To mark Labor Day, professors WIlliam E. Forbath and Brishen Rogers published an op-ed in the New York Times arguing that labor law should be an important political objective in rejuvenating worker activism. Although labor unions overall are in a state of decline, there is significant activism pushing for raising minimum wages–for example Fight for $15–and related efforts to support workers. And in urban areas and some economic sectors, there are still a significant number of unionized workers, while at the same time workers in other industries are attempting to organize. This activity is important for unions of course, but it is also important for working people and the middle class in general because unions have always played crucial roles in progressive movements. That is why business elites and their allies in government have consistently worked to undermine them. Per Forbath and Rogers: “Without a rejuvenated labor movement, it’s almost inconceivable that breakthrough reforms will come to pass.”
The 2016 election cycle seems to have awakened a large number of Americans to the economic stagnation that afflicts much of the US working class, whether in former industrial centers of the Midwest, rural areas, or large cities. This stagnation amounts to a system crisis brought on by de-industrialization, automation, declining real wages, under employment, and growing work insecurity for many middle class Americans. These trends, which go back decades, have led to increasing inequality and diminishing opportunities as well as a politics of extremism. How can we get out of this trap?
One of our problems is that received wisdom–namely the idea that there is no alternative to unregulated markets in a globalized economy–has enjoyed a stranglehold on mainstream economic and political debate. But in the past year, most notably with the presidential campaign of Bernie Sanders, this monopoly of ideas has started to break down. Recent polling shows that fewer Americans than in the past–especially younger citizens–fear socialism while increasing numbers are critical of capitalism. Further evidence of this opening was seen in the debate about healthcare that accompanied the republican attempt to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare). Whatever one thinks about Obamacare, it appears to have solidified the idea that affordable healthcare is a right, not something that Americans should only access through what is euphemistically called the “free market.”
For those paying attention to the debate about healthcare options, other countries’ systems are important reference points, because of their success compared with the US in keeping costs down while achieving universal coverage and much better health outcomes overall. But European countries–particularly the Scandinavian countries–are doing much better than the US in other spheres as well, including educational achievement, economic productivity, the maintenance of a vibrant middle class, and the minimization of poverty. How have they achieved this success? George Lakey’s book, Viking Economics, provides some answers.