The changing discourse on work

29 October, 2021

Labor shortages lead to hospitality chains in the US offering employment... but never at more than the legal minimum wage in each state.
Labor shortages lead to hospitality chains in the US offering employment... but never at more than the legal minimum wage in each state.

First it was truck drivers and cutting workers in Britain and not long after they were joined by healthcare workers. Then, alarms about the cost of “extreme turnover” and the lack of sufficient workers in hospitality and services were raised from the US. The EU, country by country, reported similar headlines. Now news of “labor shortages” is coming even from South Korea. The talking heads of capitalism and the opinion machinery, from Krugman to Fintan O’Toole, respond with a change in their discourse on labor.

Everywhere, mainstream economists and the thinking heads of the bourgeoisie are floating the same type of “solutions” to the labor shortage: trying to make workers compliant without actually raising their wages.

Just this morning a labor relations expert proposed in the Québec press “flexible hours, providing better working conditions and respecting your employees as human beings” as a solution because that way “the employer doesn’t spend money, but it’s a win-win solution.”

Paul Krugman
Paul Krugman

It follows in the wake of Nobel Economics laureate Paul Krugman, who in a column in the New York Times asserted what the bottom line of the labor shortage conveys is that “American workers are insisting on a better deal, and it is in the nation’s best interest for them to get it.”

But the one who has undoubtedly mapped out the clearest and most likely roadmap for the bourgeoisies of the core countries is the London-based Irish intellectual Fintan O’Toole.

O’Toole acknowledges that “rumors of the death of the proletariat are proving to be greatly exaggerated” and recalled that even before the pandemic, in the European Union between 2013 and 2019, the proportion of firms indicating that the availability of labor was a factor limiting their ability to produce goods or services increased almost fivefold in construction, quadrupled in industry and more than doubled in the service sector.

As causes he points to the difficulties in compensating for the aging of the population with the incorporation of female labor into the lowest paid sectors (what he calls “the promise of gender equality”) and the effect of poverty and the “grinder” on the huge and growing mass of more precarious workers. He further acknowledges that:

The big underlying economic story of our time is the reduction in the share of resources going to wages. In Britain the share of GDP going to wages which was, for most of the 1960s and 1970s, between 58 and 61% peaked at 64.5 in 1975 [the height of the decade’s wave of struggles across Europe], but in Margaret Thatcher’s revolution, it fell to the 50s and never recovered.

Fintan O'Toole
Fintan O’Toole

In case anyone finds it touching in its sincerity, let’s remember that Mr. O’Toole is a conservative Catholic in the old pre-90s style. He resents the “overconfidence” of capital. The claims of its “ultimate” triumph over workers strike him as dangerous as irresponsible.

The smug assumption was that the system could keep doing this to these people because they have no choice other than to put up with it, and they’ll all be replaced by robots anyway; or, in the case of Britain’s Brexit fantasy world, they could be told to go back to where they came from.

But at the end of the day, O’Toole as Krugman and the others is well aware that there is no “revolt” going on and congratulates himself for it. Collective action by workers would be another thing. The goal now for the ruling classes would be to become “more aware of how foolish it is to take for granted the endless availability of cheap workers” and meet some basic demands before it is too late.

What are they proposing in the midst of what looks like an inflationary spiral eating up wage hikes before payday? The usual, “a fair share of the fruits of economic growth” and “that indispensable thing they have been so carelessly denied: respect.”

The point is, as always, about not acknowledging human needs and drowning the working class in a sea of speeches about respect and “social justice” as the ultimate narcotic.

But we cannot fail to note one thing: it has been enough for the labor shortage to hold for a few months for the global bourgeoisie to show serious signs of backing down not only in its first reaction, radically denying the centrality of labor, but in its long-standing discourse of radical devaluation of labor.