Is This Sick or What?

Against the Current, No. 117, July/August 2005

The Editors

AMONG THE DAILY atrocities perpetrated by the Bush regime, against its own population as well as the world at large, some are well-publicized while others tend to slide beneath the radar screen.  Item: One that hasn’t received as much attention as it deserves is called “asbestos reform.”

For corporate America, the crisis that’s been developing for decades isn’t the huge numbers of people sick and dying from asbestos exposure—in one state alone, “(m)ore than 1100 Michigan residents have died from asbestos diseases in the last 20 years, according to government data compiled by the Environmental Working Group, a research organization.”

No, the problem that George W. Bush is urgently addressing is the ballooning of victim compensation claims: “Experts say that more than 100,000 asbestos claims were filed in 2003 alone…A 2002 study by the RAND Corporation found that more than 600,000 people had filed claim for asbestos-related compensation, costing businesses more than $54 billion.  It predicted that 500,000 to 2.4 million claims could be filed in the years ahead, costing businesses as much as $210 billion.”  (Stephen Labaton, “Bush Calls for Change in Handling Asbestos Lawsuits,” New York Times, Saturday, January 8: A10) Already two years ago, a Senate Bill (S. 1125) was introduced by Orrin Hatch which, as documented by an AFL-CIO Fact Sheet at the time, “relieves manufacturers, employers and insurers of liability and fails to provide fair compensation to victims of asbestos disease.”  Today, much closer to passage is the Specter-Leahy “Fairness in Asbestos Injury Resolution Act” (FAIR, S. 852)

Instead of the bankruptcy trust arrangement existing since 1994, FAIR would create an absurdly inadequate national fund, based on payments by companies.  Ostensibly $140 billion will be available, but look at the fine print.  “In the case of one such firm, for example,” testified Professor Eric D. Green before the Senate Judiciary Committee, “it is estimated that the amount of money the company has agreed to pay [under existing law] versus what it will pay into the national Fund will drop from $750 million to a meager $2.5 million.”

Green continued: “Only companies in that position will cooperate; the rest will resist, as they have done for years.  The litigation won’t diminish; it will only shift in focus.”  In Professor Green’s view, the Fund will collapse into insolvency as eagerly as four years from its inception.

Criteria for claiming compensation are also severely tightened, including a medically nonsensical requirement that a person be exposed to asbestos for at least 15 months in order to qualify.  As explained in a letter to senators from the American Public Health Association:

“Many victims will face financial ruin in situations where physicians diagnose them with asbestos-related disease, but they do not meet all the new criteria for compensation.  With a medical diagnosis of asbestos-related disease, these victims will not be able to obtain adequate medical insurance coverage, leaving them nowhere to turn.”

Bitter Choices

Despite all this, the United Auto Workers (UAW) legislative director Alan Reuther testified strongly in favor of S. 852, citing the loss of jobs under the present system as auto parts companies are forced into bankruptcy from asbestos claims and the threat posed by rising claims against major auto manufacturers.  In so doing, the UAW bureaucracy is allying with “its own” capitalists, hoping to salvage its own shrinking base, at the expense of tens of thousands of workers (including UAW members).

But this typifies the kind of choice that the glorious workings of American capitalism imposes on working people.  Sacrifice the right to be compensated by the companies that destroyed their workers’ lungs, or lose your job.

But not everyone accepts the terms of such rotten choices.  Working-class voters in France and the Netherlands, against the advice of their political elites from right to “left,” resoundingly trashed the proposed Constitution of the expanded European Union.  What the people overwhelmingly rejected in the Constitution was exactly what the elites so heavily promoted: the vision of a more free-market “liberal” American corporate model, in which the economy prospers while most of the population suffers.

No illusions: Economies are stagnant and unemployment is high in much of Europe.  Capitalism sucks there too. But through working-class organizations—the unions and social-democratic parties, however corroded and pro-capitalist the latter have become—the working class feels capable of resisting neoliberalism.  Thus, within the narrow limits afforded to them, working-class voters rejected loudly and none too politely the message that “There is No Alternative” to economic growth at the expense of social protection.  Is that too much to hope for here?

Pensions and Health Care

The Bush administration’s program tends to stall out when it is most visible.  The strongest example is the arena of “reforming,” that is to say “partially privatizing,” which really means “destroying,” Social Security.  The depth and hostility of the response to this ripoff means that legislation for private stock-market-casino accounts to replace Social Security (or to “supplement” as the first step to gutting it) appears off the immediate agenda.

On one level, this is a sharp defeat that weakens Bush’s formerly unchallenged political steamrolling ability.  On the longer view, the outcome is murkier.  The ideological agenda—if not the immediate political purpose—of the privatizers has been advanced by weakening the public’s confidence in the longterm viability of Social Security, as we’ve been discussing in recent issues of Against the Current.

More frightening is the headlong rush to dump companies’ pension and health care obligations to retirees.  Spearheaded by United Air Lines, bankrupt and near-bankrupt airlines are simply renouncing their negotiated pension plans and forcing the government to take over the obligations (at considerable cost to the pensioners).

Now General Motors has also let it be known that at some still-undetermined moment it may unilaterally renounce its retirees’ guaranteed medical benefits.  This is a clear demand that the United Auto Workers negotiate massive cutbacks—and the UAW’s support for asbestos claim “reform” is a less than hopeful sign.

The only way out of this box would be for unions to stand together—from airlines to auto to other industries—to demand single-payer health care and a universal fully- portable national pension system.  The notion that individual corporations can be cajoled, persuaded or even forced into “socially responsible” behavior is illusory under the best conditions and frankly ludicrous in today’s economic and political climate.

In any event, there’s one set of rules for corporations facing bankruptcy: Dump your pensions, tear up your union contracts, get legislation passed to cancel your legal obligations to the workers you’ve poisoned.  Individuals have different rules: Under the new federal bankruptcy laws, thanks to the credit industry’s purchase of the United States Congress, ordinary people who bankrupt will remain permanently obliged to pay off much of their debt.

Ostensibly the law targets “irresponsible” consumer behavior.  In reality, the leading cause of individual bankruptcy in this country is catastrophic medical expense—and two-thirds of those who are financially destroyed in this way actually have medical insurance, or at least did have it until they lost their jobs due to the illness.

Now, except for the very poorest people (i.e. those who don’t have enough money to be worth squeezing), individuals and families who are wiped out have no escape from ruin.  Is this a sick system, or what?

Political Symbolism

The highly visible hard right-Christian fundamentalist alliance was partially defeated in its drive to change debating rules and minority rights in the Senate in order to allow the total packing of federal courts by reactionary judicial cadres.  It means that some of the absolute worst of Bush’s judicial appointments may be procedurally blocked—but they hardly come much worse than the just-confirmed trio of Owen, Prior and Brown.

Let’s be clear: The filibuster is an anti-democratic mechanism, but it exists in the context of the U.S. Senate which itself is highly undemocratic in terms of unequal representation.  And hardly anything is less democratic than lifetime judicial appointments!

Symbolically, the formation of a “center coalition” in the Senate represents a declaration by a handful of mostly conservative figures, from both parties, that they don’t wish to take orders from extreme rightwing religious fundamentalists.  That’s nice, we guess, but its significance will only be tested whenever the battle opens up over a Supreme Court appointment.

Of lesser longterm importance, the nomination as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations of John Bolton, the serial abuser of subordinates and documented falsifier of intelligence information to serve militarist ideological aims, remained stalled as of mid-June.  Ultimately this makes little difference—as Bolton unlike federal judges will not have a lifetime appointment to destroy people’s rights and lives.  However, the administration’s tactically foolish decision to put its political prestige behind ramming Bolton through shows both this regime’s supreme arrogance and its potential vulnerability.

Roots of Opposition

The issues confronting America’s corporate rulers, and the movements, in the domestic and international arenas interact.  The public’s confusion over Iraq—disillusionment over the “victory” and uncertainty over the future, but no clear picture of the real disaster—helps to obscure the full viciousness of the Bush gang’s agenda at home.

It’s still difficult for people to fully “wrap their heads around” the extent of this corporate assault on the most basic elements of a decent and secure life for working people.  At the same time, the notion that “there’s no choice” for workers but to give up health care and pensions, in exchange for keeping their jobs, corresponds to the conventional bipartisan pablum that “there’s no choice but to stay in Iraq now that we’re there.”

The real choice confronting the U.S. population, and working people in particular, is the one that the corporate political parties and media do their best to obscure.  It’s the choice between trying to rule the world (for its own good, naturally) and any hope of building a decent and democratic society at home.  The choice of Empire means sacrificing our rights to the “War on Terror,” our children to the demands of the military, and our desperately declining cities and social services to the ever-growing war budget.

Yes, there are choices, but only if there’s opposition and resistance strong enough to force them on the agenda.  That opposition will not come from the Democratic Party, whose whole purpose as a corporate party is to obscure, not clarify, the realities and the costs of imperialism.  The challenge has to come, as do all authentic challenges to this rotten system, from below.

ATC 117, July-August 2005