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Labor Day 2010: Puppets of the plutocrats

By the Editorial Board of the St.Louis Post-Dispatch

America should just go ahead and cancel Labor Day. Really.

Other than as an excuse for a picnic, what’s the point? Three hundred and sixty-four days a year, we honor plutocrats, and one Monday holiday in September is going to make up for it?

Organized labor no doubt would object. Big deal. One worker in eight belongs to a labor union. And last year, for the first time in history, more public-sector workers (500,000 more) belonged to a union than did private-sector workers.

Oh, the irony. For the second year in a row, Americans “celebrate” Labor Day with unemployment at 9.6 percent or higher. Corporate profits are 5.7 higher now than then they were in the fourth quarter of 2007, when the recession began. The number of jobs is 5.9 percent lower.

Labor — by which we mean not only organized labor but the entire working class — should just give it up. Roll over. Turn turtle. Admit it: The class war is over, and you lost. You not only lost, you collaborated.

Organized labor still may be fighting the good fight. But a lot of the working class is out there marching in the streets on behalf of the monied class, puppets of the plutocrats, angry as hell at all of the wrong people.

Oh, it wasn’t always like this. Labor Day became a federal holiday in 1894 because President Grover Cleveland and Congress were frightened of labor’s power.

This was after Eugene V. Debs of the Railroad Workers Union had brought the country to its knees over the Pullman car strike. Cleveland had put the strike down with the Army, probably illegally, killing 13 people in the process.

At one point Debs had 250,000 workers off the job. Labor Day, which was rushed through Congress in six days flat, became a way to pacify them.

Labor Day signaled the beginning of the end of what Mark Twain called the “Gilded Age,” when there was more disparity between rich and poor than at any time in the nation’s history, except maybe this one.

More important were the real gains that labor achieved in the next few decades: higher wages, shorter work weeks, the progressive income tax and acceptance of the fundamental concept that labor was as important as capital in the production of goods and the provision of services.

That concept is all but gone today, a victim not only of industrialization, the technological revolution and globalization, but also of shrewd, cynical and effective politics.

Working-class America got distracted by its own success. It had houses in the suburbs, 500 TV channels and cheap credit so it could go to Wal-Mart and buy all the foreign-made toys it wanted.

In the 1970s, conservative billionaires began funding think tanks to attack the forces of progressivism. The Reagan Revolution co-opted a lot of labor votes with jingoism. The late Lee Atwater perfected the use of “wedge issues” — God, guns, gays and abortion — to distract the working class from economic issues.

In the 1990s, Roger Ailes, an old Nixon and Reagan hand, helped launch the career of Rush Limbaugh and turned Fox News into an advocacy platform for the political goals of America’s billionaires. Working-class America was so busy applauding that it didn’t notice that its pockets were being picked.

Banks and big business bought control of Congress, which passed a series of tax and banking laws that fostered the largest transfer of wealth in America’s history. The money went not from the rich to poor — that would be socialistic “income redistribution.” No, it went from the working class to the rich.

Today, the Tax Policy Center, a non-partisan arm of the Brookings Institution, projects that in 2011 that the top 1 percent of all wage earners will take home 18 percent of all income. The top tenth of that 1 percent will take home 8.2 percent all by itself.

Between 1979 and 2007 (before the Big Recession) the average after-tax income of the top 1 percent of the population nearly quadrupled, from $347,000 to over $1.3 million.

Things aren’t so rosy for the middle class. Median household income dropped 2.5 percent between 1999 and 2009 in inflation-adjusted terms, the Census Bureau reports. That is, unless you live in Missouri, where median household income dropped by 14.6 percent.

Here’s one our favorite class warfare facts, from this year’s “Executive Excess” study by the Institute for Policy Studies: “American workers … are taking home less in real weekly wages than they took home in the 1970s. Back in those years, precious few top executives made over 30 times what their workers made. In 2009, we calculate … CEOs of major U.S. corporations averaged 263 times the average compensation of American workers.”

Layoffs pay. The study found that the chief executive officers of the 50 firms that laid off the most workers during the recession took home an average of nearly $12 million last year — 42 percent more than the average pay of all the CEOs at S&P 500 firms.

No wonder workers are angry. No wonder they’re massing in large protest rallies.

No, wait. Those are the Tea Partiers and the Becksters.

They’re angry at federal health care reform, even though it will save them money and reduce the deficit.

They’re angry about the Wall Street bailout. Except for the fact that it was absolutely necessary because the titans of Wall Street had a gun at the head of the world economy, they should be angry.

They’re angry about the $787 billion in stimulus spending, even though it returned a fat tax break to them, saved the jobs of cops and teachers and state employees and paid unemployment compensation to the victims of the Wall Street manipulators.

Workers need to be angry, but at the right people — the ones who for 30 years have been steering ever more of the wealth of this nation into fewer and fewer hands.

Ironically, it is those plutocrats — oil and insurance company executives, big bankers and other Wall Street tycoons — who are orchestrating many of these protest rallies.

This is where labor is most effectively organized on Labor Day Weekend 2010: against the interests of working America.

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