Losing Ground

During the 2000 presidential TV debates, George W. Bush relentlessly repeated the tired Republican mantra that government, especially the federal government, is the enemy of American workers. As president, he's turned that rhetoric into reality.

Actually, Bush is as much a big-government guy as was Lyndon Johnson or FDR. But in his case, Bush has used federal power to undercut workers' bargaining power, dumping workers out of the middle class and kicking the ladder away from those trying to get in. Jobs in factories and services that pay good wages and offer decent benefits are disappearing. As a result, the overwhelming majority of Americans -- those who must work to put food on their tables and roofs over their heads -- are more financially insecure and have seen their living standards erode. In 1980, Ronald Reagan famously asked the American people, "Are you better off now than you were four years ago?" When John Kerry poses that question later this year, the answer, by virtually every measure, will be "no."

Jobs and Unemployment. Three years after George W. Bush was inaugurated, the U.S. economy had lost a net 2 million jobs -- the worst job record of any recovery since the Great Depression. Laid-off workers are now unemployed for an average of five months; when they're finally hired, they go to firms paying 20 percent less. The jobless rate released in February was 5.6 percent. But, in fact, the labor market is much weaker than that. For one thing, most of the jobs that have been created have been temporary. What's more, reacting to the bleak labor market, large numbers of discouraged job seekers have simply dropped out of the workforce. The Economic Policy Institute calculates that if these missing workers were taken into account, the unemployment rate this February would have been 7.4 percent.

Bush could have responded by providing funds to cash-strapped states for investment in education, health, and infrastructure, which would have in turn created jobs. Instead, he used the economic downturn to rationalize permanent tax cuts that will transfer more after-tax income from the working middle class to the rich. At this point, even the most gullible of voters can see that the Bush tax cuts were not aimed at creating jobs, so it's no surprise that the cuts haven't.

Inevitably, the administration has been forced to downsize its claims that it's reviving the job market. In 2002, Bush predicted that America would have 138.3 million jobs by 2004. The next year, the 2004 forecast was 135.2 million jobs. Now it's 132.7 million. But to reach even that figure, job growth would have to average 460,000 jobs each month for the rest of the year, which is highly improbable (jobs grew in February by 21,000).

As a result of the weak job market, almost one-fourth of America's jobless have been out of work for more than six months -- the highest level of long-term unemployment in 20 years. The maximum length of time for which someone can collect regular unemployment benefits, which average $265 per week, is normally six months. When unemployment is high, eligibility is typically extended for another 13 weeks. But just before Christmas 2003, Bush and the Republican Congress cut off the extended benefits. So far, more than 1.1 million workers and their families -- most of whom live paycheck to paycheck -- have lost this modest but crucial lifeline.

Wages. For those Americans with jobs, 2003 was the worst year for wage growth since 1996. It was especially true for those who make up the male working-class core of the "Reagan Democrats": Real weekly earnings for full-time, male workers over 25 fell for all but the top 10 percent of wage earners.

As a result, working longer hours is the only way many can cling to a middle-class income. Yet the administration is busy revising the regulations under the Fair Labor Standards Act in a way that would make roughly 8 million workers ineligible for overtime pay. The affected employees could be required to work overtime for nothing, furthering the "Wal-Martization" of the labor force. (It's no accident that low-wage Wal-Mart is now one of the two largest corporate contributors to political campaigns, with 84 percent of its donations going to Republicans.) And while the real minimum wage is now 25 percent below its 1979 value, the administration has blocked every effort to raise it.

As wages are squeezed, Bush has systematically shredded the already tattered social safety net. Housing subsidies have been cut, Pell Grants for low-income college students have been slashed, and the No Child Left Behind education initiative has been shortchanged. Bush's refusal to help recession-racked state and local governments, which by law may not run deficits the way the federal government can, has meant the closing off of health-care, job-training, and child-care services for low-income workers.

Outsourcing and Worker Training. It is now clear that the accelerated shifting overseas of technical and white-collar jobs undercuts upward mobility for workers in America. Politicians, pundits, and even some economists are now having second thoughts about free-trade agreements that protect the rights of investors but not the rights of labor. Unfortunately, the Bush administration has no such second thoughts.

Just before Bill Clinton left office, his administration negotiated a trade and investment deal with Jordan that contained a modest provision to enforce the labor protections already on each country's books. When Bush took over, his team told Jordan that it did not have to abide by that part of the agreement. The White House also signed new trade deals with Chile and Singapore that had zero protections for workers. And its proposal for the Free Trade Area of the Americas lacks even the weak "side agreements" on worker and environmental protections that are in the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Indeed, as Gregory Mankiw, Bush's chief economist, blurted out in February, the administration still believes that outsourcing for cheaper labor is "a good thing."

The solution? Conservatives claim that American workers only need to improve their skills to compete for better jobs. But the administration has cut almost $1 billion in real terms from the federal government's worker-training programs. Last year a number of states ran out of money for retraining workers dislocated by international trade. This year's federal budget will cut such programs by 4 percent in real terms. Bush has also sought to eliminate the H1B training program that uses fees from businesses that import high-tech workers to train Americans in those skills.

Guest workers. Disguised as a migration agreement, Bush has proposed that businesses be allowed to import Mexican workers. The workers would have no rights, no protections, and no mobility. If the boss doesn't like a worker -- for complaining about bad working conditions, for example, or for any reason, really -- it's back to Mexico. Bush's proposal is widely recognized on both sides of the border as a way to undermine wages and working conditions in the United States.

Collective bargaining. One-third of American workers say they would join a union if they had a chance, and over half support collective bargaining. Yet only 13 percent are union members because existing laws make it difficult. Bush, meanwhile, is trying to make it impossible. His administration has used federal power to harass labor unions by imposing onerous reporting requirements on them, far beyond what is required of employers. These rules have prohibited government project managers from making agreements with unions to ensure uninterrupted work flows. The Bush administration was even willing to veto its own Department of Homeland Security unless Congress gave it the right to bar collective bargaining from the agency.

Health and safety. The most extensive job-safety problem in America comes from injuries caused by heavy lifting and repetitive work. Shortly after taking over the White House, Bush repealed the government's ergonomics standards that had been developed over 10 years of negotiation between businesses, labor unions, and government agencies. The Department of Labor's chief lawyer, Eugene Scalia, son of the conservative Supreme Court justice, calls ergonomics "quackery."

Dozens of other decisions -- from refusing to compel employers to pay for their workers' safety equipment to rescinding standards for testing employees exposed to tuberculosis -- have weakened health and safety regulations. In one landmark case involving workers who were knowingly exposed to asbestos poisoning, the administration changed the formula used to assess penalties, substantially reducing the cost to irresponsible employers. Additionally, despite a 2002 report by government experts that chemical explosions were a serious danger in many workplaces, Bush's Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) stopped work on new safety standards, announcing in 2003 that it will rely on industry to voluntarily regulate itself. The administration's proposed budget for fiscal year 2005 cuts OSHA programs that train workers in health and safety by 65 percent.

The list of ways in which this administration has used government to strengthen its business allies' leverage over the average American worker goes on and on: undercutting efforts to protect pensions; privatizing government services to low-wage, no-benefit companies; and generally signaling to employers that this government is not interested in defending the legal rights of employees. Another four years of this and the entire 75-year-old social contract that created the American middle class -- everything from Social Security to public education -- will be ripped to pieces while allowing the corporate looting of the U.S. Treasury to continue through tax cuts, privatization, and overstuffed insider contracts.

In the speech that opened his re-election campaign, Bush told the Republican governors: "The American people will decide between two visions of government: a government that encourages ownership and opportunity or a government that takes your money and makes your choices. ... The security and prosperity of American are at stake." He couldn't be more right.

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