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October 2003 • Vol 3, No. 9 •

‘The Worst Jobs Crisis Since The Great Depression’

By Charles Walker

At a Detroit gathering organized by that city’s civic elite, AFL-CIO chieftain John J. Sweeney on September 3, lamented that “15 million U.S. workers were either unemployed, too discouraged to job-hunt or working part-time…. It’s the worst job market since the Great Depression,” he railed. “The damage to human lives as well as to our economic stability is devastating.”

The jobs crisis is Washington’s fault, Sweeney declared. “Our crisis was created by the hands of men and women, members of the U.S. Congress, and more than abetted by Mr. Bush.” “Moreover,” he said, those elected Washington officials “are more influenced by corporate power—corporate campaign contributions and corporate lobbyists—than they are by political party ideology or conservative or liberal philosophy.” And “believe me,” he asserted, “it has been a decidedly dastardly, non-partisan affair.”

Sweeney also complained that it’s harder to find “corporations that care about partnerships with labor and value the national interest along with their own interest.” (However, he allowed that some corporations that care about partnerships with labor were to be found in the Motor City, though he didn’t single out the Big Three auto corporations one way or the other.)

Without mentioning one-time president Bill Clinton, Sweeney lambasted NAFTA and the WTO for having lowered workers’ incomes in Mexico, Canada and the U.S. And he blamed the pacts for trade deficits that he said have destroyed more jobs than have been created.

“Clearly we’re on a collision course with disaster, and the danger is compounded by the fact that we’re replacing the high-wage, full-benefit jobs we’re losing with low-wage, no benefit jobs…” Furthermore, Sweeney implied, Corporate America and Washington’s “non-partisan” politicians are shooting themselves in the foot, as they mangle the lives of U.S. workers. That’s because workers, he rightly said, “are also the backbone of our capitalist system and the main contributors to the profits of the corporations that seem hell-bent on eroding the standard of living in this country.”

Analysts and commentators of various political stripes have said time and again that in the early 1970’s U.S. capitalism had entered an era of intractable problems. Nevertheless, the practical, flinty, hard-nosed bureaucrats that sit astride the American labor movement seem to think that all that has changed is that U.S. capitalists arbitrarily have gotten greedier, nothing more elemental than that.

In reality, renewed international competition has hammered the U.S. economy. For example, if the nation’s gross domestic product (GDP) were growing at the same rate as it did from the war’s end until the early 1970s, the GDP now at $10.7 trillion, would be 20 percent higher at $12.84 trillion! The difference is equal to the combined GDP of Great Britain and Canada. At the same, however, capital has increased its share of the GDP at the expense of its workers. If workers received the same share of the GDP they were paid in the 1970’s, today’s paychecks would contain hundreds of billions more than they do.

Despite U.S. capital’s chase to the four corners of the globe for raw materials, for labor and for markets, this nation’s bankers and manufacturers still can’t compete with their overseas counterparts for investment profits as successfully as they did from 1945 to the early 1970s. That’s a predicament that U.S. capital seeks to resolve at the expense of U.S. workers.

The endless drive by capital to invest and profit is the cornerstone of the entire system. American workers need to be told that their present difficulties are more than a speed-bump. They have to be told that their problems flow from the private ownership of banks, factories and the like. They need to be told that their troubles result not just from greedy corporations, but also from the system, capitalism itself. They need to be told that, not for the purpose of getting them to accept lower living standards—but for the purpose of explaining why it’s necessary to prepare to defend their living standards through mass mobilizations, much as workers did during the 1930s.

In the midst of his remarks, Sweeney made a remarkable statement that if only it were true, would indicate a sea change in most U.S. workers’ views about capitalism and the two corporate parties that rule to safeguard the corporate roost. “Working families,” Sweeney asserted, “are no longer willing to wait patiently for answers or to trust markets and governments that are controlled by corporate money.” Sweeney implied that impatient workers are also militant workers and Corporate America should watch out.

Unfortunately, Sweeney’s statement is wrong and deliberately wrong about the political state of mind of most U.S. workers. Sweeney was merely using a well-worn verbal, and merely verbal, bargaining-table ploy. But rather than scaring his corporate listeners, his remarks must have struck them as silly.

The bosses know that workers aren’t likely to suddenly rush into the streets at Sweeney’s command, seeking to wrest a better life from Corporate America, even under the present circumstances. That’s partly because of the profound bureaucratization of the U.S. labor movement, that is to say the lengthy suppression of workers’ democracy within organized labor. The profound bureaucratization of labor’s officialdom goes a long ways to explain today’s profound demobilization of the ranks by the union officialdom despite the bosses’ provocations. Not that there haven’t been sporadic fight-backs since the 1970s, but they were choked off from above.

Looking back to the extreme jobs crisis that defined the Great Depression (1929-39), the best that Corporate America came up with then was a sort of generalized pauperism for much of the population. What relief workers received was the result of massive, unprecedented working-class mobilizations that threatened to break through the boundaries of “corporate markets.” That should suggest how profound a mobilization by workers is required to deal with Corporate America’s assault on workers’ living standards today; and, perhaps even with what Sweeney calls “the worst job market since the Great Depression.”





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