Sunday, February 20, 2011

New Deal Redoux?

The amazing mobility of labor
Gave us all something to savor
Lifting oneself by the bootstraps
And closing society’s gaps
Work hard and stay clean!
And soon you rise on the scene
But far more than our mobility
Has been our inherent nobility
And world-class productivity
Of our mid-class working humanity
They work and they play
Full taxes they pay
Unlike the high and the mighty
Who use loopholes daily and nightly

The drama being played out in Madison, Wisconsin is being compared to the uprisings in Egypt. Wrong place. Wrong time. It should remind us of the heritage of our working middle class that was earned through the blood, sweat and tears of unions in the 1920s and 1930s. Conservatives of that time writhed in agony to witness the decline of Darwinian social politics and the rise of basic equality of opportunity in these United States. In the early days of the labor movement, state and even federal government sided with corporations to the point of brutal suppression of workers through gunfire and police batons. And the executive branch of government was not alone. Child labor laws enacted in 1916 restricted child labor to a minimum extent, however the Supreme Court overturned the Keating-Owens Child Labor Act of 1916 by their Hammer vs. Dagenhart decision in 1918 that encouraged exploitation of children in the workplace and as a ploy to maintain low wages. That remained a law of the land until 1933 when Congress again enacted legislation to restrict child labor. Again the Supreme Court declared the law unconstitutional in 1935. Later, FDR signed into law, the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938. It was actually 1941 when a new Supreme Court finally affirmed FLSA as the law of the land and stopped the abuse. Only after 1938 were wages allowed to rise without interference from the Supreme Court and only through the concerted action of unions. Those of you who hold an image of the Supreme Court as wise and prudent interpreters of our laws need only review the history to see your error. Activist Supreme Court judges have ruled the bench for decades if not centuries. They supported corporations, not humans, and surely not children.

Were it not for unions, we would not today have the 40 hour work week nor the 8 hour work day. Safety in the workplace would be only at the will of the employer as in the days of the Manhattan garment workers fire in 1911 when 146 young women perished in a fire because the doors were locked. to keep them from taking breaks or leaving their work stations during their 72 hour work week. Management locked the doors to stairwells and women jumped to their deaths or burned in place. The International Garment Worker’s Union grew largely due to that fire. This is a time to remind the reader that unions were not some spontaneous expression of antagonism to management and corporations; they were instead caused by corporate and management abuse of power. Unions were an answer to capricious and arbitrary decisions about wages and working conditions. This was true in industry, in mining, in railroads and in all sectors of economic activity. At their peak in 1954, unions represented nearly 36% of American workers and had an influence that reached all economic sectors. It was about that time that corporate management and state governments felt that wages and, therefore, pensions had grown too large. As a result, “right to work” laws were enacted in many southern states. Quickly, textile and shoe and manufacturing corporations fled south where they got tax breaks, free land and other incentives to relocate their businesses. Unions shrank. In some “right to work” states the remaining unions were required to represent workers who paid no dues based on new laws. This was a blow both to union financing and to membership. Today, only about 7% of the private sector is unionized. Note that wages continued to fall without union protection and the flood of companies that surged into Alabama, the Carolinas and even Georgia and Tennessee did not stop their lower wage migration. They soon left to manufacture in Asia; first in Japan and then Taiwan and then Mainland China and even Vietnam and Malaysia. Once the cascade for lower wages begins, it becomes an unstoppable torrent that falls ever further to find the most depressed economies.

During this period, unions made concessions, perhaps in the hope of maintaining some of the jobs that were available and unions were characterized by corporations as the source of our economic problems. As a single example, the auto industry, notably GM, moved to “right to work” states to avoid unions. GM established Saturn in 1985, and it went out of business completely in 2010 without ever earning a single dollar profit in all the years it existed in Tennessee. GM had blamed unions for its woes when unsatisfactory leadership by CEO Roger Smith, unsatisfactory quality, especially in the early years, and competition with its other GM brands caused Saturn to fail. Failure had nothing to do with unions. Quality competition from Europe and Asia, where wages eventually became higher than American wages actually depressed GM sales along with other US automakers. Blame the unions? Boeing strove to kill unions with its 787 “Dreamliner” by outsourcing major components overseas. Result? Boeing is 3 years past due on delivery and billions over budget by not using their experienced union labor.

With the decline of union membership in US corporations, there came a nearly simultaneous, although mostly unrelated, growth in public sector unions. Once again, unions were caused and not a simultaneous expression of hatred for management. The largest single factor for public sector union growth was the simple fact that government jobs had been used as political capital for patronage and that workers had no control over being fired arbitrarily as a new party was swept into power. At the national level, civil service rules assisted workers to some extent, but that was reversed under GW Bush who wanted more freedom to “reward and punish performance” as he put the issue. In fact, patronage jobs went far deeper under GW Bush than any prior president. States quickly followed suit, except that unions were a stabilizing force that kept most workers on their jobs despite the political winds of change. That was good for both the workers and for people expecting continuity of quality public service despite varying election outcomes. The Bush model increased worker turbulance.

Fast forward to late 2007 and the continuing burden of a war of choice in Iraq and growing war efforts in Afghanistan and the collapse of the housing and lending industry due to malfeasance of corporate management and fundamental greed and…Poof! We have an unmatched fiscal and job crisis unseen since FDR’s days. Obviously, somebody should be punished for the widespread fraud and failure of our lending and our investment institutions. Pension funds, both individual and institutional, were devastated. Jobs were slashed. Balanced budgets became distant memories. Who can we punish? The perpetrators? Well, no. They are too big to fail. Let us get concessions from those who lost money in the pension funds and layoffs. Somebody has to pay. And so it came to pass that public sector unions and the real people who pay taxes were called upon to make new concessions. They did. Now if you can afford the tax accountants and attorneys to protect your income, you can still send your bonus dollars to the Grand Caymans for safekeeping.

Return to Wisconsin and Governor Scott Walker (bankrolled by Koch Industries) and you see the drama played out to bust unions and finally undo what FDR and unions wrought after years of fighting for some justice in treatment of labor. If unions are eliminated by this well financed conservative push, then you need to remember that it was unions that bargained collectively for each of us. I have never been a union member, but my pay was influenced by what unions derived at the table. Even in the Army, my pay was increased by what the postal workers were able to get through collective bargaining. If that is eliminated, then kiss goodbye to social and economic mobility as well as safety and stability. Bye to safety nets like public education, Social Security and Medicare. Say hello to the new robber barons and their conservative supporters who will finally undo the New Deal and present the Raw Deal. Unions, weak as they are, may be our last best hope to preserve education, dignity and mobility in these United States. We are moving from the justice of the people to the “just us” of the Oligarchs. Please speak up before it is too late. Maybe it is also time to impeach a few of the “Supremes” for conflict of interest.

George Giacoppe
20 February 2011

Friday, February 18, 2011

In Case You had any Doubts

In case you had any doubts about what the recent elections (a landslide for Republicans) and the continuing effects of the economic meltdown portend, a few episodes should dispel them. I think my favorite this week is what’s going on in Wisconsin. There, once the cradle of radical politics not to mention the birth in the 50s of the public employee union movement, a yahoo by the name of Scott Walker was elected governor, and both houses of the legislature fell to the Republicans as well (not to mention the defeat of one of the last ethical Senators, Russ Feingold.) I’m not sure what happened to the drinking water in Wisconsin, but the results are beginning to play out big time. Governor Walker has initiated a bill, just passed by the budget committee, that would strip Wisconsin’s public employee unions of their right to collective bargaining. So where most of us thought that the right to collective bargaining was an issue long-since settled (after millions marched, endured beatings from hired thugs, and were murdered by those same thugs in the battles for union rights), it now turns out that this wannabe dictator in Wisconsin is coming close to turning back the clock on teachers, prison guards and other public employees. This so his plan to force these employees to pay more of the cost of their pensions and health care costs could not be reversed by collective bargaining. Isn’t that nice? Not only that, the unions would be hamstrung so that pay increases would be tied to the Consumer Price Index only. And to enforce his decrees, Walker has threatened to call out the National Guard to run the prisons (just in case the prison guards try to strike). So there you have it: no collective bargaining, no effective striking, no power to unions at all (does it need to be said that public unions are about the only large groups left contributing to the Democratic Party?).

If this bill goes through—and the Gov claims he has the votes to do it—another nail in the coffin of unions and collective bargaining would be hammered in. The movement started shortly after WWII by big corporations, and sent into high gear by Ronald Reagan when he fired Air Traffic Controllers to cripple their union (and all others), will have come to fruition. Does it need to be pointed out that this comes at just the time when American corporations are at the very height of their power, having been given, in the Citizens United case in the Supreme Court, carte blanche to pay politicians for the favors they already controlled before? Now, with this complete judicial sanction to corporations to buy whatever government they please (is it any wonder that Obama has kowtowed almost completely to the moneyed interests, and hired the head of General Electric, for god’s sake, which outsources to foreign countries more than half of its work, to be his top economic advisor in charge of “putting Americans back to work?”), the fiction that America is a “government of the people” has become laughable, a cruel, sick joke.

One could add more. In Florida, the Governor there has just axed the planned high-speed rail project, saying the state could not afford it. But the federal government was providing millions in seed money, and the state had already spent more millions in planning for the rail system that was projected to add millions to the tourist economy on which Florida depends (not to mention reducing automobile pollution). And hundreds of thousands of workers would have been hired to complete and then run the project. Nevermind. Those were just “workers” after all, and in the Republican version of economics, workers, like the environment, are simply expendable.

The irony, I suppose, is that all this is taking place at a time when in the Middle East, where democracy has only been a label to dress up dictatorships, the people really are in revolt. So as we watch thousands and millions in Egypt and Tunisia rise up, protest their powerlessness, and force their dictators to resign, and thousands more in Bahrain and Yemen take to the streets to try to do the same, here in the U.S.A. the “people” have so far been mute. Not in Wisconsin, thankfully, where thousands of teachers camped out in the state capitol to protest the proposed slashing of their rights. But in most other places, the “people” have been largely sidelined by the logic of what Naomi Klein calls the “shock doctrine.” That is, when those in power wish to cripple their opposition and remake society to their liking (i.e. privatize publicly-owned utilities/schools/industries, eliminate social programs that benefit the poor, reduce taxes on the rich), the best way to do so is to wait for or engineer a shock to the system—something like Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, or 9/11 throughout the nation. And so, what we are seeing now, after the “shock” of the financial collapse in 2007-08, and to combat which the federal government bailed out banks and wall street with borrowed money, is all this conservative blather about THE FEDERAL DEFICIT. ‘We have to bring spending under control. We have to manage our nation’s budget the same way families do. Control our spending. Trim our sails.’ And what has to be trimmed? Why all that spending on the poor, all that spending on health care for those who can’t afford it like Medicaid, all those handouts to those lazy ones who line up for food stamps and health care for their children and block grants to local clinics and, ultimately, that major “handout” conceived by the demon Roosevelt Administration, Social Security.

Ah yes. The shock has been administered, and now come the shocking proposals. Not the masters of war, not the crooks on Wall St, not the bankers and corporate CEOs, but public employees are the freeloaders. Why should they get pensions? Why should they get free health care? Why should their unions get to hold up taxpayers with their threats of strikes? Why should we get taxed to pay for their benefits? Privatize everything. Bring in the corporate mavens to run (or is it ruin?) everything.

Ah America. The day of awakening is coming, the day of accounting is coming, and it’s not going to be pretty.

Lawrence DiStasi