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Weekly Audit: Workers will build the recovery, not Wall Street

by Zach Carter, Media Consortium MediaWire Blogger

With new bailout plans for Wall Street being unveiled almost every week, it's easy to forget that nearly all of the work that fuels our economy takes place outside of Manhattan. While reviving the financial sector is an important part of recovery, any lasting economic solution must also empower American workers and protect them from corporate abuses.

Workers' rights are a core issue for our democracy, as progressive icon Noam Chomsky argues in an interview with Paul Jay of The Real News. The discussion covers the current economic crisis and its implications for the democratization of the U.S. economy. It's a fascinating exchange. Chomsky advocates for a much broader palette of reform than a simple clean-up the financial sector.

Chomsky notes that while the recent bank bailouts have brought a great deal of attention to the disconnect between public investment and private profit, it has become routine for the taxpaying public to foot the bill for important research that eventually creates big corporate profits. To ensure that we all reap the benefits of our investments, it is essential to make institutions accountable to their communities, rather than exclusively dedicated to maximizing shareholder returns.

The first step in democratizing the U.S. economy, according to Chomsky, is promoting unionization by enacting the Employee Free Choice Act, which makes it easier for workers to organize.

"The Employee Free Choice Act is always misrepresented," Chomsky says. "It's described as an effort to avoid secret elections. It's not that. It's an effort to allow workers to decide whether there should be secret elections, instead of leaving the decisions entirely in the hands of employers."

EFCA would give workers more control over their circumstances, leading to improved wages and living standards for laborers. In a column for The American Prospect, Terence Samuel points out that even if Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner's plan to bailout Wall Street succeeds in stabilizing the banking sector, banks can do little to bring about recovery if U.S. citizens are all broke. If we want to get out of the bubble-and-bust cycle, we must establish a middle class that has money to spend. Fundamentally, that means raising wages.

Robert Eshelman puts the plight of today's workers into focus in a devastating piece for Salon. Even where clear, straightforward laws to protect laborers from predatory employers exist, major corporations have been able to use the fear of being fired to push employees into "voluntarily" working under illegal conditions (Wal-Mart just agreed to pay out $640 million to settle charges that it intimidated its own employees into skipping mandatory breaks and accepting pay rates below the minimum wage).

"If corporations were able to exert such coercive power when the unemployment rate was around 5 percent, what can they do in a job market in which 14.8 percent of the population can't find adequate work?" Eshelman asks.

Under the Bush administration, the U.S. Department of Labor systematically ignored its duty to enforce labor laws. Writing for Colorlines, Michelle Chen highlights a report from the Government Accountability Office that takes the Department to task for failing to even return phone calls from workers who complained about employer abuses.

Millions of jobs are hanging in the balance as President Barack Obama formulates his rescue plan for the U.S. auto industry. But while the administration has insisted that factory workers at GM and Chrysler have to accept wage cuts, they've almost bent over backwards to funnel bonus money to executives at failed insurance giant AIG. General Motors' CEO Rick Wagoner has stepped down at the Obama administration's request, and while it's hard to feel sorry for an executive who lobbied aggressively against the environment and ran his company into the ground, his ousting reflects Wall Street's privileged status in Washington. As Josh Marshall highlights in Talking Points Memo, it is astonishing that executives at Bank of America and Citigroup, who have put taxpayers on the hook for far greater sums of bailout money than GM and Chrysler, have not been subjected to the same treatment as Wagoner.

We've all seen the grim statistics indicating how severe the current economic crisis really is, but the proliferation of roving tent, shack and lean-to communities along U.S. railways underscores the true costs of the recession more grimly than any consumer spending metric or gross domestic product projection. All over the United States, people who cannot afford even rental housing are living in makeshift structures without access to basic amenities. It's much like the rise of Hoovervilles in the late 1920s and 1930s, where out-of-work laborers took up residence anywhere they could.

While these squatter communities are growing as the crisis deepens, the worst part of the whole phenomenon is that they were common before the current downturn, as Scott Bransford notes for High Country News.

Whatever happens on Wall Street, fixing the economy will mean making sure ordinary people have access to basic amenities, and guaranteeing that workers have the power to prevent abuses from corporate America's executive class.

This post features links to the best independent, progressive reporting about the economy.

Visit StimulusPlan.NewsLadder.net and Economy.NewsLadder.net for complete lists of articles on the economy, or follow us on Twitter.

And for the best progressive reporting on critical health and immigration issues, check out Healthcare.NewsLadder.net and Immigration.NewsLadder.net.

This is a project of The Media Consortium, a network of 50 leading independent media outlets, and was created by NewsLadder.

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