The terrain on which this year’s elections will be fought is markedly different from that of 2010. The Tea Party is spent as a force to motivate Republican voters. Unemployment and rising prices have hit the living standards of most Americans, and an unacknowledged rise in poverty has ended the dream of homeownership and comfortable retirement for millions.
The campaigns of the Occupy movement have raised consciousness of the enormous income inequality in the U.S. and started public questioning of the morality of capitalist indifference to the plight of poverty and debt. Calling for a day of action on February 29, Occupy Portland stated: “There has been a theft by the 1% of our democratic ability to shape and form the society in which we live and our society is steered toward the destructive pursuit of consumption, profit and greed at the expense of all else.”
As the election approaches, this message will become more and more potent. Even the Republicans have tried to trim their sails to the prevailing wind, which prompted the Wall Street Journal to complain that Romney and Santorum are abandoning free market rhetoric for that of protecting the blue-collar working class. “Spooked by the Democrats’ inequality theme, the Romney and Santorum campaigns are taking the narrow view, catering to the blue-collar vote, playing the class game.”
Part of Romney’s campaign message is his claim to have created 100,000 jobs while at corporate raider Bain Capital. Journalists questioning the claim found that it was based on the current job figures of just three successful companies, but omitted other companies that laid off thousands of others. Paul Krugman makes the key point that it was the good hourly-paying jobs that Bain destroyed: “When the dust settled after the companies that Bain restructured were downsized — or, as happened all too often, went bankrupt — total U.S. employment was probably about the same as it would have been in any case. But the jobs that were lost paid more and had better benefits than the jobs that replaced them. Mr. Romney and those like him didn’t destroy jobs, but they did enrich themselves while helping to destroy the American middle class.”
The history of the way that Romney made his millions is coming back to bite him. Workers from a Bain-owned steel mill in Kansas City that was bankrupted in 2001 are speaking out about the devastation the closure inflicted on the community and their lives. According to Reuters, “… in October 1993, Bain Capital, co-founded by Mitt Romney, became majority shareholder in a steel mill that had been operating since 1888. … Less than a decade later, the mill was padlocked and some 750 people lost their jobs. Workers were denied the severance pay and health insurance they’d been promised, and their pension benefits were cut by as much as $400 a month. What’s more, a federal government insurance agency had to pony up $44 million to bail out the company’s underfunded pension plan. Nevertheless, Bain profited on the deal, receiving $12 million on its $8 million initial investment and at least $4.5 million in consulting fees.”
Greg Sargent reported in the Washington Post: “Now a man who says he worked at the plant for 34 years — a self-described conservative — is speaking out about Romney. Glen Patrick Wells, who lives in Peculiar, Missouri, agreed to appear in a new MoveOn.org video in order to speak out about what the layoffs did to the surrounding community.” In the video he says: “I spent 34 years in this steel mill. They walked out of here with millions. They left us with nothing. … It is my firm belief that what Mitt Romney and Bain Capital did to Kansas City will never be recovered.”
He told Sargent he is a conservative who voted for Bush in 2000 and 2004 and McCain in 2008. “Wells says he’s so furious with Romney that he says he’s open to appearing in TV spots against him in order to make the case he makes in the above video – even if it would mean helping Obama.”
Bain loaded up the company with debt in order to quickly pay itself a high dividend, which eventually bankrupted the plant. Meanwhile, they installed managers with no experience in the industry who jeopardized the plant with arbitrary decisions. According to the Reuters report: “Veteran crane operator Ed Mossman says he was ordered to pick up a load of steel that was 50 percent above the recommended weight limit – a prospect that could have toppled the crane and sent Mossman plunging to his death. When he refused, he says, he was fired after putting in 29 years at the mill.”
Although Obama appears to have gained a temporary political advantage over Republicans with the announcement that employers added 200,000 new jobs last month, many of them in manufacturing, Krugman’s point about the quality of the jobs is still pertinent. The new jobs are not going to reinstate middle class opportunities. They are low-paid jobs which will not sustain a house and family.
The New York Times reported recently that General Electric was hiring more workers so as to bring production of some appliances back to the U.S., but that the wages for new employees “are $10 to $15 an hour less than the pay scale for hourly employees already on staff — with the additional concession that the newcomers will not catch up for the foreseeable future.” Linda Thomas, one of the first to be hired under this arrangement, explained why she accepted the deal. “You don’t want to rock the boat,” she said. “You take a chance on losing everything you have if you do.”
While using the threat of unemployment and homelessness to force down wages, General Electric’s executives have been enriching themselves with stock options, which enables companies to deduct the costs from their taxes. “The stock market’s rebound from the financial crisis three years ago has created a potential windfall for hundreds of executives who were granted unusually large packages of stock options shortly after the market collapsed. … General Electric, which granted 18 million options in 2007 and 25 million options in 2008, granted 159 million in 2009 and 105 million in 2010. … ‘The reason the C.E.O.s and corporate boards gave all those options during the crisis is because they expected the market to recover — and because the economy is cyclical, everyone knew it would recover,’ said Sydney Finkelstein, a professor of management at Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business. ‘And the whole game is played with other people’s money — the market’s money and the taxpayers’ money’.”