So when John Sweeney, President of the AFL-CIO spoke to the National Press Club the other day, his voice was yet again one voice for labor in the midst of thousands and thousands of voices against labor. But it was a speech, like Al Gore's on Martin Luther King Day, that it worth reading and distributing as far and wide as possible.
If you don't have time to read the whole speech, here is the essence of what he said (from the AFL-CIO press release):
Jan. 18—Stopping the senseless slaughter of good American jobs is the most critical challenge facing the United States, AFL-CIO President John Sweeney told a National Press Club audience Jan. 18 in Washington, D.C.
AFL-CIO President John Sweeney said the senseless slaughter of good U.S. jobs must be stopped.
Cheryl Burns, a 28-year veteran flight attendant with United Airlines, saw her pension cut by more than half after the airline declared bankruptcy.
“The senseless slaughter of the good American job has been going on for the past 25 years. It’s at the core of a corporate-driven strategy to compete in the global marketplace by degrading work and workers, rather than competing through ingenuity—competing through privatization, deregulation and de-unionization, rather than by innovation,” he said.
Speaking as part of the Press Club’s Newsmakers series, Sweeney decried the destruction of good U.S. jobs, jobs that once created “the largest middle class, the most dynamic economy and the strongest democracy in the history of the world.” Instead, America’s workers face a huge loss of U.S. manufacturing jobs, shrinking health care coverage, stagnant incomes and insecure retirements as a growing number of corporations such as IBM and Verizon drop pension plans.
What if Bush Told the Truth About the Economy?
When President George W. Bush makes his State of the Union speech this month, he is expected to paint a rosy picture of the nation’s economic future.
“But what if he told the American people the truth?” Sweeney asked.
Sweeney said Bush won’t do that because the truth would involve admitting “we are barely creating enough new jobs to match the growth in our workforce—and increasingly, the jobs we are generating are dead-end alleys. Our trade policies have translated into over 2 million lost manufacturing jobs…just since 1998, our debt to other countries is rising by more than $1 million a minute and almost $700 billion in U.S. Treasury notes are held by China alone.”
According to The New York Times writer Louis Uchitelle, author of The Disposable American, due out from Knopf in March, more than 30 million workers were involuntarily displaced from their jobs between 1980 and 2001.
“Far more than in the past, America lives with a chronically floating, low-wage workforce, one that would not exist if the deterioration in pay and training, and the acquiescence to layoffs, had not made inroads into the dignity of work,” Uchitelle writes. And just today, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics revealed that U.S. workers’ inflation-adjusted average hourly earnings declined 0.5 percent in 2005.
To stem the flood of job loss, Sweeney said the nation must reverse its trade policies and demand that rights for workers receive the same protections as corporate interests in all trade agreements. In addition, new laws should be enacted to make it illegal for companies to buy or sell merchandise or services manufactured or provided under sweatshop working conditions.
Also, Sweeney said tax laws that encourage corporations to send jobs overseas should be repealed and all goods and services paid for with tax dollars should be produced or provided in this country.
Corporations Use Bankruptcy to Abandon Their Commitments to Workers
Sweeney said some 150 major U.S. corporations “are using the bankruptcy courts to abandon their commitments to provide guaranteed pensions to the workers who have enabled them to grow and profit.”
He pointed to Cheryl Burns, a 28-year veteran flight attendant with United Airlines, who, before the air carrier’s bankruptcy, was due a $3,000 a month pension.
“A backroom deal cut that pension payment to $1,200 a month and now she’s threatened with further wage and benefit cuts at a time when her CEO is being assured total compensation of more than $50 million a year,” he said.
Sweeney called for universal health coverage so workers can live secure lives and corporations can compete in the global marketplace; for corporations to invest more in workers and less in their executives; for doubling funding for job training and skills development and education; and for raising the federal minimum wage.
The Union Solution
Working families can’t count on the corporate-influenced and anti-worker Congress and the Bush administration to change the course of the country so they are turning to their unions to help steer in a new direction.
He pointed to the success of the AFL-CIO community affiliate, Working America, founded in 2004, that now includes more than 1 million members and which has “worked hand-in-hand with our collective bargaining members to defeat Social Security privatization, and in November they helped break the bonds of ex-urban county politics to bring home a win for Tim Kaine in Virginia.”
In addition, the AFL-CIO is investing significant funds in the National Labor College to train union leaders of the future and has stepped its Voice@Work campaign to expose employers who interfere with workers’ right to form and join unions and improve their workplaces.
“If I were President, I would ask every member of the House and Senate to sign on as a sponsor to the Employee Free Choice Act, which guarantees the freedom of America’s workers to come together in unions and bargain for a better life,” Sweeney said. “It will stop American employers from taking advantage of our laughable labor laws to destroy the unions that keep our middle class healthy and growing. It will make it possible for workers to join unions and add their voices to our campaign for the good jobs that guarantee economic equality and a strong democracy.”
In July, at the AFL-CIO Convention, Sweeney said, “We made an historic decision to increase our emphasis on helping new members organize so we can build the strength we need and working families deserve. We also decided to devote more resources to legislative and political advocacy and to fold up our election-cycle model and replace it with a new grassroots program that works year-in and year-out to build a vibrant movement and hold our elected representatives accountable.
That model was used in November’s special election in California to defeat four anti-worker ballot initiatives.
He also outlined the federation’s political and legislative mobilization on the state and local levels, which played a key role in overriding Maryland Gov. Robert Ehrlich’s (R) veto of a Fair Share Health Care bill and his leading the fight for similar legislation in more than 30 states.
With Congress refusing to raise the federal minimum wage since 1997, union-backed campaigns are under way to increase state and local minimum wages.
Among other things, Sweeney listed the following newspaper headlines as signs of the times:
From the Washington Post: “Consumer Prices Increase, Outstrip Wages.”
From Reuters, “China to Service United Fleet.”
Another from the Post: “Trade Gap Ballooned in October.”
A cover headline from The Economist warned: “Danger Time for America.”
A headline from the Associated Press: “Tough Times Ahead for Middle Class Worker; Manufacturing Jobs Vanishing From Our Shores.”
From the New York Times: “IBM Freezes Its Pension Plans.”
From the Wall Street Journal: “Growth in Medical Cost Slows As Firms Shift Tab to Workers.”
And another from the Wall Street Journal carrying the counter-intuitive headline, “Wal-Mart Urges Congress to Raise the Minimum Wage.” The Wal-Mart CEO said the company was urging the long-overdue federal increase because, and I quote, “Our core customers aren’t making enough money to spend enough money.”
Finally, the New York Times weighed in with a story we already knew was coming: “U.S. Poverty Rate Was Up Last Year.” It was the first time on record that household incomes failed to increase for five straight years — and that record includes the Great Depression.
And he pointed out one salient historical fact that is worth considering:
That Depression followed the only other time in modern history when the White House, the Supreme Court and both houses of Congress ALL were controlled by one anti-expansion, anti-working family, anti-union political party.
Our country was headed in the wrong direction then, so we took back control and charted a new course that spread the wealth and regulated the excesses of big business.
Bob Warren, a friend of mine who has been writing about the inequities in America (I'll be publishing his two part series entitled: Wealth Disparity in America, reminded me of something Hubert Humphrey said not long before he died:
"...the moral test of government is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; those who are in the shadows of life, the sick, the needy and the handicapped."
Bob's conclusion, and mine, is that our current government is failing this test in every way.