You and Your Boss Have the Same Interests Right Now. That Is a Once-In-A-Lifetime Opportunity.

Hamilton Nolan March 17, 2020

(Photo by Ren Netherland / Barcroft Media / Getty Images)

We’re a team.” We’re a fam­i­ly.” We’re all on the same side.” A ris­ing tide lifts all boats.” These are lies that com­pa­nies reg­u­lar­ly tell their employ­ees. In fact, in nor­mal times, the inter­ests of the work­ers and the boss­es are mutu­al­ly exclu­sive. Their big­ger slice of the pie gives you a small­er slice. But these are not nor­mal times. For the first time in a life­time, the inter­ests of the work­ers and the boss­es are — tem­porar­i­ly — the same. That is an opportunity.

I know a guy who owns a few bars. In the course of a week, his busi­ness dried up. His income went to zero. He had to close the doors. His 80 employ­ees are all out of work. Even if he want­ed to keep pay­ing them, he couldn’t. All of his mon­ey is invest­ed in the busi­ness. Now he and his employ­ees are both pow­er­less bystanders in the face of a dis­as­ter. It will wipe all of them out, togeth­er, unless some­thing is done.

Mul­ti­ply that sce­nario by a mil­lion and you have a rough pic­ture of the Amer­i­can econ­o­my at the moment. This is not a nor­mal acute busi­ness cri­sis, affect­ing a sin­gle area of the econ­o­my, which can be bailed out so that the rest of us can con­tin­ue on. This is a stop­page of the econ­o­my, which ren­ders the fight over slices of the pie moot. There is no pie now. There’s an emp­ty plate, and we’re all going to starve togeth­er unless some­thing mean­ing­ful is done.

Orga­nized labor is built, and should be built, with the idea that it will always be locked in a con­tentious strug­gle with busi­ness inter­ests, because the log­ic of cap­i­tal­ism means that every dol­lar that work­ing peo­ple do not win with their own pow­er will be snatched away by own­ers and investors. Broad­ly speak­ing, that is always true. Except for now. Now, today, busi­ness own­ers — in par­tic­u­lar small busi­ness own­ers — and their work­ers have the exact same inter­est: not being com­plete­ly wiped out by an unprece­dent­ed cri­sis that defies cat­e­go­riza­tion. We all need help from above right now.

In a per­verse way, this is a sort of lever­age for the work­ing class. The eco­nom­ic bal­ance of pow­er that is usu­al­ly used as a weapon to force work­ers to take less out of des­per­a­tion is being erased by the day. Yes, the work­ing class is still fucked. But the boss is fucked too! The work­ers may starve faster, but we’ll all starve nonethe­less. What is nor­mal­ly hap­py rhetoric that con­ceals a shiv is now real. We’re all on the same team, and we are losing.

A few big-pic­ture things are clear for all of us: When­ev­er this virus and its quar­an­tine pass, the busi­ness­es that employ tens of mil­lions of peo­ple will not be able to just throw open the doors and restart on their own. For own­ers, the bills are still pil­ing up while they have no income, which will dri­ve them into bank­rupt­cy. For work­ers, the bills are still pil­ing up while they have no income, which will dri­ve them into bank­rupt­cy. A week ago, the boss may have been dri­ving a Porsche and derid­ing his employ­ees as ungrate­ful social­ist kids who don’t under­stand the real world. Today, the idea of a rent freeze and uni­ver­sal gov­ern­ment health­care and a debt jubilee sound pret­ty damn good to that same boss. It has always been true that the econ­o­my should be orga­nized around what is good for work­ing peo­ple. Instead, it has been orga­nized around the inter­ests of mon­ey itself, and those who hold it. But all of the intri­cate rules and struc­tures that have been built to pull wealth to the top are break­ing down as we speak in the face of the fun­da­men­tal fact that there is no func­tion­ing econ­o­my for any­one. That sud­den equal­i­ty is a form of power.

Paid sick leave fund­ed by the gov­ern­ment, health­care fund­ed by the gov­ern­ment, finan­cial relief fund­ed by the gov­ern­ment: All are in the inter­ests of own­ers and work­ers right now. Orga­nized labor and busi­ness­es can com­bine their pow­er in this bizarre moment in time to extract what is nec­es­sary from a gov­ern­ment that is used to pick­ing the inter­ests of only one side. Time for the cats and dogs to play togeth­er. The AFL-CIO and the Cham­ber of Com­merce should be kick­ing down the door to Con­gress togeth­er and threat­en­ing the entire place with scorched-earth destruc­tion unless they pass a mas­sive stim­u­lus that puts mon­ey in the pock­ets of work­ing peo­ple and sus­pends debt oblig­a­tions. (Already, unions and employ­ers in the air­line indus­try have put togeth­er a plan that would save the indus­try while pri­or­i­tiz­ing the work­ers, a good mod­el of what can be done on an even grander scale right now.) If the work­ing class emerges from this with no mon­ey to spend, there will be nei­ther employ­ees nor cus­tomers for any own­ers to come back to. Any­one too stu­pid to see this now is like The Mil­lion­aire strand­ed on Gilligan’s Island, still try­ing to pay mon­ey for good ser­vice while every­one else is hunt­ing for coconuts to survive.

Union mem­ber­ship in Amer­i­ca boomed after the Great Depres­sion. Union rad­i­cal­ism and strikes boomed after World War II. There is noth­ing like an exis­ten­tial cri­sis to show peo­ple that they need to stick togeth­er. Notions of jus­tice and urgency are sharp­ened when the stakes are this high. In the past week I have heard from mul­ti­ple peo­ple across the coun­try who are new­ly inter­est­ed in union­iz­ing. They all say that this cri­sis has prompt­ed every­one at work to start talk­ing about what can be done. That means that one of the biggest hur­dles to union­iz­ing — get­ting work­ers talk­ing about unit­ed action — is already being crossed at work­places all over Amer­i­ca. The seeds of new unions are being plant­ed. It is up to the labor move­ment to see to it that they grow and flour­ish. We may nev­er see a more fer­tile envi­ron­ment for union orga­niz­ing in the nation­al psy­che. This moment must not be squan­dered. Mil­lions of peo­ple with­out unions have come to real­ize very fast that they have no safe­ty net. Unions can build that safe­ty net only by build­ing new­er and big­ger unions. Get ready to work.

Very soon, the busi­ness class of Amer­i­ca is going to come to the work­ing class and say: It is time to work togeth­er.” And they’re right. There is no choice. But this uni­ty comes with a price. Reg­u­lar peo­ple are not going to unite to rebuild the exact same set of arrange­ments respon­si­ble for all of them being over­worked, under­paid, and unpro­tect­ed in the first place. That won’t fly. Orga­nized labor is not here to throw its pow­er behind a gov­ern­ment bailout that will restore orga­nized labor to its for­mer posi­tion of glo­ri­ous infe­ri­or­i­ty. We are all on the same team now, and that team doesn’t run union-bust­ing cam­paigns, or squeeze min­i­mum-wage employ­ees to pay enor­mous exec­u­tive bonus­es. Isn’t that right, boss­es? The price of our coop­er­a­tion is your coop­er­a­tion. We can teach a busi­ness own­er what sol­i­dar­i­ty looks like. Now they have to lis­ten. Work­ers, after all, have been suf­fer­ing for­ev­er. Boss­es are just get­ting their first taste.

Hamil­ton Nolan is a labor reporter for In These Times. He has spent the past decade writ­ing about labor and pol­i­tics for Gawk­er, Splin­ter, The Guardian, and else­where. You can reach him at Hamilton@​InTheseTimes.​com.

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