Why Fight For Unions? So We Can Fight An Economy Rigged Against Us

The other day I wrote about how FedEx has been pretending that their employees are not employees, which gets around labor standards for things like overtime, family leave and the rest.

This misclassification game is just one way that big companies have been rigging the rules to give themselves an edge, getting around what We the People set down for our democracy.

The result, of course, is even more people paid even less with even worse working conditions. And the bad players get an advantage that drives out the good ones.

Like misclassification, this game-rigging, cheating, edge-seeking, rule-bypassing stuff is everywhere you look. (Rigged trade deals, corporate tax “deferral” and inversions, corporate campaign donations, too-big-to-fail banks, Congressional obstruction, etc. and etc…) This rigging of the game in favor of the ultra-wealthy gets worse and worse.

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What the Court’s “Harris v Quinn” Union Decision Means

In case you were wondering why it is so hard for regular working people to get ahead in our economy, look no further than today’s Harris v. Quinn Supreme Court decision. In the usual 5-4 pattern, the corporate-conservatives on the Supreme Court struck another blow against the rights of working people to organize and try to get ahead.

Home care workers (mostly women) in Illinois (like elsewhere) were on their own, working long hours for very low pay. They were treated poorly and did not have any job security. So they organized and a majority voted to join a union, Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Health Care Illinois-Indiana (SEIU-HCII). The union then worked with the state of Illinois to forge a contract to deliver services to elderly and disabled state residents. Since they formed the union, they were able almost double their hourly wages and they get health insurance, regular professional training and representation from the union.

An anti-union organization, the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation (NRTWLDF) – funded by the Koch and Walton families and others – brought filed the Harris v. Quinn suit against the union. This suit wound its way through the courts and finally the Supreme Court decided to rule on it.

The Court decided that a contract between the state of Illinois and Medicaid-funded home care workers cannot require the covered workers to pay a “fair-share fee” that covers the costs of benefits they receive from union representation. This “fair-share fee” (union dues) covers the costs of the union’s activities – collecting bargaining, implementing and enforcing the contract including making sure people are paid the right amounts, representing employees at grievance hearings, etc.

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The Democrat’s Agenda Should Be: Fix The Trade Deficit

There is no way around it: There are three issues on people’s minds as we go into the midterm elections: jobs, jobs and jobs.

Since the 2008 financial crash – actually since Reagan was elected – most of the gains from our economy have gone to the 1 percent and many of the jobs have been shipped out of the country. And everyone knows it. What they don’t know is the direct relationship between the two. That relationship is the trade deficit.

The trade deficit is a direct measure of jobs leaving the country. The trade deficit is factories closing. The trade deficit is American dollars going to other countries so people there can spend them. The trade deficit is our standard of living leaking away. And the trade deficit is a major factor driving what remains of the budget deficit.

The trade deficit is our economy’s problem. Democrats need to get on board with that message. It doesn’t hurt that it’s also true.

Democrats Don’t Get That Republican Propaganda Works

Democrats in Washington are surrounded by D.C.’s daily events and don’t get it that the public doesn’t see what they think they see. They are immersed in the news and fighting daily battles and tend to think the public is informed and doing that, too. They tend to put reasons on things the public does that line up with what they experience in D.C.: “The reason voters in district 5 of the county special election in Colorado voted for Kranitz was because the sub-amendment to our section 5 jurisdictional funding retroparticle was blocked in committee on the third markup. Because it was on C-SPAN.”

But the public isn’t seeing it that way. The public is seeing “Democrats have been in charge” since 2008 and the economy is still bad. Period, end of story. (Not 2009, by the way; the election was in 2008 so they think the 2009 $1.4 trillion budget deficit was caused by Obama and the stimulus.)

Democrats Need A Simple And Clear Economic Agenda

If Democrats can’t come up with a counter to the Republican message that the economy is bad because Democrats are “in charge” and spend too much, they are going to lose badly. (P.S.: The answer is not to say “OK, so we’ll spend less.” That’s just feeds the lies and – as we have seen – just makes the economy even worse.)

At The New Republic, Danny Vinik writes in “Hillary Clinton’s Biggest Vulnerability: Her Economic Agenda” that “as we enter the latter half of Barack Obama’s second term, the public increasingly blames him and his party for the weak recovery.”

Vinik explains that there are Democratic proposals that would really help fix the economy, but they are from “left-leaning economists” and “they have little political support.” One proposal is in a paper from (“left-leaning”?) Larry Summers, who argues that we have entered into “secular stagnation” and the “solution to secular stagnation is significant rounds of fiscal stimulus to fill the still-large hole in consumer demand for goods and services, known as aggregate demand.” In other words, more “stimulus” that Republicans will obstruct.

Another proposal is to fix the trade deficit:

A separate paper, from left-leaning economist Dean Baker, argues that the trade deficit is a significant impediment to full employment. U.S. imports exceeded exports by $500 billion in 2013—that is, $500 billion of American demand for goods and services supported jobs overseas. In response, Baker proposes lowering the value of the dollar and cracking down on currency manipulators like China who artificially lower the value of their currency so that their goods and services are cheaper, boosting exports. Yet, trade policy is not an exciting or accessible issue to most voters. A candidate could include it as part of their economic platform, but it cannot form the backbone of it.

Yet another proposal is a change in monetary policy to promote full employment. This brings up a political problem, according to Vinik. The public doesn’t understand monetary policy and has been propagandized to be against further stimulus. (The public thinks “government spending” causes unemployment.)

Vinik writes “Democrats will have to convince voters that much of the Obama agenda is still the right prescription for the economy, despite the weak results over the past five-plus years. That’s not easy.”

What Went Wrong: Filibusters And Austerity

President Obama and Democrats have made significant proposals that would have made a tremendous difference in the economy we experience today, but they also contributed to the mess we are in.

It’s a fact that Senate Republicans filibustered literally everything Democrats offered that might have helped the economy. That’s their strategy and it’s working: Block anything that could help the economy and blame Democrats because they were “in charge” while the economy continued to stagnate.

Here’s the thing: Democrats let them do it. They did not end the filibuster. For whatever reasons – tradition, attempting to remain “bipartisan” and “civil” against uncivil partisan opponents, whatever – the end result was they did not deliver for their constituents, the American people.

The other thing that Democrats let Republicans do to the country was austerity. In fact, most Democrats bought into it, went along with it, pushed it, reinforced it, messaged it and gladly fell into the Republican trap.

So, with an election coming, Democrats haven’t delivered for their constituents – the 99 percent – and the public is not happy with that.

The Problem Is The Trade Deficit, Not The Budget Deficit

Here is a path for Democrats: Talk about the trade deficit.

Our trade deficit is literally a measure of how many jobs we ship out of the country. And our trade deficit is huge. It is humongous. It is enormous. It is larger than any trade deficit in the history of the world, and the parts of it that most affect jobs continues and continues and gets worse and worse. Last year’s trade deficit with China was a record.

The trade deficit is also a traditional Democratic issue. It is about jobs, blue-collar workers, jobs, factories, jobs, manufacturing, good wages and jobs. It is about seeing “Made in America” in stores again.

Everyone knows where the jobs went and continue to go: out of the country, mostly to China.

Everyone knows that the reason their pay is stagnant of falling is because people are afraid their job will be sent out of the country, too.

Everyone knows that something has been going on with these trade deals that let companies move out of the country to places where people and the environment are exploited and then bring the same goods back to the U.S. and sell them in the same stores for the same prices. OF COURSE that means jobs leave the country!

Ask almost anyone what they think of “NAFTA” – shorthand for all trade deals – and you will discover what is certainly one of the most salient, activating issues in politics today. Democrats, Republicans, Tea Party members, they all get it that jobs are being shipped out of the country (because they are), they all get it is making a few people really, really rich (because it is), and they all get that it is causing the rest of us to feel pain (because that is the result).

Economist tell us that the trade deficit represents “demand” that is leaving our country and is fueling jobs elsewhere. This means that people here are buying stuff – “demand” – but that the stuff they are buying is made somewhere else so we don’t get the benefit of those people all buying stuff. And the fact that there is a “deficit” means that the “somewhere else” is not reciprocating by buying stuff from us. They are not “trading” with us, they are selling to us but not buying from us. They are cheating and playing tricks to drain our country of those jobs and factories that would come back if they were buying the same amount from us as we are buying from them.

If Democrats want a simple jobs plan, this is it: Fix the trade deficit. Explain to people what balanced trade means and demand that trade be balanced. Come up with a clear plan to BALANCE trade and explain how this will bring back the jobs.

Do your part. Ask every candidate for Congress if they understand what the trade deficit is, how bad it is and what their plan is to fix it.

Elites Discover So-Called “Free-Trade” Is Killing Economy, Middle Class

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The New York Times editorial board finally gets it right about trade in its Sunday editorial, “This Time, Get Global Trade Right.” Some excerpts:

Many Americans have watched their neighbors lose good-paying jobs as their employers sent their livelihoods to China. Over the last 20 years, the United States has lost nearly five million manufacturing jobs.

People in the Midwest, the “rust belt” and elsewhere noticed this a long time ago as people were laid off, “the plant” closed, the downtowns slowly boarded up and the rest of us felt pressure on wages and working hours. How many towns — entire regions of the country — are like this now? Have you even seen Detroit?

“This page has long argued that removing barriers to trade benefits the economy and consumers, and some of those gains can be used to help the minority of people who lose their jobs because of increased imports,” the editors write. “But those gains have not been as widespread as we hoped, and they have not been adequate to assist those who were harmed.”

So acknowledging that our trade deals have hurt the country, they say maybe we could try to do it right with coming agreements. They write:

If done right, these agreements could improve the ground rules of global trade, as even critics of Nafta like Representative Sander Levin, Democrat of Michigan, have argued. They could reduce abuses like sweatshop labor, currency manipulation and the senseless destruction of forests. They could weaken protectionism against American goods and services in countries like Japan, which have sheltered such industries as agriculture and automobiles.

They write that one problem is that these agreements are negotiated of, by and for the giant corporations:

One of the biggest fears of lawmakers and public interest groups is that only a few insiders know what is in these trade agreements, particularly the Pacific pact.

The Obama administration has revealed so few details about the negotiations, even to members of Congress and their staffs, that it is impossible to fully analyze the Pacific partnership. Negotiators have argued that it’s impossible to conduct trade talks in public because opponents to the deal would try to derail them.

But the administration’s rationale for secrecy seems to apply only to the public. Big corporations are playing an active role in shaping the American position because they are on industry advisory committees to the United States trade representative, Michael Froman. By contrast, public interest groups have seats on only a handful of committees that negotiators do not consult closely.

The current trade-negotiation process is a system designed to rig the game for the giant multinationals against everyone else:

That lopsided influence is dangerous, because companies are using trade agreements to get special benefits that they would find much more difficult to get through the standard legislative process. For example, draft chapters from the Pacific agreement that have been leaked in recent months reveal that most countries involved in the talks, except the United States, do not want the agreement to include enforceable environmental standards. Business interests in the United States, which would benefit from weaker rules by placing their operations in countries with lower protections, have aligned themselves with the position of foreign governments. Another chapter, on intellectual property, is said to contain language favorable to the pharmaceutical industry that could make it harder for poor people in countries like Peru to get generic medicines.

These trade agreements place corporate rights over national sovereignty:

Another big issue is whether these trade agreements will give investors unnecessary power to sue foreign governments over policies they dislike, including health and environmental regulations. Philip Morris, for example, is trying to overturn Australian rules that require cigarette packs to be sold only in plain packaging. If these treaties are written too loosely, big banks could use them to challenge new financial regulations or, perhaps, block European lawmakers from enacting a financial-transaction tax.

And they’re asking, like the rest of us are asking, why in the world won’t they do something about currency?

It’s easy to point the finger at Nafta and other trade agreements for job losses, but there is a far bigger culprit: currency manipulation. A 2012 paper from the Peterson Institute for International Economics found that the American trade deficit has increased by up to $500 billion a year and the country has lost up to five million jobs because China, South Korea, Malaysia and other countries have boosted their exports by suppressing the value of their currency.

What So-Called “Free Trade” Agreements Did To The Economy

A trade deficit means that we buy more from the rest of the world than we sell to it. This means that jobs making and doing things here migrate to there. Before the mid-70s the United States ran generally balanced trade, with a bias toward surplus. Look at this chart to see what happened, beginning in the ’80s, and then … wham.

Now we have an enormous, humongous, ongoing trade deficit that over the years has added up to trillions and trillions of dollars drained from our economy. We have lost millions and millions of jobs as tens of thousands of factories closed. We have lost entire industries. We are losing our entire middle class to the resulting wage stagnation and inequality.

Here is what happened when the trade deficit took off. First, look at this chart of the “decoupling” of wages with productivity. In other words, as productivity goes up, what happens to the share of those gains that go to labor:

In case you don’t see the correlation, this chart shows both the trade deficit and labor’s share of the benefits of our economy:

Most people understand the damage that so-called “free trade” has done to the economy, much of our country and the middle class. Millions of people have outright lost their jobs because of corporate CEOs who conclude, “It’s cheaper to manufacture where they pay 50 cents an hour and let us pollute all we want.”

Many others have felt the resulting job fear: “If I so much as hint that I want a raise or weekends off they’ll move my job to China, too.” Entire regions have lost their economic base as factories and entire industries closed and moved.

But We Globalized And Expanded Trade

The basic pro-free-trade argument is that all trade is good and these agreements increase trade. NAFTA negotiator Carla Hills, defending NAFTA, says, “our trade with Mexico and Canada has soared 400 percent, and our investment is up fivefold.”

Of course, this is like proudly telling people that the Broncos scored 8 points in the 2014 Super Bowl*. (Hint: the Seahawks scored 43 points.)

Yes, trade is up and exports are up, but imports are up even more, which costs us jobs, factories and industries. What happened was NAFTA “expanded” trade against American workers and our economy, costing about a million jobs and increasing our trade deficit 480 percent. And don’t even ask what happened with our China trade. (Hint: our 2013 trade deficit with China was 318.4 billion dollars.)

How Would The N.Y. Times Fix Trade?

The Times editorial says we should “press countries to stop manipulating their currencies” and “the president also needs to make clear to America’s trading partners that they need to adhere to enforceable labor and environmental regulations.”

OK, but why would the giant multinationals participate? The point of the free-trade regime up to now has been to accomplish the opposite: to free the giants from the pesky laws and regulations imposed by governments, especially from labor and environmental regulations. The negotiations have been a rigged game designed to transfer the wealth of entire nations to a few billionaires (including Chinese billionaires) and giant, multinational corporations. It worked.

Meanwhile … In The L.A. Times

Meanwhile in the Los Angeles Times, representatives George Miller (D-Calif.), Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) and Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.) have written an op-ed, “Free trade on steroids: The threat of the Trans-Pacific Partnership,” talk about NAFTA as a “model for additional agreements, and its deeply flawed approach has resulted in the outsourcing of jobs, downward pressure on wages and a meteoric rise in income inequality,” and ask us not to “blindly endorse any more unfair NAFTA-style trade agreements, negotiated behind closed doors, that threaten to sell out American workers, offshore our manufacturing sector and accelerate the downward spiral of wages and benefits.”

In 1993, before NAFTA, the U.S. had a $2.5-billion trade surplus with Mexico and a $29-billion deficit with Canada. By 2012, that had exploded into a combined NAFTA trade deficit of $181 billion. Since NAFTA, more than 845,000 U.S. workers in the manufacturing sector — and this is likely an undercount — have been certified under just one narrow program for trade adjustment assistance. They qualified because they lost their jobs due to increased imports from Canada and Mexico, or the relocation of factories to those nations.

The recent Korea free trade agreement followed the NAFTA model and the results have already proven terrible for American workers:

Obama said it would support “70,000 American jobs from increased goods exports alone.” In reality, U.S. monthly exports to South Korea fell 11% in the pact’s first two years, imports rose and the U.S. trade deficit exploded by 47%. This led to a net loss of tens of thousands of U.S. jobs in this pact’s first two years.

They conclude:

There are many things we can do to enhance our competitiveness with China and in the global economy.

We can invest in our own infrastructure, manufacturing and job training. We can work harder to address issues like currency manipulation, unfair subsidies for state-owned enterprises in other nations and global labor protections. We can enter deals that increase U.S. exports while doing right by our workers and our priorities, and we can address the real foreign policy challenges in Asia with appropriate policies instead of through a commercial agreement that could weaken the United States and its allies.

What we should not do is blindly endorse any more unfair NAFTA-style trade agreements, negotiated behind closed doors, that threaten to sell out American workers, offshore our manufacturing sector and accelerate the downward spiral of wages and benefits.

No New Trade Agreements, Instead Fix The Ones We Have

Of course, as we reach consensus that we got trade wrong, and realize how these “NAFTA-style” agreements have done so much damage to our economy and middle class, doesn’t this mean it is time to back up and renegotiate NAFTA and others?

*P.S. The 2014 Super Bowl started at 6:30 p.m. on Sunday, February 2, 2014.

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This post originally appeared at Campaign for America’s Future (CAF) at their Blog for OurFuture. I am a Fellow with CAF. Sign up here for the CAF daily summary

CEO Pay Soars As Worker Pay Stagnates

How’s your job going – if you even have one? The odds are very, very high that you haven’t seen a raise in a long time. Or maybe you were laid off and found a new job at half your old pay. They say this is the “new normal.”

Meanwhile, CEO pay just keeps climbing and climbing and climbing (and climbing and climbing and climbing and climbing and climbing and climbing). This inequality is destabilizing our economy.

Soaring CEO Pay

The AFL-CIO has released this year’s 2014 Executive PayWatch at www.PayWatch.org, a “comprehensive searchable online database tracking the excessive pay of CEOs of the nation’s largest companies.”

PayWatch.org offers workers the unique ability to compare their own pay to the pay of top executives. According to Executive PayWatch data, U.S. CEOs pocketed, on average, $11.7 million in 2013, compared to the average worker who earned $35,293. That means CEOs were paid 331 times that of the average worker. (CEO pay was 774 times the minimum wage.)

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No Fast Track To TPP: Fix NAFTA First

The big corporations and the Obama administration are trying to push through a giant new trade treaty that gives corporations even more power, and which will send even more jobs, factories, industries and money out of the country. This is the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and they are pushing something called “fast track” in Congress to help push it through.

We have to stop this, and we should take the momentum we have generated in our push-back on this to demand Congress and President Obama instead fix NAFTA first. Then fix all of our trade relationships to help working people on all sides of our borders.

TPP, Fast Track And NAFTA

There has been a lot of news about the upcoming TPP trade agreement. The agreement is being negotiated in extreme secrecy in a corporate-dominated process that appears to be leading to an agreement that would give corporations even more power than they already have. Now there is a push to pass a process called fast track through Congress in order to enable the large corporations to strong-arm TPP into law mobilized organizations around the country to sound the alarm.

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Are ‘Globalization’s’ Costs Inevitable?

You hear often that we “live in a global world now.” You hear that “globalization” means we have to drop our wages and standards to match those in impoverished, Third-World countries. You hear that the “cost” of controlling pollution makes us uncompetitive in the world. Etc. Etc. Etc. It’s inevitable – a force of nature – so don’t fight it, they say. This is endlessly repeated as if we weren’t in a “global” world when the first camel crossed a border or the first sailing ship crossed a sea. But since that first camel countries have enacted policies to make things better for their people.

Sunday’s New York Times published an op-ed, “The Myth of Industrial Rebound,” by Steven Rattner, one more wealthy Wall Street executive who revolved through the door from being an Obama administration official after he revolved through the door from being a Wall Street executive. In his op-ed Rattner accurately describes many of our economy’s problems but concludes that we should let these things just happen to us because, “In a flattened world, there will always be another China.”

Rattner points out that many of the new manufacturing jobs are low-wage. “This disturbing trend is particularly pronounced in the automobile industry. When Volkswagen opened a plant in Chattanooga … the beginning wage for assembly line workers was $14.50 per hour, about half of what traditional, unionized workers employed by General Motors or Ford received.” Meanwhile, “in Germany, the average autoworker earns $67 per hour. … Volkswagen has moved production from a high-wage country (Germany) to a low-wage country (the United States).”

Rattner is correct that falling wages are slowing economic recovery. “These dispiriting wage trends are a central reason for the slow economic recovery; without sustained income growth, consumers can’t spend.”

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Best Walmart Video

Show this one at Thanksgiving!!

See What’s Walmart’s Business Secret? at the AFL-CIO blog.

The six Walton heirs own about 50% of the company and have a combined wealth of $142 billion. This means they have more wealth than 42% of all Americans combined.

Connect the dots: This stock is worth so much partly because taxpayers subsidize Walmart’s business practices. Walmart’s wages are so low that their employees qualify for various government assistance programs, like Medicaid and Food Stamps. So we are subsidizing the pay of Walmart’s employees, which increases this $144 billion fortune.

Walmart also takes advantage of trade policies that force American wages down. We let in goods made in non-democracies where people don’t have a say, so their wages are low, and the environment is not protected. The company also takes advantage of the low minimum wage. (40% of Americans now make less than the 1968 minimum wage, had it kept pace with productivity.)

The Walmart heirs were one of 18 families that funded a successful 10-year campaign to get rid of inheritance taxes. Public Citizen documented how these families used front groups to push the “death tax” astroturf campaign to convince Americans they average people were affected by this tax when only one-fourth of one percent of Americans were affected in 2006.

This $144 billion fortune influences our politicians to make sure this rigged system stays the way it is. The result is that Americans are paid less and less, and a very few people pocket the difference.

See previous CAF posts on Walmart.

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This post originally appeared at Campaign for America’s Future (CAF) at their Blog for OurFuture. I am a Fellow with CAF. Sign up here for the CAF daily summary

No One Should Be Paid?

How often do you hear the argument that people in unions shouldn’t ask for reasonable pay and benefits because no one else gets reasonable pay and benefits anymore?

And people in unions certainly shouldn’t ask for pensions, because no one gets pensions anymore…

After Reagan came in they broke the unions, and by-and-large working people have not gotten a raise since — except the few who still have a union.

Isn’t the lesson to learn from this that people are much better off when they are in a strong union — not that people should hate unions? Duh?

Happy Labor Day weekend. Remember that the only reason you have Labor Day off is because of unio ns fighting to get that.

And the only reason you only have to work 8 hours a day, get a weekend off, a minimum wage (as low as it is now) etc. is because of unions.

Austerity Is Dead – So Can We Fix The Infrastructure NOW?

You might have heard that “austerity is dead.” You’ll certainly be hearing it, and with good reason: the U.S. deficit is down more than 50 percent from what President Bush left behind, projections of the rise in medical costs that drove future deficits are way down, the “intellectual foundation” that justified the push for cutting government has collapsed (as if it ever existed), and the European experiment has shown that budget cuts really just make things worse – much, much worse – and cause misery and suffering to boot. Meanwhile we have two real problems to worry about: unemployment and crumbling infrastructure. So can we hire people to fix the infrastructure now?

Economists Had Learned How To Revive A Falling Economy

Before the financial collapse economists had nailed down the way to get out of an economic crisis: Government has to spend to pick up the drop in demand caused by businesses and consumers cutting back. This investment into the economy causes businesses to hire again, which helps people to be able to spend again, and after things recover the resulting growth pays off that investment.

The Great Depression in particular had taught us that a downward spiral could develop in which a drop in demand caused businesses to cut back, lay people off and/or cut wages, and of course this caused people to have to cut back, which meant demand dropped even more so businesses laid off more people, so demand dropped more, etc.

The FDR administration tried various things to stop this spiral and found that programs that injected money into the economy, such as unemployment benefits and other assistance, direct hiring, investments in infrastructure, etc., could turn things around. And then after things turned around we had all that new, modern infrastructure driving continuing economic growth!

We also learned the hard way. In 1937 the government cut back too soon, and the economy sank into recession again. Then World War II came along, the government spent massively, and the economy grew so much that the ratio of debt to the size of the economy shrank dramatically. We had it figured out.

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