Thoughts For Labor Day

Labor Day would seem to be an appropriate time to consider the massive changes that have transformed the American workplace and diminished the bargaining power of workers–one major reason for the enormous gap between the rich and the rest. (It may also be an appropriate time to worry about the continuing replacement of human workers by automation.)

The changing face of the workplace–and especially the enormous growth of the “gig” economy– are barriers to organizing; the reality is that it is increasingly unlikely that unions will ever be the guarantors of fair employment practices that they once were.

If it is the case that most labor unions cannot be revived, the question becomes: how do we bring back workers’ power? How do we arrange the economic landscape so that workers can tell their employers to go take a hike if they offer insultingly low wages or dangerous working conditions? How do we level the playing field between employee and employer–especially large employers?

There is one answer, and it is audacious. We could empower workers (and solve a lot of other problems) by enacting a universal basic income. (Alfred Yang won’t be President, but he isn’t wrong.)

As an article in Forbes, of all unlikely places, pointed out, a universal basic income creates bargaining power by increasing all workers’ capacity to refuse a raw deal. The article points out that a UBI acts to increase workers’ “reserve price” — the minimum each worker must be paid before she is willing to accept a given job with particular working conditions.

A UBI is a more flexible means of improving the bargaining power of labor than either unionization or a minimum wage, because it allows workers to drive a harder bargain. It would also have the same effect on the economy as a higher minimum wage–it would increase both workers’ disposable income and economic demand.

A UBI appeals to both liberals and conservatives. Liberals champion it as a better approach than America’s inadequate and demeaning safety net programs; libertarians embrace it because it avoids legally-imposed, one-size-fits-all measures, allowing firms and individuals the freedom to negotiate the terms of their employment.

A Universal Basic Income would allow employees to walk away from bad employers, unsafe work environments, or undesirable jobs. Most importantly, it would restore a balance of power in the workplace–and as one observer has written, employment would no longer be modeled after “a peasant and feudal lord dynamic.”

I did a good deal of research on the merits and problems of a UBI for my recent book, and although I’m not unrealistic enough to think America’s lawmakers are likely to pass anything remotely similar during my lifetime, I was persuaded by the data that the general approach is not only sound, but–thanks to automation– will be absolutely necessary sooner than most people think.

Labor Day isn’t just a good time for a cookout. It’s also a good time to consider how badly labor has been screwed by the GOP’s war on unions and by the changes to the nature of work itself –and a good time to consider how best to repair the damage.


  1. An idea we need to seriously consider. Yes, a UBI with a real time COLA element would have many positives, as well as a universal set of standards for minimum workplace quality & safety standards. These features would provide a great underpinning for the U.S. economy from a public health perspective. They could also shape attitudes regarding economic activity within the country and per international trade not unlike the Europeans. Clearly, as the tidal wave effects of global warming/climate change become unavoidable, establishing a floor or baseline standard for our collective living conditions will be very important as a means for maintaining a civil society.

  2. In the 1970’s Alan Watts wrote, “Man is going to computerize himself out of existence.” No way he could foresee the giveaway of the major manufacturing corporations being held strong with union bargaining to protect employees and employers alike. Employees who are (were) treated fairly by employers returned the fair treatment with good workmanship…by men and women. No way he could foresee corporations and the wealthy using offshore banks to avoid taxes; putting the responsibility on middle America or losing middle America to low-income to poverty level status bordering on a caste system in this country.

    This country fought the Civil War to maintain and strengthen the Union of our government but we see no way to return to the Union of American workers and employees maintaining our once proud level of “…paying a worker worthy of his/her hire…”.

    No way anyone could foresee the Trump White Nationalist cold war against America and Americans.

    “Labor Day isn’t just a good time for a cookout. It’s also a good time to consider how badly labor has been screwed by the GOP’s war on unions and by the changes to the nature of work itself –and a good time to consider how best to repair the damage.”

    Happy 2019 Labor Day!

  3. Well, a UBI, or any other gimmick that gives labor a better place in the country, is merely a band-aid to an economic model that will eventually fail everyone. I hate to keep saying it, but Karl Marx, wittingly or unwittingly, got it right when he predicted that unregulated capitalism would fail on its own merits. In parallel to the loss of labor’s bargaining power, unions and quality of life, we have seen the constant corruption of our government by capitalists to DE-REGULATE at every opportunity. The lust for profits in our capitalistic system is unquenchable.

    We now have an administration that is throwing environmental protection to the winds so that fossil fuel stockholders can afford to buy that third BMW with cash. How’s that for the nose : face continuum? I’m certainly not smart enough to think of a system that would work and be totally equitable for ours or any other country that keeps adhering to the current model. But unlike other countries like Norway, Sweden and Denmark, our citizenry doesn’t seem to care enough to put the brakes on corporate greed and its concomitant environmental rape.

  4. See Kurt Vonnegut’s “Player Piano,” his prophetic first novel published in 1952. He got it!

  5. The UBI will have to be more than $1K per month, if it is to give workers the power to deal from any sort of position of strength. As a” voice crying in the wilderness” it is good to see the robotic revolution being addressed by others. We need multiple responses to this new paradigm shift. As I opined a couple of days ago, I don’t have the answers. No one does, but we’d better be getting together to find answers soon enough to save the planet.

  6. Peggy,
    Robotics have been around for centuries. It’s just a matter of the degree of use. In the 80s I was one of the pioneers at implementing robotic assembly of electronic devices. At the British Science Museum, “robots” were used to pump water out of the Welsh coal mines in the 18th century instead of having workers haul it out by hand. Politicians simply have to keep finding new excuses to explain the lack of initiative to find ways to employ people at living wages. That’s what I meant by a failed model. It’s a creeping, slow-evolving disaster for working classes. It happens every so often. The last big upset was the Russian Revolution in 1912-14.

    I’m reading a very interesting and disturbing book, titled “The Darkest Year” by William Klingaman. It concerns the beginning of our actual participation in WW II. Amazingly, our capitalists worked very hard to keep wages down while they enjoyed the virtually unlimited profits from government defense contracts. There were hundreds of strikes and walk-outs during 1941-42 because employers wouldn’t pay – even though we were in desperate shape to build war materiel. Add to that, companies were allowed to discriminate racially about hiring practices, again despite the desperate need for manpower. Something like 42% of Americans in 1941 were FUNCTIONALLY ILLITERATE. The average teacher salary was around $2,000 per year! Even in 1941 dollars, that’s a virtual pittance.

    So, the next time somebody tells me how wonderful capitalism is as an economic system, I will point them to Walter Griffin’s history as owner of the Detroit Tigers baseball team. While receiving huge contracts from the government to build tanks in his other industry, he cut his baseball player salaries as part of the “sacrifice” everyone had to make for the war. Gimme a break.

  7. If the Democrats can retain the House, win the Senate and boot Agent Orange and Pastor Pence out to pasture, the Democrats need to raise the minimum wage country wide to $15.00. There should be no exceptions. The so-called “gig” economy needs to be addressed, these independent contractors deserve the protections regular employees have.

  8. Does not an UBI for the USA obligated to regard the billions of people in the world, a large majority of whom go to bed hungry, every night. Their numbers grow daily.

  9. Andrew Yang is quite popular in internet libertarian circles. I suspect that might be because a UBI is expensive and sounds like a good excuse to cut the remains of the social safety net.
    Everyone gets $1,000 a month sounds like an idea, until you figure that it would be paid for by ending as many safety net programs as possible.

    When you receive way more than $1,000/mo in help (SNAP, housing assistance, etc), removing all your benefits and replacing them with a small amount of cash doesn’t seem particularly practical.

  10. This was the best labor day related post I read anywhere on the blogosphere this year. Thank you so much for it. We’ll be the last Western nation to adopt an UBI, but the time will most likely come.

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