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A few days after print publication, Knight's syndicated newspaper column, which moves twice a week, will be posted. The most recent will appear at the top.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Despite some reforms, stubborn employers slow family-friendly reforms

Bill Knight column for Thurs., Fri., or Sat., April 23, 24 or 25

This year started with a few family-friendly state laws, the National Partnership for Women and Families (NPWF) recently reported, but others say optimism should be tempered with caution.

State and city “victories bring hard-won and badly needed relief to working families, create economic security and opportunity, and improve public health,” says NPWF executive director Debra Ness.

Some progress symbolizes steps toward balancing the conflicting demands of work and family, which have pushed and pulled everyday working people for decades. For about 50 years, judgmental conservatives have bemoaned the loss of old-fashioned bedrock morals – “family values” was the buzz phrase for awhile – and for their part progressives blamed family breakdown on economic injustice, and there’s some merit there. After all, the country’s post-war economy saw a dramatic rise in both productivity and pay, letting working people increasingly move from a partnership approach operating a farm or store and adopting a middle-class model of working dads and stay-at-home moms.

But there’s more to the transformation.

Johns Hopkins University social policy professor Andrew Cherlin, author of the new book “Labor’s Love Lost,” shows that economic shifts after World War II did undermine traditional working-class households, apart from “culture-war” politicians scolding families for not fitting that old situation.

In the 1980s, led by conservatives, post-war reforms and stability started changes, worsened by off-shoring jobs and companies adopting a “permanent replacement” strategy to lawful work stoppages.

Further, women increasingly joining the labor force – at one time less frequent because of sexist attitudes or even policies – today is hardly a choice. Single incomes are rarely enough to make ends meet. And along with women working alongside men, households face rising child-care costs, etc. Such burdens contributed to delayed, then falling, marriage rates.

However, Cherlin says that instead of either falling family values or rising economic injustice, change itself stresses families. At work, the nation’s manufacturing base declined, and the percentage of workers organized into unions fell. At home, marriage and children started occurring later, and that was due less to a rejection of marriage as an institution or sacrament than a rational position: waiting for financial stability.

The real dilemma, from Cherlin’s perspective, isn’t change. It’s BAD change.

“The problem of the fall of the working-class family from its mid-century peak is not that the male-breadwinner family has declined,” he says. “The problem is that nothing stable replaced it.”

In The Nation, Michelle Chen explained, “Cherlin suggests that to move social policy in a progressive direction, state institutions need to fulfill the social needs that used to tether people to the institution of marriage. Families of all varieties, single or coupled, married or not, need support.”

Indeed, workers need good jobs that support families. In Illinois, a law that took effect this winter says, “Employers must make reasonable accommodations for an employee’s medical or common condition related to pregnancy or childbirth if the employee requests such an accommodation, unless doing so would impose an undue hardship on the employer.”

(Cynics may notice the phrase “undue hardship” and see a loophole companies can exploit. That’s a rational reaction.)

“The biggest barrier seems to be the stubbornness of employers and the stereotypical notion that a pregnant woman is ‘not fit’ for work,” Chen says. “Working-class women are less likely to have the kinds of jobs that accommodate to pregnancies and to child -are responsibilities. Yet given the declining wages of working-class men, the need for working-class women to work is greater than ever. But the lack of workplace flexibility that working-class women often face makes it very difficult to combine wage-earning with pregnancy or child care.”

Modest successes at state and local levels aren’t enough, says NPWF’s Ness, and hopes for the Republican-dominated 114th Congress are dim. But the need for a national policy remains.

“Millions of workers are still without the right to earn paid sick days, guarantees of any wage replacement when they need to take family or medical leave, and protections against pay and pregnancy discrimination,” Ness says. “Congress needs to step up and pass laws that will make all our country's workplaces more fair and family friendly and strengthen the economy.”

NPFW points out that less than 40 percent of private-sector workers earn paid sick days, the same percent lacks paid medical leave, and just 12 percent have paid family leave.

“Many pregnant women are fired or forced off their jobs when they need minor accommodations to continue working,” NPFW adds. “State and local progress has a tremendously positive impact, but a patchwork of laws is not enough. That's why efforts to pass family-friendly workplace laws at all levels continue.”

[PICTURED: Illustration from the the National Partnership for Women and Families.]

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Doom and dread vs. hope and healing this Earth Day

Bill Knight column for Mon., Tues., or Wed., April 20, 21 or 22

Evidence is clear that the climate’s changing, people’s reliance on fossil fuels is contributing, and technology can’t be the only answer.

But as the 45th annual Earth Day occurs this Wednesday, pessimism can feel almost as threatening as smog, fracking and oil-train derailments.

Take ITER.

Please.

ITER (the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor) for more than eight years has been touted as an answer to the world’s dependence on harmful fossil fuels. One of the most complicated machines ever devised, the publicly funded fusion-energy project – costing some $20 billion – is under construction in southern France. Backed by the United States and Russia, the European Union and China, India and Japan and South Korea, ITER is planned as a 11.5-ton, 100-foot structure that will hold a vacuum chamber where a super-hot “cloud” of heavy hydrogen will spin (faster than the speed of sound) as it’s bathed in radiation and uncharged particles so intense they could melt a train car in minutes. The cloud will reach temperatures 10 times as hot as the Sun – more than 360 million degrees Fahrenheit). That means no physical substance can hold it, so ITER will suspend the super-heated cloud within the largest network of superconducting magnets on the planet. This mini-Sun will float under immense pressure within ITER’s otherwise empty void.

What could go wrong?

From ISIS to incompetence, danger lurks there like a loaded pistol in a toddler’s bed.

Closer to home, the Keystone XL pipeline looms, planned to bisect the country carrying Canadian tar-sand oil to export – a wily serpent tempting us with the false, forbidden fruit of cheap energy without jeopardizing the environment.

“Global warming isn’t a prediction. It is happening,” said climate scientist James Hansen, the former head of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies. “That is why I was so troubled to read a recent interview with President Obama [where] he said that Canada would exploit the oil in its vast tar-sands reserves ‘regardless of what we do.’

“If Canada proceeds – and we do nothing – it will be game over for the climate,” Hansen wrote.

Already, recent extreme effects of a changing climate are as ominous as they are obvious: record snow and record cold, floods and severe storms and droughts;

A study released March 2 by researchers led by Dr. Noah Diffenbaugh, a Stanford University Earth scientist, said, “California has experienced more frequent drought years in the last two decades than it has in the past several centuries.”

Yet.

Despite human folly, hope springs forth like blooms and blossoms in the fields and yards. Everyday people marched by the thousands in New York City, and also Lima, Peru. There, the 20th session of the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP20) this winter concluded with key elements for an agreement setting 2050 as the worldwide goal for zero net emissions, and the U.S. government is helping persuade developing countries to partner – to resist the temptation to burn whatever’s cheap and easy in favor of generating energy in clean and sustainable ways – with a $3 billion investment in the Green Climate Fund helping those economically struggling nations. And a campaign to divest holdings from fossil-fuel corporations is gaining momentum, promising to resemble the effective anti-apartheid efforts 30 years ago.

Also, some science deniers, anti-regulation conservatives and interests sometimes resistant to change (like insurance companies and the Defense Department) are conceding that the crisis is not only real, but dire.

It’s “a rather extreme position to say that we ought to allow dangerous pollutants to destroy the only planet we know of that can completely sustain human life,” wrote Justin Haskins, an editor with the conservative Heartland Institute, in Human Events.

Scientists promise that the situation is not yet hopeless.

The United Nations’ Nobel Prize-winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued a report written by 800 scientists from 80 countries summarizing findings from some 30,000 peer-reviewed scientific papers: “Human influence on the climate system is clear. The more we disrupt our climate, the more we risk severe, pervasive and irreversible impacts; and we have the means to limit climate change and build a more prosperous, sustainable future.”

Do we have the will?

“It is no secret that the Earth is in trouble and that we humans are to blame,” says environmental journalist Richard Schiffman. “Just knowing these grim facts, however, won’t get us very far. We have to transform this knowledge into a deep passion to change course. But passion does not come primarily from the head; it is a product of the heart.”

[PICTURED: Illustration from transforminglifenow.wordpress.com.]

Sunday, April 19, 2015

CEO pay: new angles to an old story

Bill Knight column for Thurs., Fri., or Sat., April 16, 17 or 18

Exorbitant compensation to corporate CEOs may be an old story, but new reports, new data and a new perspective on its ill effects and spiritually “tyrannical” consequences all make the issue timely again.

CEO pay is up an astounding 937 percent since 1980, according to “The 100 Most Overpaid CEOs,” a report from As You Sow, a shareholder advocacy group that promotes corporate social responsibility.

In Illinois, the average worker’s pay is $44,509 while the average CEO pay is $5,388,298, according to AFL-CIO Executive Paywatch. That ratio is 121 to 1 (regular folks get the 1).

A second report, “The Wall Street Bonus Pool and Low-Wage Workers,” written by Sarah Anderson for the Institute for Policy Studies, found that $28.5 billion just in bonuses paid out to U.S. corporate bosses in 2014 is twice what all American minimum-wage workers together received over the same period.

According to federal calculations, more than 1 million U.S. workers earned the minimum wage last year. Their pay, based on a 35-hour workweek, totaled $14 billion. The Wall Street bonuses of $28 billion estimated by the New York State Comptroller’s office were in addition to their salaries.

The 40-page analysis shows the United States, the U.S. economy and society itself need new curbs on executive excess.

“The system in place to govern corporations has failed in the area of executive compensation,” the As You Sow’s report said.

CEO pay is bad for business, and also lousy for society, add some voices in the church.

Father David Hollenbach, director of Boston College’s Center for Human Rights and International Justice, said, “If society breaks apart into segments in such a way that the growth of the economy does not benefit all but only a handful – especially the handful who are calling the shots at the top – then the advance of the economy is not serving the common good.”

Theologian and priest “Thomas Aquinas said that if people in positions of power use their power to benefit not the common good but just themselves, that such people are ‘tyrants’,” Hollenbach told National Catholic Reporter. “You could say that the people on Wall Street who are using the tools of the economy just to benefit top executives, when there are large numbers of people are suffering as a result, are tyrants.”

This theological point of view blasts enriching CEOs at the expense of workers who produce the goods and services. The moral approach in such criticism is attracting allies, although similar misgivings or warnings are centuries old.

Father Michael Crosby, director of the Wisconsin/Iowa/Minnesota Coalition for Responsible Investment, has led efforts to reform executive compensation through corporate shareholder resolutions at Verizon, Walmart, TJ Maxx’s parent corporation and 17 other companies.

Drawing on data correlating stagnant pay and low retail sales, the coalition filed annual-meeting resolutions demanding corporations compare CEO pay to companies’ average worker wages and make changes.

After Walmart received such a resolution in February, its board of directors told the coalition the matter was being discussed, and weeks later the retail giant decided to increase wages for its lowest-paid employees.

Inequality generally leads to slow economic growth, said Rosanna Landis Weaver of As You Sow, plus the practice essentially is underwritten by taxpayers through a tax code that encourages top-heavy compensation.

Lynn Stout – a Cornell University Law School professor and author of “The Shareholder Value Myth: How Putting Shareholders First Harms Investors, Corporations and the Public” – has discussed the “perverse incentives” in pay-for-performance measures that “dictate 80 percent of CEO pay,” which create “incentives for CEOs to focus on manipulating the performance metrics.

“We now have over 20 experiences that show these incentives lead CEOs to stop worrying about what’s best for the corporation and its employees and its customers, and instead focus on manipulating these numbers,” Stout said.

Different faith leaders have long worried about the injustice exemplified in CEOs benefiting while everyday workers struggle. For instance, Catholic Popes for more than 80 years have disparaged income inequality in general and the CEO compensation practice in particular.

Pope Francis said, “Inequality is the root of social evil”; Pope John Paul II said paying excessively high wages is an “abuse of freedom” that costs the many workers whose freedom is threatened by poverty and systemic marginalization due to low wages; Pope John XXIII wrote that “disproportionately high” wages are unjust, especially when many workers don’t make a living wage; and Pope Pius XI said that “lowering or raising wages unduly, with a view to private profit, and with no consideration for the common good, is contrary to social justice.”

[PICTURED: Illustration from AFL-CIO's "Executive Paywatch."]

Thursday, April 16, 2015

‘Mickey D’ called on carpet, Mickey Mouse Gov. cuts more

Bill Knight column for Mon., Tues., or Wed., April 13, 14 or 15

A few positive steps stemming from labor-backed actions are noticeable nationally, but in Illinois, funding cuts proposed by Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner would mean dramatic setbacks for everyday people.

In New York, the first hearings over alleged labor law violations by McDonald’s and its franchisees started this month in the next phase of a union-backed campaign aimed at bringing McDonald’s to the bargaining table over wages and working conditions.

The first phase was protesting nationwide, a tactic to occur again this week, as the group “Fight for 15” announced that 60,000 fast-food workers in 200 cities planned to strike on income tax day, April 15, demonstrating for wages of $15/hour, improved working conditions and the right to unionize.

Backed by many organizations, workers planned to walk out of McDonald's and other fast-food chains, said organizers, who added that they anticipated supporters to protest on more than 160 college campuses, other underpaid workers – from temporary teachers to home health care workers – will take part in picketing, and sympathy strikes in other countries are expected.

In a related development, McDonald’s new CEO, Steve Easterbrook, recently announced that the fast-food giant will raise wages to $1 above whatever minimum wage exists at its company-owned locations, starting July 1.

“By the end of 2016, we project that the average hourly wage rate for McDonald’s employees at company-owned restaurants will be in excess of $10,” Easterbrook said in a prepared statement. “In addition, we’re offering paid personal time off for any reason to restaurant crew members who have been with us for at least one year.”

The U.S. minimum wage is $7.25/hour; Illinois’ is $8.25/hour. Some 20 states and several cities have raised their minimum wages, including Chicago (to $10/hour) and Seattle (to $11/hour).

Mickey D’s wage increase will benefit about 90,000 workers, but that’s less than 10 percent of McDonald’s labor force in its 1,500-plus U.S. locations, which altogether employ about 750,000 workers. It’s unknown whether McDonald’s modest move will have a ripple effect throughout the fast-food industry, but worker advocates say it’s insufficient, regardless of its influence on competitors.

“McDonald’s was forced to pay up,” said Mary Kay Henry, president of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), which has been backing workers’ effort. “It’s not nearly enough.”

As to the hearings, they stem from more than 100 complaints and Unfair Labor Practice charges about McDonald’s retaliating against workers whose “concerted activities” are protected under federal law. The “Fight for 15” campaign also is suing the fast-food giant in state and federal courts, and complained to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) about unsafe working conditions there.

The Administrative Law Judge presiding over the New York hearing also will handle hearings in Chicago and Los Angeles at later dates.

In related news, McDonald’s continues to object to the National Labor Relations Board ruling last July that the corporation is a joint employer with franchisees who, McDonald’s claims, are independent owner-operators who set their own policies and wages.

Fight For 15 director Kendall Fells said the campaign will continue “until workers get what they’ve been fighting for.”

Meanwhile, here in Illinois, some of the fallout from Rauner’s severe cuts is starting to register, and the idea that drastic cuts are possible without affecting regular people or local communities is apparent. Downstate Illinois municipalities and counties will be hard hit, for example. The Fiscal Policy Center at the advocacy group Voices for Illinois Children listed the following Local Government Distributive funds at risk for governments that could lose $1 million or more: Bloomington ($3.7 million), East Moline ($1 million), East Peoria ($1.1 million), Galesburg ($1.5 million), Moline ($2.1 million), Normal ($2.5 million, Peoria-city ($5.6 million), Peoria-county ($1.8 million), Quincy ($2 million), and Rock Island ($1.9 million). Statewide programs to suffer slashed funding range from the $250 million Road Fund and the Renewable Energy Resources Fund ($98 million) to even the Used Tire Management Fund ($20 million).

[PICTURED: Demonstrators outside an Elgin, Ill., McDonald's. Photo from Northern Illinois Jobs With Justice.]

Sunday, April 12, 2015

GOP budget targets Social Security, helps corporations

Bill Knight column for Thurs., Fri., or Sat., April 9, 10 or 11

Most people know someone who’s benefited from Social Security and related programs such as Medicare and Medicaid. That’s one reason Social Security is so popular. Another is that the programs work.

And all of that is why people are afraid of Congress diminishing them.

On March 25, the Republican-dominated House of Representatives passed a federal budget cutting $5.4 trillion in spending. If enacted, the budget would start to privatize Medicare by introducing a premium support system; Medicaid and food stamps would be converted into block grants to states; the Affordable Care Act would be repealed; funds for nursing homes, Head Start, and college Pell grants would be cut – but corporate tax rates would be lowered and taxes on profits abroad eliminated.

On the 80th anniversary of Social Security, the House and Senate budget proposals “harm seniors, use the disabled as pawns, punish the needy, pamper the wealthy, and employ deceit – all to promote a selfish agenda for the wealthy and powerful,” says Richard Eskow, a Fellow with the Campaign for America’s Future.

Consequences could mean 11 million families, seniors and children will lose food stamps; 35,000 children won’t get Head Start; 133,000 fewer poor families will get housing assistance; 2 million fewer workers will receive job training and employment services; $1.2 billion will be cut from education; and the plan breaks government’s promises.

Eskow notes that a survey conducted by the Center for Community Change about increasing Social Security benefits and having wealthy Americans pay the same rate into Social Security as everybody else shows that 90 percent of Democrats said they support the idea, 73 percent of Independents support it, and 73 percent of Republicans support it.

“Eighty-seven percent of voters favor protecting Social Security and Medicare’,” Eskow added.

So: Who opposes Social Security? The 1%, according to a 2013 study by Northwestern’s Benjamin Page and Larry Seawright and Princeton’s Larry Bartels.

“Big Money has been gunning for Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid for decades – since the beginning of Social Security in 1935,” says economist Jamie Galbraith. “The motives are partly financial: As one scholar once put it to me, the payroll tax is the ‘Mississippi of cash flows.’ Anything that diverts part of it into private funds and insurance premiums is a meal ticket for the elite.”

To dismantle Social Security and so on, Congressional Republicans have resorted to misleading, if not false, claims. For example, some say that Social Security is bankrupt, but its Trust Fund holds $2.8 trillion in assets, in the form of legally binding debt from the U.S. Treasury.

“Social Security has a large and growing surplus,” says Richard Fiesta, director of the Alliance for Retired Americans. “Social Security’s cumulative surplus [is] roughly $2.8 trillion in 2014, growing to about $2.9 trillion around 2020.”

Also, accusations of fraud are exaggerated.

“The Government Accounting Office and the Social Security’s own Inspector General have both found that fraud in this program is less than 1 percent,” wrote author William Greider. “Compare that to fraud committed by Pentagon contractors, by too-big-to-fail bankers, by auto companies concealing deadly flaws in cars [or] by elected politicians.”

The truth: Social Security provides critical support for retirees, pays modest benefits, helps people of all ages, and is still needed, AARP President Jeannine English says.

“People are living longer… savings are often meager, and employer pensions have become scarce,” she says. “Without the guarantee of Social Security, the poverty rate for older Americans would skyrocket from 9.5 percent to more than 42 percent.”

In Illinois, a typical senior citizen’s annual income is 55 percent of younger residents’ pay, far short of the 70 percent standard usually needed to maintain one’s lifestyle in retirement, according to a new study by Interest.com. That’s the country’s 11th-biggest gap.

“Retirees depend more than ever on the safety and reliability of Social Security,” adds U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.). “Social Security works – no one runs out of benefits, and the payments don’t rise and fall with the stock market. Two-thirds of seniors rely on it for the majority of their income in retirement, and for 14 million seniors. This is the safety net that keeps them out of poverty.”

Like any human endeavor, it could be improved.

Doing so could be simple. The most obvious reform would be to lift the payroll tax cap, which is now $118,500 – meaning that no earnings above that level contribute to FICA (the Federal Insurance Contributions Act, which funds Social Security).

Social Security advocates say its protection could be achieved if its popularity is translated into political action.

“The only way that Social Security and Medicare can go ‘bankrupt’ is if we let them,” wrote journalist James Surowiecki in The New Yorker.

[PICTURED: Photo from saynocuts.org.]

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Faith, freedom and tolerance

Bill Knight column for Mon., Tues., or Wed., April 6, 7 or 8

In a couple of states where hothead lawmakers passed “religious freedom” laws, cooler heads may have prevailed – or at least more tolerant minds.

In a nation where 80 percent of adults say they’re Christians (according to an ABC News poll), where the First Amendment guarantees freedom to worship, and where the faith itself preaches mercy, forgiveness and love, are such laws necessary?

This Holy Week, legislatures in Indiana and Arkansas are revising bills that originally seemed to encourage “No-go zones” for unwelcome Americans, whether gay or single parents, unmarried couples or divorced. People are understandably outraged when they hear of some religious sects forbidding people they don’t like from being in certain places, whether Tikrit or Terre Haute, Ind., Jerusalem or Jonesboro, Ark. And the first versions of the statutes in Indiana and Arkansas would have given self-identified religious people the freedom to discriminate and the right to a court hearing if anyone complained.

“People latch onto a (religious freedom law), thinking this is a device to protect themselves from social change,” University of Illinois law professor Robin Fretwell Wilson told the Chicago Tribune.

Republican presidential hopefuls including Jeb Bush, Ted Cruz, Bobby Jindal, Marco Rubio and Scott Walker all defended Indiana’s law as a state version of the 1993 federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act, but they’re wrong. Arguably, it was the exact opposite.

“The bill does not mirror the federal law,” said Arkansas’ Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson. “We’re not going to be a state that fails to recognize the diversity of our workplace, our economy and our future.”

Instead of protecting people of faith against an intrusive government, like the 1993 law (and the Bill of Rights), these new laws protect “citizens” (broadly defined to include companies) from litigation by other citizens who weren’t served under the guise of exercising a personal belief. They’re a chilling reminder of past arguments for excluding women, forbidding interracial marriage and refusing service to African Americans.

In fact, such measures were prompted by aggrieved people complaining about merchants rejecting gay customers and a recent court ruling striking down Indiana’s ban on same-sex marriage.

Now, however, revisions include prohibitions on discriminating against fellow citizens and citing faith as the excuse. That’s the case in Illinois, where the 2011 Religious Freedom Protection and Civil Union Act, sponsored by Ill. State Sen. Dave Koehler (D-Peoria) dovetails with state bans on discrimination.

“If you’re going to say that somebody is exempted from [Illinois’] Human Rights Act under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, that would mean that people could discriminate based on religious views,” said Northwestern University law professor Andrew Koppelman. “It’s a slippery slope.”

That was obvious not only to gay activists and human rights advocates, but to a wide range of voices not pandering to an extremist base like some legislators. Protesting were Walmart and the AFL-CIO, Eli Lilly and NASCAR, the Chamber of Commerce and the rock band Wilco, Levi Strauss and AFSCME, the NCAA and Apple.

Such laws are “dangerous,” according to Apple CEO Tim Cook, who added. “They go against the very principles our nation was founded on.”

Indeed, these laws distort faiths by promoting intolerance, not the teachings of Jesus, for one. He scolded the priests and powers of his time and befriended tax collectors and the poor, the sick and sinners.

Plus, that slippery slope logically could empower people from employing, serving or renting to people with tattoos or with trimmed beards (see Leviticus 19:27), to community bankers who make loans (see Luke 6:35), people bearing false witness, adulterers…

Freedom to practice one’s faith doesn’t mean the power to coerce conformity, and tolerance doesn’t mean acceptance. Not to trivialize an important issue, but Sly Stone in 1968 sang, “Sometimes I’m right, and I can be wrong; my own beliefs are in my song…

“I am no better and neither are you. We are the same, whatever we do. You love me, you hate me, you know me and then you can’t figure out the bag I’m in. I am everyday people…”

Most everyday Americans are sensible “live and let live” folks or are comfortable enough in their faith that others’ beliefs aren’t threatening. Plus, according to an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, a record 59 percent of us support same-sex marriage.

“Different strokes for different folks,” Sly sang.

[PICTURED: The front-page editorial of the March 31, 2015, Indianapolis Star.]

Sunday, April 5, 2015

‘Trickle down,’ ‘shared sacrifice’ and governing styles

Bill Knight column for Thurs., Fri., or Sat., April 2, 3 or 4

Illinois’ jobless rate is 6.1 percent, state government faced a $1.6 billion budget shortfall by an across-the-board cut of 2.25 percent (and still has a $111 billion pension deficit), and billionaire Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner must work with a legislature dominated by Democrats.

As the new governor attacks unions and jeopardizes social services, he seems to be saying there’s no alternative to helping business remain in Illinois and attracting new employers besides lowering labor costs through local Right To Work zones, a variation of the long-disproven “trickle-down” economics theory that enriches the wealthy because they’re the “job creators” whose affluence eventually falls to the rest of us.

But there is an alternative.

“Trickle-down economics is bunk,” says Carl Gibson, co-founder of US Uncut, which lobbies against cutting social spending and corporate tax avoidance. “Minnesota has proven it.”

There, Gov. Mark Dayton took office in 2011 with a 7-percent jobless rate, a $6 billion budget shortfall, and a legislature controlled by the other party. Rather than continue the policies of his forerunner, conservative Tim Pawlenty (much less Rauner’s anti-union strategy), Dayton took progressive steps.

Since his swearing-in, Dayton hiked the minimum wage (to $9.50/hour by 2018) and raised income taxes on people making more than $150,000 a year by 2 percent (to 9.85 percent). Instead of driving employers away and killing jobs, Dayton added more than 170,000 jobs, generated $2 billion in new revenues, and reduced the jobless rate to 3.6 percent – contradicting Doomsday predictions from the GOP.

“It’s been said that money talks, but money walks also,” warned state Rep. Mark Uglem (R-Champlin) during debate over the income-tax increase. “The job creators, the big corporations, the small corporations, they will leave.”

They didn’t, and it turns out that better-paid workers are good for business.

Since the 1970s, there’s been an “erosion of the norms, institutions and practices that maintain fairness in the U.S. job market,” says economist Alan Krueger, who cites declines in organized labor, globalization and ideological shifts in both Republican and Democratic positions. Consequences include a record-breaking Wall Street, increased profits, higher executive compensation but a dramatic rise in income inequality, all derived from a corporate mindset that embraces the notion of paying employees as little as possible – echoed today in approaches by Rauner and like-minded governors like Kansas’ Sam Brownback.

In fact, the prosperous 1950s had a robust labor movement and also a business attitude that companies should serve workers, consumers and communities as well as executives and stockholders. (Management guru Peter Drucker once wrote that heads of companies shouldn’t receive more than 20 times what their average worker earned. Today CEOs get more than 300 times their average workers, according to the AFL-CIO’s Executive Paywatch.)

Workers who earn more are likely to stay longer and work harder, one reason that companies including Aetna, Costco, Trader Joe’s and Walmart pay comparably decent wages or have recently raised pay.

In the book “The Good Jobs Strategy,” M.I.T. business professor Zeynep Ton wrote, “Increases in wages to, in fact, pay for themselves.”

On Huffington Post, Gibson wrote, “Between 2011 and 2015, Gov. Dayton added 172,000 new jobs to Minnesota's economy. Minnesota's top income tax rate is the 4th-highest in the country [but] it has the 5th-lowest unemployment rate in the country, 3.6 percent.”

Further, Minnesota is now Number 19 in Business Insider’s ranking of state economies. (Illinois is No. 34 – better than No. 39 Wisconsin, where Rauner cohort Gov. Scott Walker reigns.) Gallup polls show that Minnesota has the nation’s top economic confidence rating, while Illinois is about average.

Also, Minnesota has a $1 billion budget surplus, and Dayton plans to spend a third of that on education.

Dayton is no class warrior. A member of the Democratic–Farmer–Labor Party (again, working with a legislature controlled by the other party), he’s a billionaire, too, a member of the family that founded Dayton’s department stores, which became Target.

“The reason Gov. Dayton was able to radically transform Minnesota's economy into one of the best in the nation is simple arithmetic,” Gibson said. “Raising taxes on those who can afford to pay more will turn a deficit into a surplus. Raising the minimum wage will increase the median income. And in a state where education is a budget priority and economic growth is one of the highest in the nation, it only makes sense that more businesses would stay.”

Would Illinoisans support such policies? Sure. After all, in the November election, 63.6 percent of us voted in favor of the “millionaires-tax” advisory question: “Should the Illinois Constitution be amended to require that each school district receive additional revenue, based on their number of students, from an additional 3% tax on income greater than one million dollars?”

Only grassroots pressure is needed to force Rauner to be reasonable.

[PICTURED: Illustration from thechristianleftblog.org.]

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Trade pact threatens jobs and sovereignty

Bill Knight column for Mon., Tues., or Wed., March 30, 31 or April 1

Mere weeks remain to stop the fast-tracked TPP in its tracks, and the trade pact’s consequences are so dire it seems like a bad April Fool’s joke.

It’s not.

The TPP – the Trans-Pacific Partnership, involving 12 countries in the Pacific Rim, making up about 40 percent of Earth’s economy – will be considered on Capitol Hill in April in a measure to “fast-track” the bill through Congress with limited debate before an up-or-down vote, said U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah).

It’s a “corporate coup,” some critics say. Others see the familiar threat of a job-killing outcome.

Recalling trade pacts started 20 years ago with the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) between the United States, Mexico and Canada, Art Pulaski of the California AFL-CIO said workers had one question for lawmakers: “How dumb do you think we are?”

Indeed, the U.S. Labor Department has certified that NAFTA cost the United States 845,000 jobs. Other studies say the number of jobs lost due to such trade pacts is closer to 5 million, and Pulaski agreed, adding, “Then came CAFTA, Chile, Korea, Peru – a total of 5.5 million jobs.”

Like such earlier trade deals, TPP doesn’t even address workers rights. However, worker advocates, everyday citizens or even legislators cannot include such protections because they’ve been shut out of the six years of TPP negotiations.

But not Big Business, who’s been involved throughout.

So labor, consumer, environmental and other groups are allied in opposition to TPP and fast-track.

The AFL-CIO’s President Richard Trumka, Secretary-Treasurer Elizabeth Shuler and Executive Vice President Tefere Gebre all signed a March open letter to Congress stating, “As the leaders of almost 20 million U.S. workers and their families, we share your commitment to strengthening the middle class. To rebuild our economy for America’s hard-working families, we ask you to join us in opposition to ‘fast-track’ trade promotion authority.

“Fast-track deals mean fewer jobs, lower wages and a declining middle class,” the letter said.

Besides claims of boosting economies despite past experience of the opposite, there’s the authoritarian process – and result. Whether killing labor, environmental or consumer protections or privatizing public assets like schools, water districts and social programs, TPP relinquishes the Republic’s rule by the people and their representatives.

That’s right: TPP not only would give corporations even more economic influence, but power over national sovereignty.

In one ominous provision, TPP provides for secret tribunals called Investor-State Dispute Settlements (ISDS), which could override local, state or even national laws if corporations say they limit “expected future profits” – laws, regulations or programs ranging from the minimum wage to “Buy American” campaigns.

ISDS tribunals would consider corporate objections to labor, environmental, health, even land-use issues, etc., and the cases wouldn’t be held in open court but in private hearings before three lawyers from signatory nations. Corporations could stop development of electric cars, inspections of unsafe food or consumer goods, and more.

Further, “ISDS cases go in only one direction – multinationals can sue governments for unlimited amounts, but nations and citizens cannot sue multinationals,” said Communications Workers of America President Larry Cohen.

Economist Dean Baker said vague language leads to far-reaching targets of popular programs if corporations object.

“Every provision in trade agreements will have ambiguities,” Baker said. “Trade deals all prohibit export subsidies, almost by definition. But what about publicly funded vocational training in which the government picks up much of an exporter’s training costs? What about publicly financed infrastructure that reduces the exporter’s cost to send its products out of the country? What about publicly financed research (like the National Institutes of Health) that hugely reduce the cost to private firms of innovation?”

Author Rivera Sun is more forceful in his forecast.

“Say hello to lead poisoning and sweatshops,” said Sun, who wrote “Steam Drills, Treadmills, and Shooting Stars.”

“Say goodbye to health benefits and living wages,” he continued. “Flip off the Civil Rights movement. The TPP is a return to dictators and despots wearing the mask of transnational corporations.”

[PICTURED: Mandel Ngan photo from rt.com]