Envisioning Economic Justice

Against the Current, No. 130, September/October 2007

Milton Tambor

THE ORGANIZERS OF the U.S. Social Forum must be commended for making possible this political happening with its 900 workshops. The USSF has succeeded in bringing together activists from many diverse sectors working for global justice — thereby contributing to the strengthening of the entire movement.

As socialists in this workshop, we have a responsibility to help build a left in the United States. If we are serious about this project, then our respective socialist organizations should enter into political dialogue with each other. This workshop provides the opportunity to begin that discussion.

On a personal note, upon retirement after 30 years in the labor movement, I still find myself reflecting on what it means to be a trade union socialist in the United States during this historical period. Participating in this forum with political comrades can only assist me in further exploring this question.

The intent in this presentation is to provide an analysis of the current period from a socialist perspective. That analysis will focus on an examination of neoliberalism — drawing on David Harvey’s book A Brief History of Neoliberalism (Oxford University Press, 2006). Second, the adverse economic effects of neoliberal policies upon the working class will be detailed. Third, based upon that analysis, a specific program will be proposed using a draft prepared by the Democratic Socialists of America,”Toward an Economic Justice Agenda.”

This version, being distributed at the USSF, proposes a program that left and progressive forces can organize around.  Feedback regarding the issues and perspectives is welcome. By developing an economic agenda that can gain broad support, the work of the many economic justice movements could become more unified and focused.

Neoliberal Goals and Ideology

According to Harvey, the overall goals of neoliberalism are to strengthen property rights and to implement free markets and free trade. State intervention in the market is to be kept at a minimum. The rights of workers are to be restricted and union power is to be curtailed. Neoliberalism’s objectives include deregulation, privatization, dismantling of the safety net, and undermining unions.

Neoliberalism’s strategies are all too familiar to us: (1) Shift the tax burden from the rich and corporations to workers. (2) Starve the public sector. (3) Weaken government regulations. (4) Allow corporations free rein in search for cheap labor.

In the absence of labor, human and environmental rights, the race to the bottom expands corporate power and maximizes corporate profits. Thirty years ago Doug Fraser, UAW president, described this development as a “one- sided class war” — a war against workers, the unemployed, the poor, the young, the old and the middle class. Since that time, the war has intensified.

Ideology is a weapon in this class war. Its purpose is to subvert socialist values of liberty, equality and solidarity. The neoliberal mantra goes as follows: an efficient economy is a deregulated economy; free enterprise is synonymous with freedom; there are no alternatives to a market economy; economic growth requires non-interference by government; a union-free environment provides greater employer flexibility and efficiency.

To justify contracting out, private sector services are exalted while public services are demeaned. Individualism and the survival of the fittest, doctrines associated with robber barons and the Gilded Age, are resurrected. Social problems are seen as resulting from individual failure or shortcoming. Nor does society even exist, as Margaret Thatcher noted, only individual men and women. This ideological war is abetted by a corporate-controlled media where content is homogenized and the status quo affirmed.

The firing of PATCO (air traffic control) workers by Ronald Reagan in 1981 is cited as heralding the neoliberal period. However, these policies have been supported by both major political parties. During the Clinton administrations, in fact, neoliberal policies were sharply advanced with passage of NAFTA and welfare reform.

Attacking Workers and Standards

Data from United for a Fair Economy and the Economic Policy Institute graphically describe how the living standards of workers have deteriorated over the past thirty years. Since the 1970s average hourly wages have declined by 6%. For the minimum wage worker, the figures are most dramatic. Even with the recently enacted wage increase, the current minimum wage has a lower value than the minimum wage in 1950.

With pension and health care benefits, the same pattern of erosion is evident. Most workers are now no longer covered by guaranteed defined benefit programs. As far as health care benefits, workers are being forced to pay higher deductibles and copays; some workers have had to drop their coverage because they can’t afford to pay the escalating insurance premiums.

To make ends meet workers are working longer and putting in more hours than their counterparts in Western Europe. Some have had to take on second jobs, and economic survival now requires a household of at least two wage earners.

For laid-off workers, the situation is worse. They are frequently forced into service-sector jobs with lower wages and benefits, or involuntarily work as part-timers or temps. With the ”Wal-Martization” of America it is not surprising that credit card debt among working families has sharply increased. Facing economic insecurity, workers report that their savings could be wiped out after three months of unemployment.

While workers lose ground, corporations amass huge profits and pay less taxes. Corporate income tax as a percent of federal revenues has decreased from 25% to less than 10%. Neoliberal tax policies have also contributed to greater concentration of wealth among the few. In 1976, the richest 10% of the population owned 50% of the wealth. Now the top 10% own 73% of all wealth. While workers are no longer rewarded for increasing productivity, corporate executive officers reap the bonanza. Their pay has jumped tenfold and is now 400 times the average worker’s pay.

Since collective action by workers poses a threat to the neoliberal program, unionization is fiercely resisted. Union-busting is a billion dollar industry and under current labor laws employers can act with impunity. As a result, workers are fired in one-quarter of private sector organizing drives. Employers routinely require supervisors to deliver anti-union messages to the workers whose jobs and pay they control. Even after a successful organizing campaign employers will refuse to conclude a bargaining agreement.

An Economic Justice Agenda

As outlined by DSA in its economic justice document, a just economic program that can effectively challenge neoliberal policies must do the following: institute progressive tax policies and cut defense spending, defend and expand universal social insurance programs, empower working people and labor and create institutions that advance labor, human and environmental rights.

* Progressive tax policies are vital if some measure of social equity is to be achieved. By simply restoring tax rates in effect before Reagan, federal revenues would increase 20%. Together with cuts in a defense budget that is greater than the defense expenditures of all other nations combined, $700 billion could be made available for social programs.

* A single payer health care system with universal coverage, equivalent to Medicare, would constitute the core component of an expanded social insurance program. Single payer health care would eliminate the unnecessary cost and wasteful advertising associated with the private insurance industry. Instead of spending 25% of health care costs on marketing and administration, a system modeled after Medicare would reduce that amount to 3%.

For working-class families child care has emerged as a major concern. Accordingly, public financing of child care should be significantly increased and pre-kindergarten programs should be made universal. Family and Medical Leave should also be expanded to include paid sick leave.

* Without union representation, the American workplace has aptly been described as a factory of authoritarianism. In contrast to workers in Western Europe who can appeal cases of unjust discharge to industrial courts, the nonunion worker in the United States is considered an employee-at-will with no due process. Any statutory right to determine wages, hours and working conditions is similarly denied to the country’s nonunion worker.

Therefore, empowering working people and labor requires the strengthening of the right to organize. Unions not only improve the wages and benefits for their members, but raise the floor for all workers.

The Employee Free Choice Act is an important step in advancing worker rights to organize. A card check to determine whether a majority of workers is interested in forming a union would be sufficient for attaining union representation. Workers would no longer be subject to intimidating captive audience meetings and harassment by supervisors, tactics that routinely occur prior to union elections. For employers who flagrantly violate the law and fire workers for union activity, triple damages would be assessed. EFCA would also provide for binding arbitration in the event that a first contract could not be concluded.

* The minimum wage was never intended to be a poverty wage. Since the minimum wage was originally pegged at 50% of the average hourly wage, it should be raised to $10 an hour and indexed to inflation. Workers not covered by adequate health insurance should be guaranteed $13 an hour.

* Finally, any economic justice agenda in the US is inextricably linked with the struggle for economic justice globally. The policies of the International Monetary Fund and World Trade Organization insure the free movement of capital by suppressing labor, human and environmental rights. To assure democratic control of these institutions, these rights must be incorporated in all trade agreements.

NAFTA, by allowing the flooding of cheap U.S. agricultural imports into Mexico at the expense of displacing thousands of Mexican farmers, has directly contributed to the increase of undocumented workers entering the United States. NAFTA must be renegotiated so that the actions of foreign investors are regulated and the control of economic policies by developing countries is maintained.


This agenda is not a comprehensive program for economic and social justice. Capitalism and its neoliberal face engender extreme levels of inequality. To protect against unemployment, illness and disability all citizens should have equal access to decent jobs and high quality education, health care, housing and child care.

Our message as socialists is clear: The I exists only in the We, and no one should be left vulnerable or excluded from full membership in society.

from ATC 130 (September/October 2007)