As rage against AIG, the recipient of $170 billion in bailout funds, roiled the nation, CEO Edward Liddy insisted that he simply cannot “retain the best and brightest” without paying $165 million in bonuses, many above $1 million, to employees in the company’s financial products division. And what did this brain trust do to merit such perks? They helped wreck the global economy and destroyed prosperity for millions. Meanwhile, across the class gap, American workers who actually make real goods, provide real services and create real wealth continue to toil for declining wages, with little to no job security, health insurance or retirement benefits.
With such (perverse) incentives, it’s no wonder that concentrations of wealth in America approach Gilded Age levels; nor is it any mystery why we’re facing the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. America has become a nation of Wal-Mart wages for the many and private jets for the few. Wage stagnation has been so severe that working Americans extracted disastrous amounts of equity from their homes and ran up credit card bills just to maintain their standard of living. In large part, this untenable class gap widened because private sector unionization, now just 7.6 percent, was crushed as a counterforce to corporate greed.
Fortunately, Congress has a historic opportunity to address this root cause of the recession, not by clawing back AIG’s bonuses (though that would be just) but by passing the Employee Free Choice Act. Reintroduced March 10, EFCA would make it far easier for workers to form a union and negotiate a contract, free of the worst forms of employer intimidation. But key senators have shrunk from their support for the bill, and the administration has yet to make a full-court press for EFCA.
Unquestionably, the White House and the Senate are under a relentless assault from a powerhouse opposition, led by Wal-Mart, the US Chamber of Commerce and the Heritage Foundation, which hired a fellow three years ago to issue weekly white papers on the dangers of union power. In a particularly unseemly twist, major bailout recipients AIG, Bank of America ($45 billion) and Citigroup ($45 billion) have joined the attack team.
But the opposition’s propaganda campaign is built on canards. They claim that EFCA will do away with secret ballot elections; but it merely shifts the choice of how to pick a union from management to workers. They claim that increased unionization will destroy jobs; but countries like Britain, Sweden and Ireland have historically had high union density and low unemployment. Make no mistake: the corporate class is fighting to preserve Wal-Mart America–its right to pay poverty wages, to forbid meal breaks, to force “associates” to work off the clock and to terrorize anyone who breathes the word “union.” It well knows that the tiny staff at the Labor Department can’t stop systemic labor-law violations, and even the mighty Treasury can’t rein in executive pay. Labor unions just might do both. They are not only watchdogs for workers’ rights; they facilitate the redistribution of wealth.
In this climate of crisis, it would be foolish for Democrats to retreat from the one piece of legislation that could rebalance this disastrous economic formula. Moreover, as Karl Rove no doubt knows, a rebounding labor movement increases the odds for winning a progressive majority in Congress for years to come. A Democratic surrender on EFCA would be a moral outrage–and political self-sabotage.