The Job Market Is Strong — but Not Strong Enough to Chip Away at Corporate Profits

Thanks to COVID-related developments like expanded unemployment insurance, US workers have seen wages increase. But corporate profits have grown even more — meaning labor’s share of the economic pie is still small compared to its 20th-century peak.

United Auto Workers Local 450 members on strike at the John Deere Des Moines Works, in Ankeny, Iowa, on October 20, 2021. (US Department of Agriculture / Flickr)

As the country’s CEOs complain of labor shortages and fearmonger about inflation, it’s becoming commonplace to observe that America’s workers are doing relatively well by conventional measures. On the heels of an economic contraction that began by annihilating over 20 million jobs, unemployment is down, wages are up by nearly 5 percent over the past year, and Americans have more money in their savings accounts than they’ve had in a generation.

The flipside is that big business, for all the whining of its powerful lobbies, is actually doing even better, with corporate profits now reaching levels not seen since the 1950s. Those profits are up a whopping 37 percent since last year, according to data released last month from the Department of Commerce — a staggering figure given the economic devastation wrought by COVID-19. Worker compensation is up too: some 12 percent, as per reporting from Bloomberg News.

At face value, it all paints a pretty rosy picture of US capitalism and appears to vindicate one of its animating myths: profits are up, but workers are also getting paid more. Unemployment is down, and concerns about inflation notwithstanding, labor and capital alike seem engaged in an enterprise for mutual benefit. It’s a tidy little story, and also one that misrepresents both America’s current economic picture and the developments that have led to it.

First and foremost, it’s incorrect to assume that corporate profits and improved conditions for workers are directly correlated. Labor’s overall share of America’s total economic output is still dramatically lower than it consistently was between the late 1940s and the early 2000s. Jobs may be easier to come by, and wages may be up, but it’s difficult to imagine either happening without the infusion of pandemic benefits and direct cash payments to workers — both of which compelled employers to offer more money and gave workers more bargaining power (those payments are also the major reason that many Americans have been able to save more and hold more disposable income). As the recent John Deere strike illustrates, workers who have increased their wages most dramatically have done so less by waiting for profits to trickle down than by withholding their labor and claiming a bigger share — that is, through direct confrontation with capital rather than alignment with it.

Second, outside the conventional economic metrics, the outlook still looks grim. A recent study by the Brookings Institution defines a low-wage worker as someone who earns less than $16 an hour. Viewed in relation to this standard, some 44 percent of American workers are low-wage. Even this, of course, is setting the bar incredibly low. The National Low Income Housing Coalition estimates the average worker needs to make $20.40/hour or $40,800 a year to make rent on a one-bedroom apartment. Prior to COVID, half of American renters were spending at least a third of their income on housing, and one 2019 survey found that the poorest fifth of households spends nearly 13 percent of their incomes on water and sanitation. (Both figures have likely worsened amid the pandemic.) Tens of millions of Americans, meanwhile, have no health insurance to speak of.

Notably, then, America’s workers will need to gain a whole lot more before many achieve basic dignity or economic security. But most importantly of all, the country’s current economic outlook — an outlook characterized by new jobs and higher wages — is largely the result of direct economic stimulus and increased worker power. During the mid-1950s, the last time corporate America boasted profits this large, union density reached a remarkable 35 percent at peak compared with less than 11 percent as of last year. At that time, labor’s share of the economic pie unsurprisingly also hit its apogee.

Thanks to unemployment benefits and a series of unprecedented cash injections, American workers have indeed seen their wages and bargaining power increase. But barring a longer-term shift in the balance of power between them and their employers, these gains could end up being eaten by capital — and an economic model that relentlessly privileges its interests.