Posts tagged with 'unionization'
By Zach Carter, TMC MediaWire blogger
The U.S. economy may finally be bottoming out. But if the worst is really behind us, we are likely facing a painful period of “growth” that looks very much like the present. Without increasing unionization and mitigating racial inequality, our economic progress will prove as hollow as it is slow. While the economy may improve in a dry, statistical sense, the foundation for a productive economy has been decimated over the past three decades.
The economy has shown some encouraging signs of strength lately. Home prices have actually increased and the pace of layoffs slackened quite a bit in July. But that data doesn’t signify a strong recovery, as Andrew Leonard notes in a pair of blog posts for Salon. Even in areas where there is some good news—housing and the job market—there is plenty of contradictory bad news. First, mortgage delinquencies are at an all-time high, and the souring loans are not just subprime. Even people with relatively affordable mortgages have problems paying when they lose their jobs, and with the unemployment rate at 9.4%, a lot of people are losing their jobs.
What’s worse, Leonard notes, new claims for unemployment benefits escalated in August, suggesting that last month’s job market improvements may have been a fluke. And while home prices may be ticking up slightly, they have been abysmal for the past two years. Since many households accumulated debt based on higher home values, the overall ratio of consumer debt to household net worth is perilously high.
Household net worth is a crucial statistic and is often overlooked by a focus on day-to-day measurements of worker well-being, like wage growth. While wages matter for paying the rent and buying groceries, our long-term economic security is defined not by what we make each week, but by the value of the things we own. In a piece for The American Prospect, economists Derrick Hamilton and William Darity Jr. detail the massive racial disparities in household net worth in the U.S. While the median white family has roughly $90,000 to its name, the median Latino family has just $8,000, while the median Black family has only $6,000.
Centuries of discrimination have resulted in today’s inequality, but Hamilton and Darity propose a simple, straightforward solution: The government should establish savings accounts for children born into poor families, and fund it with a relatively small amount of money. Children will not be able to access the accounts until they turn 18, but over the years, interest will accrue on the accounts to the point where children should have between $50,000 and $60,000 by the time they can withdraw funds. Since so many people of color are born into households with relatively low net-worth, establishing a policy to use government money to boost the wealth of those born without it would have the effect of promoting racial economic equality.
But we also have to worry about jobs. President Barack Obama’s economic stimulus package has succeeded in creating or saving hundreds of thousands of jobs since going into effect earlier this year, but it is important to focus not only on creating jobs, but on creating good jobs. As Laura Flanders of GritTV emphasizes in a roundtable discussion with key academics and labor representatives, our increasingly hostile attitude towards unions has created major barriers to a sustainable economic recovery.
The legislation critical to ending this intimidation is known as the Employee Free Choice Act, one of the most important bills presented to Congress in decades, although it has been overshadowed by the debates surrounding health care reform and financial regulatory overhaul. Flanders’ panelists include Kate Bronfenbrenner, a Columbia University Professor who wrote a recent paper for the Economic Policy Institute examining 1,000 attempts to establish unions all over the country, and found that employer opposition to unionization is more aggressive than ever. A full 30 million workers want to be part of an organized union, but only 70,000 workers successfully organize each year.
“It’s always been hard to organize, but employers now have made it harder than ever. They’ve literally have said to workers that, ‘If you try to organize, we will go after you in every way possible,’” Bronfenbrenner said. “They threaten workers, they harass them, one in every three employers fire workers for union activity . . . . There literally is a war on workers who try to organize.”
Another panelist, Mark Winston Griffith, Director of the Drum Major Institute, notes that the decline of unionization has weakened the economy. In the 1950s, when one-third of all U.S. workers belonged to a union, the potential foundation for the economy was strong. Workers were well-paid and had excellent job security, which created a strong source of demand. With less than 8% of U.S. workers unionized today, our economic demand is fueled by household debt, which has left families struggling for financial security and has injected a heavy dose of instability into the entire economy.
Writing for The Nation, Sarah Jaffe details the difficulties faced by a group of security officers in Philadelphia trying to unionize under current labor laws.
But while the workers who form the foundation of our economy are gasping for air, the elite have almost never had it better. A recent study found income inequality to be deeper than any period since World War I, and this absurdity plays out in public policy. While workers struggle to get a fair shake from their employers, executives and managers evade taxes through elaborate international financial deception. Swiss banking giant UBS recently agreed to turn over the names of thousands of its clients who allegedly used the company’s banking operations to skip out on the bill for Uncle Sam.
UBS has been caught with its hand in nearly every cookie jar labeled “bank scandal” over the past two years, from the subprime mortgage crisis to phony securities peddling to diamond smuggling. But as Robert Scheer explains at Truthdig, former senator and deregulation hawk Phil Gramm (R-Texas), has been an executive at the firm while the company has been destroying its reputation. Gramm helped pass some two key anti-regulation bills later years of the Clinton administration, and was unabashed about jumping to UBS immediately after leaving office. Scheer notes that the public knows almost nothing about Gramm’s role at the company, including any potential involvement in its laundry list of scandals.
Real economic progress in the U.S. is impossible without a stronger base of unionized workers. But it’s just as important to invest in our future by giving the children of poor families an even economic playing field.
This post features links to the best independent, progressive reporting about the economy and is free to reprint. Visit StimulusPlan.NewsLadder.net and Economy.NewsLadder.net for complete lists of articles on the economy, or follow us on Twitter. And for the best progressive reporting on critical health and immigration issues, check out Healthcare.NewsLadder.net and Immigration.NewsLadder.net. This is a project of The Media Consortium, a network of 50 leading independent media outlets, and was created by NewsLadder.
by Zach Carter, TMC MediaWire Blogger
The banking lobby still holds enough sway inside the Beltway to torpedo sensible consumer protection rules, even after releasing a flood of predatory mortgages that kicked off the current economic crisis. On issues ranging from payday loans to subprime mortgages, the banking industry continues to successfully defend itself against new regulations that would protect the consumer. As if that weren’t outrage enough, the finance lobby has also joined other corporate interest groups to fund misinformation campaigns that smear unions and block wage growth.
As Mary Kane explains for The Colorado Independent, the push to rein in predatory mortgage lending appears to be losing steam on Capitol Hill. An extremely complex mortgage reform bill that is conciliatory to the finance lobby passed the House last month, angering consumer advocacy groups. Among the problems: the bill pre-empts many stronger state predatory lending laws and protects the Wall Street investment banks that gorged themselves on mortgage-backed securities.
Consumer protection shortfalls are not limited to messy mortgages. Lagan Sebert and David Murdoch detail the payday loan industry’s continued assault on U.S. consumers for the American News Project. By offering small loans, typically in amounts ranging from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars, payday lenders target consumers who need money for basic necessities, then charge them outrageous interest rates (as in, above 700%).
For years, newspaper editorials have denounced payday lenders for systematically exploiting the most vulnerable members of society, including members of the U.S. military, who are often targeted as a result of their reliable paychecks. The solution to the problem is as simple as the business is repulsive: Capping annual interest rates on all consumer credit products at 36% would make this kind of predation impossible.
Nevertheless, the payday loan industry has been able to escape a regulatory crackdown via an intense and sustained lobbying effort. Senate Banking Committee Chairman Chris Dodd, D-Conn., is now parroting payday lending lobbyists. Since payday loans are supposedly paid back within a matter of weeks, Dodd and the payday lending lobby say that it’s unfair to hold them subject to the same standards as a 30-year mortgage.
The argument is insane. No bank would ever get away with charging a 36% interest rate on a mortgage. Even the most predatory subprime mortgages didn’t have interest rates anywhere near that high. But Sebert and Murdoch go further, highlighting a report from the Center for Responsible Lending which found that payday lenders make 90% of their revenue from borrowers who do not pay their loans off on time. The loans are structured to be so expensive that consumers become trapped into making payments for the long-term, often spending thousands of dollars over multiple years to get out from under an initial loan of just a few hundred dollars.
Dodd has received major campaign contributions from the banking industry, but sometimes the lobbying effort is much more subtle. Several major corporate lobby groups have united under the misleading moniker of “Alliance to Save Main Street Jobs” to finance shoddily researched projects that defend the interests of the executive class in economic policy. An Alliance for Main Street Jobs report written by Anne Layne-Farrar has received quite a bit of attention for its claim that the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA) would kill 600,000 jobs by making it easier for employees to organize. Several major news outlets have cited the allegation, including Fox News, MSNBC, The Wall Street Journal, and CBS News. As Art Levine reveals for In These Times, however, this research relies on completely meaningless statistical trends and disingenuous research design that render its findings utterly hollow.
Corporate executives are not afraid of EFCA because they think it will kill jobs or disenfranchise workers. They are afraid because it will empower workers to fight for living wages and provide safe working conditions—things that leave less money around for big executive bonuses at the end of the year and give workers a greater say in how companies operate.
In some respects, EFCA also represents the other side of the predatory lending problem. It is important to ban abusive loans, but it is just as important to make sure people are paid fairly for their work to ensure they don’t need to seek out shady credit just to make ends meet.
When so many brewing legislative battles relate to the economy, it’s easy to forget about the programs that have already been enacted. Some of the tax cuts included in the economic stimulus package were aimed at fostering investment in low-income and minority neighborhoods—a worthy goal. But as Michelle Chen notes for ColorLines, the program has some significant flaws. Chen highlights a report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) which found that minority-owned community development entities are largely being excluded from the program, with approval rates about 67% lower than other applicants. The GAO could find no reasonable explanation for why minorities were not making the cut, especially when some recipients of the tax credits have a history of consumer exploitation. Capital One Bank, for instance, is receiving $90 million of these tax credits, despite its long history of abusive subprime credit card lending.
There have been some successes this year in the push for an economy that answers to workers and consumers. Much of the stimulus bill is designed to make sure important jobs don’t disappear during the recession, and Sen. Dodd’s credit card reform bill passed both chambers of Congress by comfortable margins and included some very strong improvements. But we know what caused the economic crisis: stagnant wages and predatory lending. A true recovery will have to empower workers and protect consumers, both of which will require breaking with the corporate status quo.
This post features links to the best independent, progressive reporting about the economy. Visit StimulusPlan.NewsLadder.net and Economy.NewsLadder.net for complete lists of articles on the economy, or follow us on Twitter. And for the best progressive reporting on critical health and immigration issues, check out Healthcare.NewsLadder.net and Immigration.NewsLadder.net. This is a project of The Media Consortium, a network of 50 leading independent media outlets, and was created by NewsLadder.