That's the Way the Pie Chart Crumbles

Thursday, April 12, 2007

In case you missed it -- I did -- Harold Meyerson's column in yesterday's Washington Post is must reading for anyone concerned with our disappearing middle class. Actually the news is worse than that. Income is down for 90% of Americans. The wealthiest 1%, however, is doing swimmingly.

Circuit City may replace Wal-Mart as the emblem for all that is wrong with an economy evangelized by free market fundamentalists. Fuck Horatio Alger. Work hard and climb the ladder at Circuit City and your reward is getting knocked off the ladder.

On March 28, Circuit City announced that it was laying off 3,400 of its salesclerks. Not because they had poor performance records, mind you: Their performance was utterly beside the point. They were shown the door, said the chain, simply because they were the highest-salaried salesclerks that Circuit City employed.

Their positions were not eliminated. Rather, the store announced that it would hire their replacements at the normal starting salary.

There was a time when such cynical corporate maneuvers would have shocked me, but when I first read about that last week, all I could do was shrug my shoulders and shake my head in disgust. Then I told my husband who shrugged his shoulders and shook his head in disgust.

Meyerson succinctly articulates what is ailing the average American worker; union busting.

What all this amounts to is a triumph of corporate and financial power, and of the conservative economics that shores it up. Once upon a time, American prosperity actually benefited Americans. From 1947 through 1973, productivity in the U.S. rose by 104 percent, and median family income rose by an identical 104 percent. Those were also the only years of real union power in the United States, years in which one-quarter of the workforce, and in some years one-third, was unionized. Apparently, this level of worker power and mass prosperity proved intolerable to our financial elite and their political flunkies.

Since the '70s, American business has generally done its damnedest to keep its workers down. Employers routinely opted to pay the negligible penalties for violating the National Labor Relations Act rather than permit its employees to join unions. In 1969, according the National Labor Relations Board, the number of employees who'd suffered illegal retaliation for exercising their right to join or maintain a union was just over 6,000; by 2005, that number had risen to 31,358. According to a study out this January from the Center for Economic and Policy Research, fully one in five activists on unionization campaigns are illegally fired. And as worker power declines, so do living standards. Secure retirement pensions are history; employer-provided health benefits are going fast.

Meyerson's hope is that the Senate will pass the Employee Free Choice Act. So call your Senators... and read Meyerson.