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October surprises are built into our system, since elections come in November. Cliffhanger movies in Hollywood’s old days could not have staged it better. Leaving aside hurricanes roaring out of the Gulf of Mexico, we now have, aside from the thump of the war drums: a lockout of some 10,500 dockworkers at every port on the West Coast from Seattle to San Diego, with the owners and big retail chains like Wal-Mart begging Bush to help them break the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU). In the event of a strike Bush could start by imposing a ninety-day back-to-work order under the Taft-Hartley law.
He could escalate by trying to place the longshore workers under the aegis of the Railway Labor Act rather than the National Labor Relations Act. The former allows the government to close down a strike by fiat and impose a settlement.
Another line of attack would be to try to undercut the ILWU’s strategic ace in the hole, its status as a bargaining unit for every port on the Pacific Coast. Before Harry Bridges won that right for the union back in the 1930s, the owners could simply whipsaw the different bargaining units by shifting shipments from a struck port to one still operating.
The Administration has already had Tom Ridge hector ILWU leader James Spinosa with a phone call declaring that a stoppage would be injurious to the country. Implication: that the dispute would be cast as a terrorist attack by longshoremen against the national interest. The White House has also threatened to bring in the Navy to work the ports.
How tempting it must look for Bush and his political managers! Amid the war cries against Saddam they could stage a reprise of Reagan’s onslaught on the air traffic controllers, with Bush waving the flag and deriding the longshoremen as Al Qaeda’s auxiliaries, overpaid and bent on resisting modern technology that could fortify America’s competitiveness on the battleground of world trade. He could even wave some appliance from Wal-Mart, made by a Chinese teenager working for 20 cents an hour, and proclaim that 50 percent of its retail price could be blamed on the greed of the dockworkers.
Actually, the longshoremen stand as a good symbol of what organized labor can do: get its members a decent wage (after thirty years or so of dangerous, skillful work they can maybe hope to earn what an MBA in his mid-20s, two years out of the Wharton School, would demand on walking in the door at a Wall Street firm); display a social and political conscience; and advertise the unfashionable idea that blue-collar work does not have to mean a starvation wage, looted pension fund and no healthcare. If you want the latter, drive, as I have, down the streets of Odessa, Texas, which is where George Bush formed his notions of what constitute workers’ rights and a livable wage, and which has a murder rate that regularly battles Miami for first place on the national charts.
Talking of organized labor, Bush’s Homeland Security bill is on life support because enough Democrats have stigmatized it as a savage assault on the right of federal workers to organize. If passed on Bush’s terms, some 170,000 employees would lose everything they’ve won over the past six decades.
And we have a white-lipped economy. In the second quarter alone, pension wealth fell by more than $469 billion, or 5.3 percent. There was a 3.4 percent net decline in wealth in that quarter, with its successor shaping up to be just as bad. Leading economic indicators and housing starts have fallen for three months in a row. There is rising unemployment, and the housing-price boom might be stuttering. Oil prices are up 40 percent this year. Bears rampage through the market.
We’ve now seen seven straight quarters of declining investment in plant and equipment, and a sharp drop in the growth of consumer spending over the past four or five months. The retail industry is having a miserable season, which the shutdown on the West Coast is scarcely going to help.
There’s increasing public awareness that the performance of many of America’s mightiest corporate names has been faked. In late September federal prosecutors announced they’re opening a criminal probe into Xerox’s accounting practices. WorldCom revealed that it probably misreported $9 billion in revenue, not $7 billion. Numbers from the telecommunications sector now lack any credibility, and given the fact that overcapacity in that sector tops 90 percent, the stage is set for total collapse-not just of WorldCom, but Verizon and the others.
Now move on to the financial-service firms that abetted all the fraudulent shenanigans of companies like Enron and WorldCom. Consider their exposure in multibillion-dollar suits from pension funds that ended up holding the bag. The official rate of profit on capital stock in the nonfinancial corporate sector as a whole is now at the lowest level since World War II, except for 1980 and 1982. If this were Bill Clinton, the commentators would be flaying him alive for wag-the-dog attempts to use war as a way to distract attention from economic bad news. Thus far Bush has remained aloft on his magic carpet, but he’s losing altitude steadily while Wall Street chews its lip and foreign denunciations pour in.
America no longer has “Wise Old Men” or senior reps of the ruling class like John McCloy. At moments like this, such senior reps would step forth with measured warnings to Bush about his reckless path. These days we’re left with Henry Kissinger and Brent Scowcroft, neither of whom carries credibility. The best senior we have going for us is Senator Robert Byrd, who has shown his party the way forward with spirited attacks on war fever and the Homeland Security Department.
If the economy continues to slide, Bush and his circle will face a truly desperate gamble, trying to figure whether a $200 billion war on Iraq will save them (war, after all, can produce some healthful deficit spending) or just plunge them into the mother of all messes. It could be that the true picture, in Hollywood’s idiom, is Bush tied to the track, hollering War as the economy rolls right over him, and then over the cliff.