Making the Tight Labor Market Work for You


As you may have heard, the labor market these days is “tight.” Unemployment is low, and companies find themselves forced to whine about the “labor shortage” they are facing. You better take advantage of this while it lasts.

Many economically literate people have pointed out that the “labor shortage” that employers incessantly complain about these days is at least in part the fault of employers themselves. The most direct solution to a labor shortage is to raise wages. This is the last thing that employers want to do. They would rather hire teenagers and robots and former prisoners they would not otherwise consider hiring, seeking to push the labor pool to its absolute physical limits before being forced to pay workers more. All of the free market devotees who are quick to scream “Economics 101!” to justify low wages may be shocked to learn that the same market mechanism is far less effective at producing higher wages when the interplay of supply and demand would seem to call for them. It’s almost as if there is an inherent power imbalance in the structure of American capitalism that prevents it from serving the needs of the working class as well as it does the needs of the management and investor classes.

Faced with the prospect of a competitive labor market, big employers will try almost anything to avoid significant wage increases. Walmart, the largest private employer in the country, is testing out the bold idea of loosening its dress code to allow employees to wear jeans. A slight relaxation of corporate fascism is a good example of a “perk” that can be extended without costing the company any real cash. Chill dress code! More telecommuting! Bring your dog to work! Who could complain?

Meanwhile, companies like Walmart have entire teams dedicated to union-busting. Companies may be devious, but they are not foolish. They know quite well that offering perks and expanding the hiring pool are cheap compared to raising wages. If you, the employees, accept perks in lieu of maximal wage increases during a tight labor market when your leverage is at its absolute highest, you are a sucker. You are being played. You can rest completely assured that when unemployment rises again and your leverage declines, companies will use the opportunity to squeeze you on wages, and your precious benefits. What you, the working person, need is a way to not only maximize your gains while your leverage is strong, but to lock in those gains and protect them against being taken away as soon as the economy shifts.

What you need, in other words, is a union contract. (I mean, you can also try to get yourself a raise and leave it at that, but you will not do as well alone as you would collectively, and you will have no guarantee that any of your gains will last long term, and what about the teenagers and ex-convicts that work with you now? They deserve some gains too.) Today’s tight labor market means that you are now living in the best possible time to unionize your company that you have seen in at least a decade. Companies cannot just lay people off. They need workers. They are not in a position to retaliate harshly against their employees for trying to organize. Furthermore, sharing information among everyone at work and bargaining as a group will allow you to squeeze the company for the greatest possible wage gains now, when times are good. This, by the way, is how capitalism is supposed to work. This is how it is advertised to the public: the rising economic tide, lifting all boats. The reality is that you have to lift your boat yourselves. Otherwise, your company will vacuum up every last ounce of economic gain for itself and its investors. If you want to share in the good times you need collective power. If you want to make substantive gains that you can keep, rather than lose, you need collective power. You need a union. Get on that, while the winds of the labor market are in your favor.

Go to work in dirty clothes. Bring your dog. Eat all the free food. Take the half days on Fridays. And while you’re at it, unionize. Our system is designed to make a disposable commodity out of everything that is not powerful enough to protect its own interests. You can your coworkers can only protect your own interests together. Right now, the window is open. The macroeconomic weather is pleasant. Seize the day. The clouds will return before you know it.

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