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Fighting Wall Street’s War On Workers

Above photo: Steve Early reviews Wall Street’s War on Workers: How Mass Layoffs and Greed Are Destroying the Working Class and What to Do About It, (Chelsea Green, 2024) by Les Leopold and Corporate Bullsh*t: Exposing the Lies and Half Truths that Protect, Power, and Wealth in America, (New Press, 2023) by Donald Cohen, Nick Hanauer, and Joan Walsh.

And The Corporate BS That Protects It.

One of the occupational hazards of being a labor activist is over-exposure to “corporate bullshit”—on the job, in the community, and in politics.

When workers try to win collective bargaining rights, employers conduct propaganda campaigns to spread every imaginable falsehood about the union. Once forced into negotiations, management shows up at the bargaining table with a new line of BS about not being able to afford union wage demands or agree to a grievance procedure. And in the legislative-political arena, corporate interests have long used disinformation to thwart labor campaigns.

As a union rep for 30 years, one of my jobs was to help workers anticipate and better respond to management lies and half-truths. Anyone conducting similar “inoculation” sessions for activists engaged in organizing, bargaining, or pro-labor lobbying today will benefit from consulting two new books: Wall Street’s War on Workers by Les Leopold and Corporate Bullsh*t by Donald Cohen, Nick Hanauer, and Joan Walsh.

Inoculation Manuals

Don Cohen, co-author of Corporate Bullsh*t: Exposing the Lies and Half Truths that Protect, Power, and Wealth in America, is a former Los Angeles Labor Council staffer who now helps government workers around the country oppose privatization. His collaborators are Joan Walsh, a Nation correspondent, and Nick Hanauer, a wealthy Seattle entrepreneur who has become a critic of income inequality.

Lest we think corporate flimflam is a new problem, the authors use historical news clips, headlines, quotes, cartoons, and photos to illustrate how corporate America tried to discredit reforms in the early 20th Century Progressive Era, demonized Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal, and, in the 1960s, opposed civil rights legislation and Great Society programs like Medicare and Medicaid.

Returning to the present, in clear and accessible fashion, Corporate Bullsh*t debunks all the modern-day arguments against job safety and health laws, national health insurance, equitable taxation, climate change legislation, and business regulation, in any form.

Plutocrats in any era employ politicians from both major parties as their shills and mouthpieces. So Corporate Bullsh*t also dissects the alarmist claims made, now and in the past, by business-backed legislators opposed to stronger legal protections for workers and consumers, homeowners and tenants, or the environment. Corporate America still attempts to discredit even the most modest liberal reforms as failed “socialist” schemes imported from abroad.

In what the authors call our “post-fact” society, the “truth purveyed by the wealthy and powerful prevails far too much of the time.” They warn that corporate elites and their allies have “perfected a rhetorical style that relies on deception, fear, and demonizing their opponents.” The result is a loss of public confidence not only in government, but also in the electoral process itself—and even in essential working-class institutions like unions.

Impact Of Mass Layoffs

Leopold, the author of Wall Street’s War on Workers: How Mass Layoffs and Greed Are Destroying the Working Class and What to Do About It, is a longtime labor educator and author whose latest work was inspired by a community-labor campaign against pandemic-related layoffs of union members at Oberlin College in Ohio.

The book arrives just as tens of thousands of tech industry and media workers are getting pink slips, too, which makes its discussion of job cuts and how to deal with them very timely.

Using easy-to-read charts, graphs, and survey results, Leopold connects the dots between long-term trends in corporate capitalism and the last 50 years of attacks on working-class living standards. He focuses, in particular, on how the deregulation of Wall Street has facilitated various forms of “legalized looting” by hedge funds and private equity firms. In their destructive wake often come mass layoffs, which have upended the lives and finances of millions of white-collar and blue-collar workers.

Ironically, the campaign Leopold describes in most detail was at a non-profit institution with a long history of progressivism. His alma mater, Oberlin College, responded to the Covid-19 pandemic by terminating 113 campus workers and subcontracting their work. “Oberlin adhered to the Wall Street employer handbook,” he writes, where “bottom-line financial calculations trump all other considerations.”

Many of the laid-off staffers lost decades of seniority as direct employees of the college. About 50 food service workers and a few custodians were rehired by one contractor, which then recognized and negotiated a new labor agreement with the Auto Workers. Only one janitorial worker was retained by the college’s new non-union building services contractor.

Leopold and other alums joined forces with students and sympathetic faculty to challenge the “corporatization of Oberlin.” Their campaign did not reverse the contracting-out, but it did raise tens of thousands of dollars for the displaced workers and their families—whose personal hardships certainly demonstrate the need for a real social safety net.

Leopold shows how European welfare states, although weakened in recent years, still provide more worker and community protection than the paltry programs in the U.S. He cites the example of Siemens, an industrial conglomerate with more than 90,000 workers worldwide. In Germany, its home base, the balance of power between labor and management is very different than in the U.S., because IG Metall, a metalworkers union with more than 2 million members, has continuing clout, from the shop floor to the firm’s supervisory board.

Both books conclude with practical advice and case studies on how to counter the “industry-serving narratives” that pervade mainstream media coverage in the U.S. and provide propaganda cover for anti-worker policies. Their bottom-line message is the same: workplace, community, and political organizing are our only possible counterweight against all abuses of corporate power—whether by the captains of Wall Street or bean counters at a liberal arts college in Ohio.

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