We stand at a turning point as the nation struggles to fully recover from the havoc Covid-19 has inflicted on the economy. We have a unique opportunity and an obligation to not just bring back jobs, but to establish well-paying ones that would help to revive a battered middle-class.
Recent unemployment data from the Labor Department shows the economy has recovered little more than half the 22 million jobs lost to the pandemic nearly a year after the coronavirus struck the US. Now is the time to enact a “good jobs” system that combines investment in people with targeted policies in order to maximize employee security, stability, and productivity.
The first step is recognizing the flaws of the pre-Covid economy, which relied on a “bad jobs” model for more than 50 million workers whose hallmarks were low wages, uneven productivity, and high turnover.
Next, we must realize that hourly-wage jobs in a variety of sectors should be — and can be — middle-class jobs. Policy reforms promised by President Joe Biden and his newly confirmed Labor secretary, former Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, can be paired with reforms at the local level to reverse the damage caused by four years of former President Donald Trump.
President Biden campaigned on stronger union and employee rights. Action on the following items will help foster the return of well-paying jobs:
Support the “PRO Act”: On March 9, the House of Representatives passed the Protecting the Right to Organize Act, which would bolster the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), expand the right to strike, and the ability of workers to participate in collective or class actions. The legislation has previously been stalled in the US Senate.
A “New Deal” Covid-19 workforce: Workers will be needed to distribute and administer coronavirus vaccines, rebuild our strained public health system, and invest in upgrading public schools to make them more safe. “This will be one of the hardest, most costly operational challenges in our nation’s history,” Biden has said. “If Congress provides the funding, we need to protect students, educators, and staff; if states and cities put strong public health measures in place that we all follow, then my team will work to see that a majority of our schools can be open by the end of my first 100 days.”
When the pandemic arrived in the US in January 2020, former President Trump called for an “industrial mobilization” to meet the country’s medical needs. But his administration mishandled the economy and had a series of strategic missteps: failed to give states clear guidelines for Covid prevention, not providing funding to pay for production lines or strongly exercising the Defense Production Act, and failing to meet its own targets for replenishing the Strategic National Stockpile of medical equipment, the General Accounting Office found.
Howard University and AFL-CIO economist William Spriggs said Trump’s lackluster pandemic response earned a failing grade. “He didn’t pump enough money to state and local governments,” Spriggs said. “And we lost more jobs in state and local government than we did the whole of the Great Recession.”
NLRB Reform: President Biden has also promised to give the National Labor Relations Board the power to fine employers that violate labor law. This will make it easier to hold employers accountable for working conditions and other practices.
New Labor Department Leadership: With his selection of Marty Walsh as Secretary of Labor, President Biden took a major step toward reversing the direction of that department, which focused more on enforcing Trump’s executive order banning diversity training than helping workers who lost their jobs due to Covid-19.
American support for unions has steadily increased; it is now sitting at 65 percent approval, the highest it has been since 2003 and up sharply since hitting its lowest point of 48 percent in 2009 (during the Great Recession). However, only about one in ten workers is unionized, a steep decline from the nearly one-third of workers who were members of a union in 1964. We know America wants and needs union representation - labor unions carve a pathway to the middle-class, providing good wages and benefits that allow workers to support their families and purchase homes and other material goods that help the local economy.
With the current economy, I believe an extended period of low demand in customer facing service businesses will actually make it easier to make structural changes and enact reforms with less risk. Providing good jobs actually lowers costs by reducing employee turnover, operational mistakes, and wasted time.
While the labor market has begun to recover, many Americans continue to struggle financially. We must take action to ensure we have an economy that works for the millions of workers who had already been left behind even before the pandemic. As the rollout and availability of multiple coronavirus vaccines increases, we have an opportunity to ensure American jobs also get a shot in the arm.
James Lister is the Business Manager / Financial Secretary of Insulators Local 6, based on Freeport Street in Dorchester.