On Labor Day, we’re supposed to be honoring the people who do the work that keeps the United States going, which makes it a good time to look at where workers are and what they can expect from the current government in Washington. And while nobody with a brain in their head expected that President Trump would be a great friend to workers, some were naive enough to believe his populist rhetoric and hope that he might not be quite as hostile to them as a different Republican might be. Well the results are in, and it turns out that he’s the most anti-worker president in memory.
It’s all the more cruel because as a candidate, Trump correctly identified the anger and disappointment so many people feel about the contemporary U.S. economy, where the vast bulk of the benefits goes to those who are already wealthy and millions struggle to get by. The system, he told them, was “rigged” by those who already have wealth and power, and they believed him because of what they saw in their own lives and communities.
As Trump went around the country in 2016, he promised to turn back the clock to the days when factories were humming and factory towns were growing — and said he’d bring back all the coal jobs to boot. It was a cynical hoax, because the economy of the 1950s and 1960s for which he had such praise was made possible not only by a technological era that is far behind us, but by U.S. labor unions — unions that are under relentless assault from Trump’s party. Those old-fashioned factory jobs, where you could start without much in the way of education or experience and earn good wages and strong benefits, negotiated for you by the union, are largely gone. If you can find a manufacturing job today, chances are you won’t be represented by a union, and your employer will say, “This is what you’ll get. Take it or leave it.”
Job growth, often treated as the clearest measure of the economy’s strength, no longer captures the true economic picture. Job creation has been strong since the recession ended — under former president Barack Obama about 16 million jobs were created since the recession’s trough, and unemployment was at only 4.4 percent in August. So finding a job isn’t the problem; it’s whether that job will enable you to support a family and build a future.
When it comes to manufacturing, the American economy has essentially adopted the Southern Republican model of development, where states and localities beg a factory to come in with the promise of huge tax breaks and a low-wage, docile workforce that will be happy for any job at all. And overall, Americans find themselves as the only advanced democracy without paid family leave, where too many get no paid vacation and not enough jobs have room for advancement.
That’s true not just in the industrial Midwest but everywhere. You can see it in this extraordinary New York Times article by Neil Irwin profiling two women who started as janitors at companies that defined innovation in their respective heydays. Gail Evans began working at Eastman Kodak in the early 1980s, in a janitorial position with vacation benefits and support for workers wanting more education to improve their skills. She got her college degree and eventually rose to become chief technology officer of the entire company. Marta Ramos cleans floors at Apple today, but she’s employed by a contractor and has virtually no chance of getting any permanent position at Apple, let alone rising up in the company.
That difference is the result of enormous and complex changes that range across the entire economy, changes that one president can’t reverse. But what has Trump done to help ease the burden on workers and expand opportunity? Here are a few things:
- Tried to take health coverage away from millions of low-income workers
- Revoked an order by Obama requiring large federal contracts to go only to companies that weren’t guilty of violating labor laws
- Nominated to be labor secretary the head of a fast-food company notorious for its abuse and exploitation of low-wage workers (the nominee later withdrew)
- Appointed anti-labor nominees to the National Labor Relations Board
- Moved to undo the Obama administration’s regulation expanding overtime pay for millions of workers
- Proposed to cut the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health by 40 percent
- Pushed back regulations forcing companies to protect worker safety and inform workers of hazards
- Argued in court that employers should be able to force workers to give up their right to file class-action lawsuits
- Reversed the Obama administration’s crackdown on for-profit education scams that saddle people with worthless degrees and huge debt
- Promoted “right to work” laws that hamper unions’ ability to organize
And now we get to the centerpiece of the Trump administration economic plan: A gigantic tax cut for the wealthy and corporations! Of course. On one hand, Trump keeps saying that the economy is doing spectacularly, regularly issuing triumphant tweets about the latest stock market high and saying things like “I’ve created over a million jobs since I’m president.” On the other hand, he says that we absolutely must save the economy, and only this tax cut can do the job.
It’s the same argument that Republicans always make, and it’s just as false as it was the last time we tried it, in the George W. Bush years. So Trump, populist hero, has a message for workers: The only help you’ll get from me is whatever trickles down after I give a big fat check to your boss’ boss, Wall Street bankers and wealthy heirs like my own kids. Did I tell you that the system is rigged? Oh, you bet it is.