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The Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act would force employers to the bargaining table if the union has the support of a majority of employees and the employer interferes with the union election. (Photo: J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

The Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act would force employers to the bargaining table if the union has the support of a majority of employees and the employer interferes with the union election. (Photo: J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

Government Can Be the Solution: Eight Lessons From the Pandemic

Lesson 1: Essential workers deserve far better.

Robert Reich

 by RobertReich.org

Maybe it's wishful thinking to declare the pandemic over in the US, and presumptuous to conclude what lessons we've learned from it. So consider this list a first draft.

1.  Workers are always essential.

We couldn't have survived without millions of warehouse, delivery, grocery, and hospital workers literally risking their lives. Yet most of these workers are paid squat. Amazon touts its $15 minimum wage but it totals only about $30,000 a year. Most essential workers still don't have health insurance or paid leave. Many of their employers (including Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk, to take but two examples) didn't give them the personal protective equipment they needed.

Lesson: Essential workers deserve far better.

2.  Healthcare is a basic right.

You know how you got your vaccine without paying a dime? That's how all health care could be. Yet too many Americans who contracted Covid-19 got walloped with humongous hospital bills. By mid-2020, about 3.3 million people had lost employer-sponsored coverage, and the number of uninsured increased by 1.9 million. Research by the Urban Institute found that people with chronic disease, Black Americans, and low-income children were most likely to have delayed or forgone care during the pandemic.

Lesson: America must insure everyone.

3.  Conspiracy theories can be deadly.

Last June, about 1 in 4 Americans believed the pandemic was "definitely" or "probably" created intentionally, according to a Pew Research Center survey. Other conspiracy theories have caused some people to avoid wearing masks or getting vaccinated, causing unnecessary illness or death.

Lesson: An informed public is essential. Some of the responsibility falls on all of us. Some of it on Facebook, Twitter and other platforms that allowed such misinformation to flourish.

4.  The stock market isn't the economy.

The stock market rose throughout the pandemic, lifting the wealth of the richest 1 percent who own half of all stock owned by Americans. Meanwhile, from March 2020 to February 2021, 80 million in the US lost their jobs. Between June and November 2020, nearly 8 million Americans fell into poverty. Black and Latino adults were more than twice as likely as white adults to report not having enough to eat: 16 percent each for Black and Latino adults, compared to 6 percent of white adults.

Lesson: Stop using the stock market as a measure of economic wellbeing. Look instead at the percentage of Americans who are working, and their median pay.

5.  Wages are too low to get by on.

Most Americans live paycheck to paycheck. So once the pandemic hit, many didn't have any savings to fall back on. Conservative lawmakers complain that the extra $300 a week unemployment benefit Congress enacted in March discourages people from working. What's really discouraging them is lack of childcare and lousy wages.

Lesson: Raise the minimum wage, strengthen labor unions, provide universal childcare, and push companies to share profits with their workers.

6.  Remote work is now baked into the economy.

The percentage of workers punching in from home hit a high of 70% in April 2020. A majority continue to work remotely. Some 40 percent want to continue working from home.

Two lessons: Companies will have to adjust. And much commercial real estate will remain vacant. Why not convert it into affordable housing?.

7.  Billionaires aren't the answer.

The combined wealth of America's 657 billionaires grew by $1.3 trillion—or 44.6%—during the pandemic. Jeff Bezos, with $183.9 billion, became the richest man in the US and the world. Larry Page, cofounder of Google, added $11.8 billion to his $94.3 billion fortune, and Sergey Brin, Google's other cofounder, added $11.4 billion. Yet billionaire's taxes are lower than ever. Wealthy Americans today pay one-sixth the rate of taxes their counterparts paid in 1953.

Lesson: To afford everything the nation needs, raise taxes at the top.

8.  Government can be the solution.

Ronald Reagan's famous quip—"Government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem"—can now officially be retired. Trump's "Operation Warp Speed" succeeded in readying vaccines faster than most experts thought possible, and Biden got it into more arms more quickly than any vaccination program in history.

Furthermore, the $900 billion in aid Congress passed in late December prevented millions from losing unemployment benefits and helped sustain the recovery when it was faltering. The $1.9 trillion that Democrats pushed through Congress in March will help the US achieve something it failed to achieve after the 2008-09 recession: a robust recovery.

Lesson: Government must play an active role solving other fundamental problems—ending poverty, reducing inequality, battling climate change, and fighting systemic racism.


This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 License.
Robert Reich

Robert Reich

Robert Reich, is the Chancellor’s Professor of Public Policy at the University of California, Berkeley, and a senior fellow at the Blum Center for Developing Economies. He served as secretary of labor in the Clinton administration, for which Time magazine named him one of the 10 most effective cabinet secretaries of the twentieth century. His book include:  "Aftershock" (2011), "The Work of Nations" (1992), "Beyond Outrage" (2012) and, "Saving Capitalism" (2016). He is also a founding editor of The American Prospect magazine, former chairman of Common Cause, a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and co-creator of the award-winning documentary, "Inequality For All." Reich's newest book is "The Common Good" (2019). He's co-creator of the Netflix original documentary "Saving Capitalism," which is streaming now.

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