The main news story that hit the headlines before the holiday shutdown was the Republican party’s implosion when it came up against public hostility to its opposition to an extension of the payroll “tax cut.” The ideological rigidity of Congressional Tea Party Republicans has become politically unsustainable because it makes them openly rather than covertly in favor of extracting more from the middle class while cutting taxes for the rich.
Obama stood his ground this time only because he and his advisors realized they had to change the perception that he would always give in to Republican demands. Central to this shift was the resonance of Occupy Wall Street’s message with the American people. As Eugene Robinson pointed out in the Washington Post, “One reason for all the Republican angst was that public opinion has become more sensitive to issues of economic justice.“
The New York Times commented: “In September, the White House set out to change the image of Mr. Obama from compromiser in chief to determined voice of economic populism, beginning a push for a job-creation plan that it viewed as a win-win. … What surprised the administration, and not least Mr. Obama, was how much House Republicans would contribute toward the White House’s goal through their miscalculations in waging this holiday-season showdown over tax cuts for 160 million workers and assistance for several million jobless Americans.”
However, although the dispute has gained Obama political points, it has changed nothing substantively. If no compromise had been reached, there would simply have been a reversion to the original payroll tax which in theory goes directly to Social Security. Its reduction has jeopardized the entitlement because it opens the door to reneging on the promise that Social Security funding will never be touched in a budget crisis.
Reverting to the original contribution level is unpopular because everybody’s wage check is stretched to breaking point as prices for basic necessities rise remorselessly. But the real answer to the problem is to increase wages, and raises are hardly in evidence except for CEOs, whose income has gone up ridiculously. As the Guardian reported, “America’s top bosses enjoyed pay hikes of between 27 and 40% last year, according to the largest survey of US CEO pay. The dramatic bounceback comes as the latest government figures show wages for the majority of Americans are failing to keep up with inflation. America’s highest paid executive took home more than $145.2m, and as stock prices recovered across the board, the median value of bosses’ profits on stock options rose 70% in 2010, from $950,400 to $1.3m.” The highest-paid CEOs now are not bankers, but in healthcare and drug companies.
Better to get higher wages now so as to afford higher taxes and receive more in government health and retirement benefit down the line, rather than be forced into subsidizing the incomes of the one percent for the rest of your life.
The basis of wage rises is unions clawing back some of the surplus produced by workers. And this is where the Obama administration has done little to curb union-busting activities by employers. In These Times contributor Mike Elk notes: “At the beginning of the Obama administration, there was some hope that President Obama would help pass the Employee Free Choice Act or a compromise version of the bill, making it more difficult for companies to engage in union busting. Nothing happened. Likewise, the administration has failed to enact executive orders that would prohibit federal contractors that engage in illegal union busting from receiving federal contracts…” While media attention is on the Republicans, they couldn’t achieve half of what Obama has done to undermine the living standards of ordinary Americans, while allowing bank fraudsters to get off scot-free.
So the real news is this: unemployment is rising, wages are falling, defaults and house repossessions are increasing – and the political system has lost legitimacy. This is why the Occupy movement will continue to get stronger, as its campaign for economic justice coalesces with union struggles and movements fighting for immigrant rights and against bank foreclosures. Occupations at foreclosed homes are achieving immediate loan modifications from banks which in some cases had refused them for years.
Occupy Atlanta reports a significant victory: “In late November, Brigitte Walker, a decorated Iraq War veteran received another foreclosure notice. Brigitte had unsuccessfully tried to modify her loan with Chase Bank since she medically retired from the army as a result of combat related injuries in 2007. Her home was set to be sold on the Fulton County Courthouse steps on January 3rd, whether she was in it or not. … On a whim, Brigitte sent an email to Georgia state senator Vincent Fort, who set up a meeting with Occupy Atlanta. On December 6, after leaving the very same auction where Brigitte’s home was to be sold the following month, we started occupying her home. … After two press conferences on her lawn, a national call in day, and direct action on Chase Bank, Occupy Atlanta did what Brigitte Walker couldn’t do in years, get a loan modification.”
In the course of defending Brigitte Walker’s home, Occupy activists also helped to regenerate the community. They “repeatedly canvased the neighborhood’s more than 240 homes, helped identify 15 abandoned properties, conducted graffiti removal, and helped spur a neighborhood watch program. … A recent meeting in Walker’s backyard this past Saturday brought out about a dozen neighbors who addressed local issues like juvenile crime and those abandoned properties. Occupy Atlanta is hoping to convert one of the properties into a community center.”
TomDispatch writer Rebecca Solnit took part in a similar action: “One morning late last month, 75-year-old Josephine Tolbert, who ran a daycare center from her modest San Francisco home, returned after dropping a child off at school only to find that she and the other children were locked out because she was behind in her mortgage payments. True Compass LLC, who bought her place in a short sale while she thought she was still negotiating with Bank of America, would not allow her back into her home of almost four decades, even to get her medicines or diapers for the children. We demonstrated at her home and at True Compass’s shabby offices while they hid within, and students from Occupy San Francisco State University demonstrated outside a True Compass-owned restaurant on behalf of this African-American grandmother. Thanks to this solidarity and the media attention it garnered, Tolbert has collected her keys, moved back in, and is renegotiating the terms of her mortgage.”
The impact of #OWS has already been felt in Washington, but occupiers have moved on to a broader front. With one in five homes facing foreclosure and the extension of the mortgage crisis to millions more Americans as the recession bites harder, fearless and growing resistance to the yoke of bank debt and the demands of the one percent will dominate the 2012 elections.