Trump & the American Worker
Terry H. Schwadron
Sept. 4, 2017
Labor Day, started to salute contributions of the American worker, provides an excuse to assess how workers are doing in the economy. Most of the commentary that I’ve read mirrors my own view that despite his seemingly appealing pitch to “those left behind” in the country’s economic recovery, Donald Trump actually is making things worse for workers.
Indeed, many of the appointments and policy changes that the White House has undertaken with “workers” in mind actually are much more aimed at helping entrepreneurs and the wealthy. President Trump accepts that traditional Republican theory that if you help those at the top, their investments and spending will create new good-paying jobs, will allow wealth to “trickle down” and to increase consumer confidence.
While generalizations are not especially helpful, the trends that are evident in proposed corporate tax cuts, in cutbacks of regulation over the workplace, in building more obstacles to worker unionizing efforts, to relieve companies of some of the current requirements to provide health care and other benefits all favor employers over workers.
The President repeatedly ignores the growing gig economy, freelancers, project-driven careers for standard longtime employers, who, in turn, continue to lay off workers at alarmingly decreasing maturity levels to make room for lesser-paid new hires. He has changed the majority on the National Labor Relations Board to appoint those would support freedom from regulation for employers.
Indeed, on behalf of American workers, the President has stepped into negotiations, famously, with Carrier Air Conditioning manufacturers in Indiana to keep them from taking jobs out of the United States to Mexico, only to find six months later that most of those jobs have disappeared to layoffs or given way to new jobs in Mexico. Still, the President has pursued aggressive policies to withdraw or renegotiate NAFTA, to withdraw from the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership, and the challenge bilateral agreements with China and South Korea, among others — all in the name of protecting the American worker, but with an eye to expand markets for the owners of businesses.
Yes, unemployment has continued, mostly, to fall by tiny amounts, but wages have remained relatively stagnant. The President is quick to trumpet improvements in unemployment rates, as he did a month ago, but silent when expectations fail to materialize, as they did this month. The President has favored some localized attempts at incentivizing apprenticeships as an alternative to college education support, but the actual details turn out to allow employers to pick up several years of government-paid on-the-job learning while promising graduation to lower-paid industrial jobs.
The American worker is a vaunted figure through this nation’s history, particularly since the start of the Industrial Revolution in the late 1800s, and boosted mightily by union membership and campaigns of the 20th Century. Together with presidents like FDR, they forced changes in child labor laws, in setting work week maximums, eventually in allowing for minimum wages and overtime. It was the American worker who gave hope to the value of an American Dream that has included home ownership, individual and family security, health care and social security legislation, worker safety rules and the right to collective bargaining.
That is our history, hard-fought and won, only to now to find us in a nation where such efforts are declaimed as welfare and laziness, where we appoint millionaires and billionaires to Cabinet positions because they are millionaires and billionaires, where we celebrate governors like Scott Walker of Wisconsin for overturning collective bargaining by public workers. It is a time when Americans increasingly are comfortable saying they are pulling up the ladder that got themselves to a middle class, and leaving those behind who are lesser beings. That this calculation fits with racial and gender stereotypes is a feature, not a bug of systemic thinking, but something to be ignored in any case.
The celebrated American worker today is one who buys and sells companies, putting thousands out of work, not the committed immigrant worker who uses the equalization of the workplace to improve his personal and familial lot.
The President talks about reviving mining and manufacturing when the marketplace is shouting something altogether different: It is crying out for educated, technical, creative, flexible individuals who will learn and take a chance. It is beckoning for foreigners to come to this country to join in, and it is demanding to be heard as the ignored 99 percent. It is calling for women to be paid equally with men, for racial understanding, for training programs to meet unmet employment needs, to deal upfront with student debt. It is calling out for the President to even acknowledge that technology and Artificial Intelligence will have an increasing say over what passes as a job, and for experimentation with more life support systems rather than fewer, more workplace safety attention than less, for recognition for portable benefits for careers that move between projects and recognize that the 50-year single company employment model is dead.
Dear Mr. Trump, the way to help the American worker is not by helping factory owners. It is by helping the workers.
Happy Labor Day.