A new dawn for the working class?

Workers have more power than any time since the 1950s.

Joel Kotkin
Columnist

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The labouring masses are restless, as evidenced by the Canadian trucker strike, union drives in Amazon warehouses in the US and in demonstrations throughout the developing world. More revealing still may be the turmoil in the labour markets, where workers are changing jobs, creating their own and, overall, refusing to return to the structures of the pre-pandemic order.

Once working-class protests were often organised by leftists or even Communists, but many of today’s working-class radical movements take on a different, more populist and distinctly anti-statist character. One can question the positions adopted by protesters, particularly on vaccines, but also recognise that the new wave of working-class unrest, whether in Canada or among the gilets jaunes in France, reflects a deep-seated frustration with diktats issued from above by an increasingly authoritarian state.

Generally, these movements are not embraced but are largely met with disdain and even horror by gentry progressives and their media allies. As Edwin Aponte notes on the Bellows, a widely read Marxist blog, this ‘betrays the left’s allergy to the varied social character of the working class as it actually exists in 2022’.

These protests in the US, Australia and Europe are not led by Marxist intellectuals in quest of a new world order, but by those seeking to restore an increasingly threatened world, where individual workers still possess some power and small independent artisans or merchants can support a middle-class lifestyle. Given the persistent worker shortages and supply-chain issues, workers’ power to disrupt the economy and to push back is greater than at any time in the past half century.

This new leverage is rooted in demographic trends. The US’s working population – people aged between 16 and 64 – grew by more than 20 per cent in the 1980s. In the past decade, it has grown by less than five per cent. To make matters worse, an estimated one-third of American working-age males are not in the labour force, suffering from high rates of incarceration, and from drug, alcohol and other health issues.

This is not a uniquely American experience. China’s population, according to one recent survey, is expected to halve in less than half a century, and its population of under-60s may already be in decline. Germany, a long-established industrial powerhouse, suffers from a fatal lack of new workers – a factor in the notable slowing of its formidable manufacturing sector. Germany’s workforce is expected to drop by five million by 2030.

The pandemic has worsened the shortage. Covid-19 lockdowns and restrictions sparked the ‘Great Retirement’, with 3.2million more US seniors leaving the workforce in the third quarter of 2020 than in the same quarter in 2019, according to the Pew Research Center. A persistent lack of workers is now exerting pressure on wages. There have been massive shortages across a wide range of sectors – from nurses and delivery people to farm labourers, truckers, retail, hotel and restaurant workers. Nearly 90 per cent of companies surveyed by the US Chamber of Commerce cited a lack of available workers as the biggest drag on their growth. ‘It’s a workers’ labour market now, and increasingly so for blue-collar workers’, argues Becky Frankiewicz, president of staffing firm Manpower, Inc. ‘We have plenty of demand and not enough workers.’

The likes of Bernie Sanders hope that workers’ new-found leverage could benefit some labour unions. And there are signs of new unions forming, particularly among workers employed by large chains like Starbucks or warehouse giants like Amazon. Vox describes the current conditions as ‘a fertile ground for Americans to seek higher wages, better benefits, and improved working conditions’, though it cautions that this may only work out if unionisation rises.

Yet, at the same time, so far at least, we haven’t seen a dramatic rise in labour militancy. The number of strikes in the US has remained well below levels in previous years. More revealing, private-sector union membership continued its long decline through the pandemic, while unionisation rates among younger workers now approach just four per cent of the workforce. This informs the character of today’s working- and middle-class protests. Like the gilets jaunes movement in France, the demonstrations are driven largely by suburban and exurban independent workers, contractors, artisans, delivery drivers and people who work for themselves.

In the United States, many of these workers are not looking to fight capitalism, but to find a niche within it. Despite the pandemic, new business formations rose in the US from roughly 3.5million in 2019 to 4.4million last year. Self-employment, which was pummeled at first by lockdown, has recovered more rapidly than conventional salary jobs. Since the pandemic struck, more than 500,000 Americans have reinvented themselves as entrepreneurs. Frustrated teachers are leaving the state sector and headed to the private sector. In the UK, the level of self-employment was already higher than ever in 2019, before the pandemic.

The people who kept society functioning as the ‘laptop classes’ stayed behind their screens are demanding some well-deserved respect as well as greater compensation. Politicians like President Biden talk about having to ‘learn to code’ to fit into the ‘new economy’. But in the real world, the biggest demand is not for coders, but for skilled, dependable workers, like drivers, machine-tool operators and welders.

US industrial employers before the pandemic didn’t have a deep bench to draw on – 50 per cent of active workers in industry are above the age of 45. As many as 600,000 new manufacturing jobs are expected to be generated this decade which cannot be filled. The current shortage of welders could grow to 400,000 by 2024. Amid a mild recovery in the US, by May 2021, an estimated 500,000 manufacturing jobs were left unfilled.

The prospects of blue-collar workers might even be better than for those in the laptop class. In the AI-driven future economy, venture capitalist and entrepreneur Rony Abovitz told me recently that the future may be brighter for people who can install plumbing systems or maintain machines. ‘It’s the end of the white-collar knowledge work’, Abovitz suggests. Instead, he predicts that the future will be shaped more by the rise of the ‘sophisticated, technically capable blue-collar worker’.

These realities suggest we need a new approach to everything from industrial policy to education. Today’s educators stress four-year college degrees and white-collar careers. Yet a US survey taken in 2020 found that many students don’t feel confident their education will help them meet their career goals, and barely one in five think doing a BA is worth the cost (college tuition has increased 213 per cent in the past 30 years). Enrollment in colleges has been declining since 2019.

Some states, like Ohio, Kentucky and Tennessee, have read the memo. They have developed flexible training programmes following the successful approach employed in European countries like Germany, Sweden and Denmark. These programmes even appeal to some college grads, whose underemployment rate is nearly 50 per cent. Those with a technical education enjoy a higher chance of finding their preferred employment and, according to the US Department of Education, are more likely to be employed than their counterparts with academic credentials.

Upskilling is an old tradition from the era of guilds to the various self-help and mechanics’ societies that arose in Britain and America during the Industrial Revolution. It was also an important part of Booker T Washington’s late 19th-century efforts to help blacks gain economic self-sufficiency. Instead of ‘dumbing down’ on skills and merit, scrapping such things as exit exams while focusing on ideological indoctrination, the schools in the West need more rigorous training, not less, and a greater emphasis on skills and the ethic of work.

Of course, to rebuild a working class, economic conditions have to provide people with more opportunities. This may run afoul of the current progressive agenda on climate change, epitomised by the Green New Deal. By raising the costs of production, particularly for energy, a rapid embrace of Net Zero would derail any future industrial renaissance. Low natural gas prices have been critical to the nascent industrial boom in places like Ohio.

The current environmentalists’ approach, which seeks an accelerated shift to renewables, occurs while the West’s prime competitor, China, continues to build new coal and other fossil-fuel plants. In reality, a shift of production out of China would be good for the environment. Moving production back to the UK, EU or US would allow firms to exit notoriously high-carbon supply chains in China, which now emits more greenhouse gases than the United States and the EU combined.

Yet this opportunity seems doomed if the West adopts the ‘Great Reset’ as pushed by the greens’ woke corporate sponsors. These policies, as is already evident in the EU, UK and California, guarantee continued high energy prices. For many enlightened progressives, economic growth is itself suspect and some are already fretting that any recovery will hurt the planet. There are even calls among those embracing the ‘degrowth’ agenda to adapt the pandemic lockdown strategy from Covid, largely imposed without legislative approval, to ‘combat’ climate change.

The good news is that a pro-worker, pro-reshoring approach appeals to many in both parties, at least on their more populist wings. Americans, at least theoretically, are willing to pay higher prices for domestically produced goods, according to a recent survey by the left-leaning Center for American Progress. In contrast, notes Gallup, only a tiny share of Americans see climate change, despite the unrelenting media fear-mongering, as the nation’s priority – especially compared to inflation, government incompetence, the pandemic, racial justice and family decline.

Yet re-industrialisation and competition with China are not the priority for most Western political leaders, including Conservatives like Boris Johnson. It offends the narrative embraced by globalist oligarchs, their consultants and their green allies. In contrast, our rivals seem less anxious to put the middle and working classes under their electric bus. China’s Xi Jinping, in particular, seems keenly aware that the Chinese Communist Party’s ‘mandate of heaven’ rests ultimately on reducing the burdens, not increasing them, faced by his subjects. Xi has made no bones about not wanting to punish his people to meet climate goals amid growing concern over the country’s vast class divides.

In contrast, our leaders tend to be more concerned with virtue-signaling on climate, gender or racial issues than with meeting the aspirations of the masses. Not surprisingly, the protests in Canada have been labelled by Jeff Bezos’ mouthpiece, the Washington Post, as ‘toxic’. Instead of listening and trying to understand the trucker protests, Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau tars them with all the progressive calumnies: ‘Anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, anti-Black racism, homophobia and transphobia.’ This even though the drivers include many minorities – most prominently Sikhs, who make up a large share of Canada’s truckers – and have remained, as CNN would put it, ‘peaceful’.

This hostility to blue-collar aspirations has become a permanent feature of progressive politics. Prominent left-leaning observers such as Joan C Williams, Paul Embery and Didier Eribon have all noted that the working class are now widely written off as culturally toxic and hopelessly reactionary by so-called progressives. For the enlightened, it is immaterial if their policies drive rising crime or that draconian Net Zero policies also seek to shrink house sizes, restrict access to electricity, travel and automotive mobility. It is not their concern if millions of working-class people, particularly those in well-paying manufacturing, construction and energy jobs, lose their livelihoods and are forced to become dependent on the state.

The oligarchs and their allies may want to consider where the immiseration of the middle and working class leads. Already a strong majority of people in 27 countries around the world, according to a recent Edelman survey, believe capitalism does more harm than good. If the working and middle classes cannot see a way out of stagnation, and their prospects for higher wages are crushed by inflation, it is inevitable they will see their future in expanded government and greater redistribution of wealth.

In reality, we should not be writing off mass prosperity, but seeking a new dawn of opportunity for the working and middle classes. Higher wages, more opportunities in fields like industry, healthcare, logistics and construction could empower working-class people in a way not seen since the 1950s – if the oligarchs and their allies do not block the potential sunshine.

Joel Kotkin is a spiked columnist, the presidential fellow in urban futures at Chapman University and executive director of the Urban Reform Institute. His latest book, The Coming of Neo-Feudalism, is out now. Follow him on Twitter: @joelkotkin

Picture by: Getty.

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Topics Politics UK USA World

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