Weekly Audit: Unions and Wage Growth Can Fuel Recovery

Zach Carter, Media Consortium blogger

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The U.S. economy is in big trouble right now, and the reform process may be missing a key point. When banks ran into severe trouble late last year, the government responded quickly with a massive bailout, but very little has been done to address a major structural flaw that has left our economy so vulnerable: rampant income inequality. In a system based on consumer spending, we have stretched consumers beyond their limit.Former Labor Secretary Robert Reich argues that we are in for a long period of economic woe over at Talking Points Memo. Consumer spending accounts for about 70% of the U.S. economy, so when consumers go broke, everything shuts down. Ordinary Americans' wages have been declining for decades, and the collapse of the housing bubble wiped out roughly $14 trillion in household wealth. Simply rebooting in the hopes that our simultaneous assault and dependence on consumer pocketbooks will work again will not be effective."This economy can't get back on track because the track we were on for years—featuring flat or declining median wages, mounting consumer debt, and widening insecurity, not to mention increasing carbon in the atmosphere—simply cannot be sustained," Reich writes.Strengthening our labor unions is probably the biggest single step the U.S. can take toward economic stability. And the best way to do that would be passing the Employee Free Choice Act, which would make it much easier for unions to organize by circumventing executive intimidation. Empowered workers can demand fair wages, decent benefits and help build a society that values all labor as an important part of collective existence.In a profile of AFL-CIO leader David Trumka for The Nation, David Moberg presents a vision of an economy in which policymakers and voters are concerned with how much wealth exists and how that wealth is distributed. Widespread prosperity does not inevitably flow from technological or financial innovation if the resulting gains are diverted to a select few."In Trumka's view, the unionism of the 1930s forged a social compact that made possible the middle class prosperity of the 1950s and 1960s," Moberg writes. "But since the early 1970s, Wall Street and financial interests have dominated American politics, dismantling the compact and increasing inequality, debt and insecurity as workers struggled to keep up."It may be surprising for those of us who don't work on Wall Street, but there is actually an enormously influential school of thought in Washington, D.C. that believes recessions are actually good for the economy. The reasoning goes something like this: When economies gorge themselves, something has to happen to correct the mistake—to "purge the rottenness from the system," as Herbert Hoover's Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon once said. The idea has some level of intuitive appeal, but as Christopher Hayes writes for The American Prospect, it's also a complete distortion of how recessions actually work."Economic contraction feels quite different to a bond trader and an unskilled worker," Hayes writes. "A spike in unemployment hits those on the margins of the labor market the hardest, while contractions also usher in deflation, which has a strong tendency to make the rich richer."In reality, the government almost never makes the perpetrators of an economic collapse pay serious consequences. When the economy gets into trouble, the government usually takes emergency measures to avert a crisis, and then refuses to adopt reforms that would protect those dealt the most harm. It's been this way for decades.Not only have workers been neglected, but billions of their tax dollars have bailed out banks that ran themselves into the ground via predatory loans. But even that bailout money is not being used to help strengthen the broader economy. Writing for The Washington Independent, Mary Kane highlights a host of reports that indicate banks are booting people out of their homes, and then refusing to care for the houses once they're vacant. When homes are overgrown and infested with all kinds of critters, the value of nearby properties plummets. Banks are hurting completely innocent homeowners whose tax dollars helped bail them out.We don't even know the full extent of the favors the government has performed for financial firms. In a video for the American News Project, Lagan Sebert, Harry Hanbury and Mike Fritz detail some of the Federal Reserve's unprecedented actions during the financial crisis. The Fed has lent out over $1 trillion to banks over the course of the financial crisis without disclosing who received the loans or what kind of collateral the Fed received in return.Much of what we do know about the Fed's rescue plans is disquieting, as William Greider, an economics journalist with The Nation, explains in the ANP video. When Bear Stearns collapsed in March 2008, the Federal Reserve Bank of New York negotiated a rescue plan in which JPMorgan would acquire the failed Wall Street icon in exchange for $30 billion in loss protection from the Fed. But JPMorgan would have been one of the hardest hit by a Bear Stearns collapse, and JPMorgan CEO Jamie Dimon sits on the board of directors at the New York Fed."Tim Geithner, who was then President of the New York Federal Reserve Bank and is now Treasury Secretary, was negotiating with his own board member," Greider says.Going back to labor: Hourly workers will get some much-needed relief later this month, when the federal minimum wage increases from $6.55 to $7.25 an hour, as Doug Ramsey explains for Public News Service of Arizona. While executives like to argue that raising the minimum wage is a job-killer, the fact is that no serious study has ever linked the two phenomena. Interestingly, the wage increase was not a response to the economic crisis. It was one of the first legislative victories for the Democratic Party when it won back majorities in the House and Senate in 2006.Anybody who lives on less than $7.00 an hour can attest that the added income is a welcome improvement over the status quo. But $7.25 an hour is just $15,000 a year—not nearly enough to save for the future or pay for a serious medical procedure. Our economy is suffering because many, many ordinary people are living paycheck to paycheck. We have to create an economy where work and workers are given their fair value.This post features links to the best independent, progressive reporting about the economy. Visit StimulusPlan.NewsLadder.net and Economy.NewsLadder.net for complete lists of articles on the economy, or follow us on Twitter. And for the best progressive reporting on critical health and immigration issues, check out Healthcare.NewsLadder.net and Immigration.NewsLadder.net. This is a project of The Media Consortium, a network of 50 leading independent media outlets, and was created by NewsLadder.

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