Apr 272014

onaschoutsmall  by Bill Onasch

More Than Cash Poor
Perhaps feeling a bit endangered themselves, American liberals are again focusing on a rapidly fading myth of liberal creation–the Middle Class. Such academic experts as former Harvard professor, now Senator, Elizabeth Warren, and former Labor Secretary Robert Reich, today ensconced in a professor’s chair at UC Berkeley, have often written perceptive descriptions of the decline of those neither rich nor poor. Today’s trending keywords are “income inequality.”

Even if you just look at cash income, inequality seems an inadequate term to describe class stratification in America. A recent study shows the top One Percent accounted for more than twenty percent of income reported in 2012 (last year’s figures not yet available). This was the biggest slice since tracking of these numbers began with the establishment of the Federal income tax in 1913.

The spectacular growth of the One Percent’s income coincides with nearly fifteen years of at best stagnation for the once thriving Middle. This past week the New York Times ran a useful piece with a grabbing headline, The American Middle Class Is No Longer the World’s Richest.  David Leonhardt and Kevin Quealy open their analysis,

“The American middle class, long the most affluent in the world, has lost that distinction. While the wealthiest Americans are outpacing many of their global peers, a New York Times analysis shows that across the lower- and middle-income tiers, citizens of other advanced countries have received considerably larger raises over the last three decades. After-tax middle-class incomes in Canada — substantially behind in 2000 — now appear to be higher than in the United States. The poor in much of Europe earn more than poor Americans.”

Our Canadian and European readers may be surprised to learn they are so prosperous but, as Einstein told us, it’s all relative. Workers are under attack throughout the world. But those in most other industrialized countries have been better equipped to fight back.

The power of American unions in the first thirty-five years of the post-World War II period generated a sea change in living standards for a big segment of the working class that became a showcase for the new Middle Class myth. Even many unskilled workers could afford to buy new suburban houses, cars, even send their kids to college. There was an expectation of steady improvement, that the best was yet to come.

This “Middle Class” never embraced more than a third of the real working class of which it was a part.  U.S. employers, claiming the need to compete with European and Japanese rivals, shook the Middle Class out of its American Dream beginning in the late Seventies. New technology decimated well paid jobs. Union plants were closed, their work transferred both to domestic regions where unions were weak, and later offshore. In a futile attempt to save jobs unions made major concessions in wages and benefits. And with the growth of globalization, foreign based corporations began to open “transplant” operations in the USA–and they mostly succeeded in resisting union organizing. 

The alarming collapse of American union density–the percentage of workers covered by collective bargaining–over the past thirty-five years has been a huge factor in frozen real median earnings after taxes, now standing at 18,700 a year. Union density is more than twice as great as our current eleven percent in Canada. It’s three times greater in Italy. Belgium has a fifty percent density, Sweden 67, Finland 69. Strong unions make a difference.

While cash income is important it is not the only factor that needs to be considered. Canadian and European workers live longer than Americans because their genuinely affordable health care programs, covering all, provide better health outcomes than the unconscionably exorbitant commodity care in the USA–still out of reach to millions. This benefit was achieved mostly through political action by mass working class parties. Even Canada has a mild mannered labor party, the NDP, currently the official opposition in Canada’s parliament and recognized as the force that won their single-payer health care system.

Health care is not the only benefit leading to better living standards in countries that once envied American prosperity. Many have free or low cost child care programs for working parents; free or low cost college or trade school education; adequate low cost mass transit. And in most, vacation time, paid sick leave, and retirement security at levels far better than ours are guaranteed by law to all workers. It’s not all rosy and it’s all under attack but it’s now the turn of us Yanks to look up instead of down to the accomplishments of worker movements in other lands.

These achievements abroad are seldom acknowledged by the liberals. They continue to treat as sacred the two-party system that right now is dedicated to destroying even the modest social gains won by past mass union and civil rights struggles. Running as a Democrat worked for Senator Warren and caucusing with the Democrats suits the independent, onetime  “socialist,” Senator Bernie Sanders. They see no need for the working class majority to have a party of our own.

The liberals, and even most moderates of both parties, do agree that a boost in the minimum wage is needed. Whether they will get anything through the normal channels of the present Congress, or the one emerging from the Fall elections, is problematic. Senators Warren and Sanders will abide by the decisions of the Democrat caucus, who will likely make a symbolic try for the 10.10 minimum supported by the President.

Professor Reich is more atune to the sentiment on the street and the big battles shaping up in local areas around the popular demand for a fifteen dollar minimum. He has been promoting an effort by the liberal Democracy for America group to counter balance the prominent role played by Kshama Sawant, the socialist city council member working to build an independent grass roots effort for 15 Now in Seattle.

Winning a national minimum wage of fifteen dollars, indexed to future inflation, would be the most significant reform in this country in the last forty years. It would lift millions out of poverty. If professor Reich and other liberals want to play a constructive role in this fight they should be welcomed. But any attempts to capture and divert this fledgling bottom up movement in to the mausoleum of mass movements known as the Democrats should be resisted.

While an important reform worth fighting for, Fifteen Now will not achieve income equality. Nor would it make a dent in a more telling measure–wealth distribution. Wealth includes the value of houses, cars, jewelry, art collections, yachts, savings, investments, farms and businesses. The top One Percent control forty percent of America’s wealth. Professor Reich estimates 95 percent of the economic gains in the recovery from the Great Recession went to the super-rich Top One.

The rest of the merely rich round out a top twenty percent owning 93 percent of the national wealth. Except for the odd athlete, entertainer, or PowerBall jackpot winner, this is the ruling class who gain their uber-wealth through control of the economy–and who also select those who run the government. They may have differences among themselves but they show remarkable class solidarity against the working class majority.

This wealth concentration has been building since the Industrial Revolution took off after the defeat of the competing slave owning class in the Civil War. But never has this class been so rapacious and mean-spirited as today at the pinnacle of their success. Companies with record profits demand–and get–take backs in wages and benefits. The average interest rate on credit card debt now stands at a usurious 21 percent. The price of higher education is today far beyond the means of the “Middle Class,” leading to student loan debt now exceeding car loan debt.

This same class uses their politicians of both parties to aggressively pursue austerity and privatization not only in such public services as schools, transit, and the Post Office but also those once considered untouchable like Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and Food Stamps.

But wait, there’s more. We can’t afford to forget that the Industrial Revolution did more than lead to accumulation of wealth at the top. It’s also produced accumulation of greenhouse gas emissions, from massive burning of coal, oil, and natural gas, in our upper atmosphere. This has resulted in global warming that has begun to alter our climate in ways harmful to most living things. Scientists urgently warn that if this is not soon remediated irreversible damage will make civilization as we know it unsustainable.

Clearly no satisfactory resolution of any of our class issues can be expected in such a bleak future. Global capitalism would be doomed as well. But powerful sections of the ruling class seek to discredit science and deny any crisis exists. More than that, they actively try to block and roll back the mildest responses to global warming. An article in the Saturday Washington Post opens,

“In state capitals across the country, legislators are debating proposals to roll back environmental rules, prodded by industry and advocacy groups eager to curtail regulations aimed at curbing greenhouse gases. The measures, which have been introduced in about 18 states, lie at the heart of an effort to expand to the state level the battle over fossil fuel and renewable energy. The new rules would trim or abolish climate mandates — including those that require utilities to use solar and wind energy, as well as proposed Environmental Protection Agency rules that would reduce carbon emissions from power plants.”

The working class needs to fight for higher income, better health care, quality free public education,  expanded transit, retirement security, and, of course, good jobs. But any victories in these issue struggles will remain temporary and tentative as long as the ruling class retains control at the top. And no accomplishments can survive the still present danger of nuclear war,  or the climate disaster already in early stages.

Our long running discussion of how we can successfully secure decent living standards in a peaceful, sustainable environment that can be left behind for future generations will continue in the next WIR–and more to come.

Much more news of interest was also posted on our companion Labor Advocate news blog.

That’s all for this week.
Free digital subscription to the Week In Review is available through RSS and Yahoo Group Mail.

Our sole source of income is reader contributions. If you can help please visit the KC Labor Donate page.

Bill Onasch is a paid up NWU member

Bill Onasch is a paid up NWU member

Apr 202014

onaschoutsmall  by Bill Onasch

We Should All Be Jews
American Jews have never been restricted to walled ghettos, nor have they suffered mass pogroms such as in Czarist Russia, or horrors like the Nazi holocaust. That’s why so many chose to immigrate to North America.

That doesn’t mean the New World has been free of pernicious anti-Semitism in many forms. In the 1930s many prominent Americans–such as Henry Ford and Charles Lindbergh–openly admired Hitler and his views on Jews. Bipartisan anti-Semitism among politicians was so prevalent that, except for some renowned scientists like Einstein, nearly all applications for Jewish immigration from Nazi Germany while that was still possible were denied by the Roosevelt administration.

In my home town, JC Nichols, Kansas City’s most prominent home builder in the last century, is memorialized on streets, fountains, university buildings and shopping districts. Few know Nichols inserted restrictive covenants in to property deeds forbidding their resale or rental to Jews as well as Blacks.

Jewish youth were long banned from using YMCA facilities so the YMHA and YWHA had to be established. Those evolved in to today’s Jewish Community Center, recently a focus of national headlines. The Jewish community also built Menorah Hospital and Beth Shalom retirement center out of a need for self-reliance–though such facilities have been open to gentiles as well. Even prosperous Jews had to start their own country club because others would not accept them.

From the Fourth Grade on, I have often lived among–and sometimes with–Jews. Early on, I got a chance to learn something about the culture of Jewish neighbors and classmates and in the process saw how bogus were some of the myths widely believed by the goyim. I encountered a big enough sample size in school to discount the stereotype that all Jews were smart. Nor were they all rich–most of their parents had incomes no better than my dad earned cutting meat. Unlike Christian acquaintances, none of them ever tried to convert me to their faith. In fact, some were not all that religious themselves.

In later years I came to meet those who would fit Issac Deutscher’s self-description of the “non-Jewish Jew,”

“Religion? I am an atheist. Jewish nationalism? I am an internationalist. In neither sense am I therefore a Jew. I am, however, a Jew by force of my unconditional solidarity with the persecuted and exterminated. I am a Jew because I feel the pulse of Jewish history; because I should like to do all I can to assure the real, not spurious, security and self-respect of the Jews.”

Stereotypes are not inherently bad but those often exaggerated, even contradictory ones used to describe Jews seldom hold up–and they often mask a bigotry calculated to divide and subjugate. They show up in distorted forms in surprising and disturbing places.

I recall a three-way conversation, after a meeting around the time of the passage of NAFTA, with a then prominent militant public sector union leader, along with a friend who is a labor educator. The unionist explained to both my Jewish friend and me how NAFTA was all part of a conspiracy of the Jewish bankers to control the world. It wasn’t the first time either of us had heard this–and it wouldn’t be the last.

Of course, for historical reasons, the number of Jewish bankers exceeds the Jewish share of the population. But today they don’t operate on safe and sound Talmudic investment guides. Just like their gentile colleagues, they take risks with other people’s money confident that they are too big to fail. The outright crooked ones–such as Bernie Madoff–often victimize fellow Jews and Jewish institutions.

Hitler, of course, railed against Jewish bankers during his rise to power–but he also blamed Jews for the evil of Bolshevism that Nazis were dedicated to destroy. He could cite such examples as Karl Marx, Rosa Luxemburg and Leon Trotsky as ethnic Jews determined to overthrow capitalism.

The union leader was right to see the banker component of the ruling class as our enemy. But  residual anti-Semitism had diverted him from a clear class perspective to one of divisive ethnic bigotry.

American anti-Semitism is trending again because of the fatal shootings last Sunday at the Jewish Community Center, and Beth Shalom retirement center, in suburban Kansas City. The shooter, 73 year old Frazier Glenn Cross, alias F Glenn Miller, has amassed quite a resume  since being discharged from the US Army in 1978.

A one time Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, he was busted in a raid on a stockpile of weapons stolen from the Army for use by a “militia.” In exchange for a lighter sentence, he ratted on his comrades and was put in a witness protection program giving him a fresh start in rural southwest Missouri. He self-published his own Mein Kampf, founded a White Patriot Party, and won a court order forcing radio stations to carry racist, anti-Semitic ads for a write-in election campaign. As the gunman surrendered to Overland Park Police last Sunday he shouted “Heil Hitler!” His intention was to go out in a burst of glory killing Jews. Apparently unaware of the ecumenical character of both venues he actually murdered two Methodists and a Catholic.

In recent decades, such violent attacks aimed at American Jews have been relatively rare and carried out by mentally unstable loner fanatics. They need to be taken seriously. There is a high traffic website, stormfront, dedicated to a broad range of hate crime. Their Internet chatter  helped inspire and instruct visitors such as Anders Behring Breivik, who fatally shot 77 Norwegian social democratic youth at a picnic, and Wade Michael Page, the killer of six people at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin. F Glenn Miller was a frequent site customer as well.

But while these psychopaths are a threat that can’t be ignored they don’t represent insurgent fascism. The ruling class supports such movements–as they did in the 1930s in Germany, Italy, and Spain–only as a last resort, when threatened by worker rebellion. With mixed feelings, we can say with assurance such threat is not perceived in the USA today. If and when it may develop, American fascism won’t be built by people wearing bed sheets or giving Heil Hitler salutes.

The Nazis came to power in Germany while still a minority based on hate and despair only because the working class was divided and fighting among themselves. We can make sure that doesn’t happen here by rebuilding working class identity and class unity. Anti-Semitism–like anti-Islam, skin color, and immigrant hatred, as well as gender subjugation and homophobia–is not just a problem for targeted victims. It is a threat to all working people. In this country, when the anti-Semitic scum emerges from the sewer to corrode our solidarity the working class should answer–we are all Jews.

What Should Be Our Minimum Requirement?
Minnesota union officials were ecstatic when Democrat Governor Mark Dayton signed a bill that will raise the state minimum wage to 9.50 an hour by 2016. They called on McDonald’s and other fast food employers not to wait but to immediately implement 9.50. In so doing, they undercut the popular demand by the fast food workers themselves–fifteen and a union now.

The AFL-CIO put a bus on the road promoting a national minimum hike and they too gave fifteen short shrift. They follow the marching orders of their “friend” in the White House who thinks 10.10 an hour is about right.

I’m sure the working poor will find immediate good use for any raise. But they will not be satisfied with just being able to afford both rent and bus fare for a change–and neither should we. The minimum wage should be enough to lift all out of the working poor category and to do that takes at least fifteen.

Shamus Cooke, a Portland, Oregon union and solidarity activist, has an excellent article on the Labor Notes site describing the impressive local and state movements for fifteen–appropriately titled More Seattles, Please. You should check it out.

In Brief…
* An e-mail blast from Kansas City Jobs with Justice says, “The hardworking SEIU Local 1 members at the KCMO School District are in a fight for their livelihoods. Custodians are at risk of losing their jobs to outsourcing. Cafeteria workers are threatened with losing their quality full time positions to part time positions. Maintenance workers are facing reorganization that threatens their safety and places everyone at risk.” There will be a solidarity support action outside the School Board meeting this Wednesday, April 23, 6:15PM, at 1211 McGee.
* From an AP dispatch, “A strike at the Chinese factories of the world’s biggest athletic shoe maker snowballed Thursday to about 30,000 workers, a labor group said, making it one of the largest-ever work stoppages at a private business in China. Workers in the southern city of Dongguan want Taiwanese-owned Yu Yuen Industrial (Holdings) Ltd., which makes shoes for companies such as Nike and Adidas, to make social security contributions required by Chinese law and meet other demands. They’ve been striking in increasing numbers in on-and-off stoppages since April 5. The strike at a massive 10-factory complex is the latest in a wave of unrest at factories in China, where labor shortages and a rising cost of living have made the migrant workers from the countryside who keep Chinese industry running increasingly assertive.”
* Chicago Tribune reports, “The University of Illinois at Chicago faculty union reached a tentative contract agreement today with the campus administration, averting a strike that had been scheduled for next week. The union said the three-year deal, which covers the past two years and extends through August 2015, is better than the university’s last offer from earlier this month. The union, UIC United Faculty, said it will share contact details at membership meetings beginning Tuesday, and members will have until next Friday to vote on it. The two sides had been at odds over pay increases, minimum salaries and other issues such as the grievance and tenure processes.” The union, which won certification two years ago, represents 1,150 tenured and nontenured faculty members in two bargaining units.

Much more news of interest was also posted on our companion Labor Advocate news blog.

That’s all for this week.
Free digital subscription to the Week In Review is available through RSS and Yahoo Group Mail.

Our sole source of income is reader contributions. If you can help please visit the KC Labor Donate page.

Bill Onasch is a paid up NWU member

Bill Onasch is a paid up NWU member