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Seizing The Populist Moment

Huge numbers of Americans are being screwed by deregulation, corporate corruption, political bribery and skyrocketing health care costs. The time is ripe to organize for change.
 
 
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The big chance to organize for change has arrived. Large numbers of Americans are being screwed by deregulation, corporate corruption and political bribery. As the economy has tanked workers are burdened with increasing unemployment (at 6 percent, the highest in six years) stagnant wages and skyrocketing health care costs.

As summer turns to fall, AlterNet.org is investing energy and resources in the possibilities of this populist moment. We will highlight organizing campaigns that are positioned to help make change happen; we will pursue the issues of corporate reform, access to health care and the overall well-being of our planet, underscoring the common ground of the issues at hand.

Media coverage of the corporate scandals mostly focused on the top CEOs and CFOs who made the financial killings. You may not have noticed that those most hurt by the greedy excesses of top executives were the workers who lost their jobs. These workers cover a broad spectrum -- some are unionized, others are not; some are white-collar, some are blue-collar, but their pink slips were all the same color.

This is a time when stockholders and workers alike are on the losing end of bad economic policy, particularly the Bush tax cut, which ultimately will give a trillion dollars to the wealthiest Americans. We are also made vulnerable by Congress's failure to protect us. Instead they made the world safe for accounting firms, investment bankers, corporate board members and CEOs.

A recent study, "Executive Excess 2002: CEOs Cook the Books, Skewer the Rest of Us," produced by the Boston-based United for a Fair Economy and the D.C.-based Institute for Policy Studies, documents that CEOs of companies under investigation for accounting irregularities (23 with a market cap of more than 1 billion) made 70 percent more money than the average CEOs.

But more damning is that employees at the 23 firms scrutinized suffered a total of 162,000 layoffs since January 2001. And between January 2001 and July 21, 2002, the same companies lost $530 billion in share value, about 73 percent.

One of the most egregious examples is L. Dennis Kozlowski, the former CEO of Tyco. According to the Executive Excess study, Kozlowski -- who has since resigned and is facing charges of tax evasion -- made $331 million between 1999 and 2001 and was also subsidized for his luxury lifestyle. During that same time, Tyco laid off 18,400 workers.

You also might not have noticed, since it was so much "business as usual," that Congress did not pass health care reform this session. There are more than 40 million people with no health insurance in the United States; millions more seniors who lack the wherewithal to pay for rising prescription drug costs -- yet Congress could not be bothered to add a prescription drug benefit to Medicare. Increasingly, companies and organizations are cutting back on health care while health costs are going through the roof, rising more than 10 percent a year. But our elected officials have responded with silence and inaction.

Unsurprisingly, the current situation is changing the public's attitude. No longer do many feel aligned with management as they might have when their 401(k) mutual funds were expanding. A new level of anger and fear on the part of the American public is palpable. Peter Hart's survey of union and non-union workers, released on Aug. 29, found that 58 percent were dissatisfied with the state of the economy -- up from 34 percent in early 2001. Thirty-nine percent had negative feelings toward corporations and 30 percent had positive feelings -- again a big contrast to 2001 when 42 percent expressed positive attitudes.

As Steven Greenhouse reported in the New York Times, labor relations in this country have become more combative. This Labor Day saw 25,000 workers at Boeing threatening to strike and 10,500 longshoremen on the West Coast ready to go out. In Boston, 10,000 janitors are also ready to walk out, while in Chicago 7,000 hotel workers have authorized a strike, with both the janitors and the hotel workers demanding a living wage and improved health care. Unions at United Airlines reacted unhappily to proposals by the parent company -- in theory owned by the majority of the workers -- to take hefty pay cuts.

The Hart study found that 66 percent of workers trusted their employees just some or not much at all. Greenhouse notes, "Such numbers, labor experts say, suggest that the nation may have reached a watershed in which workers conclude that they need collective protections to safeguard them from predatory executives and economic downturns." Americans have warmed up to unions: 50 percent of non-union workers said they would join a union, if they could, the highest level in two decades, according to Hart.

Of course none of the organizing will be easy. Unions are weaker than they have been in the past when they exercised serious political muscle. Today they represent just 10 percent of private employees, and the toothless post-Enron Congress has failed to pass even basic reforms.

But the ingredients are present for resistance to the horrors of corporate greed and the Bush administration's distorted priorities. That is, if people have a sense that their efforts will not be in vain and that opportunities will not be squandered by competing issues and political egos; and if Democrats stop taking dives because of corporate campaign contributions, then there are victories to be won.

This is not a union battle, or a worker vs. management struggle. This is a struggle to create a society that values fairness and justice, that protects its people and preserves a healthy environment with clean air and water.

AlterNet intends to provide you with ongoing coverage and opportunities to participate in making change during this important time. We hope you will unite with us in this endeavor.

Don Hazen is the executive editor of AlterNet.org.