Among the political and business elite there are, to my mind, fewer phrases more offensive than “labor shortage.”
For months now employers have been bemoaning such an alleged “labor shortage,” throughout the nation. This shortage of workers, business owners large and small insist, is due to the federal government’s “extravagant,” “overly generous” COVID-19 stimulus checks and unemployment compensation. “Nobody wants to work, anymore,” the business community sneers. It is a smug, right-wing phrase straight out of the Ronald Reagan “welfare-queen”-script. It has led to the proliferation of snarky signs posted at drive-thrus, such as this one.
The situation is so bad, we are told, that here in Maine, Democratic Gov. Janet Mills is offering a $1,500 cash incentive to any unemployed Mainers who accept a job in the state during the months of June and July. My own employer, the grocery store giant, Hannaford, is likewise bribing associates with a $200 referral bonus for any friend we recommend for a job. (The referred friend must stay throughout the summer in order to receive the bonus.)
But the notion of a “labor shortage” is a bourgeois con. There has been no decline in the actual number of working-class Americans who “want to work” — save, that is, for the staggering number of service workers and line cooks who have died in the last 15 months from COVID-19. And let’s get real: While the additional $300 or so of unemployment benefits have been a crucial lifeline for many working-class families, such a meager Band-Aid can hardly be considered a “generous” supplemental given the scale of the dual economic and pandemic crises.
Get Real: This Job Sucked Before COVID-19
Furthermore, it is worth pointing out that the industry hardest hit by the supposed labor shortage is the service sector — retail, fast-food franchises, and the restaurant industry. In other words, the jobs that were already crappy and dehumanizing long before COVID-19. Turns out restaurant servers are not particularly thrilled about the prospect of returning to a job rife with sexism and abusive, belittling customers that does not even pay a proper minimum wage. What a shock!
Likewise, McDonald’s workers are not exactly jumping at the chance to return to a work environment in which irate customers attempt to physically assault them because their slushie was made incorrectly. In the wake of the pandemic, working-class people are beginning to reevaluate just how much degradation they are willing to accept at the workplace.
How quickly service and retail workers have gone from being deemed “essential,” and “heroes” during the pandemic, to being scornfully derided as “lazy,” “moochers” of the state.
Not a Worker Shortage — a Jobs Shortage
What the business elite call a “labor shortage” is really a job shortage. In the wake of the pandemic, there is a shortage of jobs that are safe for workers to return to. Retail employers should be mandating that all customers and employees who are not fully vaccinated against COVID-19 continue to wear face masks. Yet most stores are using an unaccountable “honor system.” Employers do not want to put in the time or — more importantly — the money to ensure that all customers and associates in their stores are safe.
Likewise, employers have no interest in meeting workers’ growing demands for a living wage, for paid sick-time, family leave, and quality health care benefits. The business community is refusing to make these minimal, highly reasonable concessions. In fact, not only are employers refusing these demands — they are blaming their inability to find and maintain workers on the working-class itself. The bourgeoisie and petty-bourgeoisie are basically gaslighting us all.
“To call it a ‘labor shortage’ is an employers’ ploy,” says Professor Richard Wolff in a recent installment of his YouTube series, “Wolff Response.”
“And don’t be fooled,” he says. “Here’s what it really means: ‘We [employers] don’t find people that are willing to come back to jobs that we haven’t made safe, with conditions we have not improved, and with wages we haven’t made adequate… We don’t want to call that our failure. We want to call it theirs.’”
Now employers are pressuring their state governments and the Biden administration to promptly end the “excessive” unemployment benefits. Twenty-five states have already eliminated them. Wolff, a Marxist economist, has a term for this cynical maneuver: Forced labor.
The Republican governors who are cutting off much-needed unemployment benefits and pandemic-related payments are basically forcing people back to work. At the same time, the increasingly fascist Republican Party is attempting to cast itself as the “populist” party of the “working-class.” What is truly frightening is how likely it is to succeed in this effort, given the Democrats’ abysmal inability to meet the challenge of the times.
In many respects the current job shortage is akin to a quiet, low-level general strike. Workers are essentially withholding their labor power. The problem is this low-level labor strike lacks any real organization or structure. It lacks, in Lenin’s words, a vanguard party to help lead it and give it form. This is where a prominent left-wing group like the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) could step in. Sadly, DSA seems more preoccupied with running Democrats — err, excuse me, “Democratic socialists” — for local office than with waging any actual class struggle.
Take This Job and Shove It!
Finally, a word about the cynical assertion that “Nobody wants to work anymore.” This is, indeed, a curious claim given that under capitalism, those who do not own the means of production — the vast majority of citizens — have no other option but to work for a living. Most working-class people never really “wanted” to work in the first place.
This is not to suggest that working-class people are inherently lazy or unmotivated. Far from it. Humans have a natural drive to be productive, creative, and physically active. And human beings are social creatures. We have an innate desire to be civically engaged in our communities.
But there is a difference between working to secure a profit for a capitalist and being socially or personally productive with one’s labor. Under capitalism, workers’ time is not their own. It belongs to the boss. Nor, do workers even get to enjoy the fruits of their labor. This is, indeed, the difference between exploitation and freedom.
I know from personal experience, that one can work long, exhausting hours at a job without actually accomplishing much of anything. The truth is many jobs under capitalism have little socially useful function. These “busy-work” jobs are what the late anthropologist, David Graeber calls, “bullshit jobs.”
As Emelyne Museaux tweeted:
There is No Going Back to “Normal”
The bourgeoisie is frantically rushing to return to the pre-COVID-19 “normal.” But for many workers, there is no going back — nor should there be. For many working-class people, the pandemic offered them their first glimpse of what life could be like without work at the center of it. (Though, of course, many “essential” workers were forced to continue showing up to work every day, despite the life-threatening conditions…) Thanks to the COVID relief checks, many working-class people now actually have a savings account — with, like … money in it!
Let the employers whine and complain about their inability to “find workers.” Most of them are doing quite fine, truthfully. And let us please drop this nauseating liberal fetishization of small businesses. If these businesses are truly so “small” (Bull Moose Music, with 11 stores, two of which are outside of the state of Maine, classifies itself as a “small business”) that they cannot afford to pay their employees a living wage, then they do not deserve to be in business.
Let’s turn this “workers’ job market” into a real organized labor strike. Let’s create a society where working-class people never have to punch a clock ever again.