After a long, eventful and strange summer, Labor Day has arrived – an unexpected island of stability in the waning days of the pandemic.
When the economy cratered in March 2020, no one knew what to expect. We’d had many recessions, but nothing to match the Great Depression of the 1930s, which shook Americans’ confidence as nothing had since the Civil War.
Yet even the Great Depression unfolded over time; long after the stock market crash, many insisted “recovery is just around the corner,” except it wasn’t. Another decade passed before World War II production finally created full employment.
The pandemic shock unfolded literally overnight, and Republicans who hadn’t favored a new domestic program in a generation helped pony up $2 trillion to keep the economy from collapsing. In that limited sense, we’d learned the need for government intervention.
Then it was back to politics as usual, with Democrats still laboring, alone, to pass spending bills they believe necessary for full recovery.
Another, unheralded result has unfolded before our eyes. American workers, collectively, aren’t going back to work under the old terms. There’s a labor shortage, and the market, which had strongly favored capital over labor, began to turn.
Drive down Augusta’s Western Avenue, or any urban road, and you’ll see fast food restaurants offering $15 an hour. Elsewhere, nursing homes offer $2,500 sign-on bonuses – unthinkable before the pandemic.
Work finally pays – perhaps not yet enough to allow two-earner households to raise kids without huge borrowing – but headed upward. Maine’s having a banner summer, and visitors feel safe here, without the incessant warring over masks and vaccines in state governments in the South and upper Midwest.
Whether these encouraging trends continue, or disappear, will depend on what more we’ve learned.
The stunning expansion of private fortunes was accompanied by a workplace paradigm represented by Wal-Mart, once the nation’s largest private employer.
Maine was the last of the lower 48 states to have Wal-Mart stores, but they arrived with a bang in the 1990s. And Maine workers encountered a different kind of retail.
Wal-Mart paid less than comparable jobs, and was stingy with benefits. Even full-time employees had no dependent benefits, and moms and dads were urged to use Medicaid, intended for the poor and disabled, not the gainfully employed.
Wal-Mart manipulated work schedules. There was no such thing as a shift, or a weekly schedule, that couldn’t be altered by computer algorithm.
If there weren’t enough customers, workers were sent home. Soon, it became commonplace for employees to seek second, even third jobs in desperate attempts to make ends meet.
It’s just the way life is, they were told. Well-paid factory jobs aren’t coming back, so get used to it or go to college, replete with student loans.
The bargain isn’t holding. If we don’t need millions of factory jobs, but have tens of millions of jobs serving the public, maybe service jobs are the “good jobs” of the future, and should be paid accordingly.
There’s another point where change won’t occur without major structural changes. Joe Biden has called attention to a lack of competition in many economic sectors.
We’re all aware that one company (Google) controls most internet services; another (Facebook) is the biggest “social media” provider; and that still another (Amazon) is cornering the market on online order deliveries.
It goes much deeper, and the harder you look, the more examples you find. Doctors, dentists and veterinarians are abandoning small practices, and those retiring find few willing to buy.
Most books sold today are produced by just five publishers – soon to become four unless the Biden administration blocks consolidation of Penguin Random House and Simon & Schuster – together representing a dozen once-independent imprints.
We’ve seen what chain ownership has done to newspapers, with sharply downsized coverage, or none at all, as century-old papers close, including Maine’s Biddeford Journal Tribune.
Small business owners face a stark choice – sell to a bigger competitor, or just close and dismiss the staff. As we know from first-year economic textbooks, this way lies monopoly.
It doesn’t have to happen. Many historians believe the Black Death, which reduced Europe’s population by a third, eventually led to the Renaissance – as much an economic boom as an artistic one.
A huge labor shortage prompted an explosion of creativity, marking the end of serfs and vassals, and ushering in social mobility.
We have vastly more knowledge and technical ability than our forbears. Will we use it to improve life for all those now under the sun, or will the favored few prevail?
We may have the beginnings of an answer by the time Labor Day rolls around again.
Douglas Rooks has been a Maine editor, commentator, reporter and author since 1984. His new book is “First Franco: Albert Beliveau in Law, Politics and Love.” He welcomes comment at [email protected]