President Obama, five years late, in his fifth State of the Union speech, decried the terrible income gap in the US, a gap which has worsened during his years in the White House. Saying he was tired of the obstruction of his policies by Republicans in Congress, he said he would take action on his own, and as evidence offered up the puny “fix” of raising the minimum wage paid to employees working on federal projects from its current $7.25 to $10.10 per hour. This executive order, which could have been done when he took office in the depths of the Great Recession back in 2009, would be not immediate but would be phased in over the next three years.
What a pathetic joke!
As the New York Times pointed out the next day in its report on the president’s speech, the “raise” he was offering would only apply to “a few hundred thousand” workers. If we assume that “few” to be 300,000 people, and that each of those people works a 40-hour week 50 weeks per year, that would mean that in the first year, when the incremental increase will be 95 cents/hour, each worker currently earning $7.25 per hour will earn an extra $1900, for a total gain by all the impacted workers of $570 million.
Just to give a sense of how little that $570 million is, it works out to just over one-third of the unit cost of one F-35 Joint Strike Fighter . That’s the Pentagon’s latest new fighter jet, designed and built by Lockheed-Martin, the one that has no enemy to fight and that is probably too flawed and too costly to ever risk in battle anyhow.
What is really obscene about the president’s token wage-increase gesture is that the $10.10 wage that he is saying the federal government will ultimately pay to its contract workers in three years would, in constant dollars, still be less than what the federal minimum wage was back in 1968, almost half a century ago! Heck, if the president had really wanted to show the obstructive Republicans and the American people that he meant business about going it alone, he could have used that same executive authority to grant those impoverished workers an immediate raise to $15 per hour — the rate that voters approved as a minimum wage last November in Seattle, Washington, and that labor activists say would actually go a ways towards alleviating rampant US poverty.
Even worse is the reality that we wouldn’t even be talking about this pathetic offer, or about a current federal hourly wage of $7.25, if Obama, back in 2009, fresh off a huge election win and with Democratic Party control of both houses of Congress, had honored his campaign pledge to re-establish fairness in the National Labor Relations Act by passing “card check” legislation, making it possible for workers to unionize their workplaces by simply having a majority of workers sign cards saying they wanted a union. As things stand, and as the Obama the candidate denounced on the stump, employers are able to use the NLRA to delay union elections for years, during which time they typically engage in a campaign of lawless intimidation, illegally fire union organizers and end up defeating union drives, suffering no penalty afterwards (labor law limits employers found guilty of violations to having to pay back lost wages. There is no provision in the law to hit violators with penalties.)
Had Obama not reneged on his promise to the workers who voted him into office, dropping, right after his oath of office was taken, all efforts to reform the labor laws relating to union organizing, and had he instead, back when he had a Congress that, as a (then) popular new president he could have pressed for passage of the needed legislation, we would not today have only 11.3 percent of Americans in unions (and only 6.7% of workers in private-sector businesses!).
The reality is that even as the percentage of unionized American workers has continued to decline from over 30 percent in the 1950s to 11.8 percent in 2011 and 11.3 percent today, Bloomberg News reports  that the percentage of those workers who tell pollsters they would prefer to be in a union has continued to grow, with a majority of workers saying they would prefer to be working in a unionized workplace. In fact, the percentage of workers saying they would prefer to be unionized is higher than it has been since 1980. (As for those right-wing claims that unionized workers don’t like their unions, the same polling shows that 90 percent of union members would vote for their union if given the chance.)
Obama screwed his worker supporters from day one, when he decided to “delay” reforming the labor laws to make the unionization process fairer and illegal anti-union tactics by employers more difficult. Now he’s down to insulting them with his latest pathetic offer of a puny “raise” for the lowest paid federal contract employees.
Meanwhile, it is in his power to take another action which would, albeit indirectly, profoundly impact the wage and wealth gap currently afflicting this country. He could reverse his 2009 instructions to his lickspittle Attorney General Eric Holder not to criminally prosecute the executives of the giant financial corporations that robbed the American people and trashed the US economy, throwing it into what continues to be the greatest economic collapse since the Great Depression. Prosecuting the financial tycoon/crooks and clawing back their hundreds of billions of dollars in ill-gotten gains would not only dramatically level the wealth divide by hacking away the high incomes; it would also send a message to the whole corrupt capitalist class that ill-gotten gains would no longer be ignored.
Sadly, though, instead of prosecution of the criminal syndicate that is the banking industry, the Obama administration, when it has even bothered to prosecute larger institutions, has only levied fines on these companies — always without even requiring them to admit to guilt — fines that barely even dent the banks’ record profits, and that usually can be deducted from income, thus making them effectively subsidized by the very taxpayers who have been injured by the industries crimes.
The latest such outrage was the non-prosecution settlement reached by the Attorney General’s office with JPMorgan Chase, the nation’s largest bank. Under that settlement, JPMorgan Chase pays $20.5 billion in fines for its conscious and deliberate role in enabling the $65-billion ponzi scheme of Bernie Madoff, all of which was conducted through an account at JPMorgan Chase. There was no effort to prosecute JPMorgan Chase Chairman and CEO Jamie Dimon, who headed the bank through years of the entire Madoff scam, and AG Holder didn’t even insist, as he could have, that the bank dump Dimon as Chair and CEO. So Dimon continues in his role as head of the bank despite what has to be seen as either his complicity in an unprecedentedly huge criminal conspiracy, or his incomprehensively inept leadership.
And just to show how little the banking industry fears the Obama administration and its “Justice” Department, within less than two weeks of this outrageous “settlement,” the JPMorgan Chase Board of Directors voted to raise Dimon’s salary and bonus package by 75% to $20 million. No doubt the board members voting for this raise think Dimon earned the extra $8 million for keeping them all out of jail, along with himself.
It used to be that Democratic presidents would coddle and enrich the wealthy and powerful, while tossing crumbs to working people. Obama has taken this favor-the-rich tradition further. He openly serves the rich and powerful and then insults the intelligence of the working people who voted him into office.
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).