FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Serfing USA

by DAVE LINDORFF

Along with the staggering theft in broad daylight of Americans’ assets that has occurred in the course of the ongoing financial crisis, as taxpayers funded multi-trillion bank bailouts and banks stole homes through foreclosures with the help of fraudulent paperwork, American companies have also been picking the pockets of workers more directly.

This second round of paycheck theft has come in the form of stolen productivity gains.

Historically, the relatively high and rising standard of living of American workers–both blue and white-collar–, which once gave the US one of the highest standards of living in the world, has come courtesy of rising productivity, which has allowed US companies to produce more goods with less labor, and to then pass some of the enhanced profits on to workers in the form of higher wages, without having to raise prices. That has been important because, when higher wages are financed by higher prices, it tends to be a kind of zero-sum game: higher wages cancelled out by inflation.

But beginning in 2000, the old system, already creaky, broke down.

The corporate onslaught against trade unions and against the minimum wage, which began with the Nixon administration in 1968, combined with so-called “free-trade” deals that allowed US companies to shift production overseas and then to freely import the products of their overseas production facilities back for sale to Americans at home, by weakening the power of workers to demand higher wages, has led to a situation where companies can just pocket all the profits from productivity gains, leaving wages stagnant, or even driving them down.

The recession that began in late 2007 has only made matters worse, giving owners and managers to opportunity to really hammer employees. With real unemployment and underemployment now running at close to 20%, employees are in no position to press for higher wages, even as those who are still working are putting in extra effort to keep their jobs, thus pushing productivity gains even higher.

The figures speak for themselves.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, productivity gains during the 1990-1999 decade averaged just 2.1% per year. The prior decade, from 1980-1989, the average productivity gain was 1.5% per year. But between 2000 and 2009, when the economy suffered two recessions, the average annual productivity gain has been 2.9%, almost 50% higher than the prior decade, and almost double the rate in the 1980s.

During this same period, however, wages have actually declined. According to the BLS, wages in 2010 rose 0.1%, but inflation, running at an official (and grossly under-measured) 1%, more than ate that up. According to the Economic Policy Institute, a Washington think tank, for the whole decade from 2000 through 2009, wages actually sank for most people. In 2000, the median weekly wage for a high school graduate was $629. By the end of 2009, high school graduates were earning a median weekly wage, in inflation-adjusted dollars, of just $626–three dollars a week less than a decade earlier. A college degree didn’t change things, either. In 2000, the median weekly wage for a college grad was $1030, but that had fallen to $1025 by the end of 2009.

Remember, all during that decade, companies were seeing productivity gains averaging almost 3% per year. If 50% of that gain in productivity annually had gone to workers, as might have been typical back 30 years ago when unions were stronger and before Congress gave away the store by signing onto the World Trade Organization and the North American Free Trade Act and similar trade agreements, that high school grad would have been earning $729 a week in inflation-adjusted dollars by 2009, while the college grad would have been earning $1,195.

Of course as a whole, Americans have been doing even worse, because these are just the mean wages of people who are working full weeks. In fact, many companies have been laying off workers, and making the remaining workers, desperate to hang on to their jobs, work harder to produce the same amount of product, meaning that besides not getting any pay increase, they are producing much more profit for the boss. Many workers who are still hanging onto their jobs are actually working fewer hours, and thus are taking home smaller paychecks, all of which goes into that higher productivity figure for output per worker the government is reporting.

Indeed, the Wall Street Journal today reported glowingly that US production of goods and services had returned to its 2007 pre-recession level, but this is with unemployment running at an official rate of 9.8 percent, and an actual rate of about 19 percent.

What we’re witnessing is a massive national “speed-up” which is enriching the owners of capital, while the workers are getting stiffed. It is the payoff to the ruling class of decades of hammering of trade unions, and also of trade unions cutting deals with the Democratic Party, which in turn has refused to defend workers’ interests. Look at the sell-out of Labor during the first two years of the Obama administration. The union movement’s one big issue–restoring some measure of fairness to the Labor Relations Act, so that it would be at least possible to organize unions and to win contracts and improved wages and working conditions–was dropped without even a fight by the Obama administration and the leadership of the House and Senate. The government, fully in the hands of Democrats, has also continued to sign trade agreements, most recently with Korea, that further shift jobs overseas, thus further weakening the position of workers here at home.

A cynic might speculate that this is also why the Democrats have refused for over three years now to come up with any real public jobs program despite the desperate straits of tens of millions of jobless people who have been without work for more than a year. The Democrats, in thrall to corporate interests, would on the evidence much rather spend $50 billion on a program of extended unemployment benefits that leaves those millions of people hungry for any real job, than spend that same sum on providing them with government jobs, as that would actually reduce unemployment and increase the bargaining power of all workers vis-a-vis employers.

Meanwhile, the national corporate media, itself viciously anti-union, continue to skew news coverage to portray unions as corrupt and greedy, so that the 90 percent of American workers who are not in a union don’t even realize that any pay gains or benefits they get are because employers are trying to avoid unionization of their workforce.

Unless Americans wake up soon to how this process is impoverishing us all, we will see this shifting income and wealth to the top strata of the population continue until most of us are little more than modern-day serfs.

A start would be for people to at least recognize that this stagnation and decline in incomes we’re witnessing is not some natural phenomenon. It is, no less than the fat salaries, perks and bonuses paid by corporate managers to themselves, simply another manifestation of corporate greed gone wild.

DAVE LINDORFF is a Philadelphia-based journalist and columnist. His latest book is “The Case for Impeachment” (St. Martin’s Press, 2006 and now available in paperback). He can be reached at dlindorff@mindspring.com

 

 

Dave Lindorff is a founding member of ThisCantBeHappening!, an online newspaper collective, and is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).

More articles by:

CounterPunch Magazine

minimag-edit

bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550

zen economics

Weekend Edition
February 24, 2017
Friday - Sunday
Charles R. Larson
Review: Timothy B. Tyson’s “The Blood of Emmett Till”
February 23, 2017
Dave Brotherton
Trump, Moral Panics and Resistance
Jonathan Cook
One State: Trump Has Reminded Palestinians What It Was Always About
Bill Quigley
Ten Examples of Direct Resistance to Stop Government Raids
Linn Washington Jr.
Bigot Boy Business: Trump Exposes His Ignorance and Intolerance, Again
John W. Whitehead
The Illusion of Freedom: the Police State Is Alive and Well
Ralph Nader
Restricting People’s Use of Their Courts
David Macaray
Women As Labor Union Organizers
Kathy Kelly
Friendship in Defiance of War
Doug Weir
Why Did the US Use Depleted Uranium Weapons in Syria?
Steve Horn
Former GOP Congressional Staffer Follows Revolving Door, Now Latest Keystone XL Lobbyist
Binoy Kampmark
From Rights to Repentance: Norma McCorvey and Roe v Wade
Thomas Knapp
The Target of the “Border Adjustment Tax” is You
Chris Zinda
Open Letter to Neoliberal Environmentalists
February 22, 2017
Mike Whitney
Liberals Beware: Lie Down With Dogs, Get Up With Fleas
John Grant
On Killers and Bullshitters*
Peter Linebaugh
Catherine Despard, Abolitionist
Patrick Cockburn
The Bitter Battle for Mosul
Ted Rall
Sue the Bastards? It’s Harder Than You Think
Yoav Litvin
The Emergence of the Just Jew
Kim Scipes
Strategic Thinking and Organizing Resistance
Norman Pollack
Mar-a-Lago, Ideological Refuge: Berchtesgaden, II
Fred Donner
Nixon and the Chennault Affair: From Vietnam to Watergate
Carl Kandutsch
Podesta vs. Trump
Ike Nahem
To the Memory of Malcolm X: Fifty Years After His Assassination
Jesse Jackson
Trump’s Tough Talk Won’t Fix Chicago
Paul Donnelly
Betsy DeVos and the War on Public Education
Ebony Slaughter-Johnson
The End of an Alliance for Police Reform
Richard Lawless
Wall Street Demanded the Nuclear Option and the Congress Delivered
Liaquat Ali Khan
Yes, Real Donald Trump is a Muslim!
Ryan LaMothe
“Fire” and Free Speech
CounterPunch News Service
Bloody Buffalo Billboards
February 21, 2017
Sharmini Peries - Michael Hudson
Finance as Warfare: the IMF Lent to Greece Knowing It Could Never Pay Back Debt
CJ Hopkins
Goose-stepping Our Way Toward Pink Revolution
John Wight
Firestarter: the Unwelcome Return of Tony Blair
Roger Harris
Lenin Wins: Pink Tide Surges in Ecuador…For Now
Shepherd Bliss
Japanese American Internment Remembered, as Trump Rounds Up Immigrants
Boris Kagarlitsky
Trump and the Contradictions of Capitalism
Robert Fisk
The Perils of Trump Addiction
Deepak Tripathi
Theresa May: Walking the Kingdom Down a Dark Alley
Sarah Anderson
To Save Main Street, Tax Wall Street
Howard Lisnoff
Those Who Plan and Enjoy Murder
Franklin Lamb
The Life and Death Struggle of the Children of Syria
Binoy Kampmark
A Tale of Two Realities: Trump and Israel
Kim C. Domenico
Body and Soul: Becoming Men & Women in a Post-Gender Age
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail