Over the past year and a half, the COVID-19 pandemic has delivered a gut-punch to the labor market in every state in the union. The statistics are stark: in April 2020, the unemployment rate in the United States soared to 14.8%. According to the Congressional Research Service, that’s the highest rate since data collection began in 1948.
Pandemic-related unemployment has had disparate impacts on different demographic groups. Americans who were white, college-educated and male were statistically less likely to lose their jobs than were young people, women, people of color, and folks without college degrees.
On the other hand, some of the essential industries that stayed open throughout the pandemic relied on a labor pool that was likely to be less educated and less white. In meat packing plants, for example, essential workers were put at great risk, particularly in the first months of the pandemic when PPE was scarce. We now know that some 60,000 workers in those packing plants contracted COVID-19, and more than 300 died – another demonstration that the inequities in our society can have lethal consequences.
The Biden administration, only five months in, has been contending with these issues head-on. On the campaign trail last year, Biden put forward a robust plan for getting Americans back to work. But once he was sworn into office, Biden knew that he had to ensure that it would be safe to go back to work in the first place, so he prioritized the comprehensive rollout of COVID-19 vaccines across the country. As of this writing, more than 51 percent of Americans who are eligible for the vaccine have been fully vaccinated, and the New York Times reports that current trends indicate that 70% of the adult population in the U.S. will be vaccinated by this summer.
With that massive effort paying off, now is the time to turn to Biden’s Build Back Better agenda and see what he proposes for the workers in this country. The President wants to center an American work force on four national initiatives:
- Investing in a clean-energy economy and modern infrastructure, including a program that would replace 100 percent of the nation’s lead pipes;
- Building and professionalizing a stronger caregiving system – not only for childcare, but also care for elders and people with disabilities;
- Galvanizing communities of color by supporting those entrepreneurs and small businesses, expanding affordable housing, increasing educational opportunities and working on criminal justice reform; and
- Mobilizing American manufacturing and innovation, while bringing critical supply chains back stateside. (In the past year, this country has been hamstrung by shortages not only of PPE, but also microchips and more – and unable to do much about it because the bulk of those products are no longer manufactured in the United States.)
This last plank in Biden’s plan had been a focus, also, for the man he defeated in last fall’s presidential election. Donald Trump – never a slouch at branding - had run and won on the “Make America Great Again” slogan in 2015. As America’s 45th president, Trump took an aggressively vocal stance against outsourcing American jobs to foreign countries. Mind you, his talk didn’t always coincide with his actions - his own family’s companies have taken advantage of cheaper, offshore labor to manufacture Trump-brand merchandise. And a report issued last fall by Public Citizen, a consumer rights advocacy group, noted that the Trump administration awarded over $400 billion in government contracts to corporations that, according to database tracking since 2003, have been notorious for offshoring jobs. That trend continued during Trump’s term in office, when more than 200,000 jobs were specifically certified as lost to offshoring.
Let’s face it: the history of work in this country has always been complicated. While America prides itself on its work ethic – the treatment of its work force has been patchy from way, way back.
Farther back than European contact, in fact. Some Native American tribes were known to practice enslavement of war captives or debtors.
Then early Spanish explorers arrived in the Americas and imposed their own encomienda system. This practice dated back to the Middle Ages, and while it may have worked on the Iberian Peninsula when the Christians defeated the Moors, in the Americas, far from the Spanish Crown’s oversight, it was problematic. As encomenderos, Spanish conquerors were considered trustees of the land they “discovered,” and they were required by the Crown to protect the indios and instruct them in Catholicism. In return for this beneficence, the original inhabitants of the land were expected to pay tribute to the newcomers in the form of gold or, more often, labor. But encomenderos in the Americas ignored the responsibilities expected of them and treated their vassals as slaves. The Crown tried to intervene, but the system gradually dwindled into irrelevance anyway as the indigenous population succumbed to new diseases introduced by the Europeans.
In 1526, a Spanish effort to colonize North America brought the first enslaved African people to what is today South Carolina, but that colony failed within months.
It was nearly a century later when Africans were brought to America’s first English settlement, Jamestown, in 1619. Initially the English colonists treated the Black newcomers, who had been seized from a Portuguese slave ship, as indentured servants. Further up the coast, eleven enslaved Blacks arrived in New Amsterdam (today’s New York City) in 1625, courtesy of the Dutch West India Company. And in 1641, Massachusetts became the first colony to address slavery via legislative action: the “Body of Liberties” strictly forbade some kinds of bondage… but just as firmly authorized others.
Massachusetts’ neighbor to the south, Rhode Island, became the first of the colonies to ban slavery in 1652, but the law was not enforced. Instead, by the 18th century, tiny Rhode Island had maximized its ports and maritime connections to become a powerhouse in the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Fully 10 percent of Rhode Island’s population was living in bondage by 1750.
While slave labor was an early component in all of the colonies’ economies, it became especially important to the southern states when they began growing cotton for export. By the time Americans won independence from Great Britain, the presence of slavery in America was even acknowledged in the formulation of the United States Constitution with the Three-Fifths Compromise.
Our 21st Century sensibilities may be shocked to learn that the construction of the very seat of our democracy, the United States Capitol, was built in significant part by Black laborers who had been rented out by their enslavers. The same was true for the White House. And the historical record indicates that at least nine American presidents relied on enslaved individuals as a way of cutting down domestic staffing expenses at the White House.
Slavery wouldn’t be rendered obsolete in the (re)United States until the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution was enacted following the end of the Civil War.
But chattel slavery hasn’t been the only tool in the United States’ kit of egregious labor arrangements. Indentured servitude, sharecropping, sweatshops, child labor, exploitative company towns, prison labor, human trafficking – all have been accepted, or at least tolerated, practices at one time or another in this country.
With the abolition of slavery, workers discovered their own agency and became more vocal about working conditions and pay. But it wasn’t until 1884 that Congress established a Bureau of Labor to address the concerns of American workers – this was following two periods of economic depression that had been tough on the nascent labor movement. Over the next three decades there were efforts to elevate the Bureau to a Cabinet level position, but other rising interests in the nation were demanding more attention, too. Congress considered creating a Cabinet level department that would pair Labor with Agriculture, or with Commerce. But in the end a bill was passed that created an independent Labor Department. President Taft signed it into law on his final day in office in 1913, which gave his successor, Woodrow Wilson, the opportunity to name the first Secretary of Labor.
The initial Labor Department included the Bureau of Labor Statistics, a Children’s Bureau (the first federal agency anywhere in the world to focus on bettering the lives of youngsters), a Bureau of Immigration, and a new U.S. Conciliation Service, which was created to mediate labor disputes.
When Wilson got pulled into World War I a few years later, the Labor Department assumed a high profile as it worked to put the nation’s wartime labor policies on a solid footing.
Following Wilson’s presidency, the Republican administrations of Presidents Warren Harding, Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover were less inclined to have activist Labor Departments. During Harding’s term the Department shifted its focus to enforcing tighter immigration laws and the deportation of undesirable aliens. To that end, Harding’s Labor Secretary, James J. Davis, established a Border Patrol.
It wasn’t until the country’s plunge into the Great Depression and the election of Franklin D. Roosevelt as President that the pendulum swung back to a progressive stance. The policy changes were dramatic, and so was one personnel appointment. Roosevelt tapped the first woman ever to serve in the Cabinet. His new Secretary of Labor, Frances Perkins, was about to set the world afire with a long list of reforms.
In fact, it was a fire 20 years earlier that had ignited her career as a social reformer. On March 25, 1911, Perkins had been meeting a friend for tea in New York City when she heard horse-pulled fire wagons racing down the street. She went outside to see what was going on and bore horrified witness to the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory going up in flames. The factory workers – mostly young immigrant women – were trapped on the top floors of the 10-story building. They were unable to escape because their managers had adopted the practice of locking access to the stairwells to keep their workers from taking unauthorized breaks. The women’s only option for escaping the flames was to jump, and no one survived that fall. One hundred forty-six people perished that day.
From that point on, Perkins dedicated her career to worker safety. She worked for years at the state level in New York, and when she got to Washington D.C., she was ready to institute bold reforms in her new position as Roosevelt’s Secretary of Labor.
She started within the Department itself, abolishing segregation in the lunchrooms and getting rid of the harsh tactics that the Bureau of Immigration had been allowed to use in tracking down and deporting aliens.
On a national scale, she set about to abolish child labor. She set up a free, nationwide employment service to help the millions of people who were out of work find jobs. She developed the Civilian Conservation Corps, a public works relief program that offered employment and training to young men in exchange for working on conservation projects in national parks and forests.
Perkins thought it was time for workers to be guaranteed a minimum wage and the right to overtime pay. She wanted to establish unemployment insurance so that people who lost their jobs could have a safety net of temporary benefits.
And if people became too old or sick to work, she wanted them to have a guaranteed pension – this became Social Security.
Perkins served throughout Roosevelt’s entire time in office, spending more years as Secretary of Labor than anybody else to serve in that position before or since.
Today the Washington D.C. headquarters of the Department of Labor is located in the Frances Perkins Building.
Many people have compared Biden’s ambitious American Jobs Plan to Roosevelt’s New Deal, and Republicans currently serving in Congress have balked at the Plan’s two trillion dollar price tag. In giving his party’s response to Biden’s plan, Republican Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina dismissed it as a “liberal Wishlist of big government waste.”
Biden has been meeting with Republican Senators to hear their concerns and to see if they can work toward a compromise. But at the same time, he has instructed five members of his Cabinet – Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Marcia Fudge, Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo and Labor Secretary Marty Walsh – to get out and promote his plan to the American public.
Note that Walsh is the first Labor Secretary in decades to come from a solid union background. In the earliest years of the Labor Department, the men appointed to helm the agency had actually been full-time workers as children. One was only eight when he began working as a puddler’s assistant on the floor of a steel mill. Another started work at the age of nine as a breaker boy in a Pennsylvania coal mine. But more recent Labor Secretaries have tended to come from white collar careers in law or business.
Marty Walsh grew up in Massachusetts in the 1970s, the son of Irish immigrants. Thanks to Frances Perkins, of course, child labor was a thing of the past, but Walsh had his own challenges as a kid, dealing with a four-year bout of cancer, and having to play catch-up in school After graduating high school and college, Walsh joined Laborers’ Union Local 223 at the age of 21. His career ever since has been focused on organized labor with a side of politics – he’s also served as a state legislator and as the Mayor of Boston.
By choosing a longtime union member to head the Department of Labor, Biden is signaling his belief in the key role organized labor will play in helping America Build Back Better. More than any of his Oval Office predecessors in recent memory, this President has been outspoken in advocating for the strengthening of public and private sector unions.
The White House Fact Sheet for his American Jobs Plan clearly spells out his aim to “create good-quality jobs that pay prevailing wages in safe and healthy workplaces while ensuring workers have a free and fair choice to organize, join a union, and bargain collectively with their employers.”
Shortly after unveiling his American Jobs Plan earlier this spring, Biden himself went to Pittsburgh to talk up the plan to a carpenter’s union.
He noted that while millions of Americans lost their jobs during the pandemic last year, the wealthiest one percent of Americans saw their net worth increase by $4 trillion.
That’s no way to run America, Biden told the crowd. He wants to fund his Jobs Plan by increasing the corporate tax rate to 28 percent and closing loopholes that have allowed U.S. companies to paying any taxes at all.
“We all will do better when we all do well,” the President said. “It’s time to build our economy from the bottom up and from the middle out, not the top down.
Barbara Lloyd McMichael is a freelance writer living in the Pacific Northwest.