The “so-called “labor shortage” in the United States has quickly become a catch-all justification for policies that prevent workers from gaining too much power on the job, or collectively organizing by forming unions.
Not enough applicants for low-paid jobs packing meat, or working the cash register at Dairy Queen? Better crank up the Federal Reserve’s interest rates (a policy explicitly aimed at spurring a recession and putting people out of work), so that we have a larger reserve of the desperate unemployed. Pandemic-era social programs ever-so-slightly redistributing wealth downward? Better shut them down, lest we eliminate the supposed precarity needed to incentivize work.
The concept of a labor shortage can be used to effectively justify any anti-worker policy under the sun. From reading the financial press or listening to business elites, the shortage may seem like an economic fact — a material reality that is beyond dispute.
But, in reality, the framing of a “labor shortage” is at its heart ideological.
As long as we’re talking about a labor shortage, we’re not talking about a shortage of good, dignified union jobs. As long as we’re talking about how people “don’t want to work,” we’re not talking about how bosses don’t want to treat their employees with basic fairness and respect.
And as long as we’re talking about how it’s bosses who are supposedly hurting, we’re not talking about what it would take to build an economy that doesn’t perpetually harm the poor and dispossessed.
Some unions and labor activists talk about a “labor shortage” as well, but often in the context of arguing that the way to fix it is to increase pay, improve benefits and treat workers with basic dignity.
Peter Greene, who spent 39 years as a high school English teacher, put it this way in a Forbes article arguing against the framing of a “teacher shortage”: “You can’t solve a problem starting with the wrong diagnosis. If I can’t buy a Porsche for $1.98, that doesn’t mean there’s an automobile shortage. If I can’t get a fine dining meal for a buck, that doesn’t mean there’s a food shortage. And if appropriately skilled humans don’t want to work for me under the conditions I’ve set, that doesn’t mean there’s a human shortage.”
As the economist J.W. Mason pointed out in August, labor market conditions are indeed tight, though “there is not a labor shortage in any absolute terms.” Still, he notes, some may welcome the opportunity to change “employment dynamics” presented by such market conditions, which can give workers more bargaining power.
“When jobs are plentiful, the fear of losing yours is less of a deterrent to standing up to the boss,” he writes. “And people who are reasonably confident of at least getting a paycheck may begin to wonder if that is all their employer owes them.”
These market conditions present an opportunity to raise fundamental questions about who the economy should serve, how we can chip away at inequality and life-shortening poverty, and how we can build a society where utter destitution is not an anvil constantly waiting to drop. But instead, what we hear is fearmongering about a “labor shortage” that centers the perspective of the boss.
From CEOs to politicians to media pundits, people in positions of power are cynically using the “labor shortage” to push for regressive policies that they pursued well before the present-day market conditions. Some of the proposed “solutions” — like rolling back child labor protections, or getting women out of the workforce — are so outrageous that they can help shine light on how the very concept of a “labor shortage” is being used to shift the conversation away from policies and practices that would actually help the working class.
“Labor shortage” means we need to roll back child labor protections.
The conservative organization, National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB), has cited the so-called labor shortage to justify its efforts, alongside local business associations, to roll back child labor protections in at least three states, as Workday Magazine and The American Prospect previously reported.
All of these bills are aimed at expanding the hours children are allowed to work. The proposed bill in Ohio would permit 14- and 15-year-olds to work until 9:00 p.m. on a school night, with permission from a parent or legal guardian. (It would apply to all employers not covered by the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), a piece of federal labor law.)
A similar bill in Wisconsin would have let 14- and 15-year-olds work until 9:30 p.m. on a school night, and until 11:00 p.m. on non-school-nights. That legislation, which also would have applied to employers not covered by the FLSA, was vetoed by Democratic Gov. Tony Evers after passing the state legislature.
But a similar effort was successful in New Jersey, which, this July, passed a bill that permits 14- and 15- year-olds to work up to 40 hours during the summer. (That measure rolls back state laws, which were previously more protective than the FLSA.)
The “labor shortage” has been directly referenced in each of these campaigns. “Our members’ inability to fill workplace vacancies has catapulted to the top concern currently facing the success of their businesses,” NFIB said in December 2021 testimony to support the Ohio measure.
This messaging echoes that made by companies.
“This would fill a void in many places,” Mike Todd, a Dairy Queen owner in Pickerington, Ohio, said in January when supporting the state-level bill. “Not just the quick service restaurant industry, but other businesses within the entire service industry.”
Yet, beyond the obvious problems — that working too many hours can harm children’s development, and that child labor laws were established to protect vulnerable members of society from the brutality of overwork — the same entities that are pushing for these roll backs in the name of solving the “labor shortage” were pushing to erode labor standards long before any such shortage existed.
NFIB vociferously opposed the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 and the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974. And the organization was a major supporter of using the Supreme Court to hollow out public-sector unions, culminating in the 2018 Janus ruling, which decided public-sector workers can’t be required to pay union dues, even if they receive the services of a union.
This partial blog originally appeared in full at In These Times on November 22, 2022. Republished with permission.
About the Author: Sarah Lazare is the editor of Workday Magazine and a contributing editor for In These Times.
Learn about workers’ rights at Workplace Fairness.