The Blog

Rebuilding the Labor Movement

There is really only one institution that represents the democratically determined voice of the people in economic matters and that is the labor movement.
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Prostrating himself before the rich, manipulating rules of free enterprise to benefit the few at the top, President Bush has bungled America's economy the way he did most of the businesses he managed before taking political office. Now, he's pushing a stimulus package that's essentially hush money -- some cash intended to mollify and silence the middle class.

It won't, however, provide immediate help to those most in need -- the poor desperate for a few more food stamps or the unemployed seeking an extension of unemployment compensation -- the very sort of aid that the Congressional Budget Office ranked as more effective than tax rebates for stimulating the economy.

In addition, Bush's plan, the one he pushed in his State of the Union address Monday night, won't accomplish any long-term, significant goals for this country. The kind of objectives that President Franklin D. Roosevelt set with his Works Progress Administration. The WPA employed people. They constructed public structures that can still be seen today across America. They added enduring value to this country. The combined effect of employment and construction stimulated the economy.

It wasn't a quick fix. But the Congressional Budget Office doesn't believe the tax rebates will be quick, possibly arriving in citizens' hands in July, or necessarily a fix.

This, really, is nothing more than a contemptible attempt to repair the deep damage done by 30 years of bad economic policies. The Reagan/Bush economic practices have shredded the social safety nets that were so carefully crafted over the post war progressive era, from FDR's New Deal through the Civil Rights Act and Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty.

The worst excesses of the past, those that FDR railed against, those that separated working people from the truly wealthy, have grown exponentially.

As the economy sours, as discontent with the treasury-draining war in Iraq rises, and as Americans increasingly lay blame for the country's woes on the failed political policy of catering to corporations, it's time for progressives to develop their own vision for the future.

Three objectives should dominate in plans for a new progressive era.

First, life should provide a reasonable level of economic security for all. People should be confident that their basic needs will be met, where their next meal will come from, where they will lay their heads at night.

Beyond that there should be opportunity -- opportunity to live life more fully, to grow one's talents, to accumulate more of this world's goods, to contribute more to humankind's knowledge and accomplishments.

And lastly, there should be an emphasis on quality -- quality in everything we do, we build, we create, we present.

The concept of economic security is best expressed by FDR. In 1941, he said the United States looked forward to a world founded on four essential freedoms. They were freedom of speech and to worship, but also freedom from want and from fear. He said freedom from want meant that in peacetime, a nation had an obligation to seek healthy lives for its citizens.

This surely means the availability of decent jobs and the existence of a decent minimum wage and minimum level of vacation and benefits. Certainly the right to health care would be part of any civilized definition of freedom from want or economic security.

My own experience with the evolution and provision of health care may prove instructive, as I was in Canada during the time the national program developed there.

It works marvelously well from the experience of my family. My mother lived in a nursing home for the last ten years of her life, and it cost only the difference between a double room and her single. Three of my four children and their families live under it, and it has been just fine (the fourth lives out of the country). I have been living under it again since returning to Canada after my retirement as president of the Steelworkers and have yet to pay a cent for a covered service, which is virtually everything.

It is truly universal. It is paid for out of tax revenue. As a percentage of Gross Domestic Product (GDP), it is much less expensive than the world's highest percentage of GDP spent on health care in the United States. The U.S. spends $6,102 per person as compared to Canada's $3,165. Yet, the results are measurably better in Canada, where there is greater longevity and lower infant mortality

Every advanced country in the world, with the exception only of the U.S., has some version of a public health insurance plan. None is perfect, but what system is? Virtually all have better statistics than the U.S., are less costly, and provide care to everyone.

Another critically important element in economic security is a reasonable minimum wage, a priority cruelly neglected in the U.S. The opposition always maintains that raising it will increase unemployment. A few years ago, Allan Kreuger a Princeton economist, and some of his colleagues examined the results of an increase in minimum wage among 330 fast food workers in New Jersey and another 80 plus in Pennsylvania, following an increase in the minimum wage in New Jersey to $5.50 an hour. The study found no evidence that it increased unemployment. A decent minimum should be established, and it should rise automatically with inflation

Wages, of course, aren't helpful without job security. In recent years, the outsourcing of jobs through so-called free trade has eroded all employment security in the U.S. So much of what is talked about as free trade really is not trade at all, in the sense of the classical economists. Instead it is nothing more than the outsourcing of jobs to be performed offshore for unbelievably lower wages with the goods or services then shipped back, with a devastating impact on economic security. It is not unusual to see the entire economic base of a community wiped out in this way.

Many of these arrangements are with countries that have authoritarian governments, manipulating their unions and controlling wages and conditions, so that anything resembling what the theoreticians describe as free trade in not remotely possible. One cannot have free trade with slave societies.

A new progressive era must deal effectively with all these issues. What is needed is to use the leverage of market access to raise wages in the developing countries, so that they may embark on the path, not of being destitute consumers, but of becoming income-earning producers and therefore customers of their own products. Then they can also become customers on the world stage. They can then maintain jobs in the producing countries, not undercutting and destroying them, but rather enabling all countries to become buyers and sellers, to go about looking for new creative ways to be productive.

This dynamic cannot be overemphasized. Circumstances such as exist in Nigeria where the delta, rich with oil, provides virtually no benefits to the local population, or in the mineral-rich Congo, where the wealth disappears in corruption, both local and international, greatly exacerbate all the problems and do nothing to relieve any of them. If the citizens of these countries were sharing in the wealth of their own resources, they could be significant customers, making an enormous contribution to the well-being of their own people and of people around the world.

What labor seeks is fair trade agreements that include guarantees of human rights, of the right to organize and bargain collectively, that require environmental standards and safety and health standards. If we can protect intellectual property rights in trade agreements, as we do, we can protect human rights and the environment.

A new progressive era also requires that the labor movement be rebuilt and restored to its counterbalancing position in our society. The attack on the movement in the private sector over the past 30 years has had destructive results for everybody. It is instructive that the corporations buying up our companies come in many instances from countries where the labor movement's role in economic and social decision making is much more accepted as the way businesses operate. This is true across Europe and in Brazil, where the president of the country is the former president of the Metalworkers Union.

There is really only one institution that represents the democratically determined voice of the people in economic matters and that is the labor movement. That is why economies are more balanced, inequality is more contained and pressures to help the less fortunate are more sustained in those societies where there is a vigorous and strong labor movement.

Rebuilding the labor movement and, and the same time, ensuring that this country sustains manufacturing jobs will provide opportunities for all Americans that are essential to maintaining a solid middle class.

Lastly, in this new progressive era, there is the issue of quality, a word that encompasses a number of ideas. If we are to give our beautiful environment on planet Earth its proper respect, the reckless and wasteful use of resources of all kinds that has been a hallmark of so much of our economy must be significantly modified. This leads directly to the quality of the processes of production, in that use should be made through participative structures of the talents of all who are involved, including the union, and careful attention given to establishing and maintaining safe conditions and protection against occupational disease,

For some time now, the wonders of technology have led to speculation that human labor might be reduced, since so much abundance can be produced so efficiently. Still, Americans, living in the richest country on the face of the globe, have until recently worked the longest hours. Maybe now the congruence of such challenging developments as the potential destruction of our environment, the toxicity of some resources, and the shortage of others will motivate our society to look in some new and higher quality directions for the joys and satisfactions of life.

One can imagine a new flourishing of mankind's artistic, scientific and athletic talents, given the combination of basic security, fine educational opportunities and experiences, and the emphasis on quality envisaged in this new progressive agenda.

These are the areas in which our restless and competitive energies should be focused, not in warfare with each other, not in the exploitation of the weakest by the strongest, but in the leadership of the strongest in building a new global era worthy of the best of humankind's gifts and talents.