The workers in this country lack a labor party [9] of our own, and this holds us back. Based on the mobilized trade unions, a mass working-class socialist party [10] would fight on behalf of all workers for a higher minimum wage and a shorter workweek. Combined with a mass workers’ party, a rejuvenated labor movement would not limit itself to fighting for a “kinder, gentler” capitalism. Because as long as the bosses hold economic and political power, they will always find a way to weather the storm, regroup, and claw back the gains we have made. If any victory of the working class is to become permanent, it must be based on the socialist transformation [11] of society.