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September 30, 2009

At the G20, human rights US-style

Scott Stockdale

Scott Stockdale(Pittsburgh, September 26, 2009) Human Rights and the Struggle for Global Justice was the title of the day-long symposium, at the United Steelworkers building, in downtown Pittsburgh.

As I entered the convention room, I was greeted by a Canadian immigrant, who said he used to be former UAW president Bob White's assistant.

These are indeed, cross-border, or more accurately, international issues being discussed at the G20 Summit.

Leo Gerard, president of the USW (United Steel Workers) began the proceedings by telling the audience that in the last 25 years the U.S. has gone from being the world's largest creditor to the world's largest debtor nation.

"Since 1974 we've accumulated a $6.5 trillion trade debt. Every year we set a record trade deficit, probably not this year because people just don't have the money to spend."

Meanwhile, Mr. Gerard said the real U.S. unemployment rate is between 17.5% and 18% - almost 30 million people - if we include the people who have given up looking for work.

"They call that (people who've given up looking for work) the reserve labor force."

He added that wages are now $2,000 per year lower than they were in 1979.

It would help the workers, Mr. Gerard said if the government put a transaction tax of a couple of cents on every Wall Street trade. "This would generate enough revenue to fund healthcare."

Rich Trumka, President of the AFL-CIO cited some statistics to illustrate why he thinks the U.S. is faced with the most serious financial crisis since the great depression.

The American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations, commonly AFL-CIO, is a national trade union center, the largest federation of unions in the United States and Canada, made up of 65 national and international unions, together representing more than 10 million workers.

It was formed in 1955 when the AFL and the CIO merged after a long estrangement. From 1955 until 2005, the AFL-CIO's member unions represented nearly all unionized workers in the United States. The largest union in the AFL-CIO is the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), with more than a million members, since 2005 when several large unions split away from AFL-CIO.

Mr. Trumka said that between 1946 and 1973, production doubled and so did wages for the bottom two thirds of income earners, in no small part because union membership also doubled during this period.

"In the mid -70's lawmakers began to follow Milton Friedman's theory of neoliberalism - let the market decide. Paul Volker (then U.S. Federal Reserve Chairman and currently an economic advisor to President Obama) came in with a mandate to fight inflation and unemployment, but he soon realized he couldn't do both, so he focused solely on fighting inflation. Next came the Reagan and Thatcher years, when productivity rose but wages stagnated and fell. Successive governments continued these neoliberal policies, with the result that the bottom 5 % (of the workforce) saw their incomes rise by 5% while the top 1%'s rose by 468%."

Many historians and economists cite this phenomenon as the largest transfer of wealth in history.

This was made possible, Mr. Trumka said, because of a corporate and government "policy box" which allowed for temporary workers and sub minimum wage jobs, and this doesn't include the millions of illegal immigrants in the U.S., who are working "under the table" for miniscule wages.

In an effort to keep up with lower real wages, Mr. Trumka said U.S. workers began working more overtime; then a second person in the household started working, followed by many workers getting a second and third job, and finally, the current situation, where many people are borrowing to maintain their lifestyles. 

The tech bubble of the beginning of this century, followed by the recent housing bubble, exacerbated the situation, as workers saw their savings in 401 K's and pensions devastated.

Meanwhile, 70% of the U.S. economy is dependent on consumer spending. Along with the much talked and written about situation whereby the U.S. must borrow nearly 5% of its national income - a situation many economists say is unsustainable - Mr. Trumka said a rupture between the financial and the real economy has exacerbated this problem.

"The financial sector was originally created to support the real economy, but deregulation has allowed financial institutions to make so much short-term profit that the resources needed to sustain the real economy have declined. In the last ten years real estate, financial and insurance companies have contributed $5 billion to the government through lobbying and contributions.  Now $2 trillion of bad loans have been lifted off their backs and onto your back."

This recession is not like previous recessions, so the policies that worked before won't work this time, Mr. Trumka said. "We must produce more of what we consume or consume less," Mr. Trumka said.

Lisa Jordan, director of Education for the United Steelworkers, and a former Chairperson of the business program at Bevard College, in North Carolina, addressed the symposium, telling the audience that of the 100 largest economies in the world, 49 are countries and 51 are corporations, where the CEO's are focused on how to improve shareholder's equity, not on the conditions of the companies' workers, especially in third world countries such as China and India.

The neoliberal doctrine stresses personal responsibility, she said, so neoliberals say if you're not successful it's your fault; it's not because a few people are setting policies that have resulted in the U.S. losing 7 million manufacturing jobs since 1999.

While here, I saw a close-up example of this way of thinking.

A man who immigrated to the U.S. seven years ago, can't get his professional credentials recognized here, so he's forced to toil in a menial task type job.

Meanwhile, he took me to see his brother's house, a 30,000 square foot residence in a gated community, on the outskirts of the city.

I've seen opulence before, but not like this. His brother, who emigrated to the U.S. 20 years ago and took his fellowship here is an oncologist.

In his garage I saw three vehicles: a custom-made Aston Martin worth $200,000, a Porsche worth $100,000 and a Range Rover worth 90,000.

My new friend told me his brother is driving a $100,000 Mercedes and he gave him the Honda he's driving, worth $37,000. The home has a private movie theater with 11 reclining chairs and an elevator to the second floor of the three-story house.

My friend said, "My brother says to me: "I made it, why can't you?"

And this is in a country where many millions of people can't afford healthcare.

Moreover, I was shocked when a local resident told me that people like her, who have health insurance, either paid for by her employer or herself, must get the insurance company's approval before it will release the funds for a medical procedure a doctor has recommended.

"And these people are insurance agents: they're trying to minimize their company's costs; they don't know anything about medical treatments," she said.

After showing a film, entitled "Ten Years After Seattle" where these U.S. labor organizations protested the 1999 WTO meeting in that city, Lori Wallach, a lawyer representing the Public Citizen's Global Trade Watch, said these protests have and will continue to make a difference.

"In the mid-90's we had NAFTA and the WTO which were focused on getting government out of the market. There used to be a free trade of the Americas (proposal) which was to include 33 countries. We killed it. People said, 'Look what happened in the first three countries.' These agreements were for investment. They secretly attacked environmental rights." As an example, she said the WTO ruled against U.S. government fuel efficiency standards.

"The congress has changed now. The majority don't want NAFTA and WTO free trade."

Scott Stockdale is a freelance writer based in Toronto. 

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