Raising the Roof on the Backs of Workers

August 1, 2011

[SubDisp Exclusive]

A new jobs program has finally been negotiated by the White House and Congress to put millions of unemployed workers and the poor back to work – sort of.

The manufactured “crisis” around raising the debt limit is reaching its conclusion and it is now clear that a national default will be averted by employing the misery of workers and poor families to prop up the ceiling. The jobs will offer no pay or benefits. They will further sap millions of people already drained by the economic crisis that erupted in 2008, wringing even more savings from their suffering.

All in all, they will be horrible, non-paying but important jobs vital to capitalism’s survival.

The drama in Washington over the debt ceiling was predictably debated largely on the terms of conservatives who are bent on eviscerating the last remaining vestiges of the limited social welfare state that exists in this country. But the reality is that Obama and the Democrats walked hand in hand with Republicans in shifting the debate sharply to the right.

The deal that was announced Sunday night includes massive spending cuts of over $2 trillion in the next ten years and would end the dangerous prospect of the first-ever U.S. default. In a statement on the eleventh hour agreement, Obama said that a default “would have had a devastating effect on our economy.” But the reality is that the deal to avoid such default will also unarguably have a devastating effect on the economy.

With unemployment still high and a “recovery” which most people never felt to begin with now faltering, Obama described the latest deal as delivering “the lowest level of domestic spending since Dwight Eisenhower was president” over 50 years ago. In other words, the deal risks ripping the floor out from under the already fragile economy by starving millions of ordinary people of the basic services they need to survive in this economic crisis, not to mention wiping out the possibility of investment toward any meaningful job creation.

To use one state as an example, Connecticut faces a $3.3 billion deficit. Its secretary for the state’s Office of Policy and Management said of the latest debt deal in Washington, “The timing is lousy in every respect. It will certainly have a recessionary impact on the overall national economy, and that’s the last thing we want right now.”

Long before the recent deal was announced, liberal concessions to right-wing ideologues who are committed to unprecedented and devastating spending cuts gave birth to White House and Democratic proposals that were even further to the right than anything a Republican president could have hoped to get away with just a few years ago.

Last week Democratic Rep. John Conyers bluntly observed, “The Republicans – Speaker Boehner and Majority Leader Cantor – did not call for Social Security cuts in the budget deal. The President of the United States called for that.”

And as the New York Times noted, it was Obama who “proposed fewer cuts in military spending and more in health care than a bipartisan Senate group that includes one of the chamber’s most conservative Republicans.” The Times added that by July “Mr. Obama tentatively agreed to a plan that was farther to the right than that of the majority of the fiscal commission and a bipartisan group of senators, the so-called Gang of Six.”

Even if they tell the story differently, Obama and both parties ultimately are united on one narrative that says the deficit must be cut on the backs of workers and the poor while corporations and the rich should not pay a single dime in tax increases.

At a time of soaring corporate profits, massive unemployment, continuing foreclosures, and rising poverty, Washington is poised to enact spending cuts that will rip to shreds the already tenuous safety net that millions of people rely on to survive in the midst of the ongoing economic slump. And these cuts are in addition to budget slashing austerity that has been the order of the day for the past two years.

In the end, Obama and the Democrats put everything on the table except revenue increases through higher taxes on the wealthy who enjoy the lowest tax rates in the nation’s history.

Even though they reportedly will sustain no immediate cuts in the new deal, once “sacred cows” like Social Security and Medicare remain lined up in the slaughterhouse, as they have been since Obama’s Simpson-Bowles Commission released its deficit reduction recommendations back in December. Social Security has been reportedly spared for now, but the deal’s formation of a Congressional commission to slice the deficit by another $1.5 trillion means cuts to Medicare are likely by the end of the year.

Last week The Center for Budget and Policy Priorities concluded that the Republican plan in the House at the time “could well produce the greatest increase in poverty and hardship produced by any law in modern U.S. history.” The non-partisan think-thank added, “This may sound hyperbolic, but it is not. The mathematics are inexorable.”

Yet even that proposal was not draconian enough for far right tea party Republicans in the House, who House Speaker John Boehner failed to bring on board to pass the deal in the lower chamber. But it was always certain that no matter how the deal was ultimately reached between the two parties, the result would be to punish workers and the poor, expand the gap between the wealthy and the rest of us, and possibly push the economy officially back into recession.

Executive pay rose nearly 25 percent last year after more than 17 million families went hungry at some point the year before. It is in this environment that Washington has settled on a plan to cut almost exclusively from the bottom while leaving those at the top untouched.

Columnist Glenn Greenwald of Salon.com put it like this: “[A] slew of millionaire politicians who spent the last decade exploding the national debt with Endless War, a sprawling Surveillance State, and tax cuts for the rich are now imposing extreme suffering on the already-suffering ordinary citizenry, all at the direction of their plutocratic overlords, who are prospering more than ever and will sacrifice virtually nothing under this deal.”

It is almost difficult to imagine the ruling class pursuing a more crushing class offensive than the one now in the works.

And at the same time that Washington and Wall Street’s naked class warfare has reached this fever pitch, the labor movement – one of the principal social forces that might have once countered these attacks – remains weak after decades of decline and a fresh assault on unions nationwide.

The attack on public sector workers in cities and states around the country is the most vicious front in the war on labor. When politicians are not trying to eliminate collective-bargaining rights altogether, they are out to make such legal safeguards as toothless as possible.

To accompany their anti-worker budget cuts and war on public sector unions, Republicans in the House are trying to push legislation – H.R. 2587 – that would strip the National Labor Relations Board of its power to protect workers from employer retaliation against union organizing. H.R. 2587 is itself retaliation against the NLRB’s recent decision to file a complaint against Boeing, which is charged with moving production out of a facility in Washington State to punish union workers there for exercising their right to strike.

Under H.R. 2587, the NLRB would not have the power to protect those workers at Boeing and others whose employers move operations overseas in response to their U.S. workforce organizing a union. If passed, the law would mean the NLRB would no longer be able to force companies to bring illegally outsourced jobs back, nor could it order employers to restore positions eliminated by them as a means of getting rid of pro-union workers.

In the meantime, Republicans have also forced a partial shutdown of the Federal Aviation Administration based largely on their opposition to a recent National Mediation Board rule change which delivered some overdue fairness for airline industry workers by no longer counting absent votes as “no” votes in union elections. The funding stalemate immediately resulted in 4,000 FAA workers being furloughed and an estimated 90,000 jobs in total are threatened by the shutdown.

But beyond these anti-union efforts by Republicans, Democrats and Republicans alike continue to march forward with their national assault on teachers, their unions, and public education in general. Obama has dutifully pressed ahead as a leading force behind the corporate school “reform” movement, using his administration’s “Race to the Top” program and other policies to push punitive standardized testing, merit-pay schemes, and the proliferation of non-union charter schools.

The response by labor leaders to these attacks has been ineffective at best and counterproductive at worst. Rhetorically, union leaders are taking an aggressive stance to stop the war on workers and unions, but the tough talk is empty, as major unions continue to throw their weight behind Obama and the Democrats despite their brazen betrayals against the labor movement.

Vice President Biden began making the rounds last month to cajole union members into backing Obama’s reelection, speaking at the national conventions of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters and the National Education Association. And in spite of the administration’s teacher-bashing policies, the NEA responded to Biden’s visit by declaring an early endorsement of Obama’s reelection bid.

Labor’s continued obsequiousness toward the Democrats leaves it defanged in the face of the bipartisan anti-worker agenda. Still, there have been notable struggles and actions in the labor movement in recent months to counter the austerity consensus.

This past weekend saw over 500 teachers and other supporters rally in Washington, DC to oppose union-busting and the assault on public education. Union activists at the rally held no illusions about Obama and the Democrats, who they recognize as anything but allies. At the same time, thousands of Verizon workers represented by Communication Workers of America rallied in New York City to resist severe concessions being demanded by the company – which has reaped close to $20 billion in profits over the last four years – in contract negotiations affecting 35,000 workers.

Struggles like these are important, but collectively they fall far short of what’s needed to push back against the ongoing class offensive against workers and the poor.

Glimpses of a promising fightback to stop the one-sided class war were seen in Wisconsin and other states beginning back in February. Those struggles also illustrated that the kind of aggressive and militant movement that is needed to defend unions and fight for economic justice is not going to come from existing labor leadership. That movement will come from the rank-and-file, or it won’t come at all.

But perhaps it will be coming soon. Students and union activists are planning a “People’s General Assembly On Wall Street” this week to oppose cutbacks and austerity. Activists are also calling for an action on September 17 to “Occupy Wall Street” – they hope to mobilize 20,000 people and begin a popular occupation modeled after those in Egypt, Spain, Greece and elsewhere.

In the meantime, following decades of regressive taxes, imperialist wars and the 2008 financial crisis that saw trillions of dollars in private sector debt transferred to public debt, the debt ceiling deal is best understood as a shock doctrine austerity ploy pushed by the political class and its corporate sponsors. Both major parties of U.S. capitalism agreed to use the debt ceiling as a battering ram to force through massive spending cuts. And if there was any disagreement, it was mostly on the particulars, not the principle, of those cuts.

It’s therefore difficult not to view the debt debate as a theatrical political drama authored by Congress and the White House for public consumption. The specter of a catastrophic U.S. default threatening global markets provided the gripping suspense. Playing to his base, Obama relied on far-right Republicans to cast him as a leader with his hands tied.

But despite all the impasse and political theatre around the deficit and debt ceiling, one thing is clear: the debt ceiling will be raised and it will be because millions of beleaguered workers and poor families have become employed as stilts to hold up capitalism’s teetering edifice.

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About SubterraneanDispatcher

Brian Tierney is a longtime socialist activist who works as a communications specialist for a labor union in Washington, DC. After completing his undergraduate studies in International Affairs and Latin America Studies, he has been working in the labor movement and writing reports and analyses on various struggles for social and economic justice. In addition to reporting on protests in the DC area, he also writes about union struggles, immigrant rights, the fight to defend public education, and struggles of the poor and working class in general. His work has been published in The Washington Post, The Nation, The Progressive, Common Dreams, CounterPunch, Socialist Worker and The Neoprogressive. Brian can be reached via email at btier@yahoo.com.

Posted on August 1, 2011, in Austerity, Budget Cuts, Corporate Greed, Imperialism, Labor Movement, Plutocracy, Public Education, SubDisp Exclusive, Teachers Unions, U.S. Politics, Union Rights, Workers Rights. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. Nice job, Brian

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