The Bureau of Labor Statistics’ monthly report, the looming threat of “sequester” and austerity from both capitalist political parties, and the general lack of living-wage jobs confront the working class in the U.S. with a challenge: how to survive and protect our standard of living in a stagnant economy that may face another downturn?
To put it in clearer class terms: In a period of economic stagnation and “jobless recovery,” how can the working class in the United States fight back against a relentless attack from the bankers and bosses — who own the capitalist U.S. economy — and from the politicians who serve this ruling class?
The first challenge is to interpret the BLS’s report.
Any statistical analysis of something as complex as the U.S. $14 trillion economy would be an enormous task, even for a government department. But the BLS faces another problem: It has a contradictory mission.
It must collect and publish statistics that help capitalist managers and economists understand what is happening in the economy. At the same time it must disguise these numbers to hide from the workers the capitalist system’s responsibility for their problems.
The BLS does this by emphasizing an unemployment rate based on sampling the population. This rate has become almost useless in reflecting a trend.
The BLS counts as unemployed the number of people in its sample who looked for work in a certain period but found none. It divides that number by the sum of all in the sample who were working or who actively looked for work in that period.
The result of this calculation is the unemployment rate, which is published at the top of its report each month. It reached 10 percent in 2009, the year when the “recovery” — a recovery of profits only — began. This March, after nearly four years of “recovery,” the Bureau says it was 7.6 percent, compared with about 5 percent when the recession began at the end of 2007.
Even the corporate media these days acknowledge that this rate is completely inadequate for describing the trends in the capitalist economy.
The April 5 New York Times barely mentioned this rate, for example, and explained: “The unemployment rate … ticked down to 7.6 percent in March, from 7.7 percent, but for the wrong reason: because more people reported dropping out of the labor force (meaning they are neither working nor looking for work), not because more people were hired.”
Real figure: 30 million
A contributor to Workers World, Mike Gimbel, publishes his own interpretation each month of the statistics the BLS provides. Gimbel looks at the BLS statistics that show a significant decrease in the total active labor force and makes the reasonable assumption that this drop was involuntary and based on economic conditions. He makes that decrease part of the unemployed. His numbers show that the “real” unemployment rate was 16.7 percent in March, and has been just about the same over the past six months.
If you add to this 16.7 percent those workers who have only part-time work but who want to work full time, the total is 21.2 percent either unemployed or underemployed — only a shade lower than it was last October.
This alleged “recovery” is no recovery for workers. Workers have dropped out of economic activity either because no work is available or — as some women especially have complained — because wages are so low it is not possible to pay for child care.
The stock market has risen since 2009. But in 2008 the work force was 155 million, while the total population was lower than today. At 21.2 percent now, the real number of unemployed plus underemployed has remained at least at 30 million. And this doesn’t count the nearly 2.5 million people who are held behind bars, an outrageous number.
These numbers give further empirical proof to the thesis WW contributing editor Fred Goldstein developed in his book “Capitalism at a Dead End.” Today, during what is considered a normal business-cycle recovery, the capitalist system is unable to regenerate the millions of jobs lost in the downturn.
National oppression and youth unemployment
This article so far has considered the U.S. working class in its aggregate, including Black, Latino/a, Indigenous and white workers of all ages, genders and education levels. Because of both historical oppression and current racism, unemployment rates among African-American workers are nearly double the aggregate rates. Latino/a unemployment is somewhere in between. The Indigenous population is, if anything, the worst off economically. Immigrants without official papers are mostly excluded from official statistics, whether or not they are able to find work.
In the current stagnant economy, young workers have been stifled, even many who have college educations, with unemployment rates much higher than for the aggregate, and especially high for African-American youth. Capitalism’s inability to provide jobs for youth is a major sign of the decline of the entire system.
Sequester and austerity cut relief
Banks, unable to find enough new capitalist enterprises to profitably invest their billions in, instead have loaned money to governments. Austerity — here and in Europe — really means cutting social services in order to assure that these banks will be repaid their loans. The current “sequester” — an across-the-board cut to many federal government programs — is a particularly blunt form of austerity.
While doing nothing to aid the economy, the austerity programs will increase unemployment. They are a direct attack on the standard of living of the entire working class. They serve only the bankers.
One group especially affected by the sequester are the 5 million long-term unemployed. Once regular unemployment runs out — after 26 weeks — a federal extension is supposed to kick in. The sequester will cut these unemployment benefits by at least 10 percent, and officials have warned of an even greater cut.
Cuts will also involve nutrition programs, Head Start and other benefits that are needed by the poorest people — a category growing each day because of long-term unemployment. Reports are that Social Security and Medicare will also be on the chopping block.
Fight back! Join May 11 march for jobs
What is needed is a struggle that unites the working class to fight all austerity programs. By struggling for the needs of the most oppressed and poorest, the entire working class gains. Thus demands should include fighting to end all discrimination, for food stamp increases, for raises in the minimum wage and unemployment benefits, and to provide jobs for all.
One movement that looks at the current situation from the point of view of the most oppressed workers is the Poor People’s March, set to walk the 41 miles from Baltimore to Washington, D.C., starting May 11. The Baltimore Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the newly formed People’s Power Assembly have initiated this action. It was the national leadership of the SCLC that initiated the Poor People’s Campaign of 1968.
A major focus of the march is the fight against police brutality and mass incarceration, as well as against racism and injustice. The march will also demand jobs for all and a fight against deepening poverty. This action is an opportunity to begin a fightback to stop the bankers and bosses’ direct and brutal attack on the working class.