A Financial Meltdown 30 Years in the Making
In less than two weeks Congress lined up $700 billion to bail out the nation's bankers, leaving millions of homeowners on the sidelines, facing foreclosure, bankruptcy, or both.
Somehow the argument that "it may seem unfair, but it was necessary" just doesn't cut it. It's no wonder that the most popular sign at labor's September 25 protest on Wall Street said "Bailout = Bullsh*t."
For union members, it sounds all too familiar. Management's perennial argument for concessions -- take the cuts or say goodbye to your job -- hasn't exactly saved U.S. manufacturing, whether in the 1980s or today.
In past recessions, it's been each union for itself, and the companies always came out ahead. Corporations are already using the deep hole they've dug for themselves to demand even more from workers. Teamsters at the Minneapolis Star Tribune bucked the trend, refusing mid-contract concessions on September 10 and prompting newspaper executives to suspend a $9 million payment to their creditors.
"The company is asking us to slash our own throats to save their profits," said Kevin Bialon, a 27-year pressman who served on the bargaining committee. "Management made the mistakes and they want workers to pay for it."
Chickens Home to Roost
Although today's headlines don't advertise it, the financial crisis is not a sudden surprise but the latest gloomy milestone in a 30-year drive to boost corporate profits, mainly by squeezing workers. The recent flurry of fast-and-loose home loans is a symptom, not the cause, of the problem.
Faced with falling profits in the 1970s, corporations everywhere rallied to restore their bottom lines. They pressed to shift taxes away from businesses and onto individuals, sowing the seeds of today's state and local budget shortfalls. Deregulation was also a top priority, as restrictions from an earlier era -- put in place to protect the public good -- were wiped away. Starting in industries like airlines, trucking, and telecommunications, then later in banking and financial services, government protections were lifted and oversight was relaxed.
In addition, corporations turned the tables on who pays for retirement, shifting the risk -- and sometimes the burden -- onto individual workers and taxpayers.
On the job, corporations launched a full-scale assault on unions, piling up concessions, breaking longstanding pattern agreements, and introducing two-tier wages and benefits.
In 1978 the average wage for production workers was $16 an hour in today's dollars. The average was still $16 by 2007. Companies put the squeeze on working conditions, too, through lean production and quality schemes that were a smokescreen to make workers do more with less.
Corporate heads were rewarded handsomely for their efforts. CEO pay skyrocketed from 27 times what the average worker made in 1973 to 275 times in 2007.
Wall Street's short-term mentality spread far beyond the financial sector. Every plant, even every work group became a "profit center," and had to produce sufficient returns -- or else.
Firms like General Motors and General Electric got into the money game directly, making more profits in recent years from financial activity than they did by producing goods or services.