Unemployment benefits that were implemented to aid workers during the pandemic ended September 6, coinciding with Labor Day. On September 3, the Department of Labor released its weekly unemployment insurance (UI) report, the last before pandemic benefits ended, giving the best indicator of how many people would be affected by the cuts: about 35 million.
The report outlines that 9.2 million people are currently receiving benefits from either the Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation (PEUC) program or the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) program. Census data reveals that the average household that is receiving UI benefits has 3.8 members in it. Thus, around 35 million people — 10% of the U.S. population — lost unemployment income.
With the delta variant of COVID-19 continuing to spread and propagate economic uncertainty, an extra $300 dollars per week in benefits has helped people avert economic disaster over the past 18 months. Their futures without such benefits are uncertain.
In the short term, the Biden administration appears unconcerned with the measures’ end, but Democrats are aiming to expand the social safety net with a 3.5 trillion social policy bill, funded by increased taxes on corporations, and already firmly opposed by Republicans. Truthout notes the collective wealth of the seven richest Americans, who routinely avoid paying income tax, stood at $996 billion near the end of August — enough to fund nearly a third of the plan.
Billionaires leverage this hoard amid workers’ continuing struggles for better wages and safer conditions. On Labor Day, Jacobin’s David Sirota emphasized information from the Economic Policy Institute showing the inverse relationship between union membership the income gain of the 10% wealthiest — as union membership declines in the U.S., the richest get richer and workers receive stagnant compensation even as their productivity steadily increases.
For Jacobin, Chris Maisano described the Biden administration’s positivity on unions following previous Democratic administrations that “paid lip service (at best) to the labor movement while promoting corporate power at home and around the world.” Though the measures the administration is working towards represent an overall improvement for workers, Maisano writes, “these kinds of technocratic policy interventions tend to mistake symptoms for causes and prioritize competitive, market-based solutions instead of the only real source of power workers have: collective organization.”
One such example comes from the fast-food industry, which has been notoriously immune to unions. A group of workers at a Starbucks in Buffalo, New York, are working towards union elections at individual stores, eventually to cover all 20 in the region, as In These Times highlights. Possibly aiding these efforts, Truthout notes that top labor regulator Jennifer Abruzzo, General Counsel of the National Labor Relations Board, has been aiming to revive the Joy-Silk doctrine, which would make it harder for bosses to get away with illegal union-busting activities. Truthout further discussed the women and people of color most forgotten and marginalized since the pandemic in care and food.
Labor Day did not prompt a wealth of headlines concerning workers’ rights issues among independent or mainstream media. Looking at September 6’s front pages, CNN, The New York Times, and CBS each featured the ironic end of pandemic unemployment benefits on the holiday. The Times also covered legislation in California that would require warehouse employers like Amazon to disclose productivity quotas — a measure that could aid workers’ resistance to strenuous conditions amid Amazon’s aggressive union busting. USA Today mentioned a Gallup pole noting unions’ rising approval under Biden.
MSNBC’s Mehdi Hasan drew parallels from today’s economy to that of 25 years ago, as part of the outlet’s 25th anniversary (which FAIR remarks is little cause for celebration). Hasan laid out plainly that Democrats have not done enough for workers and cited ProPublica’s report on billionaire tax avoidance. The site also published an op-ed calling for a modicum of solidarity with striking Nabisco employees.
Insights from Jacobin and Truthout provided useful frameworks to consider the state of economy and labor in the U.S. More of such coverage in the mainstream may help propel the national conversation towards broader unionization efforts, and perhaps with them, better conditions and wages for workers.