A 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.
“Labor shortage” means we should make seniors work.
The far-right Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wisc.), who just won re-election, suggested at a campaign event in September that, in response to the labor shortage, lawmakers should pursue policies that encourage seniors to work. “We could encourage seniors to get back in the workforce, those who are able to, by just saying, ‘We’re not going to charge you payroll tax,’” he said. “‘You’re not paying it now. Come back into the workforce, and we’ll waive the payroll tax.’”
It is not immediately clear whether Johnson plans to introduce legislation to this effect. But it is notable that Johnson was trying to gut protections for seniors well before the present-day labor shortage. He’s a known proponent, for example, of privatizing Social Security, and in 2016, he told conservative activists that Social Security is a “legal Ponzi scheme,” as The Huffington Post reported.
“Labor shortage” means farmworkers shouldn’t have unionization rights.
In January, Maine’s Democratic Gov. Janet Mills, vetoed a bill that would have protected the collective bargaining and unionization rights of workers on farms with five employees or more, including for those workers who are part-time or seasonal. In her veto message, the governor cited the labor shortage as one reason for her rejection of the legislation. “The Covid-19 pandemic has also taken a significant toll on Maine’s agricultural sector, disrupting supply chains, shifting markets, and, notably, contributing to an acute labor shortage in Maine and increased prices for fuel and groceries,” she said. “In fact, I have heard directly from local farmers who describe the painstaking difficulty they are experiencing in attracting and retaining the workers they need to sustain operations.”
“Given these serious challenges,” Gov. Mills concluded, “I cannot, in good conscience, allow a bill to become law that would subject our farmers to a complicated new set of laws that would require them to hire lawyers just to understand.”
Yet, Mills, who was re-elected on November 8, has a history of voting for anti-worker provisions long before the present-day labor market conditions. While her labor record is mixed, in 2006, as a state representative, she voted against a bill to increase Maine’s minimum wage. And as governor, she has supported a host of other anti-worker measures. In May, for example, she vetoed a bill aimed at protecting the ability of workers to use the paid leave they have earned without facing retaliation.
“Labor shortage” means women should leave the workforce.
Fox News host Tucker Carlson, one of this country’s top purveyors of far-right views, has a vast influence: His was the most-watched cable news show last year, and he regularly rakes in an audience of three million viewers. Carlson has floated several theories about the cause of the labor shortage, with unions and too much public spending being among his favorite culprits. But one is so absurd — and factually inaccurate — that it received a write-up in the Daily Beast. In a December 17, 2021 segment about the labor shortage, Carlson argued that there are too many women in the workforce:
Why are fewer people choosing to work and have been for a long time, by the way, this is not a new trend. Our labor markets are getting sicker for generations. The labor force participation rate of American men goes back to 1950, 71 years ago, and goes straight down. The labor force participation rate of women in America has a line that moves in the opposite direction. So, as you can tell, for 70 years, we have been losing men in the workforce. Now, many call this progress on the assumption that anything that is bad and degrading for men must be good for America. But it is not progress. It’s a problem. The average man defines himself by his job. Yes, men and women are very different, extremely different. Our whole society is built on their differences. Every society is. And the thing about men is they kind of need to work. They tend to fall apart when they’re unemployed.
His tortured argument goes something like this: Having women in the workforce degrades the state of work, and zaps it of its meaning for men, which makes them not want to work, and is therefore contributing to the labor shortage. During the segment, Carlson presented graphs that included core data inaccuracies, as the Daily Beast’s Justin Baragona pointed out, which led to much mockery. For example, he put the wrong values on the y-axis of a graph supposedly showing the female labor force participation rate, resulting in “grossly incorrect numbers,” as Baragona put it.
But there is another important detail to consider: Carlson was advocating for women to leave the workforce long before the present-day market realities. In early 2019, for example, Carlson responded to a Virginia state legislator’s proposed bill to protect abortion access by arguing that liberal advocates of reproductive rights just want women to work more, as Madeline Peltz pointed out for Media Matters for America. “Chelsea Clinton and the rest of the investor class strongly approve of it,” he said. “Stop breeding and get to work.”
“Labor shortage” means we need more money for innovative warships.
In an October 27, 2022 article, Brent Sadler, senior research fellow for The Heritage Foundation, a powerful conservative think tank, wrote that “a major challenge of the shipbuilding industry is attracting, training, and retaining skilled labor.” Both the Pentagon and industry leaders have warned about the labor shortage, he wrote.
His solution? Sadler, who spent his career in the Navy before joining The Heritage Foundation, argues that, to protect the U.S. ability to “compete with China” by growing its Navy, “shipbuilding must be revived.” The United States can do so, he said, “by leveraging novel technologies that address obvious supply chain weaknesses.” In other words, fancy new innovations can make up for the supposed lack of workers.
And what are these “novel technologies”? “Examples include solving the Navy’s operational challenges with weapons reloading at sea, small modular nuclear reactors for vessel propulsion, and unmanned shipping,” writes Sadler. Never mind the ethical concerns about unleashing drones of the sea, or further bolstering a U.S. Navy that is already ratcheting up tensions with China. Sadler has also been arguing for these same innovations for years — well before the present-day labor shortage.
On August 19, 2020, Sadler wrote that the Navy needs to grow in order to engage in “great power competition.” To do so, he said, “the service will have to embrace new approaches and unmanned platforms.”
The Heritage Foundation receives funding from the weapons industry, including companies that directly benefit from increased production of “novel technologies.” An October 2020 report from the Center for International Policy noted that The Heritage Foundation is number nine among major think tanks that, from 2014 to 2019, took money from military contractors and the U.S. government. Raytheon and Lockheed Martin were both named among the think tank’s biggest funders. Each of these companies is in the business of developing unmanned sea vessels.
It’s not a major leap to conclude that the labor shortage is being used as a pretext to push for policies the think tank’s funders already had a material interest in pursuing. This and other “solutions” to the tight labor market not only advance reactionary, wealth-consolidating policies, but they also foreclose on other possible responses to the tight labor market — those that strive for human flourishing, dignified labor, and an end to the constant threat of destitution and joblessness that has historically been used to keep workers in their place.
This article is a joint publication of In These Times and Workday Magazine, a non-profit newsroom devoted to holding the powerful accountable through the perspective of workers.
Joshua Mei contributed research to this article.
Sarah Lazare is the editor of Workday Magazine and a contributing editor for In These Times. She tweets at @sarahlazare.