by Bill Onasch
Productivity and Jobs (continued)
Contrary to deeply imbedded myth, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal did not end the Great Depression. But FDR’s skillful maneuvering Japan in to firing the first shot did. After Pearl Harbor, massive public sentiment against American involvement in the Second World War, that had been raging in Europe and elsewhere for over two years, turned in to enthusiastic patriotic unity behind the war effort.
The USA then undertook the biggest and most successful crash mobilization of economic resources the world has ever seen. Big Government took charge of the economy as a whole and directed it according to a sound, efficient plan clearly focused on crucial war objectives. Within months mass unemployment gave way to a labor shortage and ultimately new vocations were opened to those once excluded by race or sex discrimination.
We may abhor the end use of this plan–seventy million perished as a result of that war, the cities and economies of Europe and Asia were largely destroyed, and nuclear weapons were used on human beings. But the principle of centrally planned economic mobilization, proven so effective in pursuing the horrors of war, can also be adapted to use for good–for example, the restructuring needed to save civilization from rapidly advancing climate change. But that’s another story.
Unlike the end of the First World War, the conclusion of the Second didn’t lead to a return to mass unemployment. There were two main reasons. Fifteen continuous years of Depression and war had led to tremendous pent-up consumer demand at home–soon to be augmented by the Baby Boom. And the economic destruction of most of the rest of the industrialized world left those countries initially dependent on still intact North American factories for their rebuilding.
Important new technology also came out of the war effort. But North American bosses were reluctant to invest in new capital improvements while this windfall demand could be satisfied with existing plants. This tardiness eventually led to some problems for them.
While many European and Japanese cities took great care to restore destroyed residential areas to their prewar structure those countries rebuilt their factories and railroads with the latest technological advances–far more productive than their inevitable competitors in America and Canada.
Take for example steel. Their postwar recovery utilized a new method pioneered in Austria called Basic Oxygen. The industry labor standard for once prevalent open hearth peaked at 3 worker hours per ton. Basic Oxygen was soon tweaked to produce a ton with 0.003 worker hours–in other words a thousand times more productive.
Such drastic reduction of required workers in the new plants was introduced in Europe at a time of great labor shortage due to the horrific death toll of war. Layoffs and speed-up were not necessary.
It was far different in the USA when the slow to adapt American industry started rapidly closing the old open hearths in Pittsburgh, Youngstown, Buffalo, Chicago, Cleveland and other centers in the Seventies and Eighties. Other industries began doing the same. There were now masses of “dislocated workers.” This first wave of what was mis-labeled “deindustrialization” left victims mostly ill-prepared and inadequately supported for a transition to a new line of work.
Those of us who went through this experience were counseled to put the past behind us. You can’t stop technological progress. Get on with your new life–and adapt to your new standard of living. Subsequent new generations have been told they have absolutely no future without going deep in debt for loans for college or technical education.
Certainly we can’t stop new technology in the workplace. The experience of the Luddites in England two centuries ago first established the futility of such efforts. If we lived in a society that truly cared about human advancement we could in fact embrace without reservation new methods that can safely satisfy society’s needs in shorter time with less wear and tear on our muscle and nerves.
But, of course, we don’t live in such a society. The wonders of science and technology have been corrupted by their owners to keep us going nowhere fast at a just-in-time pace. Granted, they have reduced hours of work for many–but through part-time and contingency jobs that don’t pay all the bills or provide any benefits. They have created a huge reserve of long-term unemployed whose eagerness to work discourages those “lucky to have a paycheck” from rocking the boat. And many of those who listened to counselors, or radio and television commercials, and went on to get degrees and certifications, are now a better educated class of jobless–crushed by student loan debt.
(This would be the normal time for me to review the monthly employment situation report of the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Unfortunately, the valuable BLS are among the hundreds of thousands of Federal employees locked out of their jobs by Congress,)
These are not individual problems and there will be few individual solutions. Just as the bosses and bankers organize as a ruling class to advance their objectives the working class majority needs to act collectively to get the just reward for our greatly enhanced productivity and the fantastic wealth we have created.
I’ll close up this long running thread next time by reviewing the class solutions to these challenges taken up in the Program of the Labor Party–now defunct but deserving urgent resurrection.
Climate actions in the USA by Bill McKibben’s social media network 350.org, and Pale Greens such as the Sierra Club, have focused on convincing President Obama to reject the Keystone XL pipeline from the Alberta tar-sands to refineries connected to Gulf of Mexico ports. That’s an important priority to be sure.
But lost in the shuffle is the astounding news reported on Friday–the USA is now the world’s number one oil and natural gas producer. That’s right–not just consumer–producer. Suzanne Goldenberg, US environment correspondent for the Guardian writes,
“The US was on pace to achieve global energy domination on Friday, overtaking Russia and Saudi Arabia as the world’s top oil and natural gas producer. New estimates released on Friday by the Energy Information Administration showed America pulling ahead of both countries in oil and natural gas production for 2013. The rise to the top was fueled by new drilling techniques, such as horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing, which have unlocked vast quantities of oil and gas from shale rock formations – especially in North Dakota and Texas.”
A companion story by the same correspondent reported,
“Fracking in America generated 280bn US gallons of toxic waste water last year – enough to flood all of Washington DC beneath a 22ft deep toxic lagoon, a new report out on Thursday found.”
This is what is happening on the watch of a greenwashed President many sincerely hope will do the right thing on Keystone–a, pardon the expression, explosion of hydrocarbons heating the planet while fouling water and soil. As we think globally we can’t afford to neglect the biggest threat of all in our homeland.
While I am still digesting the release of an introductory initial installment of a mammoth report by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) just barely two weeks ago, Christine Frank has hit the ground sprinting with a substantial, insightful article posted on the Socialist Action site. As you wait for me to get up to speed I recommend you read her piece, IPCC: Global warming is ‘unequivocal’.
* Today there were labor-backed demonstrations across the country in support of an immigration “reform” bill passed in the Senate, stalled in the House. A key element is a deal reached by AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka with the president of the Chamber of Commerce. In a story posted on Labor Notes, David Bacon explains why the bill is not a fair bargain for workers of any nationality.
* A victory press release from the California Nurses Association said, “It’s over – with a resounding triumph for thousands of registered nurses at five San Francisco Bay Area hospitals operated by the large Sutter Health system who have managed to defend patient care protections and nursing standards from an employer insistent on sweeping concessions in a long running dispute. After nine strikes over two years, with multiple days added on by company lockouts, the RNs have won tentative agreements for new collective bargaining agreements premised on elimination of nearly 200 concession demands by Sutter that were the main issue in the confrontation. The agreements affect 3,000 RNs and several hundred respiratory, X-ray and other technicians who work at Alta Bates Medical Center facilities in Berkeley and Oakland, Eden Medical Center in Castro Valley, Sutter Solano in Vallejo, and Sutter Delta in Antioch.”
As I prepare to board Amtrak’s Missouri Mule to St Louis Friday there will be no news update on our companion Labor Advocate Blog. Those updates will resume on Tuesday, October 15. You can look for the next WIR around that time as well.
My excursion to St Louis is not for R&R. I’ll be attending the Jerry Tucker: The Person, The Mission, The Legacy conference. If you are going as well I hope we meet up there.
I thank those of you who sent donations over the past week. With this help I can not only go to St Louis–but even come back.
That’s all for this week.