Post–Sept. 11 Economic Stimulus?

“Workers Can’t Spend Praise”

by Charles Walker

AFL-CIO President John Sweeney says that while many Americans are paying homage to the workers killed in the New York and Washington tragedies, and to those cleaning up the wreckage, Congress is treating all workers badly. Sweeney points out that “praise alone won’t pay the rent.”

What does Sweeney mean? He means that the so-called economic stimulus legislation wending its way through the congressional labyrinth is long on tax breaks for corporate America and short on relief for working Americans. “By historical standards, it’s a stingy plan,” Sweeney says. While the nation has been singing the praises of workers, “Congress is about the business of cutting their lifelines.”

Of course, Sweeney is right. And a lot of Americans know the score. They know that while Congress is shoveling billions of dollars into airlines’ coffers and may do much the same for insurance companies and other Fortune 500 corporations, “working families have been put on notice that they will be served last and least at the table of economic recovery.” Case in point: The bipartisan aviation bailout money of $15 billion “provided exactly nothing” for aviation workers.

One-time Clinton Secretary of Labor Robert Reich says much the same thing as Sweeney. Which ought to tell workers that Sweeney’s just saying something everyone can find out from the daily news.

Reich notes in a Los Angeles Times article (Oct. 23) that the proposed $100 billion tax cuts “are mostly for the rich.” And he rightly says, “High-income people already spend all the money they want to.” Further he says that the same workers who are getting the dirty end of the stick from Congress will pay for the bailouts and the tax cuts.

Reich says, “Eighty percent of Americans now pay more in payroll taxes than they do in income taxes. The House Ways and Means bill doesn’t cut payroll taxes, even temporarily. To the contrary, it would increase the odds that payroll taxes would have to be hiked.” Reich concludes, “Get it? Income and capital gains tax cuts for the rich now, payroll tax hikes” for workers.

What To Do? Hot Air’s No Answer

Both Sweeney and Reich do a good job of partially describing the “soak the poor” ripoff that’s coming down the pike. But that’s the easy part. The hard part is figuring out what to do about it! No doubt Reich has his solutions, though he doesn’t mention them in his article. That’s OK, because his answers to workers’ problems when he was a Washington bureaucrat (pro-NAFTA, for example) didn’t especially set him apart from his Labor Department predecessors or successors.

But workers are not likely to think it’s OK for Sweeney to come up short when he should be pressing demands that will really protect their future, reflect the hard work they endure, and compensate for the ever rising productivity they achieve. If Sweeney only comes up with “chump-change” propositions, no one should blame workers for thinking there’s got to be a better answer than hot air from labor tops.

Sweeney outlines a program that presumably satisfies him. In a prepared statement on October 24 Sweeney called for “a balanced plan that puts money in the pockets of large numbers of people who will spend it fast and supports workers who have been hurt the worst.”  Sweeney calls for “expanded unemployment benefits that are extended to more jobless workers (60 per cent of unemployed workers don’t get benefits under the current system), help with continuing their health coverage and full funding for job training.” Sweeney calls for “aid to struggling state and local governments,” and for “solid investments to boost the nation’s public health system, build new schools, repair roads and bridges and expand mass transit…”

At best it’s a mixed bag. At worst it’s hopeless pleading for crumbs from big business politicians.  For example, according to Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan, the tax rebates these politicians recently voted into law will do little to stimulate spending and keep workers on the job. 

American workers have taken a substantial cut in their share of the multi-trillion-dollar gross domestic product during the past ten years of so-called good times. Those hundreds of billions of dollars didn’t vanish into thin air. They wound up in tax coffers and the bank accounts of corporations and financiers. “Good times” have not meant a rise in living standards for most types of workers, or an end to their nagging insecurity. “Good times” have not reduced pauperism, let alone wiped it out.

Even if Sweeney’s program filled the bill and drew widespread support from workers, Sweeney’s program would remain a dead letter. That’s because Sweeney has no intention of mobilizing workers independently of the politicians and their corporate paymasters. If Sweeney’s history is any guide, he will mostly limit himself to haranguing the very same politicians he rightly accuses of only paying “lip service” to workers’ real basic needs and problems. 

Clearly, Sweeney should feel hopeless about getting the politicians to turn against the corporations and divert some serious profits to workers’ relief. On the other hand, Sweeney should show some confidence in the American worker’s willingness to fight on the job and in the streets to challenge the basic lopsided division of wealth. 

In 1997, UPS workers knew they couldn’t win without putting up a fight. If Sweeney ever understood such a self-evident truth, some folks might think that he’s doing a good job of hiding it. Actually, Sweeney still needs to be convinced that putting up a real fight against the bosses’ assault on workers’ living standards is a good idea. You see, Sweeney is a dyed-in-the-wool advocate and practitioner of labor-management collaboration. He’ll back some strikes and block some doorways, but he won’t go to the mat when there’s a chance that it will disrupt his “don’t-rock-the-boat” relationship with the bosses and their political stooges, Democrats and Republicans alike.

Shortly after ascending to the AFL-CIO’s top job, Sweeney made what was billed as a major speech to “400 New York business men and civic leaders,” reported the New York Times (Dec. 7, 1995). “I want to build bridges between labor and management so that American business can be more successful and American workers can share in the gains.” For six years now, Sweeney’s made that same plea to bosses in one speech after another. Sweeney now stands before the nation’s politicians and wrings his hands over workers’ joblessness and his correct understanding that worse times are right around the corner.

Will Sweeney’s hand wringing pay workers’ rent? The fateful answer is on the way.