Originally published in New Ground 46, May – June, 1996. Photo by Roman.
by Bob Roman
After a year of damage control following the disastrous 1994 Congressional elections, a counter offensive is beginning to take shape around economic issues of immediate concern to working people across the nation. If Clinton is inclined to paste a smiley face on the current situation, labor and the democratic left have not forgotten Carville’s reminder: “It’s the Economy, Stupid!”
Across the country, DSA has been holding town hall meetings on “Economic Insecurity” to packed rooms. The University of Chicago Youth Section’s [YDS] first town hall meeting in February attracted an audience of over 300. In Boston, a coalition effort led by DSA brought almost 1,000 people together.
The Progressive Caucus has decided to hold a series of monthly hearings on Capitol Hill and in the Districts on the theme of “The Silent Depression – The Collapse of the American Middle-Class.” The first of these hearings, was held in Washington, DC, on March 8.
Caucus chair Bernard Sanders (I-VT) said, in calling for the hearings, “The most important economic issue facing our country is that 90% of the American people since 1973 have seen their standard of living stagnate or decline. The reality is that the average American, whether white-collar manager or blue-collar factory foreman, today is working longer hours for lower pay and in constant fear of a sudden pink slip. Meanwhile, the richest people in America have never had it so good.”
Future hearings will be held around the country and will address issues ranging from whether we need a new national jobs policy, how to offset the impact of corporate downsizing to the creation of jobs that pay a living wage. Later in the years hearings will provide an opportunity to explore untried ideas for keeping and creating more good-paying American jobs and achieving more economic justice and security in the context of sustainable economic development.
The AFL-CIO has adopted a strategy similar to DSA’s Activist Agenda. The campaign links its legislative, organizing, bargaining and political efforts under the slogan “America Needs a Raise”. AFL-CIO President John Sweeney announced in February the labor federation would hold a series of town hall meetings from March through May to hear from workers on the impact of stagnant wages on their families. Organized labor will also support the Jobs and Living Wage campaigns in states and cities around the country. The AFL-CIO will hold a town hall meeting in support of an increase in the minimum wage on Wednesday, May 29. At press time, the venue and program were to be determined.
The campaign begins in Chicago with a rally on April 24th in support of the Jobs and Living Wage Ordinance and the Minimum Wage bill (HR 620). The event will take place at 5 PM in downtown Chicago in conjunction with SEIU’s national convention. At press time, the exact venue for the rally had not been finalized, but the initial plans had it located at the band shell in Grant Park. AFL-CIO President John Sweeney will be a featured speaker.
The Jobs and Living Wage Ordinance will be formally introduced into the Chicago City Council at the May meeting of the Council. The measure, patterned after similar ordinances introduced in major cities around the country, provides that companies contracting with or subsidized by the city pay a living wage. The Chicago ordinance also has provision for community based hiring halls for non-construction employees.
The campaign for the Jobs and Living Wage Ordinance is led by Chicago ACORN and SEIU Local 880 under the auspices of Chicago Jobs with Justice. The campaign is very well organized and it brings together a broad coalition of labor and community groups. Nearly every Alderman has a group assigned to lobby in favor of the Ordinance. A video has been produced to popularize the issue. Economic research is being done to investigate the effect on business and the city’s finances.
But opposition to the Ordinance is also organizing. The Ordinance has been attacked by CANDO, the Chicago Association of Neighborhood Development Organizations, on the grounds of “business climate” and paperwork. They also do not like the hiring hall idea. Some of CANDO’s arguments could have merit. The quality of the debate is demonstrated by the lack of any effort by CANDO to get these concerns addressed prior to the introduction of the ordinance.
In Congress, the counter offensive is mostly centered on two “wedge” bills, the Corporate Responsibility Act (HR2534) and the Income Equity Act (HR 620). Neither of these bills have much chance of passing in this Congress, but the campaign in support of them frames the issues of economic insecurity and budget priorities in ways that are awkward for conservatives; they bring issues of class to the forefront.
The Corporate Responsibility Act was part of the reaction to the conservative victory in the 1994 elections. A relatively large and complicated bill, it raised the issue of “corporate welfare” at a time when social programs were under increasing attack. The bill closes a number of a number of tax loopholes favored by corporations and the wealthy. It also ends a number of Federally financed research and development projects that are viewed as being primarily corporate boondoggles.
Unfortunately, this approach to the issue runs into the ambiguities of the Federal budgeting process and the issue of industrial policy. There is no way to distinguish between “handouts” and “investments” in the current Federal budgeting process and there is no way to track the performance of “investments” even if there were agreement on which is which. Under the current Federal budgets, one person’s “welfare” could easily be another person’s “investment”.
The Income Equity Act is simply a bill to raise the Federal minimum wage from $4.25 an hour to $6.50 an hour. It also has an interesting provision which closes a tax loophole that rewards employers that pay their most highly paid employees more than 25 times their lowest paid employee. This bill also dates back to 1995, but it has attracted the majority of its cosponsors in this session of Congress.
Your support for these two bills is important. Legislators need to understand that the balance of power and wealth needs to begin tilting toward the working people. Enclosed with this issue of New Ground is a postcard, courtesy of Share the Wealth, to send to your Congressman. The address is: U.S. House of Representatives, Washington, DC 20515. Don’t forget to include your name and return address. Don’t delay! Do it today! (And it only takes a 20¢ stamp!)