Frances Perkins was the U.S. secretary of labor for FDR and the first woman to serve in the cabinet. One of her formative experiences was in 1911 on a street in New York City watching young female textile workers jump to their deaths out of a burning sweatshop. The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire was a terrible and highly publicized tragedy, but Perkins and her allies in the labor movement and in the state legislature (most importantly, Robert Wagner, Sr.) were ready. They immediately introduced and got passed workplace health and safety laws. They couldn’t help those who died, but they pounced on the opportunity to make life better for the workers of the future.
COVID-19 is a threat to the health and safety of us all, but as the congressional debate of the federal stimulus package revealed, it may also present an opportunity to rethink how to best protect workers, the economy, and indeed all the members of our society.
The project on Creating a New Moral Political Economy at the Center for Advanced Study of the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford is preparing for that moment. A network of nearly 100 scholars, thinkers, technologists, journalists and others have spent the last two years considering how better to structure our politics and economics based on commonly shared values.
The first premise of the project is that our emphasis should be on the well-being of people and the planet. This directs our attention to multiple aspects human flourishing and away from an aggregate, such as GDP, as the metric of a successful economy. It focuses us on institutions and programs that promote health, safety and security at work and on the streets, skill acquisition, social insurance, a decent environment, and dignity for all members of society.
The second premise is the recognition that change is possible and that the time is right. Economies are a moral and political choice that a polity makes and remakes. The Thatcher-Reagan brand of neo-liberalism widely replaced the Keynesian approach that dominated the post-WWII developed west. We are now witnessing the fraying of the political economic framework that guided action for decades and that created bases for social cohesion. Its utter failure in the face of the COVID-19 crisis is but the latest piece of evidence.
Let us return to Frances Perkins, but now in the 1930s. Faced with the Great Depression, the Roosevelt administration tried to create a new regime that would ensure to workers adequate health, safety and employment protections—and also power through collective bargaining. The administration succeeded only when two things took place. First, the corporations came to recognize that their interests and those of their workers were intertwined. For decades, the employer response had been active and sometimes violent resistance to protective worker legislation. In the 1930s, faced by a threat of potential revolution (the case of the Soviet Union was less than two decades before), many major corporate actors quieted their opposition.
The second major change was in the federal government. It transformed itself from an active participant to a neutral actor in corporate-worker disputes. During the famous sit-down strikes at General Motors in 1937, Perkins and the governor of Michigan refused to call in the National Guard, signaling a significant shift in government reaction.
Frances Perkins was not only ready when the moment for change arose, she also understood the politics and economics of the period she was in. In 1911, the legislation focused on workers in sweatshops. By the 1930s, the legislation was based on work in industrial factories.
What we are witnessing now is the openness of politicians—for the first time in a long, long time—to an activist government taking on a range of responsibilities. The current threat to the economy, particularly in the light of the missed opportunities after the Great Recession, is the trigger. We are also witnessing corporations reconsidering Milton Friedman’s argument to put shareholders before stakeholders. Business now recognizes that its interests are entangled with those of employees, customers, and the polity.
We are in a community of fate that COVID-19 has created. Our destinies are now clearly entwined as we join together to fight this virus and protect ourselves and our societies.
The stimulus is a first, halting move towards change. But it is still mired in an outdated version of capitalism and of work. The policies largely assume the world of manufacturing, but our economy is now based on service jobs that are often precarious. This goes for unemployment insurance; social security; the welfare system; the statistical approach for detailing what workers do and in determining government taxes, insurance, and subsidies. All tend to have as their baseline permanent, full-time jobs.
In fact, the legislative ideas being debated in this election cycle make a whole series of presumptions that no longer apply. For example, congressional understanding of the digital era is at best unsophisticated—as the hearings with Mark Zuckerberg made apparent. There may now be more positive appreciation of what Facebook, Zoom, and many exciting new platforms offer to help us stay connected and help each other. The fact remains nonetheless that we have to develop a new legal framework for these industries in which so much wealth, power, and knowledge reside. We act as if the legal framework of the past is, with minor tweaks, well-suited to today’s monopolies and monopsonies, to contemporary employment relations, property rights over data, etc. There are important efforts underway to change our practices, including academic initiatives, such as the British Academy project on The Future of the Corporation or the new Schwartz Reisman Institute at the University of Toronto, and organizations combining scholars, policy makers, and activists, such as RadicalXChange or New America.
With the exception of the Green New Deal and a few other proposals, Congress has paid little attention to climate change, a far greater existential crisis than COVID-19. “Stay-at-home” requirements lead to a reduction in carbon emissions, but this is a short-term gain that will dissipate once we can travel again. But here is where the current crisis really becomes an opportunity. We are going to have restart the economy and create new jobs, and many of those jobs could be “green.” We might, for example, introduce a 21st century version of the 1930s civilian conservation corps to engage in environmental cleanup and, as importantly, modernize the aged infrastructure. This would be a remarkable source of jobs and the basis for future economic growth. It would also be one pillar of the social infrastructure we need to rebuild.
We are in a community of fate that COVID-19 has created. Our destinies are now clearly entwined as we join together to fight this virus and protect ourselves and our societies. The pandemic makes us aware of our reliance on and obligations to a wide network extending beyond family, friends, and neighbors to all those who contribute to our health care, supply chains, education of our children, etc. Even the invisible workers are becoming visible: the grocery clerks, the cleaners, the sanitation personnel who make it possible to survive and thrive. Such a community of fate can cut across polarization and become the basis of mobilization for the policies to promote flourishing.
COVID-19 is nothing we would have wished for, but it does provide a moment for recognizing the limits of our current policies for protecting workers and for creating programs that ensure more general well-being. When the Triangle Shirt Waist Factory occurred, when the Great Depression hit, France Perkins was ready with plans and legislation that met the challenges those tragedies revealed. Are we?