How the Corporations Broke America

They started with the labor unions.

The labor movement, in this country, was brought to its knees by the corporate oligarchy, feeling its oats, in the 1980s.

Labor had a great tradition of fight in this country, going back to the Knights of Labor, organized in 1869, right up to the organization of the Congress of Industrial Organizations, (CIO) a federation of unions that organized workers industrially from 1935 to 1955 when it merged with the AFL.

We had some flamboyant labor leaders, too—Gene Debs, “Big Bill” Haywood of the IWW, the great John L. Lewis. They fought for higher wages and a higher living standard for workers, and moved many of them up into the middle class. That’s what was called “the American Dream”.

But corporate America was out to get organized labor from the year one. They found a champion in Ronald Reagan.

The successful campaign against labor was kicked off by President Ronald Reagan when he broke the Air Traffic Controllers strike in 1981.

As Labor Consultant Ray Abernathy recalls it, Reagan, “aided and abetted by former president Jimmy Carter and then-president of the AFL-CIO Lane Kirkland, fired 13,000 striking air traffic controllers, permanently replaced them, and drove the bar of U.S. labor relations so deep into the ground that we’ve never recovered.”

When the members of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization, (PATCO) voted overwhelmingly to strike the government, Reagan reacted within 48 hours, fired the lot of them and ordered the FAA to hire permanent replacements.

Replacing strikers in this manner wasn’t against the law, but it had always been considered an extreme act and rarely done. When strikes were settled, a way was usually found to rehire striking workers with full seniority and often with back pay. But not in this case.

Former President Jimmy Carter already had it in for the Air Traffic Controllers during his administration when he planned the recruitment of replacement workers on rumors of a strike.

Lane Kirkland, certainly a union man, as head of the AFL-CIO, was miffed that the controllers had not consulted him before striking. He formally ordered AFL-CIO unions not to get involved in supporting their fellow unionists, the Air Traffic Controllers.

This sent a strong message to the corporate oligarchy. You can attack labor with impunity.

Abernathy graphically describes the effect, “The practice of ‘permanently replacing’ striking workers quickly became standard operating procedure in private industry and helped employer after employer either face down strikes or break them. What Carter, Regan and Kirkland conspired to do suddenly made union-busting socially acceptable and empowered corporations to initiate brutal deunionization campaigns. Losses at the bargaining table begat losses in union elections, effective strikes began to vanish, and the demise of labor was in overdrive.

The next blow against labor was struck by President Bill Clinton with NAFTA and globalization. And he set the stage for George W. Bush and Barack Obama to continue the attack.

Dennis Kucinich called it right when he said, “‘Outsourcing’ is a process in which American jobs, mainly in technological fields, are contracted out to countries where wages are significantly lower. The typical salary for an American programmer is $70,000 a year. The typical salary for a programmer in India is $8,000 a year. U.S. companies are expected to ship 200,000 jobs a year to India in the near future, in pursuit of these lower wages, and we have already lost a significant fraction of our manufacturing jobs to countries overseas.”

The third prong of the attack was the military. Make a militarist nation out of the country. And that’s exactly what they’ve done. With a volunteer army and at least two wars going, they’ve jumped the defense (war) department to monster size.

President Barack Obama sent to Congress a proposed defense budget of $663.8 billion for fiscal 2010. The budget request for the Department of Defense (DoD) includes $533.8 billion in discretionary budget authority to fund base defense programs and $130 billion to support overseas contingency operations, primarily in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The proposed DoD base budget represents an increase of $20.5 billion over the $513.3 billion enacted for fiscal 2009. This is an increase of 4 percent, or 2.1 percent real growth after adjusting for inflation.

While war costs rise, Obama cannot get any of his social programs through Congress. The Health Care Reform Bill languishes in the Senator without much hope of passing, unless as a boost to the health insurance industry by mandating the inclusion of the uninsured.

Meanwhile, unemployment continues at ten percent or slightly below and home foreclosures are unrelenting. Stimulus packages don’t seem to work as the administration talks of jobs, jobs, jobs –but does nothing to create them.

If the government were to directly create jobs through a works program as in New Deal days, and help rebuild the infrastructure of this country, that would be called “socialism” –and we can’t have that.

So we will sit back and watch the corporations break America.

STEPHEN FLEISCHMAN, writer-producer-director of documentaries, spent thirty years in Network News at CBS and ABC. His memoir is now in print. See, e-mail

STEPHEN FLEISCHMAN, writer-producer-director of documentaries, spent thirty years in Network News at CBS and ABC. His memoir is now in print. See, e-mail