This Labor Day, Remember That Martin Luther King’s Last Campaign Was for Workers’ Rights

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Sanitation workers strike in Memphis in 1968. (Photo Credit: Richard L. Copley)

Most Americans today know that Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. was killed in Memphis, Tennessee in 1968, but few know why he was there. King went to Memphis to support African American garbage workers, who were on strike to protest unsafe conditions, abusive white supervisors, and low wages — and to gain recognition for their union. Their picket signs relayed a simple but profound message: “I Am A Man.”

Today we view King as something of a saint, his birthday a national holiday, and his name adorning schools and street signs. But in his day, the establishment considered King a dangerous troublemaker. He was harassed by the FBI and vilified in the media. He began his activism in Montgomery, Alabama, as a crusader against the nation’s racial caste system, but the struggle for civil rights radicalized him into a fighter for broader economic and social justice.

As we celebrate Labor Day on Monday, let’s remember that King was committed to building bridges between the civil rights and labor movements.

Invited to address the AFL-CIO’s annual convention in 1961, King observed:

“Our needs are identical with labor’s needs: decent wages, fair working conditions, livable housing, old-age security, health and welfare measures, conditions in which families can grow, have education for their children, and respect in the community. That is why Negroes support labor’s demands and fight laws which curb labor. That is why the labor-hater and labor-baiter is virtually always a twin-headed creature spewing anti-Negro epithets from one mouth and anti-labor propaganda from the other mouth.”

He added:

“The labor movement did not diminish the strength of the nation but enlarged it. By raising the living standards of millions, labor miraculously created a market for industry and lifted the whole nation to undreamed of levels of production. Those who today attack labor forget these simple truths, but history remembers them.”

Several major unions reciprocated King’s support. When he was jailed in Birmingham for participating in civil disobedience, it was Walter Reuther, the charismatic leader of the United Auto Workers (UAW) union, who paid his $165,000 bail.

Several major unions, especially the UAW and the International Ladies Garment Workers, had donated money to civil rights groups, supported the sit-ins and freedom rides, and helped organize the massive 1963 March on Washington, where King delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech.

We often forget that its official name was the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom and that its manifesto called on Congress not only to pass a civil rights bill but also “a national minimum wage act that will give all Americans a decent standard of living.” The manifesto pointed out that “anything less than $2.00 an hour fails to do this.”

In 1963, the minimum wage was $1.25 — the equivalent of $9.83 in today’s dollars. A $2 minimum wage in 1963 would be $15.73 an hour today.

In the 1960s, the sit-ins (a tactic adopted from workers’ sit-down strikes in the 1930s), Freedom Rides, mass marches, and voter registration drives eventually led Congress to enact the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. King was proud of the civil rights movement’s success in winning the passage of those important laws. But he realized that neither law did much to provide better jobs or housing for the large numbers of low-income African Americans in the cities and rural areas. He recognized the limits of breaking down legal segregation.

“What does it profit a man to be able to eat at an integrated lunch counter if he doesn’t earn enough money to buy a hamburger and a cup of coffee?” King asked.

King observed: “Negroes are not the only poor in the nation. There are nearly twice as many white poor as Negro, and therefore the struggle against poverty is not involved solely with color or racial discrimination but with elementary economic justice.” To achieve economic justice, King said, “there must be a better distribution of wealth within this country for all God’s children.”

“There is nothing but a lack of social vision to prevent us from paying an adequate wage to every American whether he [or she] is a hospital worker, laundry worker, maid, or day laborer,” said King.

In a speech to the Illinois AFL-CIO in 1965, King said:

“The two most dynamic movements that reshaped the nation during the past three decades are the labor and civil rights movements. Our combined strength is potentially enormous. We have not used a fraction of it for our own good or for the needs of society as a whole. If we make the war on poverty a total war; if we seek higher standards for all workers for an enriched life, we have the ability to accomplish it, and our nation has the ability to provide it. lf our two movements unite their social pioneering initiative, thirty years from now people will look back on this day and honor those who had the vision to see the full possibilities of modern society and the courage to fight for their realization. On that day, the brotherhood of man, undergirded by economic security, will be a thrilling and creative reality.”

A half-century before Occupy Wall Street, King warned about the “gulf between the haves and the have-nots” and insisted that America needed a “better distribution of wealth.”

Thus, it was not surprising that Memphis’ civil rights and union leaders invited King to their city to help draw national attention to the garbage strike.

The strike began over the mistreatment of 22 sewer workers who reported for work on January 31, 1968, and were sent home when it began raining. White employees were not sent home. When the rain stopped after an hour or so, they continued to work and were paid for the full day, while the black workers lost a day’s pay. The next day, two sanitation workers, Echol Cole and Robert Walker, were crushed to death by a malfunctioning city garbage truck.

These two incidents epitomized the workers’ long-standing grievances. Wages averaged about $1.70 per hour. Forty percent of the workers qualified for welfare to supplement their poverty-level salaries. They had almost no health care benefits, pensions, or vacations. They worked in filthy conditions, and lacked basic amenities like a place to eat and shower. They were required to haul leaky garbage tubs that spilled maggots and debris on them. White supervisors called them “boy” and arbitrarily sent them home without pay for minor infractions that they overlooked when white workers did the same thing. The workers asked Memphis Mayor Henry Loeb and the City Council to improve their working conditions, but they refused to do so.

On February 12, 1,300 black sanitation workers walked off their jobs, demanding that the city recognize their union (the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, AFSCME) and negotiate to resolve their grievances. They also demanded a pay increase to $2.35 an hour, overtime pay, and merit promotions without regard to race.

For the next several months, city officials refused to negotiate with the union. In private, Mayor Loeb reportedly told associates, “I’ll never be known as the mayor who signed a contract with a Negro union.”

The city used non-union workers and supervisors to pick up garbage downtown, from hospitals, and in residential areas. Even so, thousands of tons of garbage piled up. Community support for the strikers grew steadily. The NAACP endorsed the strike and sponsored all-night vigils and pickets at City Hall. On February 23, 1,500 people — strikers and their supporters — packed City Hall chambers, but the all-white City Council voted to back the mayor’s refusal to recognize the union.

Local ministers (led by Rev. James Lawson) formed a citywide group to support the strikers. They called on their congregants to participate in rallies and marches, donate to the strike fund, and boycott downtown stores in order to get business leaders to pressure city officials to negotiate with the union. On Sunday, March 3, an eight-hour gospel singing marathon at Mason Temple raised money for strikers. The next day, the beginning of the fourth week of the strike, 500 white labor unionists from Memphis and other Tennessee cities joined black ministers and sanitation workers in their daily downtown march.

On several occasions, the police attacked the strikers with clubs and mace. They harassed protestors and even arrested strike leaders for jaywalking. On March 5, 117 strikers and supporters were arrested for sitting in at city hall. Six days later, hundreds of students skipped high school to participate in a march led by black ministers. Two students were arrested.

At the rallies, ministers and union activists linked the workers’ grievances with the black community’s long-standing anger over police abuse, slum housing, segregated and inadequate schools, and the concentration of blacks in the lowest-paying, dirtiest jobs.

Despite the escalating protest, the city establishment dug in its heals, refusing to compromise and demanding that the strikers return to work or risk losing their jobs. The local daily newspaper, the Commercial Appeal, consistently opposed the strikers. “Memphis garbage strikers have turned an illegal walk out into anarchy,” it wrote in one editorial, “and Mayor Henry Loeb is exactly right when he says, ‘We can’t submit to this sort of thing!’”

Mayor Loeb and City Attorney Frank B. Gianotti persuaded a local judge to issue an injunction prohibiting the strike and picketing. The union and its allies refused to end their protests. Several union leaders — AFSCME’s international president Jerry Wurf, Local 1733 President T.O. Jones, and national staffers William Lucy and P. J. Ciampa — were cited for contempt, sentenced to 10 days in jail, fined $50, and freed pending appeal.

With tensions rising and no compromise in sight, local ministers and AFSCME invited King to Memphis to re-energize the local movement, lift the strikers’ flagging spirits, and encourage them to remain nonviolent. On Monday, March 18, King spoke at a rally attended by 17,000 people and called for a citywide march. He said:

“One day our society will come to respect the sanitation worker if it is to survive, for the person who picks up our garbage, in the final analysis, is as significant as the physician, for if he doesn’t do his job, diseases are rampant. All labor has dignity.”

His speech triggered national media attention, and catalyzed the rest of the labor movement to expand its support for the strikers.

King returned to Memphis on Thursday, March 28, to lead a march. The police moved into crowds with night sticks, mace, tear gas, and gunfire. The police arrested 280 people. 60 were injured. A 16-year-old boy, Larry Payne, was shot to death. The state legislature authorized a 7 p.m. curfew and 4,000 National Guardsmen moved in. The next day, 300 sanitation workers and supporters marched peacefully and silently to City Hall — escorted by five armored personnel carriers, five jeeps, three large military trucks, and dozens of Guardsmen with bayonets fixed. President Lyndon Johnson and AFL-CIO President George Meany offered their help in resolving the dispute, but Mayor Loeb turned them down.

King came back to Memphis on Wednesday, April 3 to address a rally to pressure city officials to negotiate a compromise solution to the strike. That night, at the Mason Temple — packed with over 10,000 black workers and residents, ministers, white union members, white liberals, and students — King delivered what would turn out to be his last speech. He emphasized the linked fate of the civil rights and labor movements:

“Memphis Negroes are almost entirely a working people. Our needs are identical with labor’s needs — decent wages, fair working conditions, livable housing, old age security, health and welfare measures, conditions in which families can grow, have education for their children and respect in the community. That is why Negroes support labor’s demands and fight laws which curb labor. That is why the labor-hater and labor-baiter is virtually always a twin-headed creature spewing anti-Negro epithets from one mouth and anti-labor propaganda from the other mouth.”

The next day, James Earl Ray assassinated King as he stood on the balcony outside his room at the Lorraine Hotel.

As Time magazine noted at the time: “Ironically, it was the violence of Martin Luther King’s death rather than the nonviolence of his methods that ultimately broke the city’s resistance” and led to the strike settlement.

President Johnson ordered federal troops to Memphis and instructed Undersecretary of Labor James Reynolds to mediate the conflict and settle the strike. The following week, King’s widow, Coretta Scott King, and dozens of national figures led a peaceful memorial march through downtown Memphis in tribute to King and in support of the strike. Local business leaders, tired of the boycott and the downtown demonstrations, urged Loeb to come to terms with the strikers.

On April 16, union leaders and city officials reached an agreement. The City Council passed a resolution recognizing the union. The 14-month contract included union dues check-off, a grievance procedure, and wage increases of 10 cents per hour May 1 and another five cents in September. Members of AFSCME Local 1733 approved the agreement unanimously and ended their strike.

The settlement wasn’t only a victory for the sanitation workers. The strike had mobilized the African American community, which subsequently became increasingly involved in local politics and school and jobs issues, and which developed new allies in the white community.

Like the civil rights movement of the 1960s, there is a growing movement in the United States today protesting the nation’s widening economic inequality and persistent poverty.

One of the most vibrant crusades is the ongoing battle to raise the minimum wage. In the past 40 years, the federal minimum wage — stuck at $7.25 since 2009 because Republicans in Congress have refused to act — has lost 30% of its value.

As a result, low-wage workers for fast-food chains and big box retailers, janitors, security guards, day laborers, and others have forged a grassroots movement to pressure their employers (like Walmart and McDonalds) to raise starting salaries and benefits. These workers and their allies have engaged in civil disobedience and strikes to galvanize public opinion.

Coalitions of unions, community organizations, faith-based and immigrant rights groups have also successfully pushed cities and states to adopt minimum wage laws that will pay families enough to meet basic needs. A growing number of cities — including Seattle, Los Angeles, Kansas City, Chicago, San Francisco, Washington, D.C., Pasadena, and many others — have passed minimum wage laws that will gradually reach between $13 and $15 an hour, typically with an annual cost-of-living increase. Los Angeles County — the nation’s largest county — adopted a law that will raise the minimum wage to $15 in unincorporated cities. Earlier this year California and New York adopted state laws to bring the minimum wage to $15 an hour. Massachusetts adopted a $15 minimum wage for home care workers.

In recent years, New York, California, Massachusetts, and Hawaii have adopted different versions of the Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights that provides new protections for nannies, babysitters, senior care aides, housekeepers and others — primarily women and many of them immigrants — who are excluded from federal labor protections.

A growing number of cities (including Philadelphia, Austin, Seattle, Cincinnati, Kansas City, Portland (Oregon), Chicago, Minneapolis, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C), counties (including Missoula County in Montana, Pima County in Arizona, and Kings County in Washington), and states (including California, New Jersey, and Rhode Island) have adopted laws providing government employees, and in some places all employees, with paid family leave — a right that workers in most other countries already take for granted. These laws require employers to pay workers’ salaries if they take time off from work to care for a new child following birth, adoption, or foster placement, to recover from a pregnancy or childbirth-related disability, and/or to take care of sick family members. As the number of cities and states with such laws continues to grow, Congress will be under increasing pressure to adopt similar policies at the federal level.

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” King wrote in his Letter From Birmingham Jail. “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

Just as King helped build bridges between the labor and civil rights movements, today’s union activists are forging closer ties to the immigrant rights, women’s rights, and environmental justice movements, as well as to struggles to reform Wall Street and to challenge the proliferation of guns and the mass incarceration of people of color.

In his final speech at Memphis’ Mason Temple on April 3, 1968, King, only 39 at the time, told the crowd about a bomb threat on his plane from Atlanta that morning, saying he knew that his life was constantly in danger because of his political activism.

“I would like to live a long life,” he said. “Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And he’s allowed me to go up to the mountain, and I’ve looked over, and I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight that we as a people will get to the promised land.”

We haven’t gotten there yet. But King is still with us in spirit. The best way to honor his memory this Labor Day and every day is to continue the struggle for human dignity, workers’ rights, living wages, and social justice.

Peter Dreier is E.P. Clapp Distinguished Professor of Politics, and chair of the Urban & Environmental Policy Department, at Occidental College. His most recent book is The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century: A Social Justice Hall of Fame (Nation Books, 2012). His other books include: Place Matters: Metropolitics for the 21st Century (University Press of Kansas, 3rd edition, 2014), and The Next Los Angeles: The Struggle for a Livable City(University of California Press, revised 2006). He writes regularly for the Los Angeles Times, Common Dreams, The Nation, and Huffington Post.


Union sellouts promote Democratic wage-cutters

Labor Day in America


8 September 2015

Monday’s official Labor Day events highlighted the anti-working class lineup of the trade unions and the Democratic Party in the United States. In the face of mounting working-class anger and disgust with both big-business parties, the professional sellouts who run what is called the labor movement did their best to promote the myth that the Democrats speak for the working man.

Labor Day events called by the AFL-CIO and other unions in Boston, Pittsburgh and Detroit attracted few workers. In New York City, the labor federation has not even bothered to hold an event for years.

The disaffection of workers with these organizations stood in sharp contrast to the praise heaped on them by President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden. In Boston, Obama spoke before a rally of 700 people, overwhelmingly union bureaucrats and Democratic Party officials, before inviting American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten and Service Employees International Union President Mary Kay Henry to fly back to Washington, DC with him on Air Force One.

In Pittsburgh, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka and United Steelworkers President Leo Gerard hosted Vice President Joe Biden, who is considering a run for the Democratic presidential nomination against Hillary Clinton, whose campaign shows signs of foundering.

Obama and Biden both decried worsening conditions for the “middle class” and record levels of social inequality, evidently hoping that no one would notice that they have been in power for the past six-and-a-half years.

With a straight face, Obama declared that he had “walked the walk” when it came to protecting “the middle class.” He denounced the Republicans for waging a “constant attack on working Americans” and expecting that “prosperity will come raining down on us from the top of whatever high-rise in New York City.”

In Pittsburgh, Vice President Biden did his “ordinary Joe” routine. “I am mad, I am angry” about the way workers have been “clobbered” in recent years, he shouted. Pointing to rising worker productivity alongside declining wages, he put on his “candid” face and said, “Here’s the deal, folks: It’s set up that way.”

Do these corporate-controlled politicians really think the American people are that stupid?

Biden pretends that he and the administration for which he speaks are not part of the “set-up.” In fact, the Obama administration has proven to be a ruthless enforcer of the demands of the corporate/financial elite.

Obama expanded the Wall Street bailout, handing trillions of dollars to the criminals who wrecked the economy. He then utilized the financial meltdown to restructure the auto industry on the basis of brutal pay cuts, setting a precedent for the transformation of the US into a low-wage economy.

In the midst of the deepest slump since the Great Depression, the administration starved state and city governments of resources, leading to the destruction of hundreds of thousands of education and public-sector jobs and the gutting of workers’ pensions. Obama’s Affordable Care Act set in motion the dismantling of employer-paid health insurance and massive cuts in the Medicare insurance system for the elderly.

At the same time, Obama oversaw a record rise in stock prices, corporate profits and CEO pay on the basis of virtually free cash for the financial elite, compliments of the Federal Reserve Board.

In introducing Biden in Pittsburgh, USW President Gerard praised him as the force behind a job-creation boom under Obama. “Joe Biden has been in the room, he has been the voice of working people in that room,” Gerard declared.

What job creation? A Labor Day 2015 report by the National Employment Law Project noted the “historically low employment rate of prime-age workers and the stubbornly high number of individuals unemployed for longer than six months.” The real unemployment rate—which includes those working part-time who want full-time work and those who have stopped searching but would take a job if one were available—remains at more than 10 percent.

The new jobs that have been created—largely part-time and in low-paying service industries—have replaced better-paid jobs wiped out by the corporations after the 2008 financial crash. Real median wages have fallen by four percent since the recession officially ended in mid-2009. The lowest-paid workers have suffered an average 5.7 percent decline in real wages.

The Economic Policy Institute reports that net productivity growth of 21.6 percent from 2000 to 2014 translated into a mere 1.8 percent rise in inflation-adjusted compensation for the median worker. In other words, eight percent of productivity growth went to labor, while 92 percent went to capital.

In the latest of a series of token “pro-labor” gestures, Obama signed an executive order Monday requiring federal contractors to provide up to seven days of paid sick leave a year. The order will apply only to new federal contracts starting in 2017. It will affect at most 300,000 workers, a miniscule fraction of the working class.

The unions and their “left” apologists are once again seeking to throttle working-class opposition by channeling it behind the Democratic Party, which has deservedly been called the graveyard of social protest.

These efforts include the Democratic presidential campaign of Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, who has attracted a following with his denunciations of the “billionaire class” and condemnations of social inequality. The fact that Sanders, a longstanding ally of the Democratic Party, calls himself a socialist has made him all the more attractive to workers and youth looking for an alternative to the existing economic and political system.

But this supposed “socialist” has made it clear that the principal aim of his campaign is to restore credibility and revive flagging popular support for this anti-working class party of war and social reaction.

The substantive differences between the two parties of big business are marginal. One tactical difference is that the Republicans tend to oppose the unions while the Democrats prefer to use the services of the trade union bureaucracy to suppress the class struggle.

At the beginning of the year, there was speculation in the media about a wages push, with some 5 million workers coming up for contracts in 2015. There were warnings that the mounting anger of workers, after the longest period of wage stagnation since the Great Depression, would fuel a revival of class struggle.

That no wages offensive has as yet emerged is due to the sabotage of the trade unions. Just last week, the United Steelworkers ordered 30,000 members at US Steel and ArcelorMittal to continue working without a contract, leaving 2,200 workers locked out at Allegheny Technologies to fight the company on their own.

There are hundreds of thousands of workers—at Verizon and AT&T, at the US Postal Service, in school districts in Chicago, Detroit, Pittsburgh and other cities—who have been blocked by the unions from taking action against further concession demands.

In a week’s time, contracts for 140,000 autoworkers at GM, Ford and Fiat Chrysler are set to expire. Far from preparing a struggle, the United Auto Workers has pledged never to return to the days of “uncompetitive” labor agreements.

The UAW has offered to take over the provision of medical benefits for all Big Three autoworkers—active and retired, union and nonunion—in order to gain access to multibillion-dollar trust funds. In return for this new stream of revenue for the army of union bureaucrats, the union will take over the job of cutting health benefits for workers and agree to impose other concessions demanded by the companies.

The artificial suppression of the class struggle has its limits. Like workers in Greece, Germany and other European countries, and workers in Latin America, Asia and Africa, US workers are being thrust into a political confrontation with the capitalist system. This brings the workers into an ever more direct conflict with the corporatist arms, businesses in their own right, of the companies and the government—the unions.

Jerry White

The Obama administration and labor

3 September 2014

American workers had little to celebrate on Labor Day, which is celebrated in the United States on the first Monday in September. Six years after the Wall Street crash of 2008, inequality is at record levels and workers confront mass unemployment, declining wages, growing poverty and a general deterioration in their conditions of life.

The capitalist system is in deep crisis. Detroit, once the center of American manufacturing, is in bankruptcy, with court proceedings on a corporate-dictated “plan of adjustment” resuming yesterday. Over the prior week, some 900 of the city’s households were cut off from one of the basic necessities of life—water. Social tensions are mounting, as revealed in the eruption of protests last month over the police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, followed by a crackdown that placed the city under de facto martial law.

Reports on social conditions reveal an economic disaster for the majority of the population. The New York Times reported Sunday that the type of wholesale wage theft prevalent before the creation of the industrial unions has once again re-emerged at major American companies. Yesterday, Gallup reported that the typical worker employed full-time now works 46.7 hours, nearly an entire additional eight-hour day, rendering the 40-hour workweek a relic of the past.

The country is riven by class divisions, with the government functioning as an arm of the corporations and banks. The unbridgeable chasm between the experiences of working people and the political establishment was exemplified by the Labor Day speeches given by President Barack Obama in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and Vice President Joseph Biden in Detroit, Michigan.

The ritualized Labor Day demonstrations and speeches are themselves political non-events for most of the population. They are organized by trade unions that are deeply discredited, with the aim of keeping working class opposition bottled up within the capitalist two-party system. This year they had the particular function of attempting to hustle votes for the Democratic Party in the upcoming midterm elections.

Obama, in comments dripping with complacency and indifference, boasted of his economic “recovery” and praised the record surge in stock prices and corporate profits. “It’s a good thing that corporate profits are high,” he said. “I want American businesses to succeed. It’s a good thing that the stock market is booming.”

The fact that a president sees fit to applaud, at an event supposedly dedicated to “labor,” the parasitic enrichment of Wall Street is indicative of the state of American politics. His comments were directed at reassuring Wall Street that there would be no let-up on attacks on jobs and social programs, no end to free cash from the Federal Reserve, and no change in a policy that has given the corporate criminals who crashed the economy in 2008 a free pass.

Speaking in Detroit, Vice President Biden played a complementary role, engaging in empty, pseudo-populist rhetoric in an attempt to maintain the fiction that the Obama administration and the Democratic Party are somehow partisans of what they invariably refer to as the “middle class.”

Biden’s speech was a mind-boggling collection of internal contradictions—pretending to be indignant about the situation facing working people while acting as if the policies of the administration of which he is a part had nothing to do with it.

“Why did corporations used to shoulder 33 percent of the tax burden in America, and now they’re only shouldering ten percent?” asked Biden, who supports his administration’s plan to reduce corporate taxes from 35 to 25 percent.

“Why do CEOs now make 333 times more money than a line worker, when back when Reagan was president they made 25 times what the line worker made?” he asked, ignoring the fact that his administration blocked the imposition of any real restraints on the pay of executives of bailed-out banks and corporations.

“Why on earth has corporate productivity gone up eight times faster than your salaries?” he asked, skipping over the fact that the Obama administration imposed massive cuts in workers’ wages as part of its restructuring of the US auto industry.

Biden spoke about the “revival” of American manufacturing, particularly in the auto industry, concealing the fact that the restoration of a small percentage of the jobs wiped out in the course of decades of deindustrialization was entirely based on wage-cutting and speedup, which had dramatically narrowed the labor cost gap between American workers and those in Asia and Latin America.

Biden, speaking virtually within a stone’s throw of the ruins of auto plants that once employed tens of thousands of workers, made no mention of the Detroit bankruptcy or the shutoff of water to thousands of city residents. He and his administration fully support the bankruptcy, which is intended to serve as a model of austerity for the entire country.

He did allude to the destabilizing impact of rising social inequality. “The middle class is the reason why America, unlike any other nation… has been so stable, economically, politically and socially,” he declared. “As long as you believed that if you played by the rules you could make it—that’s the glue that held all this together.”

The ruling class is well aware of the growth of social anger and is haunted by its revolutionary implications. The “glue holding all this together” has evaporated. The response of the corporate and financial oligarchy, however, is not social reform policies, of which it has none to offer, but rather military-police violence. The crackdown in Ferguson last month, coming after the shutdown of Boston last year, is an indication of the methods the ruling class will use against social opposition from the working class.

Andre Damon

Temp labor at record levels in US

By Andre Damon
2 September 2014

The Obama administration marked Labor Day 2014 with demagogic speeches by President Obama in Milwaukee and Vice President Joseph Biden in Detroit—speeches that were notable mainly for the brazenness of their dishonesty and cynicism.

Obama and Biden postured as partisans of what they referred to as the “middle class,” even as a number of reports emerged documenting the devastating decline in conditions for the working class under the current administration.

In his remarks, Obama portrayed the US economy as recovering at a rapid clip from the economic slump, with unemployment falling and hiring picking up. “By almost every measure, the American economy and American workers are better off than when I took office,” Obama declared.

He praised the run-up on the stock market and the record pace of corporate profits. “It’s a good thing that corporate profits are high,” he said. “I want American businesses to succeed. It’s a good thing that the stock market is booming.”

The fact that Obama hails the enrichment of the financial aristocracy in a Labor Day speech reflects the vast chasm separating the political and corporate establishment for which he speaks and the overwhelming majority of the American people.

Speaking at a Labor Day event in Detroit, Biden took a somewhat different tack. He presented himself as an opponent of corporate greed and cited statistics reflecting the growth of inequality and decline in the living standards of American workers.

“Why do CEOs now make 333 times more money than a line worker, when back when Reagan was president they made 25 times what the line worker made?” he asked. Speaking before an audience dominated by trade union bureaucrats and workers close to the union apparatus, he acted as though the grim picture of conditions for working people he outlined had nothing to do with himself personally or the government of which he is a part.

Both events were organized by the unions and had as their principal aim drumming up support for the Democratic Party in the upcoming midterm elections from a population that is increasingly alienated from the entire political establishment.

The disastrous economic conditions for working people, compounded by the policies of the Obama administration, were revealed in a series of reports published over the weekend.

The National Employment Law Project (NELP) reported that both the number of people working for labor contractors and the percentage of the workforce employed by such companies have hit record highs. According to figures from the American Staffing Agency, more than 12 million people, or ten percent of the labor force, worked for a temporary employment agency at some point in 2013.

The NELP report showed that, far from being confined to clerical work, temporary workers are increasingly being employed in industry and warehousing. A record 42 percent of temporary workers are now employed in such industries, up from 28 percent in 1990.

Workers employed by staffing agencies are subject to lower wages, making an average of $3.40 per hour less than traditional employees. They are more likely to be injured or killed on the job, according to a recent study published by the American Journal of Industrial Medicine.

The NELP report concluded: “Major corporations now use [temporary] staffing as a permanent feature of their business model,” adding that “Seventy-seven percent of Fortune 500 firms now use third-party logistics firms, who may then contract out to an army of smaller firms to move their goods.”

On Sunday, the New York Times carried a report documenting a series of high-profile lawsuits against major corporations that falsified workers’ time sheets, used accounting dodges to avoid paying overtime or withheld base pay owed to their employees.

The article noted that last week a California appeals court ruled that shipping company FedEx deliberately misclassified its delivery drivers as independent contractors, even though they were actually employees, in order to avoid paying them overtime and health and retirement benefits.

Schneider Logistics, which provides warehousing services for Walmart, recently paid $21 million to settle charges that it failed to pay workers legally required overtime. “Plaintiffs indicated they often logged 16-hour days every day of the week. Allegedly, they were not allowed mandatory breaks, not paid overtime and did not even receive minimum wage,” said California attorney Deborah Barron.

California Labor Commissioner Julie Su told the Times: “My agency has found more wages being stolen from workers in California than any time in history… This has spread to multiple industries across many sectors. It’s affected not just minimum-wage workers, but also middle-class workers.”

Workers’ wages, meanwhile, are stagnating or falling across the board. The Economic Policy Institute published a report showing that both low- and middle-income earners have seen their wages fall since 2007, while the wages of those with advanced degrees have remained essentially unchanged.

The capitalist crisis that erupted in 2008 has been used to drive down the conditions of life for working people. Decent-paying jobs have been wiped out and replaced with low-paying jobs. Full-time work has been replaced by part-time, temporary and contingency labor. Increasingly, corporations have resorted to illegal means to rob workers of wages and benefits.

They have been aided and abetted by the Obama administration. The multitrillion-dollar handout to the banks, the restructuring of the auto industry on the basis of 50 percent wage cuts for new-hires, the promotion of “insourcing” by slashing US labor costs are part of a social counterrevolution. These attacks are accompanied by an assault on pensions, employer-paid health coverage, public education and all that remains of the basic social programs enacted in the 1930s and 1960s such as Medicare and Social Security.

On this basis, and with the assistance of the trade unions, Obama has presided over an unprecedented redistribution of wealth from the working class to the corporate and financial aristocracy that runs the country and controls both political parties.