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Working In These Times

Wednesday, Feb 3, 2010, 4:19 pm

Dems Need to Sharply Re-Focus on Workers’ Plight

BY Roger Bybee

From Washington to Wisconsin, the line between Dems and the GOP is too blurry

Republican elected officials have become, almost uniformly, vicious enemies of unions in particular and working people in general.

This was witnessed during Senate debate over the auto bailouts in late 2008, when GOP Southern senators excoriated the UAW and supposedly over-paid autoworkers, and most recently, Sen. Jim DeMint's (R-S.C.) successful derailment of an appointee as director of the Transportation Security Administration. The Republican brand has become distinctly and proudly anti-union.

Thus the Republicans have made identifying workers' enemies very easy. But finding genuine friends of working people in Washington, D.C. has become much tougher, despite a 59-41 Democratic majority in the Senate and 257-178 majority in the House. Moreover, problems are now cropping up at the state level as well, in places like Madison, Wis., where Democrats seem to be losing some of the reform-minded luster that once separated them from Republicans intent on preserving the status quo. 

WHERE'S THE DRIVE FOR REFORM?

At a moment when the public is suffering through wage cuts, job losses, foreclosures, and pension losses, the Democrats' reliance on insurers' contributions and coziness with corporate lobbyists is certain to blur any distinction between the two parties.

Keep in mind that it was the Democrats in Washington who have been  distorting healthcare reform beyond recognition. Turncoat-in-chief has been Senate Finance Chair Max Baucus. Baucus personally ruled single-payer off the table before the healthcare debate began and excluded single-payer witnesses from testifying. He was also a leader of the Senate gang that fought against even a token public option, killed the provision eliminating the anti-trust exemption of insurers, jettisoned a Medicare buy-in at age 55, removed a cap on annual health expenditures by insurers, and would allow insurers to charge older, sicker workers as much as four times as much as younger, healthier employees.

BAUCUS: THE HIGH PLAINS GRIFTER

Sometimes known as "the High Plains Grifter" for his sleazy deal-making, Baucus has been the recipient of $3 million in insurance campaign contributions. Surely his performance in guiding healthcare reform thus far will reap even bigger rewards from the insurers and drug companies, even while he deepens the public's alienation from the Democratic Party.

Just as Bill Clinton's all-out effort to win passage of the job-exporting NAFTA led many Democrats to stay home and allow Newt Gingrich to reclaim both houses of Congress in the 1994 mid-terms, the Baucus Buy-off by the insurers and Big Pharma may cost the Dems dearly in the 2010 mid-term elections.
 
Meanwhile, back in Wisconsin, a controversy is building around Democratic Assembly Speaker Mike Sheridan dating a lobbyist. The lobbyist, Shanna  Wycoff, happens to represent the predatory payday loan industry that is battling legislation that would hold the interest rates to an already-usurious 36%. Wisconsin is the only state with no regulations dealing specifically with payday lending products.

In 2009, popular hopes had been raised as a progressive new group of Democratic legislators moved into power at the Capitol. Elected as assembly speaker was Mike Sheridan, former president of the big UAW Local 95 at Janesville, a placid town of 62,000. Sheridan has been regarded as bright, articulate and strongly committed to labor and working people.

HOMETOWN IN DEEP DISTRESS DUE TO GM EXIT

Sheridan's leadership role could potentially be very helpful to his hometown of Janesville and other factory towns that have lost their long-time biggest employers. Since GM shut down production at the century-old Janesville operation, ending the last of 2,800 jobs just before Christmas in 2008, the town has been going through the predictable convulsions of a city whose economic heart has been torn out. Some signs of severe distress:

  • Family violence has escalated, with a near-tripling of abused women seeking shelter between March 2008 and March 2009.
  • Rising poverty: The percentage of schoolchildren eligible for free or reduced-cost lunches climbed from 29 percent in the 2006-07 school year to 37 percent in 2008-09.
  • Transportation squeeze: Local nonprofit agencies, which gave out bus tokens to low-income people so that they can could search for work, have been faced with such high demand that they were forced to limit the tokens to people holding low-income jobs so that they could get to work. “People have had their cars repossessed or don’t have cash to fill their gas tanks,” says former city council president Amy Loasching, a UAW education official.
  • Falling home prices as more and more families move out in search of new jobs.
  • Rising foreclosure rates: The number of home foreclosure filings in Rock County (separate figures for Janesville were not available) has nearly tripled, from 317 in 2000 to 911 in 2008. Each 1 percent increase in the unemployment rate means a 6-percent increase in foreclosures,” says University of Wisconsin-Whitewater economics Professor Russell Kashian. “So when unemployment goes up 3 percent in Janesville, foreclosures go up 18 percent.”

In this context, the need to protect desperate families in Janesville and across the state from legalized loan sharks in payday loan operations could not be more obvious.

So when a prominent Democratic leader makes headlines by having a close personal relationship with a lobbyist for unregulated loans to working people who have nowhere else to turn, needless to say, it does not do much to distinguish the Democrats from the Republicans and deepens public cynicism.

RELATIONSHIP BUILDING WITH LOBBYISTS PART OF JOB?

While Mike Sheridan is highly regarded by progressives in the United Auto Workers, his recent statements suggested that the Democrats are practicing business as usual under the State Capitol dome. "Shanna [Wycoff] is a friend of mine and I have a lot of friends that are in the lobby corps," he said, adding, "I mean, I think that part of my job is relationship building."

It would be utterly unfair and premature to cast stones at Sheridan, who after all, does support imposing a cap on payday loans. He certainly does not fall in the Max Baucus category of Democrats who have thoroughly sold out and serve only to taint the Democratic label. However, having a relationship with a lobbyist from an industry that feeds directly on the desperate straits facing working families and the poor is hardly a way to build trust.

DO DEMS COMPREHEND DEPTH OF MISERY?

But Democrats—from Washington to the state capitols in Madison and eslewhere—still don't seem to be comprehending or fully focused on the depth of human misery in places like Janesville. 

Unless the Democrats—from the White House on down—recognize that the Great Recession is still plaguing tens of millions of working families, they will not be viewed fondly in November in places like Janesville.

Roger Bybee is a Milwaukee-based freelance writer and University of Illinois visiting professor in Labor Education. Roger's work has appeared in numerous national publications, including Z magazine, Dollars & Sense, The Progressive, Progressive Populist, Huffington Post, The American Prospect, Yes! and Foreign Policy in Focus. More of his work can be found at zcommunications.org/zspace/rogerdbybee.

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