The Unemployment Conspiracy

| Educate!

Above Photo: By kanu101 | CC BY 2.0

Real unemployment in the U.S. today hovers around 8.3%, afflicting more than 17 million people. This is roughly equivalent to the combined populations of New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago and Houston. Over one third of the working age population has given up looking for work.

On top of this, pundits project that many more jobs will be lost to automation in the near future, with computers and robots replacing as many as 49% of the jobs now done by humans. The mechanization of dirty, dangerous, repetitive, mind-numbing tasks should be a blessing. Instead, the future is described in apocalyptic terms. Why?

The problem is rooted in the disingenuous narrative we are fed. Jobs, so the story goes, are mysterious, ephemeral things, whose comings and goings are largely beyond our control. The number of available jobs has to vary independently from the work that needs to be done and the number of people available to do it, or so we are told.

There is plenty of work that needs to be done –converting our energy industry to renewables, repairing and enhancing infrastructure, building housing for all who need it, improving student-teacher ratios, increasing healthcare and eldercare staff, and so much more. And there are millions looking for useful work. The disconnect between people wanting to work, work that needs to be done and the number of jobs that happen to be available only occurs if the guiding principle for job availability is profit. But when the needs of society as a whole are prioritized over the needs of wealthy few at the top, then achieving permanent, full employment is a piece of cake.

Productivity at Our Service

Today, the putative standard is a forty-hour workweek, with a concomitant eight-hour day. But for more than half of U.S. history, the workweek was longer. Not until 1898 did mineworkers win the eight-hour day. Two years later, the movement for a shorter workweek spread to the San Francisco Building Trades. By 1905, the eight-hour day was established coast-to-coast in the printing trades. The Ford Motor Company adopted the new shorter workweek in 1914. Railroad workers won the right in 1916. Only in 1937, with the adoption of the Fair Labor Standards Act, did the eight-hour day become the national standard. (While many today are compelled to work longer in order to make ends meet, the legal norm remains 40 hours.)

But since 1937, the productivity of American labor has increased more than six-fold! In other words, the value produced by a full day’s labor in 1937 would require less than two hours today.

So an obvious solution to unemployment presents itself: reduce the workweek with no reduction in pay.

If the workweek were reduced from 40 to 30 hours, it would create 53 million new jobs[1]. This is more than three times the current number of unemployed. To fill all the remaining slots and maintain current production levels, we would have to plead with the governments of Mexico, Central America and elsewhere to send more immigrants our way!

Can we afford this? Absolutely. Up to now – and especially since 1973 – increases in productivity have been siphoned off as corporate profits and enriched only those at the top.

Implementing 30 hours work for 40 hours pay (“30-for-40”) would simply redirect newly produced wealth away from corporate profits and back into the pockets of those who produce it. Instead of all the benefits of automation and increased productivity going to the top 1%, 30-for-40 would allocate a greater share of those gains to working people.

Big Business Despises Full Employment

Not only would using 30-for-40 to eliminate unemployment directly cut into corporate profits, there are other side effects that corporate behemoths hate but working people would love.

To begin with, full employment would strengthen the working class vis-à-vis the 1%. With abundant, well-paying jobs for all, there would be no one a recalcitrant company could hire as strikebreakers if the workers organized to withhold their labor. It would be more difficult to harass and victimize union organizers because, with full employment, all workers would be harder to replace.

What’s more, less time at work leaves more time for other things. This would include time for rest, recreation, attention to family and exploring creative endeavors. But it would also allow extra time for education, organizing, getting involved and fighting back. In a world imbalanced by massive economic, social and political inequality, allowing the majority more time for education and organization is the last thing those at the top want to see.

Jobs For All vs. Universal Basic Income

Of course, basic human solidarity demands that anyone who is old, sick, disabled or otherwise unable to work should be provided for at society’s expense, with their medical care fully covered and living expenses provided at union wage scales. This can easily be paid for by reallocating funds from the oppressive military budget and by taxing corporate profits. This policy should be combined with a guarantee of a job for all who are able to work.

Lately, some have promoted the notion of a Universal Basic Income (UBI). To the extent that a UBI were funded by redistributing wealth from those at the top to those below – a principle that is by no means guaranteed by the concept – a UBI could be a positive reform. But a UBI is no substitute for a guarantee of jobs for all. Why not?

First and foremost, labor is power. The only power that can counter the concentrated riches of the ruling oligarchs is the collective organization of millions of every-day working people, who, as it happens, produce all of society’s wealth. The root of working class power is the fact that the labor of millions of people generates the riches enjoyed by those at the top, as well as the considerably smaller share currently allocated to the majority. By withholding their labor en mass, working people have ultimate veto power over any government policy. Guaranteeing jobs for all strengthens the ties of working people to production, maximizing the number participating in the labor force and, thus, the number who have a hand on the lever of society’s productive apparatus. A UBI by itself, by contrast, does nothing to reinforce people’s connection to work – that is, to the fundamental engine of wealth creation.

In addition, the rate of any UBI will necessarily be too low. There is a built-in imperative for a UBI to be small enough to encourage people to work. In order to induce people to work at all, the UBI has to be inadequate (or “barely adequate”) to live on by itself. But in the absence of guaranteed jobs for all, “encouraging people to work” means compelling them to compete for an insufficient number of low paying positions. When the supply of labor exceeds its demand in available jobs, wages are driven down, all other things being equal. And if the UBI is to be low enough to encourage people to work, it must ultimately follow wages downward. So, contrary to the assertion of UBI boosters that it would exert upward pressure on wages, a UBI without a job guarantee is just as likely to lead to a race to the bottom.

A UBI is also susceptible to other kinds of manipulation. If a UBI is used to justify cuts to Medicaid, food stamps, unemployment compensation and other social programs, it’s all too easy for the programs replaced to be inadequately covered by the UBI, or for some sectors of the population to benefit at the expense of others.

A UBI can be used to pit employed workers against those without jobs. And, a UBI would do little to address conditions on the job or provide more than a palliative remedy for the unjust distribution of gains from increased automation and productivity.

A job guarantee is different. It would establish a principle that strengthens the hand of working people as a whole. And the concept of “jobs for all” is automatically adjustable: As productivity or the relative size of the work force increases, the workweek can be reduced from 30, to 25 or fewer hours to spread the remaining work around. That’s what a rational society, freed from profit-driven tyranny would do.

The next time some pundit or politician tells you we can’t guarantee jobs for all, recognize that they’re playing you for a chump. They’re drawing an artificial box and counting on you not thinking outside it. Remind them that their assertion is only true if profits are prioritized over human needs. Explain that 30-for-40 solves the problem handily, at great benefit to the vast majority. And who knows? With guaranteed jobs for all, even narrow-minded pundits and politicians might be able to find socially useful work.


[1] There are 160 million workers today. (160 million * 40 hours) = (213.3 million * 30 hours), with (213 million – 160 million) = 53 million. Or: (160 million * 38.7 hours) = (215.7 million * 28.7 hours), with (215 million – 160 million) = 55 million.


  • 30/40 is an excellent idea – in my work experience I found that the more you work the more tax one ends up paying – in the end it simply isn’t worth it while extra leisure time is most welcome and at the same time it gives someone else a job.

    30/40 is a win win, consider the hours or how shift work could add another shift by reducing the working day from 8 to 6 hours or 4 shifts a day.

    30/40 is perfect for people who like to go home at the end of the working day to be with their families.

    Some industries might not be suitable, like shipping and remote mining.

  • gininitaly

    That’s also 10 hours less a week to pay out for daycare and so more money in moms pocket.

    But frankly none of this will come to pass, because our owners want the American people exhausted, mind numb and our children programmed into more of the same servitude, preferably without our input. Idle hands might mean that more people have time to research and understand for just how long and deeply they’ve been divided and screwed.

  • kevinzeese

    “None of this will happen” — right and we will not end slavery, let women vote, or end segregation among a few examples of things that would never happen. They will happen if people power is organized and demands it. It is our job to make what seems impossible become inevitable.

  • gininitaly

    Sorry to sound so negative… but I just spent 20 minutes looking around the Breitbart madhouse today and the sheer numbers of those polly parrot nincompoops… gets you pretty damned depressed about the state of mass delusion.

    So just when you’re feeling slightly tickled that Trump has America in such turmoil, panic and confusion that even some Republicans have their nickers in a twist, while the official Democrats won’t bend an inch to stop the money flow instead of taking up the banner of what Americans statistically want (after all there’s no profit in it). You start thinking…. yeah, let this madness do it’s work, let’s get everyone to the point of saying… this insanity can’t go on.

    The only way Americans can take back their country is to UNITE the red/blue divide and for things to get so bad that even those racist Breitbarters understand that they have been patsies and that WE as progressives will somehow be capable of extending a hand to lead them to reality. I’d like to believe that it’s possible… but things will have to get much worse before that happens.

  • mmckinley

    Excellent idea, and a new one to me. However, I don’t think it needs to compete with UBI, as one or the other. Why not both? The author’s arguments against UBI are against an insufficient UBI. For UBI to work it must be a Universal Living Income, indexed to inflation. ULI. That is the one thing that will eliminate poverty instantly, in a single stroke. And yes, it (along with Universal Single Payer Healthcare in the form of Improved Medicare for All) will replace Medicaid, food stamps, and all other forms of welfare. It will also mean millions choosing to withdraw from the workforce (driving up wages), as well as millions suddenly being free to start their own business (lack of living wage during the incubation period is the single biggest barrier to business start-ups). Especially if it were coupled with a minimum living wage, the 30-40 premise would be an excellent adjunct to ULI and help enormously to reduce the artificial scarcity of jobs imposed by neoliberal monopoly capitalism, but it would not be sufficient by itself to end poverty. Millions are not in the workforce for a variety of reasons, from ill health and disability, to age, to reasonable and rational personal choice. Millions more are in the workforce working full time or even more than full time and still living in poverty. And remember, only 60% of American workers are hourly. Forty percent have no overtime or limits on the hours they may be required to work. I believe in the nobility of work. I do not believe that nobility is linked to suffering and pain and soul-killing drudgery. Nor do I believe one must work in order to deserve life. If you don’t work you should die—that is the definition of slavery.

  • chetdude

    History tells us that great changes are not accomplished by getting 100% of the people to unite for change but rather by achieving a critical mass mobilized to make change…

    The lunatic fringe that simmer in the Breitbart stew, the half who frequent that swamp that actually believe that crap instead of being there for an adrenaline rush is so tiny as to be irrelevant. The same can be said for the corporate-funded holdouts in the “leadership” of the democrat wing…

    As Kevin said, our job is keep a watchful eye on the lunatic fringe (if you wish) while we organize/educate folks from the good hearted, non-crazy majority to build that critical mass dedicated to real positive change.

  • kevinzeese

    That is right we need two things: (1) building national consensus around an issue, and (2) getting a small percentage mobilized to demand it. History of resistance movements shows that if 3.5% mobilize around an issue with national conensus, they always win — and you can win with an even smaller percentage.

  • Happy healthy 2018 Gin !

    While the idea of the 30/40 is all good, one way or the other the working class is forever drawing the short straw – less working hours = paying less taxes which made me wonder how that effects government revenue since many of the big corporations are trying not to pay and with Trumps new tax cuts they’ll have even less.

    They have something similar in France where they reduced the working week to 35 hours, now they’re ”reconsidering” to make it more business friendly – if only they made it more working class friendly.

    The short working week was introduced under a Socialist government in the 1990s with the aim of spurring job creation. But many employers say it has escalated labour costs and handicapped French companies struggling to compete in global markets.

    That labor cost went up had to do with increased penalty rates after the 35 hours, in theory the 30/40 should work but the US would first need to have a Socialist government to introduce it.

    As it is the interests of big business takes priority over the interests of the working class, until that changes…..

  • gininitaly

    I was just curious how they were rationalizing Trumps defection to the deep state and Bannons’ current “Fire and Fury” revenge on the creature he flattered into the limelight.

    Was there any reflection, guilt, buyers remorse? Some, not nearly enough… but a whole lot more apparent ‘liberals’ were floating around the madhouse chuckling, “We told you so.”

  • gininitaly

    Same to you Southern :-). I have a suspicion that this will be a year of more monumental changes, not sure in which direction yet… guess we’ll just have to wait and see.