Sunday, August 06, 2006

Lake Charles Union on Front Line of War Against the Middle Class

Last Saturday, I attended a rally at the Lake Charles Civic Center for members of International Machinists Union Local 470 who had been on strike against PPG for 64 days and made a small personal contribution to their strike fund. The rally represented an opportunity for me to tell those workers how their fight is bigger than they are.

Workers across the country in all sectors of the economy are losing ground to inflation despite the fact that we have an allegedly booming economy. The facts are that job growth during the Bush/Cheney years has been slower than during the Clinton years and wages have failed to keep up with even the so-called core inflation which, by the way, doesn't include food or fuel. I don't know about you, but everyone I know eats and uses fuel either to drive, cook or cool.

The constantly rising cost of healthcare is putting pressure on employers and employees, with those companies that do provide health coverage requiring employees to pay increasingly larger shares of their healthcare coverage costs. Then there is the matter of pensions. Employers have been cutting back on benefits to pensioners as the cost pressure of healthcare and the demands of investors to constantly increase profits combine to force employers to squeeze employees.

Those who argued for globalization and free trade claimed that the benefits resulting from that trade offset the losses in, say, manufacturing jobs that occurred here as a result. But, the loss of manufacturing jobs was only the beginning. Today, increasing numbers of so-called white collar jobs are being shipped overseas.

One of the primary proponents of free trade during the Clinton Administration, former Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin has even come around to admitting that the cost of globalization to middle class Americans has been higher than he anticipated. Rubin wrote recently:
"Prosperity has neither trickled down nor rippled outward. Between 1973 and 2003, real GDP per capita in the United States increased 73 percent, while real median hourly compensation rose only 13 percent."
Income inequality in Louisiana ranks 16th in the nation, according to one study.

This widening inequality gap comes during a time of record corporate profits, in the wake of a series of massive tax cuts for the very wealthy (which will only widen the gap), and unrelenting pressure at the gas pump and in the bills arriving in the mail.

So, I went to Lake Charles to support those union members and to let them know that they are fighting for a lot more people than just their 900 or so fellow union members at their plant. If you want to see whose side Charles Boustany is standing on, check out the list of PAC contributors to his past and current campaigns. Who interests do you think he's looking out for?

No doubt the operators of other plants in the Lake Charles are watching the outcome of this strike at PPG to see if the company can break this union and take away the pay and benefits that workers there have used to build good lives for themselves and their families.

Investor Warren Buffett has been quoted as saying that there is class warfare in the United States "and our side is winning!"

A forthcoming book argues that the "demand side" programs of the New Deal which promoted equality, opportunity, economic security, and upward mobility helped strengthen the nation's bonds to democracy which had been tested during the Great Depression. This widening gap of inequality, then, threatens not just our economic well-being, but ultimately our political order. Look no further than Latin America for lessons about what happens to political stability when the middle class is not growing or stable.

Under the current Republican administration and the current Republican Congress, the economic policy emphasis has been to comfort the comfortable and (at best) ignore the afflicted. We continue to follow that path at great peril to our republic.

So, there is a bigger fight underway in Lake Charles than just that strike, the significance of which extends far beyond that community. I went to the Machinists' rally to stand with them and with the other members of the middle and working class who are running faster every day just trying to keep from falling behind.

The bargaining teams were supposed to return to the negotiating table on Wednesday. PPG has tweaked their offer. The Lake Charles American Press reports that union members they talked with are "cool to the offer."

Again, it's a company with record sales and profits trying to squeeze more concessions out of their employees. Meanwhile, Republicans are still trying to find ways to shovel more tax breaks to the Paris Hiltons of the world.

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