Is the GOP Risking the Economy to Win the PR War Against Unions?

With three million jobs at stake, potentially costing taxpayers $150 billion, unions remain the primary targets of the GOP blame game for the troubled auto industry and the failed bailout deal.
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Even as the auto industry teeters on collapse, union-bashing continues as the mainstay of a GOP propaganda war against organized labor. With three million jobs at stake, potentially costing taxpayers $150 billion in unemployment insurance, Medicaid, other aid and lost tax revenues, unions remain the primary targets of the GOP blame game for the troubled auto industry and the failed bailout deal. The Bush Administration, while dithering over the scope of any bailout with federal funds, has faced mounting pressure from Republicans to impose the same sort of union-wrecking conditions that scuttled a deal in the Senate last week.

The hostile response to a bailout, even though some form of rescue package is still likely this week, is doubtless fueled by recent polls confirming that a majority of the public is opposed to an auto industry bailout and doesn't believe that its collapse would significantly hurt the economy.

So far, it's right-wing demagoguery 1, progressives zero in the battle over the bailout. Public support was further harmed, of course, by the plutocratic PR blunders of the auto industry executives' initial jet-setting appeal to Congress. In fact, the latest Washington Post-ABC News poll reveals, the conservative propaganda campaign against an auto bailout has even hoodwinked some union members: "Union households are no more apt than those without a union member to favor the plan, 44 percent compared with 42 percent. However, the union householders who support the plan are more likely to be strongly behind the bailout, " the Washington Post reports.

All this should serve as a wake-up call for all unions, the broader progressive movement and allied media outlets: Will they be able to launch a truly effective counterattack against the propaganda blitz, ads and misinformation spread by conservatives, corporate-funded front groups and the mainstream media? Meanwhile, right-wingers are using the bailout mess to lay the groundwork to defeat the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA) needed to secure organizing rights and allow the American middle class to grow.

As Harley Shaiken and David Madland of the Center for American Progress observe, "Labor's decline squeezes the middle class, raises inequality, and undermines democratic values."

And that's apparently just fine with most Republicans and business leaders, who are gearing up for a large-scale, $120 million lobbying and PR war against union organizing. The centerpiece of their attack is the false claim that the bill would take away the secret ballot for workers, when it just offers them another option as well: majority sign-up through a "card check" procedure.

Indeed, the attacks against the UAW are not only a "dress rehearsal" for the fight against EFCA's organizing rights, as economist Mark Brenner of Labor Notes calls it, but part of a broader, longstanding pattern of weakened unions, three decades of stagnant real wages and corporate "wage theft" of owed money to workers that costs Americans billions each year.

As Kim Bobo, the executive director of Interfaith Worker Justice and author of Wage Theft in America, denounced the Republican attacks on the Web radio show I co-host: "It's despicable that they would use what's indeed a crisis in the industry to bash unions. Unions are both one of the best ways to get a middle-class job and one of the best vehicles for stopping and deterring wage theft," which robs millions of workers of owed salaries and overtime. "We need more unions in the society, not fewer," she declared.

She also pointed out at a recent event unveiling a new Center for American Progress report about failed Labor Department enforcement that there's an overlooked value to cracking down on corporations that allegedly break the law (including Federal Express): beefed-up enforcement and stiff corporate penalties could also help jump-start the economy by putting between $40 and $50 billion in stolen wages back in workers' pockets.

But the right-wing ideologues in the GOP who helped bring us the deregulation-fueled financial meltdown also worked to create a union-busting low-wage society where real wages have remained flat for decades, so too many low-wage workers were lured by predatory subprime loans. In December of last year, the AFL-CIO's Associate General Counel Damon Silvers presciently warned Congress:

The lack of effective regulation of mortgage markets has allowed these markets to be flooded with products that are misleading and exploitative, products marketed to tens of millions of Americans who work at low wage jobs or who have inadequate retirement income, so they are desperate for a financial short cut to either home ownership or adequate income.

That, in turn, led to phony investment vehicles built on these risky loans and a $7 trillion credit meltdown that helped bring low the auto industry. In other words, these anti-union, free-market zealots get us coming and going, and are still seeking to demonize unions, no matter how much such attacks pave the way for a weaker economy.

The Southern Republicans, such as Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), whose states have spent over $3 billion in incentives to lure non-union foreign firms, and their allies, are still peddling false claims designed to undermine the American auto industry and advance their anti-union agenda. These range from the mythical $70-an-hour autoworker pay to blaming the UAW as the primary culprit during the failed negotiations.

In fact, the UAW and Sen. Corker apparently worked out a tentative agreement that committed the UAW to achieving "competitive" labor costs when the contract expires in 2011 (not counting billions the union already gave up in concessions during the recent negotiations and in 2007 ) -- but the GOP Republican caucus torpedoed the deal.

So, as Ron Gettelfinger of the UAW pointed out in a news conference last week:

"It's just easy to take the union and blame us for everything. And as you can see, some of those in the Senate who were quick to scuttle this plan want to say that it's the fault of the UAW. All they want to do is say, wait a minute, workers shouldn't have a voice in their workplace. ... It's very clear that there are those who would do away with [unions] tonight."

The Republicans aimed, essentially, to set a union-busting precedent by having the government rip up an existing union contract and, apparently for the first time in American history, have the government mandate the specifics of a labor contract between a company and a union.

All this scheming went forward even though non-union Japanese automakers already pay their workers about the same as UAW members. New autoworkers get paid as little as $14 an hour, and even with pension and benefits calculated along with wages for today's workers, the difference between UAW and non-union workers is as little as $10 an hour.

UAW President Ron Gettelefinger proclaimed after the negotiations failed that he was concerned that he was being "set up" by Republicans because other stakeholders weren't asked to make sacrifices, and, he noted, " They thought perhaps they could have a twofer here maybe: Pierce the heart of organized labor while representing the foreign brands."

Indeed, labor costs account for only 10 percent of car manufacturers' expenses -- compared to salaries that make up over 60 percent of costs for leading Wall Street firms. They were given a no-strings-attached $700 billion giveaway of unmonitored bailout funds and federal guarantees.

Robert Kuttner of The American Prospect calls it aptly "the ultimate double standard" : for instance, look at the $45 billion forked over to Citigroup, coupled with $306 billion in guarantees, compared with the Congressional flaying of the UAW and the auto industry asking for a short-term "bridge" loan.

It's small wonder that Detroit Free Press columnist Mitch Albom denounced Republican Senators in harsh, emotional terms:

Do you want to watch us drown? Is that it? Do want to see the last gurgle of economic air spit from our lips? If so, senators, know this: You'll go down with us. America isn't America without an auto industry. You can argue whether $14 billion would have saved it, but you surely tried to kill it.

We have grease on our hands.

You have blood.

Kill the car, kill the country. History will show that when America was on its knees, a handful of lawmakers tried to cut off its feet. And blame the workers. How suddenly did the workers -- a small percentage of a car's cost -- become justification for crushing an industry? ...

And when did Detroit become the symbol of economic dysfunction? Are you kidding? Have you looked in the mirror lately, Washington?

In a world where banks hemorrhaged trillions in a high-priced gamble called credit derivative swaps that YOU failed to regulate, how on earth do WE need to be punished? In a bailout era where you shoveled billions, with no demands, to banks and financial firms, why do WE need to be schooled on how to run a business?...

At least in the auto industry, if folks don't like what you make, they don't have to buy it. In government, even your worst mistakes, we have to live with.

And now Detroit should die with this?...

There ought to be a law -- against the hypocrisy our government has demonstrated. The speed with which wheelbarrows of money were dumped on Wall Street versus the slow noose hung on the auto companies' necks is reprehensible. Some of those same banks we bailed out are now saying they won't extend credit to auto dealers. Wasn't that why we gave them the money? To loosen credit?

Where's your tight grip on those funds, senators? Where's your micromanaging of the wages in banking? Or do you just enjoy having your hands around blue-collared throats?

No matter what the president does, history will not forget this: At our nation's most uncertain hour, you senators stood ready to plunge hundreds of thousands of American families into oblivion. Leave them unemployed, with no health care, on public assistance. And you were willing to put our nation's security at risk -- by squashing the manufacturing base we must have in times of war.

And why? So you could stand on some phony principle? Crush a union? Play to your base? How is our nation better off today now that you kept $14 billion in the treasury? Are you going to balance the budget with that?

Don't make us laugh.

Kill the car, kill the country...

Art Levine co-hosts the "D'Antoni and Levine Show" with Huffington Post blogger and Portland broadcaster Tom D'Antoni every Thursday at 5:30 p.m., EST.

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