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Wednesday, 29 January 2014 17:32

State of the Union: Right on Wages, Wrong on Trade

Written by  John Nichols | The Nation
State of the Union: Right on Wages, Wrong on Trade AP Photo/Charles Dharapak

President Obama wants 2014 to be a “year of action” in which the country finally begins to address a wealth gap that has made the term “income inequality” the catchphrase of the moment. And he framed the crisis well in his fifth State of the Union address:

 

Today, after four years of economic growth, corporate profits and stock prices have rarely been higher, and those at the top have never done better. But average wages have barely budged. Inequality has deepened. Upward mobility has stalled. The cold, hard fact is that even in the midst of recovery, too many Americans are working more than ever just to get by—let alone get ahead. And too many still aren’t working at all.

But Tuesday night was not the first time that he explained the problem in the right way.

He did precisely that six years ago—speaking specifically about inequality and declaring that government had an ability and a responsibility to address it aggressively and unapologetically.

Obama’s ability to identify the crisis, and his willingness to speak in blunter terms than his political opponents about its repercussions, got him elected president. By a landslide.

Now, after a year of wrangling with an uncooperative Congress and at the start of a critical mid-term election year, Obama is trying to renew the political calculus that convinced Americans he was the right leader for the country—and that it was right to provide him with the solid Democratic majorities in the House and Senate that would allow him to turn rhetoric into action.

As he prepared what could well be the most important State of the Union address of his presidency, most polls suggested that the American people were less confident in Obama, and less inclined to give him the Congress he needs to govern in the final years of his second presidential term.

So can this speech restore the political fortunes of Obama and his party?

It’s going to be difficult, not just because second terms are always challenging, and not just because his political foes have no qualms about gridlocking government if they think it will benefit their electoral ambitions.

There is also the reality that, while he has returned to popular themes and displayed his usual grasp of the issues, the president’s State of the Union message was muddled. Like other presidents before him, Obama sacrificed the opportunity to focus like a laser beam for the option of reading a laundry list. And some of the items on that laundry list undermined rather than enhanced his “year of action” theme.

That was especially true when, against the pleas of the progressive base he must energize, Obama devoted a section of his speech to promoting a free-trade agenda that is as unpopular as it is flawed.

So it was that, what might have been a politically transformational moment, ended up as something less than that.

To be sure, Obama got a lot right.

He told Congress, bluntly, that he would veto a new sanctions bill that might threaten negotiations to limit Iran’s nuclear program. “For the sake of our national security, we must give diplomacy a chance to succeed,” said Obama.

He spoke up for sound environmental and energy policy:

The shift to a cleaner energy economy won’t happen overnight, and it will require tough choices along the way. But the debate is settled. Climate change is a fact. And when our children’s children look us in the eye and ask if we did all we could to leave them a safer, more stable world, with new sources of energy, I want us to be able to say yes, we did.

He renewed the call for comprehensive immigration reform, saying that “[if] we are serious about economic growth, it is time to heed the call of business leaders, labor leaders, faith leaders, and law enforcement—and fix our broken immigration system.”

He spoke, in detail and convincingly, for the extension of long-term unemployment benefits that expired at the end of last year. “Congress,” he demanded, with appropriate passion, “give these hardworking, responsible Americans that chance. They need our help, but more important, this country needs them in the game.”

And he said the right thing, particularly on the issue of raising the minimum wage:

Today, the federal minimum wage is worth about twenty percent less than it was when Ronald Reagan first stood here. [Iowa Senator] Tom Harkin and [California Congressman] George Miller have a bill to fix that by lifting the minimum wage to $10.10. It’s easy to remember: ten-ten. This will help families. It will give businesses customers with more money to spend. It doesn’t involve any new bureaucratic program. So join the rest of the country. Say yes. Give America a raise.

Going big on the minimum wage offers a measure of the president’s seriousness when it comes to making income inequality an issue in 2014.

It’s a winning move politically: the president was spot-on when he said, “Americans overwhelmingly agree that no one who works full time should ever have to raise a family in poverty.” Aiming to get the minimum wage over $10 an hour—in several steps over several years—is far from radical. Indeed, if the goal is to assure that Americans who put in forty-hour weeks can climb out of poverty, a $15-an-hour wage is closer to the mark. But breaking the double-digit barrier has meaning, practically and politically, and focusing on it frames the 2014 debate in the right way.

The president has used previous State of the Union addresses to talk about increasing the minimum wage. In a “year of action,” good words must be linked with good deeds.

Obama recognizes that if he hopes to rally the American people to put pressure on a dysfunctional Congress to begin raising wages—and to get serious about increasing support for manufacturing, investing in infrastructure and generally being useful—his actions must be as bold as his statements. So the White House announced Tuesday morning that Obama would issue an executive order to increase the wages of new federal contract workers to $10.10 an hour. That’s a big deal. According to the National Employment Law Project, three in four workers in service-industry federal contract jobs earn less than $10 an hour—and survey research confirms that the overwhelming majority of them have trouble paying their bills.

With his executive order, Obama aided contract workers. He sent an important signal to private-sector employers, especially those in the fast-food and retail sectors where workers have been organizing for better wages. And he did something else. To the immense frustration of Republicans in the House and Senate, he declared, “Wherever and whenever I can take steps without legislation to expand opportunity for more American families, that’s what I’m going to do.”

Making those commitments—to fight for a big hike in the federal minimum wage and to use executive orders to act on behalf of workers who do not have enough champions in Congress—was a show of strength.

That provided Obama with an opening to change the discourse.

Unfortunately, he narrowed that opening by putting too much time and energy into promoting a free-trade agenda about which most Democrats in Congress have raised objections. There was nothing robust or exciting about Obama’s free-trade pitch. There was something entirely predictable, almost routinized about it. But like George W. Bush and Bill Clinton before him, Obama embraced an orthodoxy that no longer makes economic or political sense.

After arguing for “new trade partnerships with Europe and the Asia-Pacific,” Obama told Congress, “We need to work together on tools like bipartisan trade promotion authority.”

It is no secret that the president wants to cut deals to establish the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a sweeping new “NAFTA on steroids” trade pact with eleven Asian and Latin American countries. Nor is it any secret that he would like to clear the way for that agreement by getting Congress to give him the fast-track trade promotion authority that allows negotiations to go forward without congressional oversight or amendments that might address labor rights, human rights, environmental and development concerns.

The problem is that the constituencies Obama is hoping to rally in support of initiatives to address income inequality have come to associate multilateral arrangements such as the North American Free Trade Agreement with the collapse of industries, the shuttering of factories and the elimination of hundreds of thousands of well-paying jobs that once sustained middle-class families. The loss of those jobs—in combination with the related weakening of industrial unions and the depression of wages—is well understood to have contributed mightily to the growth of income inequality.

By whom?

By candidate Barack Obama.

In February, 2008, Obama was on his way to defeating Hillary Clinton in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination. The pair would square off in Wisconsin. Obama was determined to win on the basis of superior economic stances. So he went to a General Motors plant in Janesville, a community that had already suffered more than its share of downsizing, outsourcing and offshoring. (Janesville would suffer even more when, in the waning days of George W. Bush’s presidency, GM initiated the closure of the plant where Obama spoke.)

“We are not standing on the brink of recession due to forces beyond our control,” Obama told the assembled workers. “It was a failure of leadership and imagination in Washington—the culmination of decades of decisions that were made or put off without regard to the realities of a global economy and the growing inequality it’s produced.”

Obama traced the roots of that growing inequality to “a Washington where decades of trade deals like NAFTA and China have been signed with plenty of protections for corporations and their profits, but none for our environment or our workers who’ve seen factories shut their doors and millions of jobs disappear; workers whose right to organize and unionize has been under assault for the last eight years.”

Obama made the right connections on that winter day in Wisconsin six years ago, anticipating the pile of studies that tell us free trade is not working. The Peterson Institute for International Economics attributes close to 40 percent of the growth in US wage inequality to trade policies of recent decades. The Economic Policy Institute recently published an analysis headlined: “China trade drives down US wages and benefits and eliminates good jobs for US workers.” The US Bureau of Labor Statistics confirms that two-thirds of displaced manufacturing workers who found new jobs in 2012 were hired at substantially lower wages—with most experiencing a 20 percent or greater cut.

Noting that even supporters of past free-trade pacts now acknowledge the role they have played in widening the gap between rich and poor, Public Citizen Global Trade Watch director Lori Wallach reminds us that “economists of all stripes [now] agree that US trade policy has been one of the major contributors to growing US income inequality.”

That’s not a new concept. It’s the one that Barack Obama talked about when he was winning the confidence of Democrats as a candidate in 2008. He distinguished himself from Hillary Clinton by unequivocally stating that “when I am President, I will not sign another trade agreement unless it has protections for our environment and protections for American workers.”

Now Barack Obama is president. And he is trying once more to win the confidence of Americans, to get them engaged in a serious battle to renew what he described in 2008 as “the promise of America—that our prosperity can and must be the tide that lifts every boat; that we rise or fall as one nation; that our economy is strongest when our middle-class grows and opportunity is spread as widely as possible. And when it’s not—when opportunity is uneven or unequal—it is our responsibility to restore balance, and fairness, and keep that promise alive for the next generation. That is the responsibility we face right now, and that is the responsibility I intend to meet as President of the United States.”

Obama was right six years ago. A president can do a great deal to restore balance and fairness in America—and around the world. He is taking some important steps, on the minimum wage and a host of other issues. But he has to recognize that he cannot restore balance and fairness by proposing new free-trade deals that extend the worst practices of old free-trade deals. To build the confidence that is necessary, and the coalitions that are possible, Obama should in his State of the Union address have done what he did as a candidate and acknowledge “the realities of a global economy and the growing inequality it’s produced.”

He didn’t quite get there Tuesday night.

This will make it harder to achieve the “year of action” the president is right to say America desperately needs.

Original article on The Nation

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    In case you hadn't noticed, the debt ceiling was raised several days ago, so quietly that it barely made a ripple in the press. No threats of shutting down the government or hostage-taking emanated from Senator Mitch McConnell -- or from his even more radical right-wing cronies in the House -- this recent go around.

    Written on Friday, 28 February 2014 02:55 Read more...
  • What a Victory: How a $40 Million Attack on the Middle Class Went Up in Smoke
    What a Victory: How a $40 Million Attack on the Middle Class Went Up in Smoke

    It’s debt ceiling time, and the United States economy is once again on the brink, held hostage by extremists hell-bent on forcing cuts to Medicare and Social Security. Oh, wait. That was last year. In 2014, for the first time in three years, the vote to extend the nation’s debt ceiling did not bring the United States to the brink of default in a high-stakes game of slash and burn.

    Written on Sunday, 23 February 2014 16:37 Read more...
  • The United States of Poverty and Inequality
    The United States of Poverty and Inequality

    New report shows that no matter which state you live in, the 1% are making even more gains as the rest fall back

    Over the last three decades the wealth of the nation's very richest 1% has grown ten times that of the average worker and over that time period that same tiny elite has captured more than half of the entire income increases, leaving the bottom 99% to divide the remaining gains.

    Written on Saturday, 22 February 2014 16:11 Read more...
  • Michael Sam stands tall
    Michael Sam stands tall

    “I’m a football player, and I’m gay.” With those words, Michael Sam, an All-American defensive end from the University of Missouri, demonstrated courage far beyond that demanded on the football field. And America may, for the first time, witness an openly gay man playing professional football.

    Written on Wednesday, 12 February 2014 03:20 Read more...
  • Preserve social programs that work
    Preserve social programs that work

    I started a chapter of the Progressive Democrats of America in Springfield a few years ago. Since then our chapter has grown to include the Greater Springfield Area. At an event last fall in front of U.S. Sen. Richard Durbin’s office we had 75 folks attend from various unions and organizations, many of them traveling from Normal, Bloomington, Peoria, Jacksonville, Morrisonville and Champaign.

    Written on Friday, 07 February 2014 03:25 Read more...
  • Conversations with Great Minds P1 - Rep Keith Ellison - My Country 'Tis of Thee
    Conversations with Great Minds P1 - Rep Keith Ellison - My Country 'Tis of Thee

    Congressman Keith Ellison(D-MN, 5th District) / Author of the new book, My Country 'Tis of Thee: My Faith, My Family, Our Future joins Thom Hartmann.

    Written on Thursday, 06 February 2014 22:36 Read more...
  • JESSE JACKSON: Response to President Obama's 2014 State of the Union Address
    JESSE JACKSON: Response to President Obama's 2014 State of the Union Address

    The country seems turned off and tuned out to the Congress, politics generally and the federal government in particular. The good news is the emerging grass-roots movement exemplified by The Dreamers and the burgeoning campaign among low income workers around the nation, offering a clear challenge to the political gridlock, the inaction and non-work by Congress. Seeking to respond to this grassroots energy and to combat the frustration many people are feeling around the country, President Obama presented an optimistic tone, an uplifting message and a new plan of action to move America forward.

    Written on Thursday, 30 January 2014 20:01 Read more...
  • State of the Union: Right on Wages, Wrong on Trade
    State of the Union: Right on Wages, Wrong on Trade

    President Obama wants 2014 to be a “year of action” in which the country finally begins to address a wealth gap that has made the term “income inequality” the catchphrase of the moment. And he framed the crisis well in his fifth State of the Union address:

    Written on Wednesday, 29 January 2014 17:32 Read more...
  • House passes $956B farm bill
    House passes $956B farm bill

    The House on Wednesday approved a mammoth, $956 billion farm bill in a bipartisan vote.

    Members approved the House-Senate agreement on farm policy in a 251-166 vote. A majority of Republicans backed the bill, with 63 GOP no votes. But a majority of Democrats opposed it, with 103 voting no.

    Written on Wednesday, 29 January 2014 16:45 Read more...
  • Pete Seeger: This Man Surrounded Hate and Forced it to Surrender
     Pete Seeger: This Man Surrounded Hate and Forced it to Surrender

    When some of the greatest musicians in the world gathered five years ago to celebrate the ninetieth birthday of the musician who inspired them all, Bruce Springsteen told Pete Seeger: “You outlasted the bastards, man.”

    And so he did.

    Written on Wednesday, 29 January 2014 16:30 Read more...
  • State of the Union: It doesn’t have to be this way
    State of the Union: It doesn’t have to be this way

    President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address Tuesday night will focus on inequality, on the reality that this economy does not work for working people. Given the obstruction of House and Senate Republicans, the president faces the reality that little of what he proposes can pass this Congress. He has vowed to use his “pen” and “phone” to act unilaterally where he can. But the real challenge is to explain to the American people what the reality is, what must be done and who is standing in the way.

    Written on Tuesday, 28 January 2014 15:56 Read more...
  • Ellison’s Steps to Income Equality: More Powerful Unions and Weaker Trade
    Ellison’s Steps to Income Equality: More Powerful Unions and Weaker Trade

    Congressional Progressive Caucus co-chairman Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) said that increasing the power of unions is key to addressing income inequality in America.

    “We need a comprehensive plan, but let’s start with increasing the right to collective bargaining,” Ellison said on MSNBC. “We’ve got to get workers on the job in a position to demand that the wealth that they create be shared by the company. That’s a key thing. If you look at how wages has stagnated in the United States and you look at how union did something that has gone down, the lines track right together. You got to get power in the hands of the workers. That’s key.”

    Written on Thursday, 23 January 2014 18:18 Read more...
  • Celebrating MLK: A drum major for justice
    Celebrating MLK: A drum major for justice

    As I went from event to event Monday celebrating the birthday of Martin Luther King, I was struck by both the tribute and the distortion.

    The tribute is remarkable. Martin Luther King held no public office. He amassed no great fortune. He led no victorious armies

    Written on Tuesday, 21 January 2014 16:03 Read more...
  • Keith Ellison Blasts Inaction on Government-Backed Poverty: “The Most Remarkable Dodge I’ve Ever Seen”
    Keith Ellison Blasts Inaction on Government-Backed Poverty: “The Most Remarkable Dodge I’ve Ever Seen”

    One day after a top Obama administration official deflected a congressman’s call for executive action to raise labor standards for contractors, activists Wednesday announced the filing of a new Department of Labor complaint over alleged wage theft in a government building. The complaint alleges that dozens of workers in D.C.’s government-owned Union Station are owed over $3 million in back pay and damages for rampant failure to pay minimum wage or overtime.

    Written on Saturday, 18 January 2014 16:26 Read more...
  • King’s evolving Dream
    King’s evolving Dream

    It is that time to pause and think about the incredible life and contributions of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., oftentimes referred to as MLK. He was named Michael King Jr. after his father ­ who later changed both their names to Martin Luther, in honor of the religious reformer.

    Written on Saturday, 18 January 2014 15:37 Read more...
  • Moral Monday Movement Spreads Through the South
    Moral Monday Movement Spreads Through the South

    After drawing thousands of protesters to the state legislature and inspiring the arrests of more than 900 people for nonviolent civil disobedience, North Carolina's Moral Monday movement challenging the extreme conservative agenda of the state's Republican-controlled legislature and administration is gearing up for more actions in 2014.

    Written on Monday, 13 January 2014 13:30 Read more...
  • On 50th anniversary of 'War on Poverty' speech, Worcester Rep. Jim McGovern says cuts to SNAP are 'war on poor people'
    On 50th anniversary of 'War on Poverty' speech, Worcester Rep. Jim McGovern says cuts to SNAP are 'war on poor people'

    U.S. Rep. Jim McGovern says the "War on Poverty" has shifted from helping the poor to fighting them.

    McGovern, a Democrat who represents the 2nd district, spoke on the floor of the House of Representatives Wednesday about hunger in America and potential cuts to SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) in the proposed Farm Bill.

    Written on Saturday, 11 January 2014 15:37 Read more...
  • War on Poverty wages on
    War on Poverty wages on

    Fifty years ago this week, President Lyndon Johnson, lamenting that too many Americans “live on the outskirts of hope,” declared an “unconditional war on poverty in America.” This will not be “a short or easy struggle,” he stated in his State of the Union address to the Congress, “no single weapon or strategy will suffice, but we will not rest until that war is won. The richest nation on earth can afford to win it. We cannot afford to lose it.”

    Written on Tuesday, 07 January 2014 18:11 Read more...
  • Will New York City Lead the Way on Pre-K?
    Will New York City Lead the Way on Pre-K?

    At the Future of America Learning Center in the West Bronx, the pre-K curriculum is built around adult jobs—visiting real workplaces and then learning about the vocabulary and skills that grown-ups use every day.

    Written on Tuesday, 07 January 2014 01:24 Read more...
  • Advice for Young Women: Get a Union Job
    Advice for Young Women: Get a Union Job

    Back in the days before modern feminism, a young woman looking for work might typically be advised, politely, to “learn a trade,” with the implication that she wasn't bound for college or an elite career, but a humbler job as, say, a secretary or seamstress. Such a phrase might sound condescending today. Yet working in a trade might still be sound career goal for a woman, if she gets the right kind of job—in a union.

    Written on Tuesday, 24 December 2013 21:30 Read more...
  • Walmart Workers Will Make History on Friday As America Confronts Growing Inequality
    Walmart Workers Will Make History on Friday As America Confronts Growing Inequality

    This Friday, the busiest shopping day of the year, tens of millions of Americans will travel to Walmart stores to look for holiday discounts on computers, toys, and cell phones as well as to buy groceries and basic household items.

    Written on Saturday, 30 November 2013 15:20 Read more...
  • McDonald's: Low-Paid Workers, High-Flying Execs
    McDonald's: Low-Paid Workers, High-Flying Execs

    He was CEO of the hamburger behemoth, McDonald's, pulling down a hefty $8.8 million in pay. Last year, though, Skinner retired, and, rather than getting a gold watch, he was given a load of gold — so large that even a Brink's armored truck would have been too small to haul it all away. His salary of $753,000 was the least of it.

    Written on Thursday, 21 November 2013 13:44 Read more...
  • Growing Movement: Expand Social Security or 'Pay a Price'
    Growing Movement: Expand Social Security or 'Pay a Price'

    Sen. Warren: 'Social Security is incredibly effective, it is incredibly popular, and the calls for strengthening it are growing louder every day.'

    With Social Security cuts once again on the table in closed-door congressional budget negotiations, a growing movement has taken the offensive, demanding that lawmakers strengthen, rather than stranglehold, our social safety net.

    Written on Thursday, 21 November 2013 13:36 Read more...
  • Paul Ryan Gets 700,000 ‘No’ Votes on Social Security Cuts
    Paul Ryan Gets 700,000 ‘No’ Votes on Social Security Cuts

    Ryan’s office on Wednesday received a petition signed by more than 700,000 people that said there should be “no grand bargain” in the budget negotiations being led by Ryan and Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., “in exchange for cuts to Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid benefits.”

    Written on Saturday, 16 November 2013 03:10 Read more...
  • House Dems Can Block GOP Food Stamp Cuts—By Killing the Farm Bill
    House Dems Can Block GOP Food Stamp Cuts—By Killing the Farm Bill

    The farm bill will almost inevitably include deep cuts to the food stamps program—unless House Democrats join with conservatives to kill the bill. The food stamps program—which helps feed one in seven Americans—is in peril. Republicans in the House have proposed a farm bill—the five-year bill that funds agriculture and nutrition programs—that would slash food stamps by $40 billion. But by taking advantage of House Republicans' desire to cut food stamps as much as possible, Democrats might be able to prevent cuts from happening at all.

    Written on Tuesday, 12 November 2013 15:28 Read more...
  • Food Stamps, Yes!
    Food Stamps, Yes!

    If you’re reading this column, you probably don’t participate in a government program such as SNAP, to help provide food for your family. If you can afford to have a newspaper delivered to your home, or if you have a computer and an internet connection so you can read online, you may have more than enough money for food.

    Written on Friday, 04 October 2013 01:50 Read more...

Does Your Legislator Support the Robin Hood Tax?

Join "Countdown to Coverage" Share TPP with your Daily Newspaper

CWA devised a simple plan for which they were uniquely suited: drag TPP out of the shadows and into the light - one city at a time - using a medium they understand intimately: Daily Newspapers!

Two CWA members - Dave Felice in Denver, CO and Madelyn Elder in Portland, OR have started the ball rolling. We just need to keep up the momentum leading up to a big day of petition deliveries.

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Hand Deliver a Letter to your Rep on Jobs

If your Representative is not currently a cosponsor of HR 1000 they may not completely understand how important full employment is to your community; click on your state at the bottom of this page to see all the cosponsors in your state. Nothing sends a stronger message to a Congressional member than a personal visit to a district office by a voter with a written request. Phone calls and emails are incredibly important but nothing gets attention like a personal visit. Our Educate Congress page has information and a sample letter. Print the letter, sign it, deliver it.

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Report on your TPP Contact

Please let us know your legislator's stance on Fast Track Authorization for the Trans Pacific Partnership as well as their stance on the TPP in General. Click here to report the response.

The Robin Hood Tax

Robin Hood Tax: John Nichols and Keith Ellison and Michael Lighty

Why The Robin Hood Tax

Rep. Jim McGovern on Protecting SNAP

Workers Speak Out on the TPP

PDA Labor Panel - Progressive Central III

Main Street NOT Wall Street

The Trans Pacific Partnership: Corporate Global Domination

Lori Wallach on the TPP from PDA Progressive Roundtable

Progressive Roundtable with Reps. Ellison and Pocan and Lori Wallach on TPP

Lori Wallach Leaked TPP Documents (Democracy NOW)

TPP: The Biggest Threat to the Internet You've Probably Never Heard Of

Lori Wallach on Thom Hartmann (Great Minds) - The TPP

TPP Downloads

The following documents are available from the Oppose TPP Downloads Folder

June 29th TPP Powerpoint

CWA TPP Jobs Report

Endorse HR 1000

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