A Financial Meltdown 30 Years in the Making
They break it, and we’re stuck with the bill.
In less than two weeks Congress lined up $700 billion to bail out the nation’s bankers, leaving millions of homeowners on the sidelines, facing foreclosure, bankruptcy, or both.
Somehow the argument that “it may seem unfair, but it was necessary” just doesn’t cut it. It’s no wonder that the most popular sign at labor’s September 25 protest on Wall Street said “Bailout = Bullsh*t.”
For union members, it sounds all too familiar. Management’s perennial argument for concessions—take the cuts or say goodbye to your job—hasn’t exactly saved U.S. manufacturing, whether in the 1980s or today.
In past recessions, it’s been each union for itself, and the companies always came out ahead. Corporations are already using the deep hole they’ve dug for themselves to demand even more from workers. Teamsters at the Minneapolis Star Tribune bucked the trend, refusing mid-contract concessions on September 10 and prompting newspaper executives to suspend a $9 million payment to their creditors.
“The company is asking us to slash our own throats to save their profits,” said Kevin Bialon, a 27-year pressman who served on the bargaining committee. “Management made the mistakes and they want workers to pay for it.”
CHICKENS HOME TO ROOST
Although today’s headlines don’t advertise it, the financial crisis is not a sudden surprise but the latest gloomy milestone in a 30-year drive to boost corporate profits, mainly by squeezing workers. The recent flurry of fast-and-loose home loans is a symptom, not the cause, of the problem.
Shifting the Risk
The way Economics 101 textbooks tell it, capitalism is about rewarding risk.
Entrepreneurs put money on an idea, and if they’re right, they rake it in. If they’re wrong, they lose their shirts. But over the last 30 years, corporations have been busy shifting risk—and debt—off their balance sheets and onto workers and taxpayers. Congress’s $700 billion reward to banks that gambled and lost is just the most recent case.
The biggest example is the boom in 401(k) plans as replacements for traditional defined-benefit pensions. With a traditional pension, the company shouldered the risk of making sure it could afford those pensions when they came due. With a 401(k), the risk is all yours. Employers pushed these plans onto unions when the stock market was recording double-digit increases. Now workers face the downside, with 401(k)s nationally losing $2 trillion in the past 15 months, a 20 percent decline. Similar problems face Voluntary Employee Benefit Associations, commonly known as VEBAs, programs that transfer existing pension contributions over to unions to manage but let companies off the hook for any future shortfalls.
For workers in traditional pension plans, there is still cause for concern. Large companies have seen their pension funds swing from a surplus of $60 billion at the beginning of 2008 to a deficit of $35 billion on September 30.
Experts fear that the Pension Benefit Guarantee Corporation could fall as much as $100 billion in the red, if more companies use bankruptcy to unload their pension obligations onto the federal government. The PBGC has shown no mercy when it comes to cutting workers’ pensions—as Republic Steel retirees found out this spring, when some Steelworkers learned their monthly check would drop by hundreds of dollars.
Faced with falling profits in the 1970s, corporations everywhere rallied to restore their bottom lines. They pressed to shift taxes away from businesses and onto individuals, sowing the seeds of today’s state and local budget shortfalls. Deregulation was also a top priority, as restrictions from an earlier era—put in place to protect the public good—were wiped away. Starting in industries like airlines, trucking, and telecommunications, then later in banking and financial services, government protections were lifted and oversight was relaxed.
In addition, corporations turned the tables on who pays for retirement, shifting the risk—and sometimes the burden—onto individual workers and taxpayers.
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On the job, corporations launched a full-scale assault on unions, piling up concessions, breaking longstanding pattern agreements, and introducing two-tier wages and benefits.
In 1978 the average wage for production workers was $16 an hour in today’s dollars. The average was still $16 by 2007. Companies put the squeeze on working conditions, too, through lean production and quality schemes that were a smokescreen to make workers do more with less.
Corporate heads were rewarded handsomely for their efforts. CEO pay skyrocketed from 27 times what the average worker made in 1973 to 275 times in 2007.
Wall Street’s short-term mentality spread far beyond the financial sector. Every plant, even every work group became a “profit center,” and had to produce sufficient returns—or else.
Firms like General Motors and General Electric got into the money game directly, making more profits in recent years from financial activity than they did by producing goods or services.
LESS MONEY, MORE PROBLEMS
The working-class squeeze pushed inequality through the roof. Today the top 5 percent of American families—those with household incomes over $150,000—now claim 35 percent of national income. Thirty years ago the top 5 percent took home 21 percent.
With wages flat-lined for over three decades, families scrambled to prop up their living standards, first with more women entering the workforce and then by working more hours.
But there is a limit to how many earners each family can have, or how much overtime workers can schedule, so debt became the solution to anemic paychecks. Workers turned to credit cards or used their homes as ATM machines.
Once the housing bubble burst, the system finally caved in on itself. Bad home loans were the spark, but the fuel for this financial wildfire was a generation of stagnant incomes and overstretched consumers.
ADDICTED TO DEBT
It wasn’t just consumers who leaned heavily on credit. In recent years corporate debt skyrocketed, and as long as short-term loans were plentiful, companies were happy to operate with a thin cushion. Now that the credit markets are clenched up, businesses are feeling the pinch.
The Hawaii Medical Center was an early victim, for example, forced into bankruptcy in September when its creditors refused to roll over $5 million in short-term loans.
More than a third of its 900 workers have been laid off. Companies that survive today’s frozen financial markets will continue to struggle with the rising cost of debt, raising the possibility of concessions and bankruptcies to come.
On the watchlist is FairPoint Communications, the company that took over Verizon’s landline operations in northern New England earlier this year. The company borrowed heavily to close the $2.5 billion deal, and the Communications Workers (CWA) argued at the time that workers and consumers would bear the burden if FairPoint’s plans went awry.
That risk is growing, as the handover from Verizon is months behind schedule and millions of dollars over-budget. FairPoint’s customers are cutting back or switching to lower-cost competitors.
“What’s going to happen to our pension?” asks Darlene Stone, chief steward at CWA Local 1400 in Burlington, Vermont.
The Minneapolis Star Tribune’s next step is also uncertain. Pressure on the paper’s owner, private equity firm Avista Capital Partners, is mounting. Two other Teamster locals have followed the pressmen and cancelled givebacks. Bialon, the pressman, reports that on October 1 the company laid off 18 union members.
“They said they needed to save $20 million to fend off bankruptcy,” he said. “But they’ve already gotten rid of a third of the workforce and no one from management has been let go. They wanted the world from us and were offering nothing in return.”