Facebook Instagram Twitter YouTube

“Strong” January Job Numbers Mask the True Story of Employment in Capitalist America

The United States added more jobs than had been forecast in January. But these numbers mask the quality of jobs and the overall conditions for the working class, and minimize anything that might remind workers of the exploitation that is the foundation of a system that prioritizes profits over human needs.

Otto Fors

February 5, 2022
Facebook Twitter Share
Red sign hanging at the glass door of a shop saying: "Now hiring".

The January jobs report exceeded expectations: despite the surge of the omicron variant of Covid-19, the U.S. economy added 467,000 jobs last month. The news came days after payroll processing company ADP reported that companies had cut over 300,000 jobs in January, and some Wall Street predictions hovered at only around 150,000 new jobs. But to understand the true state of jobs and life for the working class, we need to look beyond these numbers.

To be sure, job growth could mean the difference between survival and destitution for the working class. While jobs under capitalism are inherently exploitative, the mass layoffs that Americans faced at the start of the pandemic were devastating, and workers in the service industry and other sectors of the economy continue to be battered by business closures and economic uncertainty. A tight labor market — in other words, times when unemployment rates are low — can benefit workers. It tends to create the conditions for winning demands for higher wages, and certainly lets some workers be choosier about the jobs that they accept.

At the same time, there are many things Friday’s numbers — and every monthly report from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics — deliberately omit. For one, the unemployment rate counts only people who are actively looking for work. In other words, if people have stopped looking for jobs — for example, after a prolonged period of pandemic-induced unemployment, or if they live in towns whose industries have been decimated by years of capitalist rapaciousness, or because they’ve run out of unemployment benefits and no longer show up in the official statistics — they aren’t reflected in these unemployment numbers. A 3.9 percent unemployment rate — which bourgeois economists consider close to “full” employment, even though it’s clearly no such thing — is thus most definitely far lower than the real rate. By some estimates, the true rate could be over 20 percent. By excluding this information from the report, the government and its capitalist masters mask the devastating reality that underlies an economic system that is based on exploitation.

The sheer number of jobs also obscures the abysmal quality of the vast majority of these jobs. The numbers don’t distinguish between a restaurant job that pays a subminimum wage of just $2 an hour and forces the worker to rely on tips, or a cushy executive position that comes with scheduled bonuses and a company-provided car. In other words, Friday’s report doesn’t mean that the U.S. economy added 467,000 full-time jobs that pay living wages and provide healthcare — the numbers include part-time work and the sort of jobs that are far from enough to allow workers to live comfortably. In fact, many workers will need to take two or even three jobs to make ends meet.

And of course, job numbers don’t expose the grotesque wealth inequality under the present system. While Democrats seem to have all but given up on a $15 minimum wage and as inflation eats into wages, capitalists and the wealthy are making a killing. Wall Street bankers received their biggest bonuses in decades, and executives everywhere received compensation in the tens of millions of dollars. Meanwhile, the stock market reached record highs, enriching wealthy shareholders and executives.

Deteriorating conditions for the working class amid increasing wealth for the bourgeoisie is no unfortunate coincidence. Capitalists and the wealthy make their millions precisely because the system is fundamentally based on exploitation, and on bosses stealing the surplus value — that is, the difference between the wage they’re paid and the profit the bosses reap from what the workers produce — produced by their employees.

President Biden, floundering amid plummeting approval ratings and the failure of his key legislative promises, is touting the unexpectedly good jobs report as a victory. In a press conference, he quipped, “If you can’t remember another year when so many people went to work in this country, there’s a reason. It never happened. History has been made here.”

But jobs numbers alone won’t be enough to stem discontent and shore up votes for Democrats. As the New York Times has pointed out, Americans are frustrated with the economy, with only 18 percent saying that current economic conditions are good. Record inflation is still eating into wages, health care and child care are still prohibitively expensive for many workers, student debt repayments will start in the spring, and infrastructure, public transit, and schools are crumbling in many parts of the country. All the while, the coronavirus continues to wreak havoc, leaving many feeling like normalcy is far away.

This is the context we need to keep in mind each month when the jobs numbers are released. Workers should fight layoffs tooth and nail, and new jobs can mean the difference between survival and profound suffering. But the government releases numbers that mask the quality of jobs and the overall conditions for the working class, seeking to minimize anything that might remind workers of the exploitation of a system that prioritizes profits over human needs at every turn. They do this as part of efforts to derail opposition to this system, and advance their own interests. And we can’t forget that bosses will cut jobs and abandon workers as soon as they jeopardize the profits that the system relies on.

Facebook Twitter Share

Otto Fors

Otto is a college professor in the New York area.

United States

A horizontal testing scantron with almost all of the bubbles filled in

The Changes to AP African American Studies Are “Absolutely Political”: A Former College Board Worker Speaks Out

A former College Board worker explains how the company's "apolitical" pedagogical approaches privilege right wing ideas, even as the right wing accuses them of spreading "wokeism."

Jess DuBois

February 4, 2023

Massive Looting of Public Resources at Stake in District Detroit Redevelopment Scheme

Billionaire developers in Detroit have proposed capturing almost one billion dollars in public money to fund their newest project. The deal is far from sealed, but organized community opposition will be necessary to prevent approvals from sailing through.

Rita Singer

February 3, 2023

In Standoff Over Cop City, Police Are the Real Terrorists

For over two years, the protests and occupations against a police training center in Atlanta, Georgia flew under the radar of the mainstream press. Now, after the police murder of land defender Manuel Teran and the arrest of 19 protesters on charges of domestic terrorism, the standoff has gained national attention. But in the battle to defend the Weelaunee Forest and the people of Atlanta from the development of the massive “Cop City” training center, it is the Atlanta Police Department and the state that have been acting like terrorists.

James Dennis Hoff

January 27, 2023

Say His Name! Justice for Tyre Nichols

As the video footage of the police murder of Tyre Nichols is released today, it will be important for everyone who is against police violence to stand in solidarity and defend and join in the mobilizations demanding justice for his murder.

Tristan Taylor

January 27, 2023

MOST RECENT

The Strike Is Our Most Powerful Weapon, We Need to Use It against the Police!

Workers have the opportunity and ability to shut down the system. This is why Democrats, Republicans, and even the Squad broke the strike of the railroad workers. If we use our workplaces as organizing tools against racism and police murder, we can build the power to take control and shut them down! 

Julia Wallace

February 3, 2023

Dispatches from the Picket Lines: All Out for the Temple Graduate Workers Strike

A Temple faculty member reports.

Jason Koslowski

February 3, 2023

British ‘Mega Strike’: Half a Million Workers Bring UK to a Halt and Protest Government

Over half a million workers in the UK went on strike on February 1 to protest the Conservative government and demand higher wages.

Diego Sacchi

February 2, 2023

New York Nurses’ Strike Shows the Way Forward for Labor

Over 7,000 nurses struck at New York hospitals for three days, winning important partial gains. Despite attempts to avert the strike by the hospital bosses, Democratic Party politicians, and elements within the leadership of the New York State Nurses Association (NYSNA), the bargaining committees of two major hospitals held strong.

Thaddeus Greene

February 2, 2023