When Republicans blocked the bridge loan sought by the auto companies last week, they opened up basic questions about what kind of America will emerge from the current crisis. The severity of the downturn means that fundamental issues are at stake. Here are two of them:
Will the American dream survive? America's great success after World War II was to build a country where the American dream was within reach for working people. The elements of that dream were clear: a wage high enough to support a family, a home, health care and paid vacations, high quality public education and affordable college for the young, a pension to retire with some security at the end of a long work life.
Over the last three decades of conservative rule, this system has been taken apart. Executives declared war on unions. CEO salaries soared; workers' wages did not keep up. Increasingly, it took two incomes and often three jobs to produce a family income; home ownership and college required ever greater debt; pension promises were broken, and pensions were replaced by private retirement plans.
In the auto bailout, the Republican demand — issued by Sen. Bob Corker, the Tennessee Republican infamous for his "call me" racist ad that helped him win against Rep. Harold Ford Jr. — was that the union workers immediately give up pay and benefits to make them competitive with nonunion workers in the foreign auto companies that set up shop in anti-union Southern states.
This was said to be necessary for the auto industry to compete. But in reality, the bigger problem for the industry was health care costs, levied directly on the companies, unlike the arrangements their competitors have in other industrialized countries. It wasn't wages that were uncompetitive with the nonunion foreign startups as much as the promises made to retirees on pensions and health care.
But don't we want workers to make family wages with health care and retirement security? Shouldn't the response to the crisis be focused on creating conditions to reinforce that possibility — for example, by moving to national health insurance for all — rather than undermine it? We should not be bitter that auto workers once made good salaries with good benefits. We should be insisting that those benefits extend through the country. We shouldn't be breaking unions, as Corker clearly wanted to do. We should be empowering them to ensure that workers get a fair share of the profits and productivity they help to create.
The contrast between the aid to the banks — trillions in guarantees, swaps and capital infusions, most of it committed without a vote of Congress — and the denial of even a bridge loan for the auto industry is glaring. Will America continue to have an economic policy aimed at Wall Street or one aimed at Main Street?
For decades, under Republican and Democratic presidents, finance has ruled. A strong dollar helped investors and hurt domestic manufacturers. Trade policies protected investor rights but not labor rights. Deregulation unleashed financial speculation while encouraging CEOs to focus on short-term profits, not long-term investments.
Now billions have been lavished on banks and investment houses while the auto companies couldn't even get a bridge loan.
Will we once more develop an economic strategy that revives the American dream and builds a broad middle class? Or are we headed back to a strategy that favors Wall Street over Main Street? Will the next Congress and administration continue to provide trillions for wealthy speculators and pennies for the working poor? What kind of country we will be hangs in the balance.
Reverend Jackson can be contacted by e-mail at JJackson@rainbowpush.org