It should be as obvious as the nose on your face that the working class in the United States has been in a state of crisis and decline for decades now. The emergence of companies like Uber, Lyft, and TaskRabbit, whose business models rely on the abuse of independent contractors to avoid the burdens of having employees, are just the latest chapter in an ongoing crisis where the old rules of worker-boss interaction have been shredded and almost always to the detriment of the worker. It’s clear that something must be done, but what? What should be done to restore stability to the lives of working people?
Last month, Service Employees International Union Local 775 President David Rolf and hedge fund master of the universe Nick Hanauer published a proposal for reforms to the battered husk of the American welfare state in Democracy. Hanauer, who has had some interesting interviews relatively recently and ruffled the feathers of his fellow billionaires by proposing at a TED talk that income inequality was a bad thing, has teamed up with Rolf, a member of SEIU’s International Executive Board and president of the homecare workers’ union in Washington state, to make a series of policy proposals about securing ‘economic inclusion’ through public policy. Specific criticisms of the policies Hanauer and Rolf propose have been excellently rendered by friend of the blog Matt Bruenig here, so we will be focusing on the political dimensions and flaws of this proposal.
This plan validates the worst and most exploitative aspects of our capitalist economy. When we put policies into effect that would substantively decrease the level of job security that the working class enjoys, you are not “humanizing capitalism”; you are reinforcing it and extending it. The terming of “shared security accounts” is one that sounds more like something you would find at a bank, not a program for alleviating inequality. That is, however, by design, because the goal of this plan is not to give workers a greater say in the workings of the American economy; it is designed to groom itinerant workers into being better consumers. After all, Hanauer stated in Robert Reich’s otherwise solid documentary Inequality For All that the problem with income inequality was not that families could not put more food on their table or provide for their children, but that growing inequality made it difficult for people to buy more stuff.
The mass movements that have sprung up in the last five years — from Occupy to the Fight For $15 — have been aimed at dismantling this system of thought and implementation, so it is puzzling to see this suggested as some forward-thinking new model. Increasing the puzzlement in all of this is Rolf, an active official in one of United States’ largest labor unions, co-signing this idea. After all, this misadventure in public policy would not have as great an effect on, say, a member of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers or the American Federation of Government Employees; the unions whose members would be most negatively affected by this plan are those like Rolf’s, who are comprised of low-wage workers. The one union that should be resisting plans like this is, in fact, enthusiastically in favor. That is a very disheartening sight to see.
It’s disheartening because if this proposal has any effect on the social movements that are springing up around the issue of economic inequality, it would have a demobilizing effect. Hanauer and Rolf claim to be against trickle-down economics; in reality, they have simply replaced it with a trickle-down model of labor relations.
It would be akin to the Affordable Care Act (ACA) and its effect on the push for single-payer, universal health care in the United States. Prior to the inauguration of Barack Obama, the conversation about the expanding numbers of uninsured Americans had a strong left flank that argued for a health care system akin to the Social Security system in France, the National Health Service in the United Kingdom, or the Medicare system in Canada. Today, the articles are still being written, but the political possibilities have greatly narrowed with the Democratic Party fighting tooth-and-nail for the ACA, and Republicans fighting to repeal a plan that was their idea to begin with.
The cannibalizing of more radical advocacy surrounding inequalities in health care would be a “past as prologue” moment for the labor movement as the Hanauer-Rolf plan began to take effect and set the limits of debate surround low-wage work and economic security. Even the boldest parts of the plan — paid leave — are underwhelming at best, an insult at worst. The fifteen days of annual leave trails such booming economies as Afghanistan, Libya, and Mauritius. The five days of annual sick leave pales in comparison to every other industrialized country in the world.
The root problem with this whole proposal is that Rolf and Hanauer fundamentally misunderstand how the welfare states in countries with a social-democratic tradition came into being in the first place. Things like the NHS in the UK and codetermination in Germany were not implemented as public policy because the people running the country were simply nice people. They were implemented through sustained struggle by mass movements over many long years. No matter how broken and degraded the social-democratic tradition is these days, the fact remains that the welfare state came into being only through worker power.
While it’s understandable for a billionaire hedge funder like Nick Hanauer to not grasp the centrality of worker power to the establishment of welfare states, it’s mind-boggling that someone involved in the union movement doesn’t understand it either. This, perhaps, is the origin of the most staggering oversight of this piece: Hanauer and Rolf never discuss the need to protect organizing a union as a right. Every other major industrialized country has far more robust protections for collective action than the United States does, where it’s legal to fire and replace striking workers if they are trying to improve their economic well-being and companies are allowed to harass and intimidate workers looking to unionize virtually without limit. This void in their argument begs the question, “how do Rolf and Hanauer propose to get this package of policies implemented in the face of vociferous and aggressive opposition from Hanauer’s peer group?”
They present no answer in this piece to this.
The Hanauer-Rolf proposal is but the latest iteration of a neoliberal solution to the problems caused by neoliberalism. This is a system that sees concerns as equality and democracy as mere substitute goods in the scheme of everyday life; subservient as it is to the demands of capital. Rather than challenging the ongoing conversion of citizens into consumers of government services, Hanauer and Rolf double down on reinforcing this trend. Make no mistake: this plan is focused on increasing your ability to be a better customer in the marketplace. Any benefits accrued to the working class are incidental and marginal at best.
Only by building worker power on a fundamental level and challenging the current economic autocracy that exists within the current system can we durably change the lives of working people in this country and around the world.
(This was a cowritten piece with Cato Uticensis.)