Friday, November 8, 2013

A Full-Frontal Assault on Democracy in Europe and the United States

We are in the dark about treaty that would let rapacious companies subvert our laws, rights and national sovereignty.

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The NSA spy scandal and the attack on press freedom

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Recently released police documents on the August 18 arrest and questioning at London’s Heathrow airport of David Miranda, the domestic partner of journalist Glenn Greenwald, are a serious warning on the advanced stage of the decay of democracy in Britain and internationally.
They show that Miranda was held on blatantly trumped up terrorism charges, aiming to block reporting on the NSA spying scandal. While British, US, and European intelligence agencies have developed the mass electronic spying apparatus of a police state—as Greenwald and whistleblower Edward Snowden have revealed—the internal security forces have developed the legal and police apparatus of an authoritarian regime.
A document from the Metropolitan Police HQ at Scotland Yard, released as a result of a court action taken out by Miranda, states: “Intelligence indicates that Miranda is likely to be involved in espionage activity which has the potential to act against the interests of UK national security... Additionally the disclosure, or threat of disclosure, is designed to influence a government and is made for the purpose of promoting a political or ideological cause. This therefore falls within the definition of terrorism.”
Such remarks could easily be made by officials of any police-state dictatorship. Under such a broad definition, virtually any genuine reporting on the conduct of the state—which could embarrass or expose criminal behavior by state officials, and is written with distrust towards them—can be pursued as terrorism.
On October 11, Parliament’s Joint Committee on Human Rights (JCHR) endorsed Miranda’s detention, declaring: “Given the current nature of the threat from international terrorism… a statutory power to stop, question and search travellers at ports and airports, without reasonable suspicion is not inherently incompatible with the right to liberty ... or the right to respect for private life.”
In fact, the Miranda case shows how the spread of police searches without reasonable cause has been used to facilitate attacks on basic democratic rights, including freedom of the press, as well as mass searches of people without any link to terrorism. Last year alone, a staggering 60,000 people were “stopped and examined” at UK airports under powers contained in the Terrorism Act of 2000.
The targeting of journalists has been accompanied by action against the Guardian newspaper and threats to charge it with endangering national security and treasonous conduct for having published the Snowden revelations.
The arrest of Miranda was preceded by a raid on the offices of the Guardian. Editor-in-Chief Alan Rusbridger told how “two GCHQ [Government Communications Headquarters] security experts” oversaw the destruction of hard drives as journalists used drills and grinders to smash memory chips containing encrypted files to avoid having them confiscated.
Cameron, supported by his Liberal Democrat Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, demanded a parliamentary inquiry into the Guardian, which was backed immediately by the opposition Labour Party’s Keith Vaz who signed up his Home Affairs Committee for the proposed witch-hunt. He was followed by Hazel Blears, Labour’s representative on the Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC), who said the ISC would investigate whether theGuardian had “endangered national security.”
The new head of MI5 was one of several top intelligence personnel who said Snowden's leaks were a “gift” to terrorists.
Tory back bencher Julian Smith was granted a Westminster Hall debate to make his claim that the Guardian should be prosecuted for aiding terrorism and endangering national security. Smith cited the Terrorism Act and the Official Secrets Act as laws under which the Guardian could be prosecuted, with the support of Julian Lewis, a member of the ISC and James Brokenshire, Minister for Security at the Home Office.
Last week Cameron threatened the media that they must show “social responsibility” when reporting leaks from the NSA and GCHQ, or he would be forced to use “injunctions or D Notices or the other tougher measures.”
A Defence Advisory Notice is a request, usually honoured, from government to newspapers to keep silent.
Cameron’s remarks were preceded by a resort to the unelected feudal Privy Council to steamroller the introduction of a form of statutory press regulation for the first time in 300 years, with a watchdog imposing a government-dictated code of conduct. Many websites, including the World Socialist Web Site, will be covered by the legislation—if they “contain news related material” or have more than one author.
The Terrorism Act 2000 is one of numerous Acts of Parliament, regulations, rules and Orders which collectively give the state extraordinary powers to curtail democratic rights—all supposedly enacted to combat terrorism. It is now being used against journalists, political activists, and newspapers in order to conceal massive state crimes such as mass surveillance of working people in Britain and internationally.
Nothing better demonstrates how far Britain and other NATO countries have already travelled on the road to dictatorship than the spread of such legislation.
From the 18th century, thanks to struggles stretching back to the Cromwellian revolution and beyond and culminating in the ending of pre-publication censorship in 1695, Britain prided itself on having the freest press in the world.
The Fourth Estate was accepted as having the special role as, in the words of Whig politician Thomas B. Macaulay, a “safeguard tantamount, and more than tantamount, to all the rest together” in holding the state and politicians to account.
This essential function was not determined by the character of this or that publication, many of which were as venal then as they are today, but by the public’s right to know. A free press provided an essential means of preventing the government from determining what is known.
“Mankind are not now to be told they shall not think, or they shall not read,” wrote Thomas Paine in “The Rights of Man” in 1791.
Today press freedom is viewed as an unacceptable threat by a capitalist oligarchy that is terrified of popular opposition to attacks on democratic rights and policies of obscene self-enrichment at the expense of the vast majority of the population. This underlies the present sustained attempt to deny working people their right to be informed of what is being done against them by government and its big business backers.
The imposition of press censorship and criminalising of reporting can be opposed only through the development of a mass movement of the working class in a struggle against the profit system and its political defenders. As Paine himself wrote, government attempts to curtail the publication of an author’s material would be “a sentence on the public, instead of the author, and would also be the most effectual mode of making or hastening revolution.”

Pay No Attention to That Imperialist Behind the Curtain

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What John Kerry did this week in Egypt and Saudi Arabia is nothing short of despicable. He, and the president who appointed him, managed to honor both a vicious military dictatorship and a totalitarian medieval monarchy as examples of progress toward a more democratic Middle East, as if neither stood in contradiction to professed U.S. objectives for the region.

“Egyptians Following Right Path, Kerry Says,” read the New York Times headline Sunday trumpeting the secretary of state’s homage to ruthless military dictators who the very next day were scheduled to stage a show trial of Egypt’s first democratically elected president.

This was all part of a “road map” to democracy “being carried out to the best of our perception,” Kerry intoned, apparently embracing the calumny that the destruction of representative government in Egypt was always the American plan.

Kerry’s perception did not extend to the court farce the next day when Egypt’s duly elected president, Mohamed Morsi, held incommunicado for four months and denied access to his lawyers, was put on trial on accusations of causing violence among protesters in the streets, violence that paled in comparison to the deliberate killing of civilians by an Egyptian military trained and financed by the government Kerry represents.

Indeed, the Obama administration has refused to categorize the Egyptian military’s overthrow of the Morsi government as a coup, for fear that would automatically trigger the legal requirement of a cutoff of most of the $1.5 billion in annual aid to the Egyptian military. Kerry was at great pains to assure Egyptian reporters that even the temporary hold on some weapons that the U.S. had implemented was not intended to penalize the Egyptian military for destroying Egypt’s experiment in democracy.

“It is not a punishment,” Kerry said. “It’s a reflection of policy in the United States under our law.” Drat that law that says we should not be rewarding military dictators who jail freely elected presidents.

At the moment Morsi was denouncing “this criminal military coup” from his courtroom cage, Kerry was off in Saudi Arabia paying tribute to “a true relationship between friends (that) is based on sincerity, candor and frankness, rather than mere courtesy.” But not so frank that Kerry would answer questions concerning the recent protest by Saudi women attempting to obtain the right to drive a car. Certainly never so frank as to get to the bottom of why this great U.S. ally funded the most virulent anti-American Islamic fanatics throughout the world; was one of only three nations to recognize the Taliban-run government of Afghanistan when it harbored al-Qaida as it directed terrorist attacks aimed at the United States; and was home country of 15 of the 19 hijackers who attacked America on 9/11 as well as bin Laden, their leader.

If there is logic to the U.S. position, it clearly has nothing to do with the stated goals of American policy to prevent terrorist attacks on the U.S. while somehow advancing human rights as a means of creating a more stable, peaceful world. Were that this government’s objective, Kerry would not have traveled to Saudi Arabia to assure the monarchy that the U.S. still favors the Saudi-financed opposition in Syria that includes a considerable contingent of fighters the American intelligence agencies have labeled as Islamic terrorists. Nor would he now embrace a deeply corrupt military oligarchy in Egypt that can continue to enjoy the perks of its disproportionate power only by denying political freedom to the people of Egypt.

There is nothing new in this ugly embrace of the dark side of Mideast life. Cynicism of purpose and contempt for the well-being of most of the region’s inhabitants have underscored centuries of Western imperial intrusion, and the current U.S. example is of that pattern. Indeed, the backdrop issue driving the current drama, the role of Iran, has its origins in past Western machinations when the U.S. overthrew Mohammad Mossadegh, the last freely elected leader of Iran, when he was threatening to nationalize Western oil interests.

In Saudi Arabia, Kerry said that President Obama had dispatched him to assure the monarchy that the United States remained committed to protect the Royal Kingdom against external threats. That presumed threat refers to Iran, and Kerry is out to assuage Saudi, Egyptian and, most important, Israeli fears that peace might break out between Iran and the United States. Sadly Israel, which long has cultivated an image as providing the only democratic presence in the region, favored the coup in Iran, as it has this year in Egypt, preferring the security of totalitarian regimes to those that might be more responsive to popular sentiment, including support for the human rights of occupied Palestinians.

The problem with this all too familiar game is that it has consequences that at some point will spiral out of control. The entire region desperately needs modernization for its stability or the eruptions of violence that have affected the world will become ever more commonplace. But modernization without representation is a contradiction all too long apparent in this most tempestuous region. That is the sad consequence of the imprisonment of Morsi, who was elected with more than 50 percent of the vote of Egyptians, and the U.S. acceptance of the military that ousted him along with the Saudi royalty who detest everything that is post feudal in the country’s culture.

John Kerry, despite his democratic pretense, has sent a message to the disenfranchised of the Muslim world that the call for representative democracy on the part of the United States is nothing more than a public relations gimmick.

The Superrich Don't Need Our Middle Class Infrastructure

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America is falling apart - and this nation's super-rich are to blame.

There was once a time in America when the super-rich needed you, and me, and working-class Americans to be successful.

They needed us for their roads, for their businesses, for their communications, for their transportation, as their customers, and for their overall success.

The super-rich rode on the same trains as us, and flew in the same planes as us. They went to our hospitals and learned at our schools.

Their success directly depended on us, and on the well-being of the nation, and they knew it.

But times have changed, and the super-rich of the 21st century no longer think that you and I are needed for their continued success.

And in some ways, they have given up on America, period.

As Paul Buchheit brilliantly points out over at AlterNet, "As they accumulate more and more wealth, the very rich have less need for society. At the same time, they've convinced themselves that they made it on their own, and that contributing to societal needs is unfair to them. There is ample evidence that this small group of takers is giving up on the country that made it possible for them to build huge fortune."

Buchheit goes on to say that, "The rich have always needed the middle class to work in their factories and buy their products. With globalization this is no longer true... They don't need our infrastructure for their yachts and helicopters and submarines. They pay for private schools for their kids, private security for their homes. They have private emergency rooms to avoid the health care hassle. All they need is an assortment of servants, who might be guest workers coming to America on H2B visas, willing to work for less than a middle-class American can afford"

Unfortunately, these millionaires and billionaires who have given up on America and on the working class are in control of the political process in this country.

They have brainwashed Republicans into thinking that the success of working-class Americans no longer matters for the future of this nation.

As a result, Republicans are no longer investing in things that have traditionally made America - and the working-class - successful.

Take America's infrastructure for example - or lack thereof.

According to the American Society of Civil Engineers annual report card on America's infrastructure, America's infrastructure is a mess.

Our roads are falling apart, our transportations systems are in turmoil, and our energy and electrical systems are stuck back in the 1900's.

A new graph released by investment research firm BCA shows why.

Non-defense related infrastructure spending was around $325 billion per year when George W. Bush stepped foot inside of the White House.

Today, it's around $235 billion per year, a $90 billion drop in funding from when Bush took office.

Republicans, brainwashed by America's super-rich, have repeatedly refused to fund comprehensive infrastructure spending bills, all in the name of austerity.

But cutting funding to the nation's infrastructure isn't the right way to address American's debt or spending problems. And it certainly isn't the right way to rebuild this nation.

As Cardiff Garcia over at The Financial Times points out, "It's also likely that much of the investment that has been forgone in the name of fiscal consolidation will have to be made eventually anyways - only it will be made when rates are higher, exacerbating the long-term fiscal outlook rather than improving it. And as Think Progress points out, "continued underfunding in this arena over the coming years will cost businesses a trillion dollars in lost sales and cost the economy 3.5 million jobs."

The Society of Civil Engineers says that it will take a staggering $3.6 trillion investment by 2020 - or $450 billion per year - to bring the American infrastructure into the 21st century, and to avoid risking a complete infrastructure collapse.

But the super-rich don't care about how much funding is needed to save this country, as long as they have their private schools, private hospitals, private airports and private places.

The super-rich in this country are bleeding working-class Americans dry, while destroying the infrastructure of the nation that has done so much for their success.

No matter what Jamie Dimon, Charles Koch, or Shelly Adelson will tell you, America's wealthy elite did not make their fortunes on their own.

Without a strong economy and infrastructure, America's millionaires and billionaires would not be where they are today. It's that simple.

So what can we do right now to rebuild America's infrastructure and give a boost to the American economy?

First, it's time to bring an end to globalization.

We need to be protecting American jobs, instead of letting the super-rich ship them overseas and build factories in China and third-world countries.

But more importantly, we need to roll-back the Reagan tax cuts, and make sure that America's wealthy elite are paying their fair share to support our economy and infrastructure.

Right now, the burden for rebuilding America is on the backs of working-class Americans, and that's just wrong.

It's ridiculous that working-class Americans struggling to survive day-to-day are paying more in taxes than billionaire banksters and oil tycoons.

A lot has changed in America over the past 100 years or so but one thing remains the same: The success of the super-rich still depends on the success of you and me.

The super-rich still need us for their roads, for their businesses, for their communications, and for their transportation.

Our infrastructure may be crumbling, but there's still time to get America back on the road to success.

We're all in this together.

How America Is Killing the Poor

Lack of access to education, medical care, good wages and healthy food isn't just leaving the worst-off Americans behind. It's killing them.

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During a discussion at the University of Michigan in 2010, the billionaire vice-chairman of Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway firm, Charles Munger, was asked whether the government should have bailed out homeowners rather than banks. "You've got it exactly wrong," he said."There's danger in just shovelling out money to people who say, 'My life is a little harder than it used to be.' At a certain place you've got to say to the people, 'Suck it in and cope, buddy. Suck it in and cope.'"
But banks, he insisted, need our help. It turns out that moral hazard – the notion that those who know the costs of their failure will be borne by others will become increasingly reckless – only really applies to the working poor.
"You should thank God" for bank bailouts, Munger told his audience. "Now, if you talk about bailouts for everybody else, there comes a place where if you just start bailing out all the individuals instead of telling them to adapt, the culture dies."
In the five years since the financial crisis took hold, people have been sucking it in by the lungful and discovering how pitiful a coping strategy that is. In Michigan, the state where Munger spoke, black male life expectancy is lower than male life expectancy in Uzbekistan; in Detroit, the closest big city, black infant mortality is on a par with Syria (before the war).
As such, the crisis accelerated an already heinous trend of growing inequalities. Over a period of 18 years, America's white working class – particularly women – have started dying younger. "Absent a war, genocide, pandemic, or massive governmental collapse, drops in life expectancy are rare," wrote Monica Potts in the American Prospect last month. But this was a war on the poor. "Lack of access to education, medical care, good wages and healthy food isn't just leaving the worst-off Americans behind. It's killing them."
This particular crisis, however, has also accentuated the contradictions between the claims long made for neoliberalism and the system's ability to deliver on them. The "culture" of capitalism, to which Munger referred, did not die but thrived precisely because it was not forced to adapt, while working people – who kept it afloat through their taxes and now through cuts in public spending – struggle to survive. Given the broad framing of economic struggles in the west exacerbated by the crisis, this reality is neither new nor specific to the US. "Over the past 30 years the workers' take from the pie has shrunk across the globe," explains an editorial in the latest Economist. "The scale and breadth of this squeeze are striking … When growth is sluggish … workers are getting a smaller morsel of a smaller slice of a slow-growing pie."
A few days before the bailout was passed, I quoted Lenin in these pages. He once argued: "The capitalists can always buy themselves out of any crises, as long as they make the workers pay." What has been striking, particularly recently, has been the brazen and callous nature in which these payments have been extorted.
Last Friday, 47 million Americans had their food stamp benefits cut. These provide assistance to those who lack sufficient money to feed themselves and their families. Individuals lose $11 (£7) a month while a family of four will lose $36. That will save the public purse precious little – bombing Syria would have been far more costly – but will mean a great deal to those affected. "Before the cut, it was kind of an assumption you were going to the food bank anyway," Lance Worth, of Washington state,told the Bellingham Herald. "I guess I'm just going to go $20 hungrier – aren't I?"
The cut marks the lapse in stimulus package ushered in four years ago. But while the recession is officially over, the poverty it engendered remains. Government figures show one in seven Americans is food insecure. According to Gallup, in August, one in five said they have, at times during the last year, lacked money to buy food that they or their families needed. Both figures are roughly the same as when Obama was elected. This negligence will now be compounded by mendacity.Republicans propose further swingeing cuts to the food-stamp programme; Democrats suggest smaller cuts. The question is not whether the vulnerable will be hammered, but by how much.
The impetus behind these cuts are not fiscal but ideological. Republicans, in particular, claim the poor have it too easy. "We don't want to turn the safety net into a hammock that lulls able-bodied people into lives of dependency and complacency," claimed former Republican vice-presidential candidate Paul Ryan. "That drains them of their will and their incentive to make the most of their lives."
The notion that food "drains the will" while hunger motivates the ambitious would have more currency – not much, but more – if the right wasn't simultaneously doing its utmost to drive down wages to a level where work provides no guarantee against hunger. In last week's paper for the Economic Policy Institute, Gordon Lafer, an associate professor at the University of Oregon, revealed the degree to which conservatives have been driving down wages, benefits and protections at a local level after their victory at the 2010 midterms.
He writes: "Four states passed laws restricting the minimum wage, four lifted restrictions on child labour, and 16 imposed new limits on benefits for the unemployed. With the support of the corporate lobbies, states also passed laws stripping workers of overtime rights, repealing or restricting rights to sick leave, and making it harder to sue one's employer for race or sex discrimination."
That's why 40% of households on food stamps have at least one person working. And the states most aggressive in pursuing these policies, Lafer points out, had some of the smallest budget deficits in the country.
Immediately after Obama's election in 2008, his chief of staff to be, Rahm Emanuel, said: "You never let a serious crisis go to waste. And what I mean by that is it's an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before." The crisis didn't go to waste. But it is the right that has seized the opportunity. Not content with balancing the budget on the bellies of the hungry, it is also fattening the coffers of the wealthy on the backs of the poor.

Billionaire Feels 'Guilty' About 'Having Gotten Rich At The Expense' Of All Of Us

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It's a Halloween miracle: A member of the 1 percent is fighting for the rest of us, and probably spooking the hell out of his own kind.
Wealthy people need to stop whining about the taxes they pay, realize their success is mostly dumb luck and pay even higher taxes to help the less fortunate, Bill Gross, the billionaire founder and chief investment officer of Pacific Investment Management Co., wrote to his wealthy investors on Thursday.
"Having gotten rich at the expense of labor, the guilt sets in and I begin to feel sorry for the less well-off," Gross writes in his latest monthly missive, entitled "Scrooge McDucks," posted on the website of PIMCO, the world's biggest bond fund. His letters are usually colorful and sometimes self-critical. But this one is notable for its direct mockery of his own wealthy peers and clients:
Admit that you, and I and others in the magnificent '1%' grew up in a gilded age of credit, where those who borrowed money or charged fees on expanding financial assets had a much better chance of making it to the big tent than those who used their hands for a living.
But Gross is not just assuaging his personal guilt by penning a cri de wallet: He suggests the soaring income inequality of the past few decades is a serious problem for the entire U.S. economy:
Developed economies work best when inequality of incomes are at a minimum. Right now, the U.S. ranks 16th on a Gini coefficient for developed countries, barely ahead of Spain and Greece. By reducing the 20% of national income that “golden scrooges” now earn, by implementing more equitable tax reform that equalizes capital gains, carried interest and nominal income tax rates, we might move up the list to challenge more productive economies such as Germany and Canada.
He joins another billionaire, America's grandfatherly mascot of capitalism, Warren Buffett, in calling for higher taxes on the wealthy:
I would ask the Scrooge McDucks of the world who so vehemently criticize what they consider to be counterproductive, even crippling taxation of the wealthy in the midst of historically high corporate profits and personal income, to consider this: Instead of approaching the tax reform argument from the standpoint of what an enormous percentage of the overall income taxes the top 1% pay, consider how much of the national income you’ve been privileged to make.
Reading like a white paper from a lefty think tank, Gross notes that the 1 percent now take up 20 percent of U.S. income, up from 10 percent in the 1970s -- a fact he attributes at least partly to the massive tax cuts for the wealthy enacted by Presidents Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush.
Gross also points out that the wealthy have gotten all of the benefit of the explosive rise of the financial sector over the past several decades, along with a 30-year decline in interest rates. Together, these two factors lined the pockets of the wealthy, but left everybody else behind (emphasis added):
Yes I know many of you money people worked hard as did I, and you survived and prospered where others did not. A fair economic system should always allow for an opportunity to succeed. Congratulations. Smoke that cigar, enjoy that Chateau Lafite 1989. But (mostly you guys) acknowledge your good fortune at having been born in the ‘40s, ‘50s or ‘60s, entering the male-dominated workforce 25 years later, and having had the privilege of riding a credit wave and a credit boom for the past three decades. You did not, as President Obama averred, “build that,” you did not create that wave. You rode it. And now it’s time to kick out and share some of your good fortune by paying higher taxes or reforming them to favor economic growth and labor, as opposed to corporate profits and individual gazillions.
Did you catch that poke at Republicans, who essentially themed their entire 2012 convention around mocking Obama for saying "you didn't build that"? Obama and Gross probably meant slightly different things, but both caused monocles to pop from wealthy eye sockets all around the country.
But Gross has not yet begun to poke! He also jabs at financial muckraker Carl Icahn, who lately has been agitating for Apple to pay its shareholders a bigger dividend. Gross recently got into a Twitter war with Icahn over this, suggesting Icahn's time might be better spent in philanthropy than corporate shakedowns. Gross takes the fight several steps further in his letter, suggesting the Icahns of the world are part of our economy's bigger problem:
If X can’t grow revenues any more, if X company’s stock has only gone up because of expense cutting and stock buybacks, what does that say about the U.S. or many other global economies? Has our prosperity been based on money printing, credit expansion and cost cutting, instead of honest-to-goodness investment in the real economy?
In a past life I made a lot of fun of Gross for bad calls he made. But I'm glad to say that, if this bond-fund thing doesn't work out for him (hint: it's working out just fine), I'm pretty sure he's HuffPost material.

Corporations Rewriting U.S. Labour Laws

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U.S. state legislators and corporate lobbies have engaged in an unprecedented attack on minimum wages that has lowered U.S. labour standards, according to new research released Thursday.
The report by the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), a think tank here, is the first of its kind, providing a comprehensive overview of all legislation enacted over the past two years across all 50 U.S. states.
According to EPI researchers, some of the country’s largest corporate lobbies have engaged in an intense attack on U.S. labour standards and workplace protections, including minimum wage laws, the amount of paid sick leave offered, and even child labour protections.
“What is particularly important about this new report is that it emphasises the recent legislative developments at the state and local levels, which unfortunately have been largely ignored,” Jon Schmitt, a senior economist at the Centre for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR), an economic research institute here, told IPS.
“That means that the discussion of economic and political inequality also needs to move to the local level,” he said.
EPI says such legislative attacks have seriously undermined the ability of average U.S. citizens to achieve economic prosperity.
“What is clear from the report is that attacks on labour unions are part of a larger attempt by trade associations and corporate lobbies … to fundamentally change the labour situation in America,” Gordon Lafer, an EPI research associate and an associate professor at the University of Oregon, said at the report’s launch here on Thursday.
Despite the country’s general economic growth, EPI notes that more and more people in the United States are struggling to earn a living wage.
“According to our statistics, from 1983 to 2010 the bottom 60 percent of Americans actually lost wealth, despite the fact that the overall U.S. economy has grown over this same time period,” Ross Eisenbrey, the EPI’s vice-president, said Thursday. “This is a remarkable indictment of how the economy is not working for everybody.”
Although most attacks on labour standards come through state legislatures, the report notes that the momentum behind this large legislative movement has been driven primarily by powerful national corporate lobbies “that aim to lower wages and labour standards across the country.”
Wage theft
Indeed, one of the striking features of the report is the way it sets the local data into the larger national context.
Today, one out of five U.S. citizens is getting paid less than the federally mandated minimum wage. According to recent polls, workers in the U.S. are also increasingly dissatisfied with their current standards of living.
As many as seven in every 10 are saying that the economy is getting worse, and average confidence in the economy has reached its lowest point since November 2011, according to recent polls by Gallup.
On top of that, several U.S. states have already acted in one way or another by taking measures aimed at cutting minimum wage laws, considered some of the last bastions of low-wage worker protections in the country.
In 2011, for instance, New Hampshire legislators repealed the state’s minimum wage, mandating that only the federal minimum wage should be heeded. South Dakota recently abrogated the minimum wage for much of its summer tourism industry.
And while federal minimum wage standards are still in place, these recent trends suggest that the corporate influence at the state level is growing steadily.
While minimum wage restrictions are starting to take their toll on the average worker, the report also notes that many workers are not even able to recover those wages they have actually earned. Their failure to get paid – or what the report calls “wage theft” – refers to those widespread instances in which workers see parts of their paycheques being illegally withheld by their employers.
According to a 2009 survey by the National Employment Law Project, a labour advocacy group, as many as 64 percent of low-wage workers in the United States have seen portions of their paycheques stolen by their employers.
“The problem with alarming issues such as wage theft is that it’s actually very difficult to provide accurate evidence,” the CEPR’s Schmitt says. “Employers say that they’re eventually going to give that money back, but there’s no way of actually monitoring that.”
Advantage: employers
And as workers struggle to obtain those wages legitimately owed to them, national labour regulations seem to be increasingly tilting to the advantage of employers.
Some states have tackled the growing problem of wage theft by requiring employers to keep detailed pay records, or by passing legislation that enables state authorities to inspect these records. But according to the EPI, business lobbies have worked hard to block the enforcement of these efforts, in some cases by challenging the constitutionality itself of wage-theft laws.
In 2010, Florida’s Miami-Dade County enacted the first wage-theft law in the country. Lacking a department of labour since 2002, the state charged its Department of Small Business Administration with the law’s enforcement.
During its first year, the new law enabled the collection of nearly two million dollars’ worth of illegally withheld pay.
But as other counties sought to follow suit with their own wage-theft laws, business lobbies engaged in extensive legal battles aimed at curbing such laws. In 2011, Palm Beach County, another Florida county, tried to enact a wage-theft law similar to Miami-Dade’s, but business lobbies successfully blocked it by arguing that it would only add a costly new bureaucracy.
“The very little enforcement of wage-theft allegations has only contributed to emboldening employers across the country,” Schmitt says. “Right now, they feel they can take more risks and take advantage of their employees, without fear of retaliation.”