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Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Historical Notes on Class Warfare

"This is not class warfare. It's math," President Obama said on Monday. There is an important element of truth to this but, as Paul Krugman points out, there has been an "actual class war that has taken place over the past 30 years — namely class warfare for the rich against the middle class." He points to four major elements to this: tax cuts for the rich; a decline in the inflation-adjusted minimum wage (which peaked in 1968 at $10.04 in 2010 dollars); union-busting; and the deregulation of financial markets.

In fact, the war on the middle class goes back even further than that, before President Reagan's crushing of the air traffic controllers' strike, even before he came into office. Douglas Fraser, President of the United Auto Workers, identified a "one-sided class war" in 1978, when he resigned from the "Labor-Management Group" that unofficially advised President Carter. I want to quote at length from this letter, because many of the issues he pointed to then are still with us today.

I believe leaders of the business community, with few exceptions, have chosen to wage a one-sided class war today in this country—a war against working people, the unemployed, the poor, the minorities, the very young and the very old, and even many in the middle class of our society. The leaders of industry, commerce and finance in the United States have broken and discarded the fragile, unwritten compact previously existing during a past period of growth and progress....

 The latest breakdown in our relationship is also perhaps the most serious. The fight waged by the business community against that Labor Law Reform bill stands as the most vicious, unfair attack upon the labor movement in more than 30 years. Corporate leaders knew it was not the "power grab by Big Labor" that they portrayed it to be. Instead, it became an extremely moderate, fair piece of legislation that only corporate outlaws would have had need to fear. Labor law reform itself would not have organized a single worker. Rather, it would have begun to limit the ability of certain rogue employers to keep workers from choosing democratically to be represented by unions through employer delay and outright violation of existing labor law....

This is, of course, a good description of the state of labor relations today. At the time, one major example Fraser had in mind was J.P. Stevens, a textile maker and serial National Labor Relations Act violator. The movie "Norma Rae," for which Sallie Field won "Best Actress" in 1979, depicts the struggle against Stevens.

We are presently locked in battle with corporate interests on the Humphrey-Hawkins full employment bill. We were at odds on improvements in the minimum wage, on Social Security financing, and virtually every other piece of legislation presented to the Congress recently....Even the very foundations of America's democratic process are threatened by the new approach of the business elite. No democratic country in the world has lower rates of voter participation than the U.S., except Botswana. Moreover, our voting participation is class-skewed—about 50 percent more of the affluent vote than workers and 90 percent to 300 percent more of the rich vote than the poor, the black, the young and the Hispanic. Yet business groups regularly finance politicians, referenda and legislative battles to continue barriers to citizen participation in elections. In Ohio, for example, many corporations in the Fortune 500 furnished the money to repeal fair and democratic voter registration.

Examples of the latter today are too numerous to mention them all. But we obviously have the Koch brothers financing conservatives all over the country, with restrictions on the right to vote proposed or passed in states like South Carolina, North Carolina, Maine, Wisconsin, and others. Class war from the right is alive and well, but now it challenges science and math as well as labor and the middle class.

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