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Years of Discontent Trigger American Autumn

8:28 am in Uncategorized by Leo W. Gerard

To convey the significance of the Occupy Wall Street movement, NBC News anchor Brian Williams this week quoted the 1960s Buffalo Springfield song, For What It’s Worth:

“There is something happening here. What it is ain’t exactly clear.”

Maybe it’s unclear what the Occupy Wall Street movement ultimately will accomplish. But what’s happening – for the past three weeks in New York and now in hundreds of towns across North America – is a roiling, inspirational, grassroots expression of anger, disgust and revolution.

And, frankly, given what’s been going on in the United States since the bank bailout, it’s amazing that this uprising didn’t precede the Arab Spring. The powers-that-be, from the rich and influential to their coin-operated politicians and corporate-owned media, have mocked and belittled and ignored the protesters, the 99 percenters as they call themselves – everyone but the richest one percent. No matter what the critics say, these young people, with righteous outrage and new age communication, have launched the American Autumn.

This revolt could have started in the spring of 2009, immediately after the Bush administration pushed through Congress the Troubled Asset Relieve Program (TARP), the $700 billion in taxpayer money spent to prop up banks that had gambled and lost untold trillions. A Bloomberg News investigation later would show that the United States lent, spent or guaranteed as much as $12.8 trillion to save the banks. Despite that help, the Wall Street recklessness ruined the American economy, throwing tens of millions out of jobs and homes.

Poverty and hunger skyrocketed in the richest country in the world. As tax revenue fell, states, towns and school districts slashed essential public services and laid off teachers, librarians, firefighters and police officers.

Maybe it just took this long for the middle class to grasp all the horrible effects of the Wall Street gambling and to realize that a government held hostage by country club conservatives bent on cutting public services just made matters worse. Maybe young people looked at unrestrained war spending, Pell Grant slashing and voter disenfranchising and decided they were fed up and not going to take foreclosure of their futures anymore.

Whatever the spark, the American Autumn began three weeks ago in New York City’s Zuccotti Park, formerly Liberty Square. Late in September, some of the one percenters sipped Champaign on an upscale restaurant balcony as they looked down on the protesters in the streets below. This week, as protests spread, wealthy risk-takers at the Chicago Board of Trade put signs in the windows of their ritzy offices bragging, “We are the 1 percent.” They don’t get it.

Nor does Bank of America. Here’s a bank bailed out by taxpayers that just announced it would begin imposing a new fee – $5 a month, $60 a year – on debit card users. This bank also just announced that it would worsen the recession caused by bankster recklessness by laying off 30,000 workers.

This is a bank that engaged in the habitual, anti-capitalistic Wall Street practice of rewarding poor executive performance by giving its CEO Brian T. Moynihan a $9 million bonus immediately after the institution he runs lost $2.2 billion in 2010. Moynihan responded to criticism of the $5 fee by saying customers – and ultimately taxpayers — must line his pockets and that of shareholders, regardless of how badly he runs the bank or how stupidly he gambles with its money. That’s because, he asserted, the bank has a “right to make a profit.” No matter what.

The media and country club conservatives belittled the protesters. Here’s what Herman Cain, a Tea Partier seeking the GOP nomination for president, said:

“Don’t blame Wall Street, don’t blame the big banks if you don’t have a job or you’re not rich. Blame yourself!”

He continued:

“It’s not a person’s fault because they succeeded. It’s a person’s fault if they failed. And so this is why I don’t understand these demonstrations and what it is that they’re looking for.”

He called the protesters “anti-capitalist,” although it was the banks that sought a socialist bailout from the government when they got themselves in trouble.

Cain didn’t blame banksters for unemployment, even though it was Wall Street gambling that took down the economy. He blames the teachers and police officers thrown out of work by local governments that are cash-strapped as a result of the recession — caused by Wall Street recklessness.

Cain and the media keep saying they don’t understand what the protesters want. They just don’t get it.

A specific list of demands is unnecessary. What the 99 percenters want is obvious. They want the American dream restored. Good public education for everyone. Equity in opportunity. Shared sacrifice so that the rich pay a tax rate at least equal to that charged the middle class. An end to poverty and unemployment in the richest country in the world.

In the Buffalo Springfield song, For What It’s Worth, lyrics talk of 1960s youths criticized for their protests:

“Young people speaking their minds
Getting so much resistance from behind.”

This time protesters will get backing. The members of my union, the United Steelworkers, get it. Members of the unions of the AFL-CIO and Change to Win federations get it.

We’re here to support the young people of the American Autumn.

Equity and Sensibility

9:52 am in Uncategorized by Leo W. Gerard

A long time ago, in an historical America, lawmakers determined a progressive tax code to be the fairest and most logical for all.

The legislators asked more of those who had benefitted most from the advantages America provides. They asked less of those who benefitted least.

As time passed, the rich and wealthy corporations perverted the progressive tax code. Now what America’s got is a flip-flop under which the fabulously wealthy pay taxes at rates lower than the middle class.

This week, President Obama proposed returning the tax code to a time closer to equity and sensibility. He asked that millionaires and corporations pay taxes at the same rate as the middle class. Not more, as they once did. But at an equal rate. It’s not revolutionary. It’s retro. And it would help create jobs.

It’s an idea whose time has come – again. And it should be implemented immediately.

Obama called it the Buffett Rule after billionaire Warren Buffett who has written repeatedly that he thinks it’s wrong that he pays taxes at a lower rate than his secretary. He spoke out most recently in a New York Times op-ed on Aug. 14 titled, “Stop Coddling the Super-Rich.” Here’s what he said:

“Our leaders have asked for ‘shared sacrifice.’ But when they did the asking, they spared me. I checked with my mega-rich friends to learn what pain they were expecting. They, too, were left untouched.

“While the poor and middle class fight for us in Afghanistan, and while most Americans struggle to make ends meet, we mega-rich continue to get our extraordinary tax breaks.”

His petition to American lawmakers for a return to fairness has been joined by fellow billionaire Mark Cuban and a large group of Americans calling themselves Patriotic Millionaires for Fiscal Strength. In an open letter to political leaders, these millionaires asked to be taxed more. It says:

“We are writing to urge you to put our country ahead of politics.

“For the fiscal health of our nation and the well-being of our fellow citizens, we ask that you increase taxes on incomes over $1,000,000.”

Cuban wrote on his blog that millionaires may choke when they see the size of their tax bills, but then they should rejoice at having such a “problem.” He also said:

“In these times of ‘The Great Recession’ we shouldn’t be trying to shift the benefits of wealth behind some curtain. We should be celebrating and encouraging people to make as much money as they can. Profits equal tax money. While some people might find it distasteful to pay taxes. I don’t. I find it Patriotic.”

The rich are ready to pay their fair share. It’s not fair now. Buffett and the other richest 399 billionaires in America pay an average income tax rate of 16.6 percent, while a worker earning between $35,000 and $84,000 a year pays a marginal rate of 25 percent.

Obama described the simple math of tax rates in seeking institution of the Buffett Rule. The nation is faced with a massive deficit and a crushing recession. America doesn’t receive sufficient tax revenues to buy everything it wants. So it must make choices. It could continue to give the rich and corporations special tax treatment and pay the country’s debts on the backs of the middle class. That would require slashing the programs that sustain workers – Medicare, Medicaid, food inspection, public education, Pell Grants – and the government programs that kindle the economy and provide middle class jobs such as infrastructure construction.

Or America could ask the rich to pay a tax rate equal to that of the middle class. America could end outrageous loophole for massively-profitable corporations – loopholes that not only enabled GE to pay no taxes at all last year but allowed it to demand the government give it $3.2 billion! Asking the rich to pay an equitable rate would raise enough money to moderate cuts to crucial government services.

The wealthy supporters of increasing taxes on the wealthy recognize another benefit of paying more – it increases their ability to earn more. Government services, from public schools and roads to civil courts and patent protections benefit business. Cutting funding for those services threatens business profits.

In addition, if government spends money to renovate schools and improve infrastructure as Obama has proposed in his jobs plan, it creates jobs. Those workers spend money. And that stimulates demand for products.

Only when corporations experience demand will they begin spending some of the record $2 trillion in cash they are now just sitting on to hire new workers. Those new workers will spend their paychecks, further increasing demand. It’s a virtuous cycle. The rich pay more in taxes and get more in profits.

Tax equity is not radical. It’s basic fairness. In fact, it’s not even progressive. Progressive would be returning to the days when the fabulously wealthy and profit-fat corporations paid higher tax rates than the middle class. Progressive would be charging the rich a “wealth tax” each year, not on their earnings but on the value of their holdings. This tax, suggested for the United States by Yale law professors Bruce Ackerman and Anne Alstott in a Los Angeles Times op-ed, already is collected by France, Norway, Switzerland and five other countries.

Parity isn’t progressive. But it is equitable and sensible.

Greed Explains the Disasters and the Lying Afterwards

12:42 pm in Uncategorized by Leo W. Gerard

(This post is by both Leo W. Gerard, International President of the United Steelworkers, and by Cecil Roberts, International President of the United Mine Workers of America)

As oil mucked the Gulf of Mexico and families mourned 11 dead rig workers, BP officials proclaimed that the corporation’s priority always was safety.

This tracked the tack taken by Massey Energy, whose officials also declared safety was paramount after an explosion in the corporation’s Upper Big Branch mine killed 29 workers.

CEOs commonly make such incongruous assertions to protect profits after corporate-caused disasters. They’re driven by the same factor that is fundamental to the catastrophes – greed.

Nothing wrong with that, right? Not in a society that has converted greed from a vice to a virtue. Not in the place that inspired the book, “Greed is Good: The Capitalist Pig Guide to Investing.” Surely it’s no problem in the land where “Greed” has its own game show on Fox and where Ayn Rand, the “money-is-the-root-of-all-good” philosopher, reigns as Republican queen long after her death.

Americans worship God on the Sabbath and the rich every other day. Billionaire Warren Buffett’s word is investment gospel. Americans gave Wall Street banksters hundreds of billions in bailout money — protecting their multi-million dollar bonuses. But in the midst of the Great Recession caused by Wall Street recklessness, America has repeatedly delayed renewal of unemployment benefits and now is terminating federal health insurance support for the furloughed middle class.

Middle class workers are the ones who die in coal mines and on oil rigs.

Afterwards, CEOs say anything to save the bottom line – the one that will determine their bonuses.

Discussing the Upper Big Branch Mine disaster, Massey CEO Don Blankenship told stock analysts in a conference call late in April:

“Some of the implications have been that we don’t focus on safety or we put dollars in front of safety and nothing could be further from the truth.”

Though the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) issued 1,342 safety violation notices to Upper Big Branch over the past five years, Blankenship explained that’s just life in the coal business:

“Violations are unfortunately a normal part of the mining process.”

In addition, Blankenship said the titles of two Massey programs proved safety was supreme:

“The naming of those two programs speaks for itself: S1 – safety is job one; P2 – production is job 2. That’s been the case for my entire tenure.”

Still, 29 miners are dead. And dozens died at Massey mines in the past decade. Three died at Upper Big Branch between 1998 and 2010. The Massey dead include two workers who suffocated in a mine run by Massey subsidiary Aracoma Coal Co. on Jan. 19, 2006, just three months after Blankenship issued a memo ordering underlings to produce coal to the exclusion of other activities, such as building ventilation systems called overcasts. Aracoma officials pleaded guilty in December, 2008, to removing and failing to replace ventilation devices, the lack of which contributed to the suffocation deaths.

And Massey workers aren’t as sure as Don Blanekship that safety is job one. Several spoke to NPR about it. Teddy Cole, who worked a dozen years at Upper Big Branch, said Blankenship prioritizes production:

“It’s supposed to be safety first, but to me, it was production first.”

Former co-worker Brian Jerral agreed:

“A lot of times, it’s production first and safety third.”

Adam Vance, who worked at two Massey mines, described a culture of greed:

“They cover [themselves] with their safety meetings, but the main thing Massey’s out for is to get that all-mighty dollar. If the coal ain’t running, they ain’t making no money.”

And it’s a lot of money for Massey — $1.02 million a day in 2008.

Massey miner Ricky Lee Campbell 24, of Beckley, W.Va., told reporters about his safety concerns on April 7. Massey suspended him a week later, then fired him. He has filed a federal whistle-blower complaint.

Similar to Massey, BP officials claim safety is job one.

Shortly after BP named Tony Hayward CEO in 2007, he told the Houston Chronicle:

"I think we have the opportunity to set a new benchmark in industrial safety. . .We have to have a work environment where people don’t get injured or killed, period."

That was significant since an explosion two years earlier had killed 15 workers and injured another 170 at BP’s Texas City, Texas oil refinery, and federal regulators blamed the catastrophe in part on cost cuts initiated by Hayward’s predecessor. The following year, BP admitted oil leaks into Alaska’s Prudhoe Bay were caused partly by cost cutting.

Despite Hayward’s safety assertions, another 11 workers are dead. And survivors told CNN that PB routinely cut corners and pushed production despite potential safety problems. They also told CNN co-workers had been fired for raising concerns about dangerous practices that could delay drilling if remedied and that BP had insisted on an unsual process shortcut on the day of the blast.

Immediately after the rig explosion, BP contended its under-Gulf pipe was spewing only 1,000 barrels of oil a day. Fairly quickly, it revised that estimate to 5,000 barrels, but continued to refuse to make public its live video of the oil-churning pipe.

After a freedom of information request and Congressional pressure forced BP to release the video, federal officials estimated as much as 40,000 barrels are being discharged daily.

Still, BP’s Hayward flatly denied the existence of underwater oil plumes, saying:

“The oil is on the surface. There aren’t any plumes.”

And he discounted the effect of the unleashed oil on the environment:

“The Gulf of Mexico is a very big ocean. The amount of volume of oil and dispersant we are putting into it is tiny in relation to the total water volume.”

Hayward had a good (greed-based) reason to deny access to the video, discount the amount of oil spewing into the sea and defy the assessment of government and university researchers who confirmed the plumes of dispersed oil stretching for miles beneath the ocean surface. BP will be fined based on the number of barrels of oil its well disgorges into the gulf – somewhere between $1,100 and $4,300 a barrel — depending on whether the government can prove gross negligence.

David Leonhardt, an economics columnist for the New York Times, described BP’s Texas City, Gulf of Mexico and Alaska crises this way:

“Much of this indifference stemmed from an obsession with profits, come what may.”

Greed.

It’s one of the seven deadly sins. When it afflicts corporate CEOs, it’s deadly to workers.

Honest profit is fine. But it’s perverse to celebrate greed, to elevate it over human life.

Change To Believe In or Focus for Hate-Mongering?

1:27 pm in Uncategorized by Leo W. Gerard

When President Barack Obama signed the historic health insurance reform bill, he said it was, “Change we can believe in.” He noted that his party has sought reform for more than half a century. The effort began long before President Harry Truman recommended to Congress on Nov. 19, 1945 a comprehensive health program, noting: “People with low or moderate incomes do not get the same medical attention as those with high incomes. The poor have more sickness, but they get less medical care.”

The legislation Obama signed will tax the wealthy – those earning more than a quarter million dollars a year – to help pay for extending insurance to millions of poor and working people and for guaranteeing insurance companies can’t deny access to those with pre-existing conditions or withdraw coverage from those who get sick.

Republicans have vowed to overturn or repeal this law that would aid tens of millions of Americans. House Republican leader John Boehner yelled, “hell no” repeatedly to the reform proposals and described them as “Armageddon.”

Every historic moment in this country – from the Revolution and the Civil War to the enactment of Social Security and Civil Rights legislation – compelled Americans to assess their values and choose sides. In the case of Civil Rights legislation, for example, some, including the late Republican senator from South Carolina, Strom Thurmond, stood with the Klu Klux Klan and other hate-mongers seeking to deny civil rights to black people. By contrast, others favored peaceful enactment and enforcement of what they perceived to be fair civil rights laws enabling black adults to vote and black children to receive the same quality education as white youngsters.

This is such a moment. Americans must decide what is just and decent in the richest Democracy in the world. They must choose whether to side with the rich and the hate mongers or to align themselves with working people and hope.

“The bill I’m signing will set in motion reforms that generations of Americans have fought for and marched for and hungered to see,” Obama said during the ceremony in the East Room of the White House. That makes it a landmark bill, but it’s also historic because this measure is the first government attempt in thirty years to halt rising income inequality, the New York Times reported a day after the signing.

The wealthy – those earning more than $250,000 a year – will pay for part of the reforms with tax increases. For example, those in the $1 million salary, perks and bonuses club will pay an additional $46,000 a year in 2013, according to the Tax Policy Center, a Washington research group. This million dollar club is the very group that has benefited most over the past eight years from the Bush tax cuts for the rich.

The richest one percent in this club now take in 23.5 percent of all income in this country – the largest percent since 1928, the year before the Great Stock Market Crash and the onset of the Great Depression. Then it was 23.9 percent. Income inequality has risen since the 1970s, when the fortunes of the nation’s rich began skyrocketing while middle class wages stagnated. Simultaneously, the rich got tax rate breaks much larger than those given the middle class and poor.

Beyond taxing the rich, the bill contributes to reducing income inequality in another way. New York Times reporter David Leonhardt described it:

“In the broadest sense, insurance is meant to spread the costs of an individual’s misfortune — illness, death, fire, flood — across society. Since the late 1970s, though, the share of Americans with health insurance has shrunk. As a result, the gap between the economic well-being of the sick and the healthy has been growing, at virtually every level of the income distribution.”

During his presidential campaign, Obama promised to reform health insurance, and signing this bill fulfilled that pledge. Here’s how: It ensures that children with pre-existing conditions get insurance, that adults with pre-existing conditions have access to insurance from a temporary high-risk pool, that senior citizens get help paying for prescriptions during the “donut hole” in their Medicare drug coverage, that every insured person gets free preventive care, that children up to age 26 can stay on their parents’ insurance plans, that no lifetime limit on benefits may be imposed by insurance companies.

It provides for approximately 24 million people who don’t have access to affordable coverage through their employers to get tax credits to buy insurance from new state-based exchanges. It enables everyone who earns less that 133 percent of the poverty level – approximately 16 million people – to get Medicaid. It gives small businesses tax credits of up to 35 percent of premiums to help make coverage affordable for their workers.

And, a benefit for everyone — even the rich — is that the bill will lower the national deficit by $100 billion in the next decade, a determination made by the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office.

Republicans are intent on preventing Americans from receiving these benefits. Republicans in Congress contend they’ll try to repeal the law. A dozen Republican state attorneys general filed suit seeking to overturn it.

Those opposing health insurance reform don’t mention the benefits. Instead, they call names, engage in vandalism and incite violence. Sarah Palin posted a map on her sarahpac website marked with 20 gun sight crosshairs on the congressional districts of Democrats who voted for health insurance reform. The Republican National Committee posted on its website a photo of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi surrounded by flames and urging her firing.

The FBI is investigating death threats made since the vote against Democrats and their families. A brick was thrown through the office window of a New York congresswoman who supported reform and bricks shattered glass doors at a New York Democratic committee office. An Arizona Democrat’s office was vandalized after the vote. Opponents of the bill spit on one Democratic congressman and shouted racial and homophobic slurs at others before the vote and afterward faxed to a black Congressman the image of a noose. Conservative commentators including Glenn Beck compared the reform measure to the devastation on 9/11.

Former Republican presidential candidate John McCain said that because the measure passed, “there will be no cooperation for the rest of the year” from the GOP. Republicans made good on that threat, using an obscure Senate rule to prevent hearings past 2 p.m., forcing cancellations.

Republicans in the Senate have announced they will do everything in their power to prevent passage of a package of amendments adopted by the House to improve the Health Insurance Bill. These amendments include elimination of perks given several states, including the so-called Corkhusker Kickback and the Gator-Aid, both of which Republicans have attacked for weeks. Still, Republicans say they’ll attempt to retain those deals in the final bill by blocking the amendments. Similarly, the package of amendments provides a method to close the donut hole in the Medicare prescription program, providing financial relief to millions of senior citizens. The Republican’s plan to prevent passage of the amendments would force senior citizens to pay nearly $4,000 extra each year for prescriptions.

With their anger and vitriol, Republicans and Tea Partiers are banking on Americans rejecting health insurance reform. But their plan is in peril. Americans appear to be embracing hope and change in health care.

Before the vote, polls showed a majority opposed the bill. Many argued that could be explained by the fact that a significant number of those counted as opponents simply wanted stronger reform, such as a public option. Poll results are different now. A Gallup Poll taken after the House vote found 50 percent enthusiastic or pleased, while only 42 percent were angry or disappointed. Similarly, in that poll, 49% thought the reform measure to be good for the country while 40% thought it was bad.

Hate and obstructionism are ugly. Americans prefer to see themselves and their country as hopeful, constructive and goodhearted.