By Robert Reich
The very first piece of legislation I implemented as Secretary of Labor was the Family and Medical Leave Act. It provided workers who needed to take time off for their own health or that of a family member or for a new child with up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave – after which time they’d get their old jobs back.
Democrats had worked seven long years to get that legislation. It was finally enacted at the start of 1993 because Democrats finally controlled both the House and the Senate, and Bill Clinton was president.
But even then, I remember wondering why this was considered such huge a victory. Only a relative handful of families could afford to have their breadwinner take unpaid leave. Every other rich country provided paid leave. Even poor countries: Bangladesh provides four weeks paid leave.
Why is the United States such an outlier? For the same reason we’re the only rich nation that doesn’t give unemployment benefits to most workers who lose their jobs. For the same reason we’re the only rich nation that allows employers to fire workers for no reason. For the same reason we have the highest rate of poverty of all rich nations, and the widest inequality. What is that reason? The fiction of you’re-on-your-own individualism inside a mythological “free market” — both fantasies propounded by the power of the moneyed interests.
Yet when Joe Biden proposed 12 weeks of paid family and medical leave last spring, I thought for a moment we had turned the corner. It seemed as if the pandemic had forced us to see what should have been clear all along – that caregiving is an inherent part of most of our lives, and our work must recognize that reality.
Last night, though, Biden confirmed the proposal was now only four weeks paid leave. And it won’t go into effect until 2024. Oh, and it won’t be permanently authorized — so if Republicans take over Congress after the midterms, they can get rid of it.
It’s all part of Biden’s incredible shrinking social plan, which is now $1.75 trillion over ten years — roughly half the size of the $3.5 trillion package he proposed six months ago. That’s equivalent to about 1.2 percent the nation’s economic output during the same 10-year time period. Not peanuts, more like walnuts.
I believe Biden is doing what he can. (Personally, I’d like a more aggressive and combative approach, but that’s not him.)
It’s easy to blame the two holdout senators, Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, who have demanded that Biden’s ambitious plan be whittled back. But they’re not alone. Some other Democratic senators have quietly assured their biggest financial backers that the package would be far smaller. And remember: Not a single Republican in the Senate will support any of it, and most Republicans in the House are opposed.
Look behind all of them and what do you see? The American oligarchy – the CEOs of America’s largest corporations, the billionaire class, the inhabitants of Wall Street, and the platoons of Washington operators and influence-peddlers on their payrolls. For six months, the oligarchy has been waging all-out war on Biden’s plan.
Why? Not simply because the oligarchs don’t want to pay more taxes (the super-rich pay little or no taxes as it is). There’s a deeper reason. They oppose social programs that give average working Americans more security. They want working people to be insecure. Insecurity leads to a more tractable workforce. A tractable workforce accepts low pay and lousy jobs, which leaves more for top executives and big investors.
My warning to the oligarchy: There’s more anti-establishment anger in America today than at any time in the last century. Some of that anger fueled Donald Trump’s vicious racist nationalism, and continues to do so. Some of it fueled Bernie Sanders’s reform candidacy, and progressives remain the the most energized part of the Democratic Party.
Four weeks paid leave is better than no paid leave, and $1.75 trillion for social infrastructure is better than nothing. The question is whether it’s enough. Americans want better pay and more economic security. The oligarchy wants them to be insecure, which will only stoke more anger. If that anger finds its ways into constructive reforms, we’ll all be the better for it. But if those reforms are stymied, that anger could threaten everything in coming years: our economy, our democracy, our future.
That’s my view. What do you think?