For decades, the increasing precariousness of work has been a source of mass frustration for tens of millions of Americans. But the issue has been largely below the political radar.
Politicians ritually invoke good jobs at good wages, yet presidents have been unwilling to name, much less remedy, the deep economic forces that are turning payroll jobs into what I've termed "The Task Rabbit Economy" -- a collection of ad hoc gigs with no benefits, no job security, no career paths, and no employer reciprocity for worker diligence.
But there are signs that maybe this issue is starting to break through.
One manifestation of job insecurity is extremes of inequality as corporations, banks, and hedge funds capture more than their share of the economy's productive output at the expense of workers. The Occupy movement gave that super-elite a name: The One Percent.
Thomas Piketty's renowned book, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, documented the intensification of inequality. A fairly technical piece of statistical work became a bestseller because it articulated unspoken frustrations.
After six years of prodding from a labor movement for which President Obama delivered precious little, the president at last began issuing executive orders requiring government contractors to be minimally decent employers.
Obama nominated a leading academic expert on the precarious economy, David Weil, to be the top Labor Department official in charge of wage and hour enforcement. Thanks to the hardball of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Weil miraculously managed to get confirmed, and is starting to use his office to crack down on such abuses of disguising permanent jobs as temps.
Local organizing to dramatically raise the minimum wage reaped some local victories with wages set as high as $15 an hour in places like Seattle, and is beginning to resemble a mass movement.
Now the New York Times has weighed in, with a superb series on precarious work.
The Times addressed the fact that it's becoming normal for workers not to know their schedules more than a few days in advance. The lead piece shamed Starbucks, which prides itself on being a good employer, to enforce its own nominal policy of giving employees decent notice of the hours they are expected to work.
The Times' Sunday article addressed the increasing number of workers in the so called "sharing economy" -- the Task Rabbits and people who offer cut-rate rides via Uber and Lyft, and dozens more web chore-matching services. The dirty little secret of the vaunted flexibility is that you can't make a living at it, or have enough predictability in your life to raise a family.
The shift in labor markets, from an economy where regular payroll employment is the norm, to one where more of us are performing odd jobs, or have regular jobs with indeterminate schedules, ought to be the top domestic political issue. There should be an emergent political consciousness that regular people are getting screwed solely so that greater profits can go to corporations, executive, and private equity speculators.
Are we on the cusp of a breakthrough, where this issue bursts into public consciousness and cannot be ignored, the way the civil rights movement finally broke through in the late 1950s?
The mass frustration is surely there. What's missing is a mainstream national leader who will make this cause a prime election issue.
Why do politicians address these widely felt injustices mainly at the level of platitude? Because the remedies would require a transformation of who runs the economy, and of how we regulate labor markets.
Three decades ago, corporations in retailing and other service industries faced essentially the same variation in the need for staffing over days or weeks. But they didn't expect their employees to bear all of the cost. Unemployment insurance covered far more of the cost of genuinely seasonal work such as construction.
Though the Times series cites use of new computer technology that makes it easier for employers to monitor fluctuating demand for services and to reduce ever more employees to on-call status, this shift is mainly not about new technology; it's about a power shift.
As I wrote in a profile of one of the nation's most effective unions, Local 6 of the Hotel and Restaurant Employees in New York, the hotel industry, which has fluctuating customer demand, would just love to reduce most workers to on-call status -- come in if we need you. But as the union points out, its people have lives. Most of them have kids. So thanks to the union's power, most of its members are paid for a standard workweek and the burden is on management, not on individual employees, to figure out how to maximize productivity consistent with common decency.
Here's another idea. How about a $20-dollar-an-hour minimum wage for any worker who's on-call status. That would make management think twice.
How about a full employment economy, so that more people have real jobs and fewer have to freelance as task rabbits and Uber drivers?
How about serious criminal penalties for employers who steal wages by pretending that regular employees are contract workers and permanent workers are temps?
The candidate who ran on that platform would have the grateful support of tens of millions of forgotten Americans, and the contempt of Wall Street. Which would you rather have?
Can you imagine, say, Hillary Clinton making these issues the centerpiece of her campaign? I sure hope so. If not, we need somebody else.
Robert Kuttner's latest book is Debtors' Prison: The Politics of Austerity Versus Possibility. He is co-editor of The American Prospect, a professor at Brandeis University's Heller School, and a senior Fellow at Demos.