What can be done about unemployment?

An unemployment line in California in 2007. (Michael Raphael / FLICKR)


The current economic crisis, touched off by the shutdown to slow the COVID-19 pandemic, has resulted in over 23 million unemployed in the United States (an approximate 14-15% unemployment rate) [1]. Many of these jobs may be lost permanently, since the companies suffering from a lack of market activity cannot sustain their capital for more than a few months (bankruptcy), a situation that is particularly true for small businesses.

In addition, corporations that are still active will soon start layoffs. One particularly grievous example from Latin America took place in May when LATAM Airlines Group decided to lay off 1400 workers across four countries, due to decreased volume in flights [2]. Doubtlessly, more layoffs by many corporations will follow.

The 2008 and 1982 recessions (10% and 10.8% unemployment respectively, at their peak) [1] resulted in lasting economic downturns, which took many years for working people to crawl out of. We have good reason to expect this recession to be just as bad, if not worse. Unemployment, and a shortage of quality jobs, may be a problem for many years. Major media outlets across the political spectrum will sympathize with the plight of these workers, shedding a tear about the woes of unemployment. Yet the plight of these unemployed is not a temporary failing of the market but results from the chronic condition of their separation from the means of production, which is never mentioned.

The working class is not defined primarily by employment. We are defined by our separation from any means to sustain our own lives other than selling our labor power (measured in time) to a capitalist employer. Thus, the working class is not just the currently employed, but includes all who experience this separation. It includes the currently and chronically unemployed, the children of the employed and unemployed, the retired, the immigrant, and students.

Understanding this, the struggle of our class to liberate ourselves from overwork, pauperism, racial and gendered discrimination, and the predatory imperialist wars of our nations’ respective capitalists (of particular importance for U.S. and Chinese workers as their “leaders” clash) cannot be conducted merely within the confines of the workplace but must address the challenges that affect the entire working class in all aspects of their lives.

What can be done?

What should the workers do to address the problem of unemployment? It is undeniable that work must still be done to keep society running and have people’s basic needs met, especially in food production, housing, electricity, internet, etc. But work cannot be allowed to continue under dangerous conditions; over 100,000 U.S. workers have died from the virus and the shameful lack of preparations by the U.S. government. This includes the failure to command industry to produce enough personal protective equipment (PPE) for all persons.

In the short term, workers who are unemployed must form necessarily ad-hoc organizations and movements to demand comprehensive PPE and social distancing measures at their workplaces. This includes an expansion of comprehensive PPE for currently employed workers who do not have it. A safe return to work cannot happen until the government (and large corporations) concede this demand. More comprehensive protections for basic needs, such as food and medical care, must be rapidly expanded so working people survive in the short term. This includes, if necessary, free home food delivery [3].

A minority of workers and small business owners want to return to work immediately with no changes in workplace protections. This minority has been fooled by decades of capitalist propaganda asserting that the right of capital to accumulate profits is the same as “American freedom.” The “re-open the economy” protests are proposing an untenable demand that will only result in our blood continuing to lubricate the gears of capitalism.

Providing support for currently striking workers, like the New Orleans sanitation workers [4] is important. But instead of giving the sanitation workers what they needed, the city fired them and replaced them with prison labor (paid only $1.33 an hour—less than a fifth of the minimum wage!). This is pure exploitation, and points to the attitude that New Orleans city officials have towards workers—as merely human cattle. A victory for the safety of the currently employed will hasten the availability of comprehensive PPE for ALL, and thus a SAFE return to employment for all. We cannot allow ourselves to be turned into scabs or we will enhance the power of the state to oppress us all.

The unions can play a valuable role in helping with this organizational effort. Recently, many Minneapolis unions showed great acts of solidarity with workers protesting the murder of George Floyd by the police [5]. Unions are generally the major organizations of the working class in the U.S. and around the globe, and are indispensable to workers’ struggle for a better life. Unions have the resources and organization to mobilize tens of thousands around particular issues; they can, and must, organize the unemployed.

For those currently employed, it may be easy to fall into a mistaken attitude of thankfulness for a job, and leave it at that. “The unemployed are none of my concern, I’ll stay in my lane.” This is a mistake because of the dynamics of the labor market under capitalism.

A large mass of unemployed persons has the effect of suppressing the value of labor. There is a greater supply on the market and less demand. As a result, bargaining for higher wages (including benefits) becomes much more difficult, since the capitalist employer (whom we have already seen thinks of us like cattle [4]) can easily just hire a more desperate person who is willing to work for less (the same dynamic occurs with exploitation of the immigrant). Solidarity and organization with the unemployed around issues relevant to the class is the first bulwark against the unemployed being used as scabs. We cannot let the capitalists turn us into our own worst enemies!

As already seen in the sanitation workers’ struggle, the desperation of an extra-exploited layer of the working class (in this case prisoners) can be used by the capitalist to their advantage. As the struggles around the COVID-19 crisis and its aftermath progress, it will be necessary for our own good to organize solidarity strikes. Imagine: had millions of U.S. workers gone on strike in solidarity with the sanitation workers of New Orleans, the pressure to give in to justice would have been undeniable for the city, and the safety of all U.S. workers would have been improved (better PPE as a guarantee).

Another solution to the current unemployment crisis is state-organized public works projects, directed towards current national and international needs. Such projects would offer unemployed workers the dignity of work, a wage to afford necessities, and a chance to mobilize tens of thousands of workers towards projects for public benefit. Projects would include restoring strategic parts of the ecology, working in factories to create PPE, food delivery to homes, infrastructure work, aid after natural disasters, etc.

But this approach also requires our class to have commitment to our own dignity. Any state-organized mass public works must have comprehensive PPE, union pay, and the right to organize. This also assumes a significant level of political organization on the part of our class to carry this demand forward. The unions can also play a vital role.

Can work be better? Yes!

But we wouldn’t be doing ourselves justice if we returned to work on capitalist terms. Remember these are the people who are okay in letting us die for their profits.

Given that many jobs lost to COVID-19 may not return, and given that much of capitalist production is not only environmentally wasteful (military production, fossil-fuels) but also perpetuates poverty and inequality, the COVID-19 pandemic might be a blessing in disguise, a means by which the working class can re-shape economic life to improve our quality of life wholesale. Neither bourgeois politicians nor billionaire “saviors” can do it. Our class must take political power in the nation and the world.

Why work five days a week when we can work four—without reduction in pay? Fulfilling this demand would spread the work around to those who are currently unemployed. And there are other benefits: one day less spent commuting could drastically reduce carbon emissions from traffic alone. A demand for shorter workweeks, even 20 hours a week, is not a fantastic demand. Society produces far more than what is immediately necessary for life, and there are many useless products being produced. The workers should have a say in what products are produced, not the manipulative marketers and their privacy-breaching data collection.

Shorter working weeks would also seriously curtail the spread of the virus, for example; half the workers at a plant work a portion of the week and the other half work another portion. The extra free time would give us the freedom to pursue a range of life interests, including helping our communities. Providing immediate employment to the currently unemployed can be accomplished in this fashion without adding to the danger of the virus.

State-organized public works, if controlled with extreme democracy by the working class and unions, could lead to the nationalization of many industries, including, importantly, the energy sector. With this political scaffolding, the millions employed in the private sector could join these public works. The absolute necessity of cutting carbon emissions in industry is only possible with strict, centralized planning, and that planning is only permissible if it is done by working people, for working people.

Military spending could be reduced to zero and the funding re-diverted to the medical field, engineering, education. Many officers and soldiers in the military already receive such training as a part of their enrollment, so their expertise is readily available and can still be employed in the public works. An immediate halt to bomb, drone, and ammunition production would only hurt the tiny layer of capitalists in the blood and oil-soaked munitions industry. Halting this production would drastically cut emissions while freeing thousands of workers to pursue other life goals. Obviously, these workers must be justly compensated and re-trained.

Our international allies in the working class would benefit greatly from an end to U.S.-led terrorism (imperialism), and be able to lead their own revolutions against their own parasitic capitalists. Their alliance will be absolutely necessary if we are to stop the fleeing rich who would take their stolen wealth away from the US to protect it from us (who made that wealth for them).

These are simply a few of the many possibilities that a revolutionary workers’ government could bring about. We cannot be confined to a narrow mindset that those who own companies are allowed to hoard the means of production while workers remain without the bare necessities during a crisis. It is our work, it should be our say!

This is all predicated on the essential fact that the working class fights for its demands in an organized and political manner. In other words, the struggles against unemployment (for prosperity), against racism (for human dignity), and against exploitation (for unions, democracy), must coalesce into a mass workers’ party that fights for socialism—for the working class against the exploiter class. Socialist Resurgence is fighting for the formation of such a workers’ party [6].



[1] https://www.thebalance.com/current-u-s-unemployment-rate-statistics-and-news-3305733 Data derived from “The Balance” blog, in its discussion of this recession related to past recessions.

[2] https://airlinegeeks.com/2020/05/17/latam-to-lay-off-1-400-workers-first-major-latin-american-airline-to-confirm-such-measures/ LATAM lays off 1400 total workers in Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru. Note the international reach of LATAM as capital. Workers must act internationally too.

[3] https://socialistresurgence.org/2020/05/21/millions-of-u-s-working-class-families-experience-hunger/ Our commentary on the hunger challenge and a socialist solution.

[4] https://socialistresurgence.org/2020/05/30/new-orleans-sanitation-workers-strike-for-safe-work-conditions-and-hazard-pay/ SR reports on the New Orleans sanitation workers strike.

[5] https://socialistresurgence.org/2020/05/29/minneapolis-labor-unions-call-for-justice-for-george-floyd/ SR’s rundown of union solidarity with the struggle of Black people against the system of murderous oppression in the United States.

[6] https://socialistresurgence.org/2020/05/28/srs-dan-piper-announces-candidacy-for-state-rep-in-connecticut/


Leave a Reply