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Labor Day 2011
America isn't working

by Bryan Zepp Jamieson
September 3, 2011

The labor situation in America this Labor Day weekend? Rotten. Dire. Devastating. Grim. Or, in economic terms, “less than optimal.”

The top problem, of course, is unemployment. The U3, the standard measure the Bureau of Labor Statistics uses to measure unemployment, stands at 9.1%. However, the twelve million people in that bleak number are only part of the tale. The U6, which includes “discouraged workers” and people who got moved from full-time jobs to positions paying less than 33 hours a week, stands at 18.9%.

There are two million or so for whom the 99 week extension on Unemployment Benefits have run out, and so are no longer even considered part of the labor force. Then there are the twelve million unemployables who aren't disabled but are unable to get work because of criminal records, disfigurements or lack of education. And of course, the three million or so who are in the American gulags at any given time.

The percentage of working people compared to the overall population is at about 58.5%, the lowest since 1983, when we had another nasty recession. Indeed, it's nearly the lowest it's been since women began entering the work force in large numbers in the 1970s. It's actually lower than it was in 1959.

That number is actually a bit brighter than the reality. By that measure, to qualify as “employed” you only had to work one hour in the previous week for gain. The percentage of the total population with full-time work? Only 47%.

People have been out of work longer. The average length of unemployment now is 22 weeks, compared to a 40 year average of about 12 weeks.

This hasn't exactly been creeping up on us. The first decade of the millennium saw something that had never happened before in American history: for the entire decade, there was zero job growth. That had never happened before. Not in the roaring twenties, which came to such a cataclysmic end. Not in the seventies, that period of malaise. (Job growth for the decade was about 22%). The 1980s, that Roaring Reagan era, had been the worst, at about 12%. And even before the recession of 2007 and the meltdown of 2008, the Bush era projected to be the worst, with about 6% growth, half the previous worst decade.

Hmm. The worst decade for employment was the Bush decade. The second worst was the Reagan decade. Maybe tax cuts for the rich and deregulation don't act as economic spurs so much after all.

Roughly seven million people in the work force hold more than one job. Karl Marx saw that coming: “It is in the very nature of the capitalist mode of production to overwork some workers while keeping the rest as a reserve army of unemployed paupers.”

There's a lot said about how many jobs, especially high-paying manufacturing jobs, have gone overseas. Tens of millions have. Just this past week, right wingers were celebrating – yes, celebrating – the demise of Solyndra, a company that had received $535 million in loan guarantees as a result of the stimulus package. The right wingers were jubilant because they claimed it proved the stimulus package didn't work, and that it showed that solar energy was a hippie pipe dream and not going anywhere. It may seem strange to see free marketeers celebrating a failure of a program that, for the most part, provided tax breaks and loan guarantees to small business, but this stimulus was created by Obama, and of course for the GOP, party always comes ahead of country. They would sooner see any Republican program proposed by Obama fail then see America succeed.

Further, outfits like Solyndra were competing against the Chinese, whose huge solar energy industry is heavily subsidized by the government, so they can sell solar panels at a much lower price than any American “free market” company can manage. Further, because the Chinese don't much care if they poison their own people, they can take the silicon tetrachloride produced by the solar cell manufacturing process and just dump it in the sewers, which trims about 40% off the cost per unit. The result is that China has a huge lead in the burgeoning solar energy market, and will have an unassailable lead before the US gets off its ass. Solyndra and the other companies that went bankrupt in recent months will be selling their factory equipment of course. To the Chinese. Of course.

Republicans hate small business. (Actually small businesses, as opposed to outfits such as ADM or Tyson, who get designated as “small businesses” for political expedience) Loans to small businesses peaked in 2009 at a little over $1.5 trillion, in part a result of the stimulus package. But since then, the Senate has refused to consider any further legislation, and so government loans to small businesses—the only sector of the economy that actually created jobs in the past decade—have ground to a halt.

But another, virtually unnoticed unfair competition has hit the American labor force. The Prison-Industrial Complex (name credit: Angela Davis) isn't just the for-profit private prisons which make up about 8% of the Gulag. Nor is it the powerful prison-guard mafia which provides hundreds of thousands of good-paying jobs. It's the million or so prisoners who are coerced into working for about two dollars a day (sometimes even less than that) manufacturing items, and performing tasks such as manning call centers and solicitation lines. Some are even doing debt collection. Two dollars a day, and everything else is paid for by the American taxpayer to undercut our own jobs.

Until recently, prison labor was limited to making things for the government – license plates, for example. But under intense lobbying by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), the labor was made available for any business that wanted a captive third-world wage labor pool right here in America. The thirteenth amendment, which allows this, has cost hundreds of thousands of formerly well-paying jobs out in the literally “free” market. Not surprisingly, ALEC staunchly supports three-strikes laws, mandatory sentencing, and laws like SB1070 — the “Support Our Law Enforcement and Safe Neighborhoods Act” which permits cops to round up undocumented aliens and jail them. It explains why, even though violent crime in America is down 10% since 1980, the number of people in prison is nearly five times what it was back then. It makes for a big source of slave labor.

The quality of the jobs on the outside that are available has been dropping, too. One in four jobs available was temporary work, usually at lower wages and of course without benefits. A lot of people had to turn down such jobs because they were on unemployment, and taking a temp job at lower wage for a few weeks would result in a large cut in the unemployment benefits they might be eligible for after the work ended.

Remember Perry's “Texas miracle” which left the state unemployment a full point below the rest of the country? The median wage dropped fifteen hundred dollars in that time. More jobs available, but they were crap jobs. A guy who loses a $35 an hour job as an electrician and goes to work at Mickee Dee's is still employed, right?

Unions continue to disintegrate. Union membership in the United States is down to 11.8%, the lowest it's been since the twenties. In some southern states it's below 5%. And most union members are in the public sector, which of course is now under heavy attack from the fascist right, as we see in Wisconsin, Ohio, and other places. The Unions have finally realized that the Democrats are generally useless as allies these days. There are honest Democrats who care deeply about working people and support unions, but the party is largely subsumed by whores who get elected only through the largess of corporate support. But that support comes at a price.

A strange factoid emerged; if you have been unemployed for more than six months, your chances of finding a job in the next month drop from about 25% when you first started looking to 9%. The more desperate you are, the less likely you are to get a job. And the number of job-seekers over the age of 55 has jumped 8% in the past three years. Why hire a middle-aged person when you can get some dumb kid for half the salary?

The social safety net is unraveling. I expect food riots this winter, unless something changes.

And the overall class war is intensifying. Aside from the blatant labor-busting activities of the GOP, one hears amazing things from the far right. One nasty little clown, a Matthew Vadum of the Capital Research Center opined on TV that "registering the poor to vote is un-American." Nasty dirty grubby little poor people will vote themselves benefits, quite unlike nasty, dirty, grubby little corporations like Exxon or GE.

Oh, wait. Never mind. I forgot: capitalism for the poor, and socialism for the rich. You have to reward the “productive class” for making the nation totally unproductive, you see.

I wish I could end this on a hopeful note. Unfortunately, like many people, I'm watching the world economy very closely, and seeing a lot of wrong-headed mistakes and huge efforts to maintain a status-quo that has already failed us miserably, and I think an economic meltdown similar to the one in 2008 is going to hit, sooner rather than later. It may be only weeks away.

If it does, we have a President who shows little sign of being able to help—note that his big Jobs speech is on Thursday, and not Labor Day—and a congress blockaded by entities openly malevolent to working Americans. Obama's star has fallen so far that nobody expects him to say anything useful or helpful in his speech.

So if the present situation is rotten. Dire. Devastating. Grim. Or, in economic terms, “less than optimal.”

The outlook, however, is flat-out horrible.

Posted: September 9, 2011

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