Allison Kilkenny: Unreported

Reviving the Dream

Posted in Barack Obama, class divide, Economy, politics, worker rights by allisonkilkenny on March 10, 2009

Bob Herbert

workers4Working families were in deep trouble long before this megarecession hit. But too many of the public officials who should have been looking out for the middle class and the poor were part of the reckless and shockingly shortsighted alliance of conservatives and corporate leaders that rigged the economy in favor of the rich and ultimately brought it down completely.

As Jared Bernstein, now the chief economic adviser to Vice President Joseph Biden, wrote in the preface to his book, “Crunch: Why Do I Feel So Squeezed? (And Other Unsolved Economic Mysteries)”:

“Economics has been hijacked by the rich and powerful, and it has been forged into a tool that is being used against the rest of us.”

Working people were not just abandoned by big business and their ideological henchmen in government, they were exploited and humiliated. They were denied the productivity gains that should have rightfully accrued to them. They were treated ruthlessly whenever they tried to organize. They were never reasonably protected against the savage dislocations caused by revolutions in technology and global trade.

Working people were told that all of this was good for them, and whether out of ignorance or fear or prejudice or, as my grandfather might have said, damned foolishness, many bought into it. They signed onto tax policies that worked like a three-card monte game. And they were sold a snake oil concoction called “trickle down” that so addled their brains that they thought it was a wonderful idea to hand over their share of the nation’s wealth to those who were already fabulously rich.

America used to be better than this.

The seeds of today’s disaster were sown some 30 years ago. Looking at income patterns during that period, my former colleague at The Times, David Cay Johnston, noted that from 1980 (the year Ronald Reagan was elected) to 2005, the national economy, adjusted for inflation, more than doubled. (Because of population growth, the actual increase per capita was about 66 percent.)

But the average income for the vast majority of Americans actually declined during those years. The standard of living for the average family improved not because incomes grew but because women entered the workplace in droves.

As hard as it may be to believe, the peak income year for the bottom 90 percent of Americans was way back in 1973, when the average income per taxpayer, adjusted for inflation, was $33,000. That was nearly $4,000 higher, Mr. Johnston pointed out, than in 2005.

Men have done particularly poorly. Men who are now in their 30s — the prime age for raising families — earn less money than members of their fathers’ generation did at the same age.

It may seem like ancient history, but in the first few decades following World War II, the United States, despite many serious flaws, established the model of a highly productive society that shared its prosperity widely and made investments that were geared toward a more prosperous, more fulfilling future.

The American dream was alive and well and seemingly unassailable. But somehow, following the oil shocks, the hyperinflation and other traumas of the 1970s, Americans allowed the right-wingers to get a toehold — and they began the serious work of smothering the dream.

Ronald Reagan saw Medicare as a giant step on the road to socialism. Newt Gingrich, apparently referring to the original fee-for-service version of Medicare, which was cherished by the elderly, cracked, “We don’t get rid of it in Round One because we don’t think it’s politically smart.”

The right-wingers were crafty: You smother the dream by crippling the programs that support it, by starving the government of money to pay for them, by funneling the government’s revenues to the rich through tax cuts and other benefits, by looting the government the way gangsters loot legitimate businesses and then pleading poverty when it comes time to fund the services required by the people.

The anti-tax fanatic Grover Norquist summed the matter up nicely when he famously said, “Our goal is to shrink the government to the size where you can drown it in a bathtub.” Only they didn’t shrink the government, they enlarged it and turned its bounty over to the rich.

Now, with the economy in free fall and likely to get worse, Americans — despite their suffering — have an opportunity to reshape the society, and then to move it in a fairer, smarter and ultimately more productive direction. That is the only way to revive the dream, but it will take a long time and require great courage and sacrifice.

The right-wingers do not want that to happen, which is why they are rooting so hard for President Obama’s initiatives to fail. They like the direction that the country took over the past 30 years. They’d love to do it all again.

Bill Easing Unionizing Is Under Heavy Attack

Posted in labor, worker rights by allisonkilkenny on January 9, 2009

New York Times

Workers at the Smithfield plant in Tar Heel, N.C., in 2006. They voted to unionize last month. (Raul Rubiera/Fayetteville Observer, via AP)

Workers at the Smithfield plant in Tar Heel, N.C., in 2006. They voted to unionize last month. (Raul Rubiera/Fayetteville Observer, via AP)

WASHINGTON — Intent on blocking organized labor’s top legislative goal, corporations are quietly contributing to lobbying groups with appealing names like the Workforce Fairness Institute and the Coalition for a Democratic Workplace.

These groups are planning a multimillion-dollar campaign in the hope of killing legislation that would give unions the right to win recognition at a workplace once a majority of employees sign cards saying they want a union. Business groups fear the bill will enable unions to quickly add millions of workers and drive up labor costs.

The Coalition for a Democratic Workplace, a federation of 500 business groups, ran a full-page advertisement on Wednesday that sought to discredit the legislation, called the Employee Free Choice Act. The advertisement said that if secret ballots were good enough to elect Barack Obama then they should be good enough for union members, too.

Richard Berman, a Washington lobbyist, has created a business-backed group, the Center for Union Facts, that is planning to run millions of dollars’ worth of television spots over the next few months to pressure moderate Democrats to oppose the bill.

During last fall’s presidential campaign, groups opposing the legislation spent more than $20 million on television commercials in Colorado, Maine, Minnesota and other states in an effort to defeat Democratic Senate candidates who backed the bill.

At a confirmation hearing set for Friday, Republican senators are expected to challenge Representative Hilda L. Solis of California, President-elect Obama’s choice for labor secretary, over her support for the legislation.

Business leaders denounce the bill because it would largely eliminate secret-ballot elections to determine whether workers want a union. (The union win rate has traditionally been far higher through majority signups than elections.)

“If you know anything about politics, it is a game changer,” said Senator John Ensign, Republican of Nevada. “It is a total game changer for the next 40 to 50 years if the Democrats are able to get this legislation that eliminates the right to a secret ballot. We are fighting it hard.”

Senate Democrats have not decided when to bring up the measure. Given its divisiveness, it will not be one of the first bills they bring to the floor. But the legislation has the strong backing of Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, the majority leader, who is expected to bring it up once Democrats are confident they can overcome any filibuster.

In 2007, the House passed a similar bill, but it failed in the Senate on a procedural vote.

Republican leaders and business lobbyists say the Democrats do not have the 60 votes to overcome a filibuster. But union leaders voice optimism, noting that Mr. Obama has endorsed the bill and that Democrats have close to 60 seats in the Senate, though two remain in dispute. Arlen Specter, a Pennsylvania Republican who once was a co-sponsor of the bill, has not decided whether he would support it this time, an aide said.

Whether it is Wal-Mart or the National Restaurant Association, many companies and corporate groups financing the opposition fear that their companies and industries will be among labor’s earliest organizing targets should the bill become law.

Labor leaders say they are setting their sights on several industries, like banks and big-box retailers like Wal-Mart or Target, where unions have had virtually no success.

“We’re going to organize in the basic industries of our unions: construction, hospitality, health care, retail, food production and manufacturing,” said Tom Woodruff, director of strategic organizing for Change to Win, a federation of seven unions that includes the Service Employees International Union, the Teamsters and the United Food and Commercial Workers. “Those are jobs that are going to stay in the country. The question is whether those jobs are going to be decent middle-class jobs.”

Mark McKinnon, a media adviser to the presidential campaigns of John McCain and George W. Bush, is a spokesman for the Workforce Fairness Institute. Mr. McKinnon said the institute was focusing on drumming up grass-roots support from business. He would not say which companies are financing the institute, founded by several longtime Republican operatives.

“This issue has really become very high on the radar screen,” he said. “Businesses are hearing about it, and they are ready to riot in the street about it.”

The measure “is the most radical rewrite of labor legislation since the 1930s,” Mr. McKinnon said. “It is a political nightmare and a public policy disaster.”

Opponents fear that the legislation will enable labor to become a wealthier and more powerful political force. Union leaders see the bill as crucial for reversing labor’s long decline — unions represent just 7.5 percent of private-sector workers, down from nearly 40 percent a half-century ago.

John Engler, president of the National Association of Manufacturers, said that if Wal-Mart’s United States work force of 1.4 million were unionized, that could mean $500 million in additional union dues collected each year — tens of millions of which might be used to support Democratic causes and candidates.

Acknowledging that Wal-Mart presents a formidable challenge, labor leaders say they hope to unionize up to 100 of Wal-Mart’s more than 4,000 United States stores for starters, which might add 30,000 members.

“We are against any bill that would effectively eliminate freedom of choice and the right to a secret ballot election,” said a Wal-Mart spokesman, David Tovar. “We believe every associate” — Wal-Mart’s term for employees — “should have the right to make a private and informed decision regarding union representation.”

Labor leaders say they do not oppose secret-ballot elections, but rather the bitter two-month management-versus-union campaigns that often precede elections. Union leaders say those campaigns are usually unfair because corporations often fire union supporters and press their anti-union views day and night in one-on-one sessions and large meetings while union organizers are prohibited from company property.

Labor leaders said that last month they won one of the biggest unionization victories in years for the nearly 5,000 workers at the Smithfield pork processing plant in Tar Heel, N.C., by insisting on what they said were fairer rules.

If the bill is enacted, unions say they will try to organize workers by quietly getting a majority to sign pro-union cards before companies can begin an anti-union campaign. In theory, a union organizer or pro-union employee would have an easy time signing up a majority of, say, the 25 workers at a McDonald’s, the 15 baristas at a Starbucks or the 50 aides at a nursing home.

Corporations also oppose a provision of the bill that would allow government arbitrators to determine the terms of a contract when no agreement has been reached within 120 days of a union’s winning recognition. Defending that provision, labor leaders say companies often undermine newly formed unions by dragging out contract talks for months, even years.

“The idea of negotiating a contract and turning it over to an arbitrator who has no interest in the company or the workers’ future and then can dictate the terms of a contract, that’s a pretty reckless way to go,” said Mr. Engler of the manufacturers’ association. “This is the one issue that everybody who’s an employer agrees is a bad idea.”

Laid Off Workers Occupy Chicago Factory

Posted in Uncategorized by allisonkilkenny on December 8, 2008

Democracy Now

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A group of workers in Chicago have entered their fourth day of occupying a closed factory to protest the company’s decision to shut down the plant. The laid-off workers at Republic Windows and Doors have been conducting a sit-in at the Chicago plant since Friday. Workers say their former bosses gave them only three days’ notice of the closing. Many of the employees had worked at the factory for decades. Union organizers say the workers are still owed vacation and severance pay and were not given the sixty days of notice generally required by federal law when companies make layoffs. On Sunday, civil rights leader Jesse Jackson visited the factory workers.

Rev. Jesse Jackson: “These workers must be congratulated for having the courage, in the great tradition of Dr. King, in the tradition of Cesar Chavez and the tradition of Rosa Parks. Your sitting down in many ways allows America to stand up, workers all around the nation who are now facing massive layoffs. It’s your job. It’s your plant. Stay there and fight for them ’til justice comes, and justice will come.”

The company told workers last Tuesday that the plant was closing because Bank of America had canceled Republic’s line of credit. The laid-off workers have hoisted placards saying “Bank of America: You got bailed out. We got sold out.” On Sunday, President-elect Barack Obama voiced support for the workers.

President-elect Barack Obama: “Number one, I think that these workers, if they have earned these benefits and their pay, then these companies need to follow through on those commitments. And number two, I think it is important for us to make sure that, moving forward, any economic plan that we put in place helps businesses to meet payroll so that we’re not seeing these kinds of circumstances again.”

The factory occupation has attracted international attention.
Labor organizer Leah Fried said, “We’re doing something we haven’t done since the 1930s.”

Related News (DN!)

533,000 Jobs Lost in November; 2 Million in 2008

The factory occupation began on Friday, the same day the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that 533,000 jobs were lost in November, the highest monthly total since 1974. A total of nearly two million jobs have been lost this year. At a congressional hearing on Friday, Keith Hall of the Bureau of Labor Statistics told Congressman Elijah Cummings that this was one of the worst job reports in the agency’s history.

Keith Hall: “If I were to characterize this jobs report, I would say this is a dismal jobs report. There’s very little in this report that’s positive. This is maybe one of the worst jobs reports that the Bureau of Labor Statistics has ever produced.”

Rep. Elijah Cummings: “Ever?”

Hall: “Yes.”

Cummings: “And how long has the Bureau been around?”

Hall: “124 years.”

Cummings: “124 years. And so, that means that we’re sliding down a slippery slope fast.”

The nation’s official unemployment rate has risen to 6.7 percent. The New York Times reports the unemployment rate does not include those too discouraged to look for work any longer or those working fewer hours than they would like. Add those people to the roster of the unemployed, and the rate hit a record 12.5 percent in November. Meanwhile, the proportion of homeowners who are behind on their mortgage payments or in foreclosure rose to an all-time high in the third quarter.