Sept. 11 terrorist attacks are used to clobber workers

By DON McINTOSH, Staff Reporter

In the months since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, working people have stepped forward with patriotic shows of voluntarism, generosity and unity. But politics and the economy have, if anything, become harder, colder and meaner as corporations have moved to lay off tens of thousands of workers as GOP leaders in the House push for corporate bailouts and a corporate trade agenda that does little to help working people.

To formulate a labor response to the change in political climate, the Oregon AFL-CIO and Northwest Oregon Labor Council co-sponsored a conference that looked at the severity of the economic downturn and the danger to civil liberties of new anti-terrorist bills.

Over 100 union leaders and activists took part; presenters included U.S. Representative Earl Blumenauer, former U.S. Attorney Kristine Olson, and AFL-CIO Western Regional Director Ron Judd.

The conference began with an economic analysis laid out by Larry Mishel, an economist with the Economic Policy Institute, a labor-backed think tank based in Washington, D.C.

His forecast was grim.

A high unemployment figure of 7 percent shouldn't be looked at just as the "odds" that a given working person will be out of job, Mishel said. High unemployment means that wage increases for all working people get depressed, since there are more unemployed workers competing for jobs. For every 2.5 percent increase in unemployment, family earnings in the middle fifth of incomes fall 4.5 percent, and 9 percent in the bottom fifth.

"When unemployment is high, our team loses," Mishel said. "Unemployment at 4 percent or below is the only time people in the bottom third ever see their income rise."

On top of that, unemployment statistics can be misleading because the pain is not evenly shared, Mishel said. "The Bureau of Labor Statistics says a person with one foot in ice water and the other foot in boiling water is on average comfortable." Right now, the overall U.S. unemployment rate is 6 percent, but the unemployment rate among blue-collar workers is 11 percent, among black workers is 12 percent, and among black teens is 36 percent.

The trouble with recessions, Mishel said, is that even after recovery is announced, it takes years for unemployment to go down again, and even longer for working people's wages to catch up. That's because every year, population growth increases the labor force by 1 percent, and businesses become 2.5 percent more efficient. That means overall employment has to grow 3.5 percent just to keep the unemployment rate from going up.

Mishel said all this is likely to add up to enormous suffering for the poorest in the post- welfare reform era. "When the system is designed to move people from welfare to work and there's no work, we've got a problem," he said.

Oregon AFL-CIO President Tim Nesbitt said ever since the terrorist attacks, corporations have pushed the message that now is not the time for working people to ask for more; he wants to turn that message around. "If we stop fighting the radical corporate agenda, the terrorists and those who exploit terror will have won," Nesbitt said.

Congressman Blumenauer, a Democrat, laid the blame - for exploiting the crisis for partisan gain - on the Republican leadership. America may have lost some of its innocence on Sept. 11, he said, but some people in Congress are treating it as though America has lost its common sense.

Despite President George W. Bush's call for putting people ahead of party politics during his Jan. 5 Portland visit, the House Republican leadership has consistently done the opposite, Blumenauer said.

For example, in the midst of a devastating crisis for the airline and tourism industry, when those industries were clamoring for some measure to restore confidence in air safety and get people traveling again, the Senate passed 100-0 an airline security bill that included federalizing airport security. The relevant House committee approved a similar bill 36-0. But the Republican House leadership, led by Tom DeLay, was so narrowly partisan in their fear that federalizing would make it easier for airport security workers to unionize that for two months they would not allow the bill to be voted on.

"We expected the war on workers would be suspended when the war on terrorism began," said Gordon Lafer of the Labor Education and Research Center of the University of Oregon, which helped put together the conference. "Now we know that if there's a choice between fighting the war on terrorism or the war on working people, the Republicans choose the war against working people."

Former prosecutor Kristine Olson told conference participants she worries about the potential for abuse of new laws and executive orders. In the name of fighting terrorism, they provide for increased use of wiretaps, "sneak-and-peek" search warrants, monitoring of attorney-client conversations, and use of military tribunals. Olson, now an aide in Blumenauer's office, said the Portland congressman voted against the so-called "Patriot Act" both for its details and for the undemocratic way it was pushed in the House.

Alice Dale, an international vice president of the Service Employees and secretary-treasurer of its Portland-based Local 49, said labor needs to support setting boundaries on the way police deal with protests. She said in the current labor climate, unions need to bargain aggressively with employers and use new tactics to appeal directly to the public, tactics that sometimes include street protests that then put labor on "a collision course" with police. Dale said the post 9/11 climate has put a chill on campaigns for immigrants rights, which have been a major focus of organized labor in the last several years as immigrant workers unionize in ever-greater numbers.

The challenge to labor, Nesbitt said, will be to build a broad-based movement before the Oregon Legislature meets in special session Feb. 8 to back a plan that would stimulate the economy and help unemployed workers.

February 1, 2002 issue

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