Bombs and Butter
By Charles Walker
Will the assault on Iraq distract bosses and their political henchmen from battering the living standards of Americas workers? Absolutely not! Its business as usual for corporate business; so workers and their dependents are continuing to pay the price for a sinking economy and an overseas garrison to oversee a U.S. empire under reconstruction.
Trade unions may not yet be on the front lines opposing the U.S.s militarism-for-profit and empire, but theyre reeling from the blows of downsizing and union-busting. Case-in-point: United Airlines, still the worlds second largest, has taken court action preliminary to tearing up its union contracts covering more than 45,000 workers. Theres no doubt that United will get what it wants from the court, and that its industry rivals will be looking for more of the same.
Much as the busting in 1981 of the air traffic controllers union known as PATCO was a government signal for corporations to further let loose the dogs of class warfare on U.S. workers, the Bush administration is spurring continued corporate warfare on union members by forcefully depriving some 170,000 federal workers, now in the Owellian-named Homeland Security Department, of their right to union security. Not finished by a long-shot, he has thousands and thousands of other government workers in his anti-union cross-hairs.
The top leaders of organized labor seem wedded to a two-pronged strategy. One prong consists in avoiding a direct confrontation at almost any cost, which means at best a strategic retreat. The other prong is relying on the Democrats to bring back the good old days of the Roosevelt wartime years. So far, the results indicate that both dogs wont hunt. What that means is that there is no end in sight for the deterioration of workers living standards.
The canary in the mine is the tragedy of healthcare, in this, the worlds only superpower that is estimated by some to expend up to $200 billion to gain control over Iraqs oil fields and dominance over the Middle East. The nations estimated 41 million people without medical coverage is only the most easily identifiable part of the healthcare crisis. Mounting premium rates, rising co-pays and prescription costs are crippling ready access to medical services for the ever-increasing numbers of workers, unionized or not, their families and retirees.
Health service authorities say that being uninsured takes a staggering toll on men, women and children. Uninsured men are nearly twice as likely to be diagnosed at a late stage of colon cancer as men with insurance. Women with breast cancer are twice as likely to die if they are uninsured. And children without insurance are 70 percent more likely than insured children not to receive medical care for common childhood conditions like ear infections (Florida Sun-Sentinel, 3/10/03).
Retirees too are taking their lumps, and more is on the way, say experts. Some Steelworkers are getting smaller pensions than promised, some airline workers are bailing out to avoid a pension cut, and Midwest and West Coast Teamsters are having their expected pensions frozen or cut back. And that doesnt begin to describe the extent and the depth of the retirees plight, usually only briefly mentioned in the business pages of the corporate press.
The cry of Books not Bombs! has been added to antiwar placards. And no wonder! Students and instructors at all levels are taking one financial hit after another, as education cuts are forced by shrinking school budgets; and, experts say, the end is nowhere in sight.
The war has allowed speculators to drive up the price of oil. In February, energy costs rose at their fastest rate in two years. Those costs are sure to be added to the prices at the grocery store, the drugstore, as well as the gas station.
The United States as a whole lost 308,000 jobs in February, leaving it with an official unemployment rate of 5.8 percent, which is surely an undercount. Moreover, the accustomed jobless benefits are being denied to many workers, as government continues its assault on the social wage. Joblessness is expected to continue its rise despite the war. Moreover, some economists are again speculating that the economy may soon be in a double-dip recession.
Workers have been in a state of at least mild anxiety about their job security and all that that means for several years. Unions have cited that anxiety as one reason why they cant organize more workers. Some of the same unions have justified their small nominal gains, or their givebacks on the same fear of job loss. At the same time, organized labor failed to turn around during the latest expansionary phase of the business cycle. All in all, its hard not to forecast far less butter for U.S. workers, unionized or not, whether bombs are falling or not, absent a fundamental upsurge by labors rank-and-file.
Its well past time for new leaders that understand the lessons of hundreds of years of class struggle and are willing to lead working people and all other victims of capitalist injustice in defense of their living standards and other human rights.