wealth inequality

Capitalists Are Escalating Their Shakedown of American Workers

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The soft opening of the Omicron BA.2 variant notwithstanding, world governments seem to have collectively decided that it’s officially time for restrictions — and protections — to end. In the United States, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently eased mask enforcement while the moratorium on student loan repayment is set to expire on May 1. New York City mayor Eric Adams, who has also supported ending restrictions, recently slob-shamed remote workers for opting to “stay home in your pajamas all day” instead of getting back to the office and “cross-pollinating ideas.” In Seattle, where I live, the city council rejected the efforts of socialist councilwoman Kshama Sawant to extend the eviction moratorium.

But as we prepare, yet again, to return to what we are led to believe will be a state of normalcy at last, Americans are more poorly positioned than we have been in nearly fifty years. By almost every measure — inflation, wages, medical expenses, student debt, rent, transportation costs — we are struggling. We are paying more for necessities and experiencing deepening immiseration while corporate profits are higher than they’ve been in nearly a century.

Some of the increased burden can be attributed to the pandemic as well as to supply chain problems and inflation. However, the most significant source of Americans’ current difficulties is that corporations, emboldened by the long decline of consumer protections and the functional indifference of most Democratic (never mind hyper-reactionary Republican) leaders to economic inequality, have opportunistically raised prices.

Writing in the Nation, John Nichols describes a January encounter between Senator Elizabeth Warren and Fed chair Jerome Powell, in which Powell all but concedes that recent price hikes are nothing more than a cash grab. As Nichols points out, politicians on the Left “understand that ‘explanations’ of inflation that don’t address monopoly abuses and corporate greed fail to speak to the economic and political realities of the moment.” But while others in the government besides Warren have raised the issue, there seems to be little likelihood of meaningful policy.

Wage theft and opportunity hoarding are perennial concerns, but what we are seeing now is a gold rush on working people’s remaining savings, scant as they are. In this, Americans are being tested to see just how much we’re willing to endure. Capitalists, having been instrumental in creating a workforce too exhausted and disorganized to mount an effective defense against plummeting quality of life, are betting the answer is quite a lot. And while inspiring union votes are being held across the country, the overall lack of any significant and sustained anti-capitalist movement telegraphs that we will still put up with more.

We need to show that we won’t.

Last December, six Amazon workers died when a tornado ripped through a warehouse in Edwardsville, Illinois. One employee, Larry Virden, texted his girlfriend that the company had refused to allow him to leave. He was killed by the collapsing roof as forty-six employees rushed to shelter in the building’s single safe area.

The deaths illuminate the nature of the stress test that most Americans are now enduring as we navigate an economic landscape characterized by precarious labor and diminishing purchasing power. Broke and bullied, we’re discovering that capitalists are trying to squeeze consumers and workers for all we’re worth — even if that means putting us in positions where we are literally dying for the job.

Inflation has decimated the modest wage gains workers saw last year. An hourly earnings increase of 0.4 percent, reported back in October, was obliterated by nearly 1 percent inflation for the month. Over the course of the pandemic, net hourly wages have declined 1.2 percent, while prices have climbed 7.5 percent over the past year, both due to inflation and because of the padding of corporate profits. Food prices, in particular, are up over 10 percent from a year ago.

Rents have similarly exploded, with some cities seeing as much as a 40 percent increase over the past year. While some local governments have passed rent control measures to ease the burden, much of the housing market remains unregulated. One saving grace, at least for those who are mobile, has been that housing costs have remained moderate in the nation’s smaller, less fashionable cities and suburbs — hence the migrations out of New York and Los Angeles and into Frisco, Fort Meyers, and Murfreesboro. But the savings are diminishing. As Conor Dougherty details, even smaller markets like Spokane, Washington, have seen ballooning housing costs, with home prices rising 60 percent since 2020.

Transportation and energy costs have also risen. Gas prices, driven in part by the Russian invasion of Ukraine, have risen 33 cents per gallon since the start of the year. Utility costs have also seen the largest spike in over a decade.

The case of Texas is particularly emblematic of how consumers have been blindsided. Last January, as the state was hit with a massive freeze, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), presiding over a deregulated and insufficiently winterized grid, cut the power supply to 4.5 million rather than face a full system collapse. Many customers were subsequently billed outrageous sums, reflecting price hikes during the crisis. While the state later reached a settlement with Griddy Energy, Bill Magness, the ex-CEO of the ERCOT, recently testified that Governor Greg Abbott instructed him to keep wholesale power prices at their maximum price cap as a means of keeping rolling blackouts to a minimum. This admission notably contradicts a prior statement from the governor’s office.

Student debt also remains a significant burden on Americans. While Biden has forgiven $15 billion of the $1.7 trillion total, including most recently a $415 million package, these drips and drops fall far short of campaign promises. With student loan repayment set to begin shortly, tens of millions of Americans will once again be thrown into debilitating economic stress. 

The effects of the current shakedown go beyond mere impoverishment, which is certainly dire enough. American life expectancy also infamously dropped in 2020, from a previous 78.8 years to 77.3. While in part attributable to COVID, Americans are statistically dying younger from other causes as well — homicide, diabetes, and what Anne Case and Angus Deaton have called “deaths of despair,” including liver cirrhosis and drug overdose.

While we are seeing significant labor action across the country, we are also seeing increasingly emboldened union busting. Amazon warehouse employees in Bessemer, Alabama, have been allowed a second unionization vote after the NLRB ruled that the company had interfered in the first. In response to a wave of successful unionization drives at Starbucks locations, the company has engaged in practices that workers allege is retaliation — these include spying, coercion, and the termination of several union organizers. And as REI workers sought to unionize, the company responded with a jaw-dropping anti-union podcast swaddled in the language of social justice.

With these sundry…

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