Robert Reich on Back to the 19th Century

Robert Reich has aroused the libertarians by making the observation that Uber and other on-demand worker services are increasing the precarious nature of work in the US. He counters with the sensible premise that our society is a construct, not a natural law like gravity: we, collectively, agree on the norms and laws that allow us to live and work together. The fact that entrenched interests can exert their massive influence to destablize the mores of work is not some testimony to the wonderful power of markets, but instead is a cautionary tale about the retreat of government and other institutions – like unions and the clergy – from the economic sphere.

Robert Reich, Back to the 19th Century

Finally, after decades of labor strife and political tumult, the twentieth century brought an understanding that capitalism requires minimum standards of decency and fairness – workplace safety, a minimum wage, maximum hours (and time-and-a-half for overtime), and a ban on child labor.

We also learned that capitalism needs a fair balance of power between big corporations and workers.

We achieved that through antitrust laws that reduced the capacity of giant corporations to impose their will, and labor laws that allowed workers to organize and bargain collectively.

By the 1950s, when 35 percent of private-sector workers belonged to a labor union, they were able to negotiate higher wages and better working conditions than employers would otherwise have been “happy” to provide.

But now we seem to be heading back to nineteenth century.

Corporations are shifting full-time work onto temps, free-lancers, and contract workers who fall outside the labor protections established decades ago.

The nation’s biggest corporations and Wall Street banks are larger and more potent than ever.

And labor union membership has shrunk to fewer than 7 percent of private-sector workers.

So it’s not surprising we’re once again hearing that workers are worth no more than what they can get in the market.

But as we should have learned a century ago, markets don’t exist in nature. They’re created by human beings. The real question is how they’re organized and for whose benefit.

And it’s time for the liberal left to push hard for new regulation and protections for the work force, the precarity. We’d better do it before we slide into neo-fuedalism.

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