When the smoke finally cleared and the 1,600-page omnibus spending bill enacted by Congress was published, one thing was abundantly clear: Wall Street and the big banks and corporations had a lot to cheer about, while the labor movement and its allies had suffered a further devastating setback. Here is just a partial list of what is wrong with the bill, now signed into law by the president:
The bill permits pensions for more than 10 million retirees to be cut. According to the December 15 Wall Street Journal, this especially affects multi-employer plans, jointly run by unions and employers. As explained by the Journal, “The bill would allow troubled funds to cut benefits for current retirees.…That is an exception to a long-standing federal rule against scaling back private pension benefits.”
The measure “would set a terrible precedent,” said Karen Friedman, executive vice president of the Pension Rights Center, a group that advocates for wider pension coverage and opposes benefit cuts. The bill would encourage similar cutbacks in troubled state and local pension plans and possibly even Social Security and Medicare, she noted.
In short, countless additional millions of retirees, both in the public and private sectors, would be adversely hurt down the road.
Here is one example among many of how our unions will be impacted: UPS will not be obligated to pay $2 billion to the Central States Multi-Employer Pension Plan as stipulated in its 2007 contract with the Teamsters’ union — and worse, it will not have to make up the difference to UPS retirees, as mandated in that contract, when cuts take place.
Some conservatives contend that the bill would encourage policy makers to recognize and deal with shortfalls in benefits programs. “Facing up to the insolvency is healthy,” said Alex Pollock of the American Enterprise Institute. He added, “While it is difficult considering cutting retiree benefits, it is often better than taking the money from other people, such as taxpayers.” Pollack seems to have a short memory of the trillions of taxpayer money used to bail out the banks and financial interests in 2009.
In other words, don’t tax the wealthy or close corporate loopholes to make up for the shortfall in pension funding. Take it out of the hides of retirees instead!
Jeopardizes Workers’ and the Public’s Safety
The bill rolls back safety rules that were supposed to keep sleepy truckers from causing wrecks. The government rules had effectively shortened truckers’ maximum workweek from 82 hours to 70, so it’s back to 82. That’s more than an 11-hour day, seven days a week.
Assault on the Environment
The bill trims the Environmental Protection Agency’s budget by $60 million while allowing exceptions to clean water laws for agricultural refuse.
Military Spending Increased Again
The bill devotes 55% of its $1.1 trillion to military spending, which squeezes out other priorities, from education to health care to the environment.
Giving Even Greater Influence to the Superrich
The bill allows political investments (mistakenly called contributions) to political parties. It includes an eight-fold increase (from $194,400 to $1.5 million) per individual over a two-year election cycle to political parties. This makes the Democrats and Republicans even more beholden to the voices and interests of the superrich and less inclined to listen and respond to the interests of low- and moderate-income people.
Shifting the Risk of Bank Losses to Taxpayers
The bill would ease rules enacted to protect taxpayers against bank losses after risky investments helped cause the 2007 financial crisis. Now the banks can resume their high-risk investments under the shield of federal insurance. Sen. Elizabeth Warren urged, “We all need to stand firm and fight this giveaway to the most powerful banks in the country.” But far from standing firm, large numbers of Democrats joined their Republican colleagues in approving the bill, which Speaker of the House John Boehner rightfully called bi-partisan and bi-cameral.
The Congressional Vote
The House vote was 57 Democrats and 162 Republicans in favor of the bill, with 139 Democrats and 67 Republicans opposed. So it was 219-206 in favor. In the Senate, it was 31 Democrats, one independent, and 24 Republicans in favor, with 21 Democrats, one independent and 18 Republicans opposed. So it was 56-40 in favor of the bill.
It is often said by some officials in the labor movement that things would be much better if only there were more Democrats in Congress. But what difference would it make? After all, there were more than enough Democrats in the Senate to defeat this massive giveaway to the banks, yet a decisive majority of them voted in favor of the spending bill. Moreover it could not have passed the House without 57 Democrats voting for it. Voting for the bill were Senate majority leader Harry Reid; Sen. Barbara Mikulski of Maryland, who was the Senate’s chief architect and promoter of the bill; Rep. Steny Hoyer, also of Maryland, who is the number two ranked Democrat in the House; and Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, from Florida, who is chair of the Democratic Party National Committee.
Congress’ usual procedure calls for legislation of this type to be referred to the Banking Committee for hearings, with opponents given at least some opportunity to publicize the bill’s giveaways to the big banks. However, no such procedure was followed here.
What was critically needed was a national campaign to be launched — and a mobilization organized by labor and its allies — to expose the class character of the bill as a boon to Big Business but harmful to the working class majority. Instead, key sections of the bill were written in the dead of night and rushed to a Congressional vote a day or two later. No member claimed that he or she had sufficient time to read, study and analyze its 1,600 pages.
Once again the labor movement is paying a horrific price for its failure to have a meaningful voice in the country’s legislative arena. Accordingly, this latest defeat should spur a re-examination of labor’s failed dependence on the Democratic Party to look out for workers’ interests and why it has become so urgent for labor to break with that dependency. Instead, we should run our own independent labor/community candidates for public office on the basis of a program that faithfully reflects the best interests of the great majority. The failure to adopt such a strategic change will inevitably lead to further defeats for labor in the future.