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Taking the Pulse of Struggle: Americans Ready to Battle the Corporate Attack on Living Standards


Last week’s overwhelming vote by 31,000 Boeing workers to reject a contract making cuts in pension and healthcare benefits is a signal that the tide is turning against the neoliberal strategy of using the threat of outsourced production to intimidate Americans into giving up their social safety net.

Boeing floated a promise of job security for the next eight years by committing to produce its newest aircraft in Seattle and offered a $10,000 bonus for agreeing to the deal. However, the current contract would be terminated, a defined-benefit pension plan replaced with a 401k, and healthcare costs increased.

Jeffrey Johnson of the Washington State Labor Council writes in the Seattle Times: “Machinists were presented with a unilateral proposal that would have frozen the pension system that they had bargained for over the last several decades — it would have also ended the pension system for new hires. …  It would have been unthinkable for grandparents or parents to sell out younger workers and future workers, many of whom are sons and daughters or nieces and nephews, and prevent them from earning a secure retirement future.”

According to the Washington Post, “Dian Lord, a toolmaker at Boeing’s facility in Renton who is nearing retirement, said Wednesday morning she believed the company was extorting its workers by pushing a swift contract vote while threatening to place 777X operations elsewhere if machinists don’t oblige. Still, Lord said she felt intense pressure to vote for the contract, especially considering that it could impact a variety of other Boeing workers and vendors should the company move elsewhere.”

The union leadership made no recommendation on the proposal until a packed meeting made clear that the membership overwhelmingly opposed it.

Reuters reports: “A crowd of more than 100 people erupted in cheers when the vote was announced amid a charged atmosphere at the union’s main hall in Seattle. … Even though the union’s 31,000 workers gave up their chance for [777X production] jobs, they considered the giveaways in the contract too grave to accept. … Voter turnout was high. Workers began lining up in predawn darkness on Wednesday outside the union hall in Everett, Washington and elsewhere in the Seattle area and in Oregon. … ‘It goes against everything that we’ve fought for over the years,’ said John Orcutt, 42, a 17-year union member and hydraulic tube bender.”

Boeing anticipated it could increase profits through confining wage increases to 1% annually for the life of the 777X project, reducing liabilities to retirees, and eliminating collective bargaining from the implementation of next-generation technology.

After the Boeing workers’ union was provoked into a 52-day strike in 2008, the company retaliated by moving work to South Carolina. The union dropped its complaint to the National Labor Relations Board about this illegal tactic when Boeing threatened to move production of another aircraft, the 737MAX, and demanded wage concessions in exchange for a guarantee that the plane would be built in unionized facilities around Puget Sound.

Jenny Brown of Labor Notes explains: “That contract saw a 70 percent yes vote and a generational split, with the over-50 workers voting no and the newer workers making only $15 an hour voting yes. The difference now is that, with the exception of those prepared to retire before 2016, everyone in the union is getting hit, hard. The younger workers lose out on a real pension, period. Anyone midway through their working years will lose a huge amount of the retirement income they anticipated. Medical costs will double or triple over the life of the extension, more than eating up the 1 percent raises. And the union membership will have no leverage against Boeing for 11 more years.”

The Boeing vote parallels Americans’ deep concerns about retirement and health coverage. This is why the reaction to the rollout of the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) is complex: despite the mismanaged launch of the website, the public is not moved by Republican attempts to repeal the law. Its advantage for the uninsured and low-paid is security in their coverage: it disconnects insurance from employment, removing the obligation to stay in an exploitative job in order to keep healthcare; it eliminates annual and lifetime benefit maximums, and prevents insurers refusing coverage because of pre-existing conditions. This is why politicians in Republican controlled states, organized by ALEC, are planning to undermine the law at the state level. They want to promote insecurity and intensify dependence on employers while cutting the social wage.

Obamacare attempts to rationalize healthcare while preserving the dominance of insurance companies by rearranging risk pools while mandating individual coverage. The health insurance industry is now positioned to extract premiums from a much larger base, creating a division of right-wing opinion between ALEC-backed governors like Scott Walker in Wisconsin and states where Republicans receive major campaign contributions from health insurers. In Florida, for example, the industry is pushing the state to reverse its stance on Medicaid. The federal government is offering billions of dollars to finance Medicaid’s expansion, and insurance companies want a piece of that action. Florida Blue executive Patrick Geraghty told journalists: “We believe strongly that we ought to be taking that funding.”

Obama has lost credibility with the public, however, because of the hopes raised by his optimistic statements about his administration’s signature legislation and their contradiction with the cack-handed implementation of the website, together with his promises about keeping existing plans (and, by implication, doctors with knowledge of people’s medical history). That is why the website debacle has eroded the trust Obama was able to leverage in two elections.

It also illustrates the bankruptcy of market-based solutions to social problems. The political decision to expand health coverage by relying on a mix of incentives and regulations for entrenched insurance companies, rather than instituting a single-payer system, has multiplied the law’s complexity exponentially. A physician writes that “administrative costs make up more than 30 percent of our national health care bill, most of it unnecessary. The waste in this area alone is equivalent to around $400 billion annually. That is more than enough to provide health care to every uninsured person living in our country. Some of these costs result from the slicing and dicing of Americans into ever-tinier and more confusing categories, the inevitable result of applying the principles of insurance to health care.” The Affordable Care Act will only increase this administrative complexity. It is “far too complicated and therefore too expensive to manage, full of holes, will be applied unevenly and unfairly, be full of unintended consequences, and be easily exploited by those looking to make a quick buck.”

While the problems with the Obamacare website will eventually be fixed, the need for adequate healthcare and an assurance that the old will not starve in retirement remains as acute as ever. The Boeing Union action is another example of the increased resistance to attempts to roll back Social Security and Medicare as well as to the assault on public workers’ pensions. This battle will undoubtedly intensify as the plutocracy and its political servants seek to lower the living standard of Americans.

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Filed under Affordable Care Act, health care, Medicare, Obama, Obamacare, political analysis, Republicans

Obamacare Crisis Week 2: Plutocrat Gangsters Hold America Hostage through Tea Party Posse


The US is entering its second week of a government shutdown. On the surface, life seems to be continuing as usual – at least, as far as the media is concerned.

Conservative Republicans, who are driving policy in Congress, are using the tactic of blocking government funding to delay the implementation of Obamacare. But their aim is to overturn established legislation that was passed in 2010. If the administration were to cave on this, it would have accepted the precedent that one chamber of Congress could enforce its will on government by holding funding hostage.

While Washington Democrats and Republicans maneuver for tactical advantage, the poor and near-poor are being punished. Government supplementary food programs, for example, have taken an immediate hit. Imara Jones pointed out on Democracy Now that the shutdown “comes on top of the dramatic cuts of sequestration. … mothers with young children… had gone to WIC sites and WIC programs in New York that were out of food. And that’s on day two…”

The shutdown is essentially a trial of strength between extremist billionaires and the executive branch. It’s not intended to achieve anything in itself, any more than Ted Cruz’s 21-hour monologue in Congress did. It is a ploy to put pressure on the Republican leadership and in turn on Obama through the coming debt ceiling negotiations to make bigger cuts in social spending and eventually eviscerate Social Security and Medicare.

Under Obama’s administration, the plutocracy has grown economically richer and politically more powerful, using unlimited access to new technology and media (thanks to the Supreme Court) to sway a disgruntled core of Tea Party supporters who have successfully elected extremist Republican candidates in gerrymandered constituencies. They in turn have been able to use weaknesses in the American political system to paralyze the government.

The New York Times reported on the plethora of well-funded conservative shell groups that have been campaigning against the health law, laundering political slush funds from the billionaire Koch brothers to create a sustained ideological onslaught on the idea of government-supported health care. The billionaires’ strategy has been to put pressure on Republican legislators through groups like “Heritage Action,” which has trained 6,000 paid “sentinels” to confront legislators around the country.

Their campaign builds on a Republican ideological narrative that portrays government deficits as unsustainable. Traveling to Congressional Tea Party leader Steve King’s constituency in rural Iowa, NYT reporter James Stewart “was surprised to hear in nearly all my conversations that the issue for people in this part of Iowa is less Obamacare than it is government spending in general. ‘We have to sacrifice now so our children will not be drowning in our debt,’ [King supporter and glass factory owner] Mr. Geels said.” Many online comments on the article pointed out that the region survived on massive agricultural subsidies, and in the event of another agricultural crisis like the 1980s would be appealing desperately for government help.

The shutdown has made major corporations and Wall Street nervous, but they are no longer able to command influence in the Republican party. The Associated Press commented that “the partial closing of the government and the looming confrontation over the nation’s borrowing limit highlight the remarkable drop in the business community’s influence among House Republicans, who increasingly respond more to tea party conservatives than to the Chamber of Commerce.”

Ironically, big business torpedoed Republican moderates in 2010, helping hard-core conservatives gain election to the House. Corporations might want a rollback of environmental regulations and even further cuts in their taxes, and Wall Street may be in favor of cutting Social Security, but neither want to crash the economy to achieve these aims. However, moderate Republicans face billionaire-funded attacks and attempts to unseat them in primaries if they voice their opinions.

Although some have argued that tea party ideology signifies a descent into insanity, it is in line with overall Republican strategy. The New York Times comments that despite its flaws, Obamacare “could fundamentally change the relationship between working Americans and their government. This could pose an existential threat to the small-government credo that has defined the G.O.P. for four decades. … To conservative Republicans, losing a large slice of the middle class to the ranks of the Democratic Party could justify extreme measures.”

Harold Meyerson points out that the party holds the House with a minority popular vote, the result of gerrymandered districting after the 2010 census. Either Republicans can exert influence by embracing minority rights, he says, or they can maximize their power “by trying to disrupt the nation to the point that the majority will be compelled to support Republican positions.” The redistricting will ensure there are no electoral repercussions for their intransigence.

Republican-controlled states like Mississippi have voted to reject government-subsidized Medicaid expansion, one of the health act’s provisions, which would have had the effect of expanding health coverage in the state’s predominantly white rural counties, which voted consistently to put Republican lawmakers into office.

Poor whites who presently form the conservative Republican demographic would then get the most benefits from Obamacare while, it turns out, poor blacks who live in Republican-controlled states would get little. “The irony is that these states that are rejecting Medicaid expansion — many of them Southern — are the very places where the concentration of poverty and lack of health insurance are the most acute,” said Dr. H. Jack Geiger, a founder of the community health center model. “It is their populations that have the highest burden of illness and costs to the entire health care system.”

While conservatives claim public support for their tactics, opinion polls tell a different story. Josh Marshall sums them up: “The public opposes [the shutdown] by overwhelming margins (70%+). The public also blames the shutdown on House Republicans by a substantial though not overwhelming margins (the number who blame Obama, in the mid-30s, roughly matches the base of the GOP).”

A Kaiser poll found that most Americans, even fervent opponents of the health law, were substantially in favor when asked about its individual provisions. “A majority of Republicans feel favorable towards seven of the 11 provisions asked about in the March poll, with seven in ten or more favoring tax credits to small businesses, closing the Medicare ‘doughnut hole’, and the exchanges,” researchers found.

The propaganda campaign against the law has created a great deal of public confusion, but what has been hidden in the furor about the government shutdown is that the launch of Obamacare on Tuesday generated a huge volume of traffic to its websites – 7 million people in the first two days, an unexpected volume that caused delays and access problems. There is clearly a huge pent-up demand for information about affordable health care.

Americans are genuinely worried about health care and the future. As Juan Cole points out: “This is an America where unemployment is stubbornly high for the Millennials, where the top 1% are taking home 20% of the national income (twice the proportion of just a few decades ago), and where people are struggling.” Young adults stay living with their parents, because even if they can get a job, it’s low-waged. Many are still burdened by college debt. In a Washington Post poll, almost two-thirds of people express concerns about covering their family’s basic living expenses, compared with less than half four decades ago.

Ralph Nader asks why big business, the Republican establishment, and the executive branch have suddenly become powerless. “Who is in charge here?” he writes. “Our Constitution opens with the words ‘We the People,’ not ‘We the Congress’ or ‘We the Corporations’.” It is time for the people to take sovereignty back into their own hands and disrupt the super-rich hostage-takers.

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Filed under debt limit impasse, Government shutdown, health care, Medicare, Obama, political analysis