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A Labor Vision for the Future


I’ve haven’t been blogging much lately because I’ve been both researching and working on other, longer pieces. But one thing I’ve been doing in those longer pieces is talking a lot about nostalgia for the past economy, which is really what ties the supposed working-class support for Trump together (to the extent that this really exists, which it does but is overrated). Nostalgia for the 1950s economy among white men can flow real well with currents of nostalgia for white dominance and when a woman knew her place. This is why I have no patience for either dismissing the racism of the white working class or making fun of so-called “economic anxiety.” These things can’t really be separated into neat categories. But what we can and must do is reject nostalgia, the most reactionary of all emotions, and fight for a new economy and society. We aren’t going to rebuild the 1950s industrial economy no matter what happens, even if our media usually can’t see past white blowhards at a Scranton cafe as the authentic voice of the white worker. The New York Times is pretty bad at this. So I was happy to see the editorial board actually have a pretty good Labor Day weekend piece about the future of work.

The iconic American worker of the 20th century — a man making cars in a Detroit factory — remains the focus of political debate about work in America. But the real face of the modern working class is a woman caring for that retired autoworker somewhere in the suburban Sun Belt. Half of the 10 fastest growing jobs in America are low-paid variants of nursing.

More manufacturing would be nice, but it won’t create many jobs. The best way to improve the lives of American workers it is to improve the terms of the jobs that they actually hold: raising the salaries of restaurant workers barely able to feed their families; providing paid leave for child-care providers who cannot care for their own children; securing benefits for warehouse workers who lack insurance because they are employed as contractors.

Democratic candidates are beginning to take notice of this fundamental shift, in part because voters are demanding that the candidates address the realities of their working lives.

Significant changes in labor laws, necessary to shift power toward workers, are likely to require Democratic majorities in both chambers of Congress. But a candidate’s support for such measures is suggestive of how likely they are to use the levers of executive power in the interest of workers. Mr. Sanders, for example, has promised an executive order barring federal contracts for firms that don’t meet standards like paying a $15 minimum wage.

Candidates also have demonstrated a considerable willingness to expand federal support for workers, an approach that amounts to sending the bill to taxpayers rather than employers.

All the candidates have proposed to expand the availability of health insurance for people without access to affordable private-sector plans. (The details are consequential, of course.)

There is also broad support for subsidizing child care. All of the candidates in the September debate except for Mr. Buttigieg have expressed support for a federal commitment to provide universal access to affordable preschool, and several candidates have gone further. Ms. Warren backs free care from birth to school age for families with incomes up to 200 percent of the poverty line. Senators Harris, Klobuchar and Sanders, and Mr. O’Rourke, back the Child Care for Working Families Act, which similarly aims to provide universal access to care.

The United States lags far behind most developed nations in ensuring access to health care and child care. A strengthened safety net not only improves the quality of life, it also increases productivity, by allowing workers, particularly women, to stay on the job. And by easing the pain of job losses, it can encourage people to take larger risks — and to earn larger rewards.

These ideas work together: higher minimum standards, collective bargaining and a stronger safety net can all help to improve the quality of working-class jobs in the 21st century.

I can quibble around the edges with a few things, but whatever we do to help American workers is going to revolve around a combination of new universal benefits, changes in labor law to make it easier to organize, and figuring out new ways to then organize all these new jobs. There’s no room for nostalgia here because nostalgia doesn’t help us one bit in the future, with the partial exception of at least remembering what a union could do for you.

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