Sep 5, 2023

A pivotal moment for U.S. workers.

A pivotal moment for U.S. workers.
Photo by sol / Unsplash

Taking stock of the U.S. workforce on Labor Day.

I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, nonpartisan, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum on the news of the day — then “my take.”

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Today's read: 13 minutes.

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For Labor Day, we are taking stock of the U.S. workforce and where things stand. Plus, a reader question about Trump and the 14th amendment, and a new YouTube video.

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Quick hits.

  1. Russia's President Vladimir Putin and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un are expected to meet in Russia this month to discuss a weapons deal to bolster Russia's fighting force in Ukraine. (The meeting
  2. First Lady Jill Biden tested positive for Covid-19 and was experiencing mild symptoms. President Joe Biden has tested negative. (The virus
  3. The impeachment trial of Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton (R) begins today. Paxton was impeached by the Republican-led state House on charges of bribery, obstruction of justice, and misuse of funds. (The trial
  4. Bill Richardson, the former Governor of New Mexico, Secretary of Energy, United Nations ambassador and hostage negotiator, died at the age of 75. (The death
  5. Ukraine's president Volodymyr Zelensky has replaced his top defense minister, citing corruption and mismanagement. (The replacement
  6. BONUS: Congress returns from summer recess today and will begin negotiations to pass a short-term spending bill and avoid a government shutdown at the end of the month. (The return)

I'm coming to LA.

I'm going to be in Los Angeles on September 27th for the American Democracy Summit. I'll be speaking on a panel about the way young voters are turning to digital creators to become informed about civics and politics. It's a multi-day event, but speakers get a special discount code to offer their readers and followers. If you'd like to come, use my code to get 20% off by buying a ticket here


Today's topic.

The state of labor. Monday was Labor Day, an annual celebration of the social and economic achievements of American workers. The day was first recognized by labor activists and workers in the late nineteenth century, and was officially made a federal holiday in 1894.

Many Americans enjoy a day off from work for the federal holiday, but it's also a time for reflection on the state of the economy, labor unions, and the American workforce. This year was no different, with many Labor Day think pieces analyzing where things are for workers and unions.

In Philadelphia, President Biden gave a speech touting the importance of organized labor and celebrating the state of the economy under his administration.

“This Labor Day we’re celebrating jobs, good-paying jobs, jobs you can raise a family on, union jobs," Biden told the crowd.

The rate of union membership is 10.1%, the lowest in decades. Right to Work laws in 27 states, which allow union representation to nonunion members without requiring the payment of union dues, are part of what’s causing the drop in union membership. However, organized labor activity has been increasing since the pandemic, with strikes up 50% in 2022 and workers demanding better pay, benefits, working conditions, and job flexibility across sectors. In the first eight months of 2023, over 323,000 workers went on strike. About 67% of Americans say they support labor unions, according to Gallup. Biden's speech also came as 146,000 members of the United Auto Workers union are threatening to strike.

Meanwhile, the latest jobs report showed American employers added 187,000 jobs in August, and the unemployment rate rose from 3.5% to 3.8%, the highest it’s been since February of 2022 but still low by historical standards. According to the Labor Department, the unemployment rate rose in part because 736,000 people began looking for work last month, the most since January (only people actively looking for work are counted as unemployed).

Biden is traveling the country touting his administration's economic record, including the 2021 $1.1 trillion infrastructure bill and a new rule proposal that would make 3.6 million more workers eligible for overtime pay. However, the pitch is struggling to gain traction with voters — 59% disapprove of Biden's handling of the economy, and while inflation is cooling, 3 in 4 still say inflation is headed in the wrong direction.

Today, we're going to break down some commentary from the right and left this Labor Day, then my take.


What the right is saying.

  • Many on the right criticize the Biden economy, and worry about the increased power of labor unions.
  • Some argue that federal workers, now a huge chunk of the unionized labor force, need to return to work in person.
  • Others say Labor Day is about celebrating workers, not union bosses, and argue that many workers’ voices go unheard.

In The Daily Caller, Linda McMahon said "it's not a happy Labor Day" for American workers under Biden.

"Inflation hit [a] 40-year high last year due to the Biden Administration’s reckless $6 trillion spending spree, and prices have risen by 17% under this administration. Interest rates have continued to increase. And for just the second time in history, Fitch Ratings has downgraded our Nation’s long-term credit rating. American workers know that this economy is not working for them. Their salaries have not kept up with inflation, and 61% are living paycheck to paycheck. Under a mountain of paperwork requirements and new regulatory burdens, their productivity has declined. Credit card debt has hit a record $1 trillion.

"More of them have had to pull from their retirement savings just to make ends meet. At the same time, the Biden Administration is trying to limit worker flexibility by eradicating many kinds of freelance and independent contracting jobs, all in the name of allegedly protecting workers," McMahon said. "Even more troubling, the Biden Administration has continued to push policies that will destroy hundreds of thousands of union jobs in the coming years. Requiring two-thirds of U.S. auto sales to be electric vehicles in the next 10 years will eliminate an estimated 117,000 auto manufacturing jobs nationwide, because electric vehicles require significantly fewer parts and assembly workers. Unfortunately, union leadership has gone along with the Biden Administration’s plans, sacrificing their members’ jobs and prospects in the process."

The Washington Examiner editorial board said this Labor Day, federal workers should go back to the office.

"When Labor Day became a federal holiday in 1894, government employees weren’t allowed to unionize. Now, they make up almost half of all union members. This would be unacceptable, even if they were all showing up to work. But they are not, and that adds insult to injury. President Joe Biden needs to make sure they do," the board said. "Some 7.1 million government workers are unionized, compared to 7.2 million in the entire private sector. If current trends continue, the labor movement will soon be majority government worker."

"Like their private sector counterparts, most government workers were allowed to work at home during the pandemic. Unlike most private sector workers, federal employees have mostly stayed away long after the pandemic ended. According to a report by the Office of Personnel Management, just 1 in 3 federal employees are back in the office full time. The country is suffering because of it," the board said. "Wait times are up at the Department of Veterans Affairs, passports have been delayed at the State Department, and customers can’t reach the Social Security Administration by phone. This is unacceptable."

In Fox News, Mark Mix said Labor Day is about celebrating workers, not union bosses.

“But that won’t stop Big Labor’s apologists from stealing the spotlight to demand more power," Mix wrote. "The fact is, today’s unions are built on the government-granted privilege of compulsion. In the 23 states without Right to Work laws, employees can be fired for refusing to pay union dues or fees – even if they don’t want the union and never asked for it. Those workers and millions more have no choice but to accept union control over their wages and working conditions."

Biden, who campaigns as the most pro-union president in American history, is "more than willing to undermine the rights of individual workers as he seeks to advance union boss power." He touts his support for the PRO Act, a bill that would repeal all 27 state Right to Work laws by federal fiat. “Polls regularly show that workers support the choice they have under Right to Work laws. Right to Work doesn’t stop a single worker from joining or paying dues to a union if they voluntarily choose to, but merely ensures union financial support is voluntary."


What the left is saying.

  • Many on the left are celebrating the economy and the state of play for workers.
  • Some urge Americans to imagine a world where more workers, perhaps all workers, are unionized.
  • Others warn more economic upheaval could make workers unionize simply to protect themselves.

In The Washington Post, E.J. Dionne Jr. said workers can celebrate their power this Labor Day.

"Young Americans are the country’s most pro-union generation. Labor has poll ratings most politicians only dream about, and the Biden administration is making workers’ pay, benefits and rights its calling card," Dionne Jr. wrote. "Although membership in unions is ticking up again, the organized share of the workforce is still stuck at about 10 percent. But so many other indicators suggest that labor’s long decline is over. Heralds of change include well-publicized organizing efforts in new sectors of the economy, broad public sympathy for the Hollywood writers’ struggle, and big wage gains by workers increasingly willing to strike for them."

Then there's Biden, the "most outspokenly pro-labor president since Franklin D. Roosevelt." Biden's Labor Department just "proposed a rule that would make an estimated 3.6 million salaried workers eligible for overtime pay. The week before, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), transformed by Biden’s appointments, issued a decision that will boost union organizing after decades in which management held the upper hand." The Treasury Department also released a report that "found that unions raise the wages of their members by 10 to 15 percent, have 'spillover effects' that benefit nonunion workers, 'reduce race and gender wage gaps' and 'boost businesses’ productivity.'"

In Newsweek, David Rolf said to imagine a world where there were unions for all American workers.

"Thanks to tight labor markets, pandemic-era fiscal policy, and the $15 minimum wage movement, low-wage workers have seen their first inflation-adjusted pay increases since the 1970's," Rolf said. While unions have historic highs in popularity, it isn't all good news. "Unions—the only institution in American civil society specifically purposed to advance and protect the economic interests of our working-class majority—now represent only six percent of eligible private sector workers, down from 48 percent in 1946. There are literally more Americans who think that chocolate milk comes from brown cows."

"This isn't because American workers don't want unions or representation, but because our broken labor laws, designed for the economy of the 1930's, have functionally stopped enabling collective bargaining and have become a tool to prevent it," Rolf wrote. "Unless employers agree, unions can only be formed on an opt-in, workplace-by-workplace basis through a months-long government-run election process which employers have every incentive to oppose, and frequently spend years litigating. Many of the most effective tools for organizing and bargaining were outlawed at the behest of the business lobby in 1947. Even today, employers commonly fire union supporters, engage in anti-union surveillance and intimidation, and refuse to bargain in good faith."

In The Guardian, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) said there has never been more income and wealth inequality in America than there is today and warns more change is coming.

"As the billionaire class becomes richer and more powerful, over 60% of Americans live paycheck to paycheck, and many work for starvation wages and under terrible working conditions. Incredibly, despite huge increases in worker productivity and an explosion in technology, the average American worker is making over $45 a week less today than he or she did 50 years ago after adjusting for inflation... And, in the midst of this massive inequality, the United States and the world face enormous economic transformation as a result of artificial intelligence, robotics and other new technologies.”

"It is not utopian thinking to imagine that, for the first time in world history, we could enter a time in which every man, woman and child has a decent standard of living and improved quality of life,” Sanders wrote. “And in that regard there has been some very good news over the last several years. We are now seeing workers stand up and fight for justice in a way we have not seen in decades. In America, more workers want to join unions; more workers are joining unions – 273,000 last year alone; and more workers are going out on strike for decent wages and benefits and winning. We’re seeing that increased militancy all across our economy – with truck drivers, auto workers, writers, actors, warehouse workers, healthcare professionals, graduate student teachers and baristas.”


My take.

Reminder: "My take" is a section where I give myself space to share my own personal opinion. If you have feedback, criticism, or compliments, don't unsubscribe. Write in by replying to this email, or leave a comment.

  • I think there is a bipartisan story to tell about big wins for workers.
  • Unions are not a monolith — sometimes they work well, other times they don't.
  • The combination of union action and economic forces is giving workers more and more power.

Believe it or not, I think there is a pretty nice bipartisan story to tell on this Labor Day.

On one hand, "market pressures” are creating better conditions for workers. Unemployment is low, workers are in demand, and they are taking advantage. Since the economic recovery from Covid-19 began, workers have been changing jobs and seeing real wage gains, with the trend continuing into January of this year. At the same time, because workers are in such high demand, they're able to ask for the kinds of benefits they truly want. Employers, in turn, are offering better benefits, more flexible schedules, and higher wages.

On the other hand, we've seen organized labor close the gaps where the market hasn't accomplished what workers want. As we covered in July, Hollywood writers and actors are striking to protect their pay and the rights to their own likenesses and work. The Teamsters at UPS negotiated a contract supported by 86% of voters that will raise wages by $2.75 per hour this year and a total of $7.50 per hour after five years. Full-time UPS drivers are going to make $170,000 annually in pay and benefits. At major corporations like Amazon and Starbucks, workers are demanding more — and for the first time ever, finding ways to unionize. The United Auto Workers are in the process of flexing their power. Like most Americans, I think this is good.

I also see a less optimistic but equally bipartisan story about the dire need for increased worker power, which is somewhere at the intersection of the new Trump right and the Bernie left. 

The new-right belief is that when capitalism functions well, it is the ideal economic system. But when corporations are less concerned than ever about the American worker, and governmental bodies are captured by those corporations, we run into huge problems. This is, in part, the doctrine Trump ran on in 2016: Congress was corrupt and selling out the middle class to foreign nations, spending more money on wars abroad than workers at home, and we needed to fight to bring those jobs and that funding back to America.

Then there’s the Bernie doctrine: Life for your average American worker is much harder now than it was 50 years ago. Despite huge prosperity in our country, an absurd and increasing proportion of wealth goes to the very few at the top, and the only way to fight back is to organize. The ratio of typical CEO-to-typical-worker pay was 59-to-1 in 1989. In 2021, it was 366-to-1. In 2022, it was 399-to-1. As David Rolf noted (under "What the left is saying"), "it now takes 62 weeks of median male wages to pay for a middle-class family's food, housing, health care, education and transportation, up from 40 weeks in 1985. Financial precarity—not having routinely positive cash flow, not being able to pay bills on time, not having adequate savings and insurance—is now a problem faced by 69 percent of Americans."

As I've said in the past, my position on unions is pretty agnostic. It is obvious when unions are working well, which we've seen many examples of in the last few months. At the same time, unions can also be counterproductive: Whether it is police unions stopping much-needed reforms or teachers’ unions preventing a return to school after Covid-19, there are plenty of examples of what happens when union decisions diverge from the interests of their members. As with most things, talking about unions in broad terms is difficult.

But I think there are encouraging signs all around. Whether it comes from union power or market forces, the story for this year’s Labor Day is mostly about increasing worker leverage. Inflation is still hurting the American worker, but it has been trending in the right direction for the last few months. Wages are going up, organized labor is increasing in popularity, workers are still in huge demand, and people are often getting the kinds of benefits and pay bumps they want when they change jobs or demand them where they work.

On this Labor Day, I think we can expect to see that increased power continue to grow — and that’s a story I’d hope Americans of all political persuasions would be happy to hear. 


New video.

Last week, we released a YouTube video on whether President Biden was too told to run for re-election. Then, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell had his second freezing episode in front of reporters this summer. So we got back in the studio to discuss: Is Congress too old? Should McConnell and others step down? And would age limits or term limits prevent so many leaders working longer than they should?  


Your questions, answered.

Q: I was wondering if you had a chance to read the August 14 article in the University of Pennsylvania‘s law review. Two law professors using an originalist’s interpretation of the third section of the 14th amendment postulate that Donald Trump is disqualified from running for president in 2024. I have not read the article, but Heather Cox Richardson’s article on August 19 discusses it. Your thoughts?

— Leonard from Cottonwood, California

Tangle: I didn’t read Cox Richardson’s take, and hadn’t read the original law review article from William Baude and Michael Stokes Paulsen when you asked. I have read Donald K. Sherman’s summary in The Hill, which I referenced in a reader question in a Tangle edition a few weeks ago. But to answer your question, I did read parts of the article from Baude and Paulsen in the Penn Law Review — though in my defense, it’s a long article and it gets pretty dense.

The upshot for their claim is that Section Three of the 14th Amendment bars from public office former representatives and government officers who participate in a rebellion or insurrection. The authors took painstaking care to establish that it is still relevant, that the sincerity of the belief that Joe Biden lost the election is not relevant, and that Section Three supersedes other rights enumerated in the constitution and its amendments. And while calling January 6 an insurrection may be far from a slam dunk to prove in court, I think the authors made a pretty strong argument that a court would see it that way. To quote from Sherman’s summary in The Hill:

“Last September, three New Mexico residents represented by my organization, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, won the first case in more than 150 years removing an elected official from office based on participation in an insurrection. The court ruled that then-New Mexico County Commissioner Couy Griffin had violated Section Three of the 14th Amendment by recruiting men for battle to join Trump’s ‘wild’ effort to overturn the election Jan. 6, normalized violence and breached police barriers as part of the weaponized mob that allowed others to overwhelm law enforcement and storm the Capitol. Griffin’s removal marked the first case at the federal or state level concluding that what occurred Jan. 6 was an insurrection.”

Then there’s what the authors called the “rubber-hits-the-road question”: Did Donald Trump engage in an insurrection, or “give aid and comfort” to those who did? Baude and Paulson argued that his speech, while perhaps not qualifying for “incitement,” did provide encouragement for an insurrection. They further argue that Trump provided support through deliberate inaction.

Legal scholars disagree on that, as well as two other main points. First, skeptics say, the 14th Amendment was meant to be enforced for confederate soldiers, and an originalist wouldn’t be persuaded to see the Griffin case as precedent to the contrary. Second, the text of Section Three bars from office “anyone who has previously taken an oath, as a member of Congress, or as an officer of the United States,” and the president may not qualify as an “officer of the United States.”

My thoughts? I don’t mean to cop out here, but I’m not a constitutional lawyer, and this question is incredibly complicated. To me, it feels very undemocratic for this tactic to be used to keep Trump off the ballot, and so extreme I have a hard time imagining it ever coming to fruition. But it’s hard for me to say what will happen legally given that both sides make what sound to me like strong arguments. I’m sure a good deal of the outcome will depend on the presiding judge — and if I had to bet, I’d put my money on the skeptics.

Want to have a question answered in the newsletter? You can reply to this email (it goes straight to my inbox) or fill out this form.


Under the radar.

A huge threat to the U.S. budget has receded, but nobody is able to explain why. Runaway Medicare spending is one of the top concerns for economists from the left and right, and something we have written about in Tangle repeatedly. But there is a $3.1 trillion gap between what economists thought Medicare spending would look like in 2023 and what it actually looks like now. Instead of growing and growing, spending per Medicare beneficiary has leveled off for most of a decade. “Without a doubt, this is the most important thing that has happened to the federal budget in the last 20 years,” David Cutler, a professor of health policy and medicine at Harvard, told The New York Times. The reason for the slowdown is an apparent mystery — one scholars have been arguing about for years. The New York Times has the story


Numbers.

  • 33.1%. The union membership rate of public sector workers in 2022, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. 
  • 6.0%. The union membership rate of private sector workers in 2022.
  • 10.5% and 9.6%. The union membership rates of men and women, respectively, in 2022. 
  • 24.7% and 14.6%. The union membership rates of men and women, respectively, in 1983. 
  • 3.8 million. The number of workers older than 65 who are expected to be added to the economy by 2031, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
  • 150,000. The approximate number of workers at General Motors, Ford Motor, and Stellantis who will go on strike if negotiations on a new contract fail by Sept. 14.
  • 450,000. The approximate number of workers who will have gone on strike in the past year if auto workers don’t reach a deal with their employers, the highest level since 2018.

The extras.

  • One year ago today we didn't have a newsletter, but we just published a Friday edition in support of more nuclear energy.
  • The most clicked link in Thursday's newsletter was our new video about Joe Biden's age.
  • Let's negotiate: 527 Tangle readers answered our poll asking about the government's approach to negotiating drug prices for Medicare, with 94% in support of the government negotiating drug prices. 38% said they support the government's negotiation but it didn't go far enough, 30% support the negotiation and think the approach is appropriate, while 26% support the negotiation but think the government went too far. 4% oppose the negotiation, and 2% are unsure or have no opinion. Many respondents added that the middle man issue needs to be addressed.
  • Nothing to do with politics: America's most polarizing foods.
  • Take the poll. How do you think the labor force is doing? Let us know!

Have a nice day.

He’d had enough of being at the animal shelter, so Scout the dog climbed over one tall fence and then another, crossed a busy highway in the darkness, entered the automatic doors of a nursing home down the road, walked unnoticed into the lobby, hopped onto a couch, curled into a ball and quietly went to sleep for the night. After the local sheriff came and took him back to the shelter, Scout returned to the same couch at Michigan’s Meadow Brook Medical Care Facility just a few days later. “He did that one time, two times, three times, and obviously that’s something that you should pay attention to,” said Meadow Brook’s director Marna Robertson, 57. With the agreement of the staff, Marna adopted Scout as the nursing home’s pet — to the delight of the residents. “I think it reminds them of being home,” said Rhonda Thomczak, 49. “Having a dog around makes it feel like home.” The Detroit Free Press has the story.


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