Skip to main content

Sign up for our newsletter.

Quality journalism. Progressive values. Direct to your inbox.

There are less than 48 hours left in this Mid-Year Campaign and our independent journalism needs your help today.
If you value our work, please support Common Dreams. This is our hour of need.

Join the small group of generous readers who donate, keeping Common Dreams free for millions of people each year. Without your help, we won’t survive.

Protest for fair wages

Activists with One Fair Wage participate in a “Wage Strike" demonstration outside of the Old Ebbitt Grill restaurant on May 26th, 2021 in Washington, DC. (Photo: Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)

The Corporate Attack on Our Democracy Is an Assault on the Working Class

When wages are stagnating at the same time that big business is accumulating a staggering amount of wealth, it is an indictment of our democracy.

Erica Smiley

The one-year anniversary of the attack on the Capitol has come and gone, and a lot has been said about the need to fight back against existential threats to our democracy. Not enough is being said, however, about what’s being fought for and won in workplaces across the country.

Make no mistake, that fight is about democracy too.

"This historic rise in worker power wouldn’t be possible if not for programs that gave workers cash, and thus the breathing room needed to finally have a choice."

It’s no accident that workers across the country are choosing this moment to demand better. The global pandemic dramatically shifted people’s priorities—and who has leverage in a tight labor market. Tens of thousands of Americans across industries have demanded wage increases, more humane schedules, and an end to dangerous work. And they’re winning, because employers facing labor shortages are finding it harder to force people to accept poor working conditions and pay.

Understanding how we got here is critical to building upon this progress.

This historic rise in worker power wouldn’t be possible if not for programs that gave workers cash, and thus the breathing room needed to finally have a choice. Part of the federal government’s pandemic response has been a short-term strengthening of the social safety net. The American Rescue Plan provided $850 billion for stimulus checks, increased unemployment insurance, and an expanded Child Tax Credit that provided a guaranteed income floor for nearly every family with kids under 18.

That government support saved lives, saved jobs, and kept millions of people out of poverty. But it also gave workers options in the wake of a national disaster that had left many re-evaluating their priorities. Having a little cushion empowered millions to demand higher wages, or simply leave for better-paying jobs.

This “Great Resignation” is a welcome course correction after a decades-long trend toward increased corporate power. Since World War II, workers in other countries have used their leverage to force the government to provide a social safety net that included health care, retirement, and sick leave provisions. While American unions were forced to spend the intervening decades bargaining for those same rights, meaning they were intrinsically tied to having a job, unions in other countries were freed up to fight for everything from higher wages to better working conditions.

Americans fell behind because the compromises made here were anchored in achieving labor peace instead of pursuing democracy. And those compromises go back further than the 1940s and 1950s.

The grand project of building a healthy, multiracial democracy in America has been in the works for over 150 years. During Reconstruction, we ratified the 13th Amendment to the Constitution to abolish slavery and all forms of forced labor. We passed the 14th Amendment to guarantee citizenship to those born in the United States, and the 15th Amendment to give the right to vote to Black men. These are all monumental attempts to build a true democracy for America.

Reconstruction was left incomplete, of course, stopped in its tracks by those who wanted to reclaim control for a select few—people who wanted to put Black, Indigenous, and immigrant communities back in our place, if not on a plantation then as exploitable wage laborers.

"Workers across the country are putting their lives and their livelihoods on the line because they are serious about forcing change."

Even the protections eventually won for wage labor often exempted roles traditionally filled by women and people of color, such as farm and domestic workers, and continue to exclude immigrants and people who are incarcerated or disabled. Meanwhile, corporations have established subcategories of work with limited rights, such as the modern-day gig worker, or the misclassified independent contractor.

Democracy isn’t just a system of political practices. It must be applied to participation and decision-making in all aspects of our economic lives as well. When wages are stagnating at the same time that big business is accumulating a staggering amount of wealth, it is an indictment of our democracy.

The last year has demonstrated the challenges and opportunities to change this status quo. Hourly wages have increased 5.1 percent over the last year—and that’s benefited many of the lowest-paid workers—but rising prices are outpacing those gains, and the pandemic is still surging.

We’ve learned from the example of pandemic relief that a permanent, federal guaranteed income would provide security to the workers who need it most, and shift the power balance enough to help us win long-overdue structural change.

And we can buttress that by finally compelling corporations to do their part by paying fair wages, recognizing unions, and contributing their fair share in taxes.

Today, workers across the country are putting their lives and their livelihoods on the line because they are serious about forcing change. They’re out to prove this isn’t an isolated moment or an aberration in our history. Our task is to ensure that we seize this opportunity to unite against white supremacy and corporate control, so we can finally complete the 150-year project of building a thriving multiracial democracy.


Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.

Erica Smiley

Erica Smiley is the organizing director of Jobs With Justice, a national network of grassroots-based labor and community coalitions.

Just a few days left in our crucial Mid-Year Campaign and we might not make it without your help.
Who funds our independent journalism? Readers like you who believe in our mission: To inform. To inspire. To ignite change for the common good. No corporate advertisers. No billionaire founder. Our non-partisan, nonprofit media model has only one source of revenue: The people who read and value this work and our mission. That's it.
And the model is simple: If everyone just gives whatever amount they can afford and think is reasonable—$3, $9, $29, or more—we can continue. If not enough do, we go dark.

All the small gifts add up to something otherwise impossible. Please join us today. Donate to Common Dreams. This is crunch time. We need you now.

Naomi Klein: The US Is in the Midst of a 'Shock-and-Awe Judicial Coup'

"The rolling judicial coup coming from this court is by no means over," warned the author of "The Shock Doctrine."

Jake Johnson ·


Markey, Bowman Join Climate Coalition in Urging SCOTUS Expansion

"We cannot sit idly by," said Markey, "as extremists on the Supreme Court eviscerate the authorities that the government has had for decades to combat climate change and reduce pollution."

Brett Wilkins ·


Ocasio-Cortez Says US 'Witnessing a Judicial Coup in Process'

"It is our duty to check the Court's gross overreach of power in violating people's inalienable rights and seizing for itself the powers of Congress and the president."

Brett Wilkins ·


Critics Say Biden Drilling Bonanza 'Won't Lower Gas Prices' But 'Will Worsen Climate Crisis'

"President Biden's massive public lands giveaway in the face of utter climate catastrophe is just the latest sign that his climate commitments are mere rhetoric," said one campaigner.

Kenny Stancil ·


Grave Warnings as Supreme Court Agrees to Hear Case That Threatens 'Future of Voting Rights'

"Buckle up," implores one prominent legal scholar. "An extreme decision here could fundamentally alter the balance of power in setting election rules in the states and provide a path for great threats to elections."

Brett Wilkins ·

Common Dreams Logo