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The War on Working Americans and the Battle of Wisconsin

Picketing at the NRLB
Picketing at the NRLBpublic domain

Article first published as The War on Working Americans and the Battle of Wisconsin on Technorati.

First they came for the factory jobs, but Americans didn’t speak out, because most didn’t work in factories.

Then they came for the construction jobs, but again Americans didn’t speak out, because they didn’t work in construction either.

Then they came for the public employee jobs, and some Americans did speak out, but others fought against their efforts, because they believed that their fellow American workers were to blame for unbalanced budgets and economic strife.

Then they came for . . . who will it be next? Might it be you and yours?

Who will be left to speak out for you?

The fight for workers rights in Wisconsin is an issue that should concern all working Americans. Unions there have agreed to the severe cuts proposed by Governor Scott Walker, but still he refuses to move on ending their right to collective bargaining. Efforts there to cloak union busting as responsible fiscal policy are nothing more than the most recent attempt to squeeze working Americans in order to pile more into the coffers of our nation’s economic elite.

The origin of the demise of the American worker goes back more than 30 years. It was conceived in the stagflation of the 1970s and born out of the anti-labor policies of Ronald Reagan. It was Reagan’s 1981 firing of 13,000 striking air traffic controllers that was the shot heard around the world, the shot that started the war against labor that continues to this day.

Reagan was an anti-labor zealot who stacked the NRLB (National Labor Relations Board) with management types who were against unions. The result was an NRLB that sided with employers 75% of the time, a marked increase from the 33% rate under Nixon. Under Reagan the labor department was turned into an anti-labor department; OSHA was cut by one-third; training programs were cut back; he tried to lower the minimum wage for youths and even attempted to replace thousands of federal employees with temporary workers who would not be protected by a union.

Things weren’t as bad under George Bush Sr., but ignoring what Ross Perot called the “giant sucking sounds” from the south, the senior Bush worked diligently to establish free trade under NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement). President Bill Clinton signed the agreement into law in December of 1993, and as predicted by Perot, American jobs and money were siphoned off at a record pace.

Hundreds of thousands of manufacturing jobs were lost during Clinton’s presidency, but those losses pale when compared to what happened under George W. Bush. By the end of the junior Bush’s first term, the U.S. trade deficit with Canada and Mexico had swelled to 12 times its pre-NAFTA level, and 2.8 million manufacturing jobs had been lost. Many factors contributed to these losses, but trade policy that allows unfair conditions and tax policy that promotes offshoring have been major factors leading to the 20 million high-paying manufacturing jobs that were lost between the 1970s and the present.

The impact of the loss of manufacturing jobs cannot be overstated. Their loss marked an American shift from being an exporter nation to having huge trade deficits. And because manufacturing jobs are generally considered to provide the largest job multiplier, actually creating around 2.5 jobs for each manufacturing job, their loss has been particularly burdensome on the economy. As always, it’s middle and working class Americans who paid the price through lost jobs and declining wages as corporation after corporation ramped up profits with cheap overseas labor.

While nobody except Wall St. bankers, corporate CEOs and politicians were safe when the economy collapsed in 2008, it was the construction industry that took the most severe hit. While banks were packing away record profits and bankers record bonuses, their plunder of more than a quarter of the wealth of the middle class took with it 8 million American jobs, and the lion’s share were in the trades. Unemployment in construction hit its highest level on record in March 2010, rising to 27.1%.

Today, construction is still plagued with high unemployment levels, lingering at 22.5% this January. Add to this the deleterious effects of the intrusion of illegal immigrants into the industry, estimated at around 17% of the overall construction workforce, and what was once a sector that promised opportunity for hard working Americans is now a wasteland of skilled craftspeople who can’t afford the houses they worked to build.

So, with manufacturing jobs decimated and construction on the ropes, the wave of Republican governors who swept into office this past November have placed their sights on public employees. Their itchy trigger finger of blame is now pointed at civil servants. Their story is that public employee pensions are the reason behind why so many states can’t balance their budgets; state workers are over compensated and underworked, the story goes.

A hurting public, where unemployment is still at 9.4%, wages have stagnated for 30 years, healthcare is too expensive and prospects too few has been all too quick to accept this fairy tale. Those who want to hide the truth have used these conditions to successfully divert scrutiny and assign blame. But people accept their treachery at a high personal cost that can easily be avoided by looking a bit deeper.

The fact of the matter is that state budgets are in turmoil because of the loss of economic activity, which is the direct result of the bankster’s plunder, the failure of both the President and the Congress to hold anyone accountable, and the GOP’s obstruction of anything that might stimulate job creation. It is true that some pension plans may need to be renegotiated, but the unions have been open to such efforts. And it’s also important to keep in mind that underfunded pensions weren’t as large a concern before the funds were victimized by the Wall St. extraction.

On the topic of public employee pay . . . well, the truth is quite different from the political spin. According to Keith Bender, economic professor at the University of Wisconsin, the compensation of state and local employees are lower than for private sector workers of equal education. His recent study concluded that, on average, their total compensation was 6.8% lower than in comparable private sector jobs.

In the final analysis, whether or not people believe that the maligning of public employees is completely absent of factual basis, they need to see the present attacks for what they are — a play for power. The truth of the matter is that the reason people see public employees as advantaged isn’t because the teachers, firefighters, police, nurses and the rest have done so well; it’s because without unions to represent them, the vast majority of private sector employees have been bled for lower wages and fewer benefits to the point of collapse.

The facts are readily available and the conclusions completely obvious, all that’s needed is the desire to know the truth. The truth is that pay for the average American has stagnated for decades while income for the upper 1% has skyrocketed, rising to a record 17.1% of all income by 2007. This dynamic has created a situation where that top 1% now holds more financial wealth than the bottom 95% of Americans.

Couple this good fortune for the economic elite with the first decline in median household income since 1967 and the slowest rate of job growth since 1945, and it’s pretty easy to understand why people are pissed. But that anger shouldn’t be directed at fellow victims of the plunder. The problem is that 98% of all Americans are being increasingly exploited by a small minority who sit atop the economic pyramid and pull the puppet strings of the politicians on both sides of the aisle. It is in their direction that the ire of the American people should be directed.

Unions were never the problem. In fact, it was unions that gave us most of the benefits now experienced in the workplace. Without unions we wouldn’t have a 40-hour workweek, nor would we have an 8-hour workday. Paid vacation and sick leave, working wages, health benefits, unemployment insurance, workers compensation, and yes — pensions — all were made possible by unions.

It’s time for all Americans to join together and say “enough!” Enough shipping our jobs overseas. Enough concentration of wealth. Enough tax cuts for the wealthy paid for on the backs of American workers. Enough lying and blaming others for the pain caused by the constant squeeze to get more profits. And enough union busting bullshit being sold as unavoidable fiscal discipline!

Wisconsin is ground zero in the fight to restore prosperity to the American middle class. Keep your eye on the ball America, and don’t let any more con men like Scott Walker distract you while they pick your pocket. Remember, if you’re a working American, it’s not a question of “if” they will come for you and yours — it’s a question of “when” — and they just might come for you next.

Comments

  • Profile picture of Mary Holman
    Mary Holman 3 years ago

    Thanks, Dave, for the historical perspective. Divide and conquer, it's the corporate way.

  • Dave 3 years ago

    Thank you, Mary. I wish it wasn't so, but you're right, and as long as they can keep us divided, those who seek to exploit us all will continue to benefit at the expense of everyone else.