The U.S. working class has always been divided—along racial lines, against each succeeding wave of immigrants and now between the haves and the have-nots.
Nowhere is the divide and conquer strategy more evident than Wisconsin where newly elected Republican Governor Scott Walker, after passing pro business legislation to the tune of $140 million, now claims a $137 million deficit and is pushing through legislation to make up the newly created shortfall on the backs of the state’s public union workers. But his proposed legislation goes beyond fiscal sacrifice: it will strip the union workers of the right to collective bargaining and no longer allow union dues to be tax deductible.
In another time it would be called union busting, plain and simple. In the New American Era of Complete Corporate Dominance, President Obama chimes in with “Everybody’s got to make some adjustments to new fiscal realities.” Of course the everybody does not include the wealthy that just were granted a two-year extension of Bush tax cuts and a reduction of the estate tax.
Tens of thousands of Wisconsinites descended on the state capital of Madison to voice their outrage at not only the near 20 percent fiscal cuts the union workers were being asked to swallow, but the loss of their collective bargaining rights as well. However, state trooper, firefighter and police unions that supported Walker in his gubernatorial campaign were exempted from loss of collective bargaining rights.
Union members want a continuation of what they and their predecessors have fought for over the years. Not hard to understand. But also not hard to understand is the position taken by many non-union workers that they should not have to publicly finance better working conditions, rights in the workplace and pay for the public union workers, their employees, than they currently get from the private capitalist sector. To expect private sector workers to enthusiastically support a better deal for the unionized public sector workers than they are getting is unrealistic.
This difference is not just among those that are working. The real unemployment rate in the U.S. is estimated at 22 percent (those out of work that want to work). A net gain of 150,000 jobs a month is needed to maintain the status quo with current population growth. That is a net gain of 1.8 million jobs a year is needed to just maintain the current level of misery. In “recovery,” we gained a net 1 million jobs last year. That translates into a net increase of 800,000 unemployed last year. So much for recovery.
Squabbling between the two camps is exactly what the capitalist ruling class wants. The divide and conquer strategy has served empires well throughout the ages. There is no reason to believe it will not continue to succeed as long as U.S. workers continue to remain divided.
Thirty years of supply-side economics and neoliberal globalization (free trade, free markets, no regulation and tax cuts for the wealthy) cannot be repaired without making the working class whole again.
Union membership in the private sector is down to just 8 percent of the workforce, down from 34 percent in the 1940s. In the public sector, it is much higher at 40 percent, but that still is a minority of public workers. Anti-union legislation in Wisconsin, Indiana, Ohio and Florida are but the tip of the avalanche that can be expected.
How to combat this and rebuild the working class?
Union leadership should offer to tear up all their current contracts. That’s right, offer to tear them up in return for a New Contract for America that guarantees:
- All Americans a job at a living wage starting at $15/hour. Skilled workers would be paid higher commensurate with ability and experience.
- 100 percent government paid healthcare for all. Either single payer or have the government be both the payer and provider as is the case with military and VA healthcare.
- Workers should be given equal representation on all corporate boards. In event of a policy stalemate, arbitration should be used.
- Expand social security so that benefits cover life’s basic necessities for all seniors and the disabled.
- Immediate halt on foreclosures. Require the same lenders, that have profited both when the markets went up and down, to reduce principal amounts of all mortgages by the percentage that value has declined in each area of the country. Institute a program to put those who have already been foreclosed and evicted either back into their former homes or into comparable ones.
- Require Congress to pass legislation outlawing any private funding of political campaigns.
- Require all media news outlets to carrying side-by-side campaign position statements for all candidates and do away with campaign commercials.
- Require a majority vote of more than 50 percent to win all elections, with run-off elections if no candidate gets a majority. This will help break the anti democratic monopoly that our two corporate political parties currently enjoy.
- Require Congress to pass legislation outlawing corporations from funding media campaigns in support of legislation and political campaigns. All meetings between corporate lobbyists and legislators should be in full public view.
- Void all free trade contracts and replace with fair trade contracts in which tariffs would offset lower wages and environmental standards on imported goods. All done with the goal of both bringing back manufacturing to the U.S. and raising the standards and living conditions for those in the developing world.
Funding for these needed reforms would come from:
- Raising taxes on the surplus income of the wealthy capitalist class. Allow them $1 million at the rates you or I pay, surplus income above that at 90 percent as was the case in the 40s, 50s and 60s.
- Require wealthy to pay Social Security tax on all income.
- End our wars and reduce military by half and then half again.
- Institute financial transactions tax.
- Tariffs on imported goods produced with subpar wages and environmental standards.
- Growth of economy with fully employed workforce at a living wage.
The strength of the working class lies in the commitment to leaving no one behind. Union jobs for some and job misery or unemployment for others will never unite us. This New Contract with America is something that can bring the working class together to end the divide and conquer strategy of the capitalist class. Who will be the first union leader to advocate for this and watch as the entire working class falls in line behind him?
Nick Egnatz is a Vietnam veteran. He has been actively protesting our government’s crimes of empire in both person and print for some years now and was named “Citizen of the Year” for Northwest Indiana in 2006 for his peace activism by the National Association of Social Workers. Contact Nick at firstname.lastname@example.org