Workingman's Blues: In the Bush Era, Labor Day Leaves Little Cause for Celebration
Labor Day came and went inauspiciously, as President Bush traveled to Ohio, dressed himself in union drag, and explained that he would continue to create jobs for working people by giving massive tax cuts to their bosses. The hypocrisy of this president donning a union windbreaker easily outstrips his earlier presumption in wearing a military flight jacket. Bush's entire political career has been one long sneer at organized labor, and from his administration's first moments, when it overturned workplace ergonomic rules developed painfully over 10 years, to its current assault on overtime pay, he has been unapologetically opposed to the best interests of working people.
There are other aspects to the president's plan to revive the economy: he's told Commerce Secretary Donald Evans (master of the bottomless campaign kitty) to hire a new assistant for manufacturing affairs, and Treasury Secretary John Snow is jawboning the Chinese on currency policy. Since the Chinese are paying 25 cents an hour (or, to prison inmates, nothing) for exported American jobs, no doubt lobbying on currency policy will turn the tide.
The president did acknowledge that the U.S. has lost "thousands of jobs in manufacturing." Bush was being far too modest; manufacturing job losses account for 2.4 million of the 2.7 million nonfarm jobs lost since he took office. Evans' new assistant had better be crackerjack, indeed.
A few days earlier, Bush had made clear what he really thinks of workers, announcing that he would limit next year's raise for 1.8 million federal employees to 2%, because the scheduled higher raises would cost an additional $11 billion. "Such cost increases would threaten our efforts against terrorism, or force deep cuts in discretionary spending or federal employment, to stay within budget," Bush said. "Neither outcome is acceptable." Eleven billion dollars -- that might seem like a lot, until you compare it to the (acknowledged) costs of our glorious victory in Iraq, currently at $4 billion a month with a bullet. Yet another way to calculate $11 billion is as a half-dozen Halliburton contracts -- it certainly wouldn't do to threaten those "efforts against terrorism."
The Bush administration abruptly discovers fiscal responsibility whenever federal money might be headed toward the bank accounts of working families. Even at $11 billion a year for 10 years, that foreclosed raise would top out at $110 billion. Over that same period, according to a study by Citizens for Tax Justice, the Bush tax cuts will mean that the very wealthiest Americans -- the top 1% of all taxpayers -- will get $477 billion in tax breaks, an average of $342,000 each for a grand total of 1.4 million taxpayers. Maybe some of those fortunate few are among the 2.7 million who lost their jobs over the last three years, but somehow I doubt it.
Closer to home, there was an odd moment just prior to the final adjournment of the rump Texas Senate last week, as Todd Staples, R-Palestine, recited the honored list of Senate staff members planning to retire as of Sept. 1. The count was more than a dozen, prompting Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst to exclaim, "Now that I hear that list, I'm wondering, 'What will we do without them?' Is it too late to change the law?"
Sine Die for State Employees
There was an awkward silence in the wake of Dewhurst's rhetorical question, since "the law" he spoke of was part of the budget-slashing package pushed so energetically this spring by the Republican majority. In order to help save $10 billion without "raising taxes" (at least in name), the Legislature cut thousands of government jobs, mostly by "reorganizing" them out of existence, but partly by encouraging long-time state employees to accept incentive bonuses for early retirement. Now that the chickens, so to speak, were leaving the roost, it was hardly good form for the Lite Guv to remind the senators that they had helped kick them out the door.
It's possible that the Senate, which has accomplished precious little since June, can get along quite well without several of its most experienced employees. But since state studies have repeatedly demonstrated that it costs much more to recruit and train new employees than it does to keep the experienced hands, in the long run this latest maneuver is unlikely to save much money. In the short run, we'll spend more money breaking in new employees across the agencies, services will be delivered more inefficiently, and state employees will have learned yet another lesson about what little value elected officials place on their work.
Labor Day annually highlights the American ambivalence about the value and importance of our collective employments, as epitomized by the president giving lip service to working people while his core economic policies eviscerate job protections and financial firewalls that took nearly a century to put in place. It didn't begin with Bush, of course; real wages have been steadily eroding since the Seventies, and although "productivity" -- the ratio of value produced to its cost -- has also burgeoned during that period, most workers have not shared fairly in the bounty they have created. According to Mark Weisbrot of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, over the past 30 years U.S. productivity has grown 66%, and during the same period, "the wage of the typical employee -- the median wage -- has grown only 7%." There's no mystery about where that excess value is going; it's going into the pockets of the same employers who are the primary beneficiaries of the Bush economic plan, and who have been eagerly exporting U.S. jobs at every drop of a "trade barrier."
John Henry's Hammer
Current newspapers are full of vague portents of economic recovery and also of cheerful advice about weathering job loss and finding comfort in the new economy of serial unemployment. Perhaps some of that $477 billion will find its way down into new productive investment; maybe John Snow will convince the Chinese to send a few minimum-wage jobs back stateside. But come next Labor Day, it would be much more heartening to see American workers -- and American voters -- demanding more than lip service to economic justice, and requiring that our politicians begin to serve the public good before the private interest.