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The Plight Of US Workers

The decline in circumstances of workers in the United States goes back to long before the Great Recession–to capital’s concern over the upsurge of labor militancy following the Second World War, specifically a wave of strikes in 1946. Some 4.5 million workers went on strike during that year–from the Hawaiian sugar plantations to Oakland (a general strike) to General Motors to the railroad, steel, and coal industries. The Taft-Hartley Act, passed by a Republican Congress with some Democratic support in 1947 over President Truman’s veto, was a clear offensive against labor. Workers and unions had been given a boost by the Depression-era National Labor Relations Act (1936), which restricted a number of anti-union employer  practices such as interfering with workers trying to form a union. Taft-Hartley, however, placed severe restrictions on labor–for example, outlawing very effective sympathy strikes and boycotts. It also required union leaders to submit affidavits indicating that they were were neither Communist Party members nor had any connection with what were considered to be subversive organizations, thereby excluding some of the most militant leaders.

Taft-Hartley commenced a new phase of the class war of capital against labor, which was interrupted briefly in the 1960s, but was ramped up again with the economic slowdown of the 1970s. A full-scale, organized class war against the U.S. working class and against all progressive government policies was unleashed beginning on August 23, 1971, with corporate lawyer Lewis Powell’s confidential memorandum to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce (only two months before he was nominated by President Nixon to the U.S. Supreme Court) calling on corporations and their CEOs to organize a concerted attack on labor, the left academy, and the liberal media–and to use their financial leverage to dominate government. The memo, which came to light only after Powell’s Supreme Court appointment, galvanized business and the wealthy, leading to what Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson in Winner-Take-All Politics described as a ‘domestic version of Shock and Awe.’ As Bill Moyers has written, “we look back on it now as a call to arms for class war waged from the top down.’ It inspired the establishment of the powerful Business Roundtable (which has only CEOs as members), the American Legislative Council (ALEC), the Heritage Foundation, the Cato Institute, and Citizens for a Sound  Economy (the forerunner of Americans for Prosperity). Within a decade the number of firms with lobbyists with lobbyists expanded by almost fifteen-fold. Corporate PACs quadrupled in number between 1976 and the mid-1980s.

Next to Powell the most influential figure in initiating the new corporate-based assault on workers during the 1970s was William E. Simon, Treasury Secretary in the Nixon and Ford administrations and a former top executive at Salomon Brothers. Simons’s 1978 book, ‘A Time for Truth’ included a preface by Milton Freidman and a foreward by Friedrich von Hayek, and called for a business crusade against labor, environmentalists and the left. Simon insisted that ‘multimillions’  of dollars were needed for conservative causes to overthrow the legacy of the New Deal. These attacks set the stage for President Carter’s sharp turn to the right in 1979, marked by the appointment of Paul as Chairman of the Federal Reserve Board.

President Reagan’ 1981 breaking of the PATCO (air traffic controllers) strike contributed a major blow to the prestige and power of organized labor. National Labor Relations Board and court appointees became more favorable to the view of capital and less inclined to adopt event the appearance of neutrality. Other aspects of the class war today include the attack on pensions of public workers at the city and state level and the decline in workplace safety enforcement. At present Occupational Safety and Health Administration inspectors are estimated to be able to visit each workplace in the United States once every ninety-nine years. It had been more than a quarter of century since inspectors made their last visit to the Texas fertilizer plant where an April 2013 explosion killed fourteen and injured over two hundred.

In the aftermath of the Great Financial Crisis, and the rise of the Tea Party as a right-wing adjunct to the Republican Party, the assault on workers intensified still further.  A report by the Economic Policy Institute that reviewed state-level legislative changes in labor policy and labor standards since 2010 found that “the changes undermine the wages, working conditions, legal protections, or bargaining power of either organized or unorganized employees…. The consequence of this legislative agenda is to undermine the ability of workers to earn middle-class wages and to enhance the power of employers in the labor market. These changes did not just happen but were the results of an intentional and persistent political campaign by business groups.”

John Bellamy Foster, “The Plight of U.S. Workers, Monthly Review, January 2014, pp. 3-5.

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