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Wednesday, Dec. 17, 2008 07:19 am

Congress coddles bankers while bashing union autoworkers

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Sen. Bob Corker

Sen. Bob Corker is ... well, a real corker.

The Tennessee Republican is on the Senate banking committee that’s overseeing the bailout of America’s Big Three automakers, and, by gollies, he got his dander up when the three CEOs told the committee that they needed a $34 billion loan to survive. No way, popped the corker, unless and until you cut jobs and slash the pay of your union workers. “Before we even contemplate making a loan to these companies,” Corker lectured, “we need to put in place specific and rigorous measures.”

Wow, what a tough guy! But why pounce on Detroit, when he and his colleagues so meekly gave up $700 billion of our money to Wall Street hucksters? OK, the numbskull auto bosses goobered by flying to Washington in their separate-but-equal corporate jets, failing to grasp the “optics” (corporate-speak for bad image) of pampered CEOs jetting in for a taxpayer handout.

But wait — the honchos of Citigroup, AIG, et al. have also been jetting in and out of Washington for their gimmies, yet Corker and Co. raised no hue and cry, nor did they impose any “rigorous measures” as a condition of Wall Streeters getting taxpayer cash. Indeed, the total bailout of the financial barons — counting loans, stock purchases, guarantees and backdoor handouts by the Treasury and Federal Reserve — is nearly $8 trillion. Yes, that’s 8 followed by 12 zeroes! Amazingly, though, the beneficiaries of this phenomenal taxpayer largesse do not have to provide any public benefit in exchange, and Congress isn’t even being told where most of the money has gone.

We do know, however, that one banking giant — Citigroup — has been given about $300 billion of our money, roughly 10 times what all three of Detroit’s automakers are seeking. Interestingly, the CEO of Citigroup is drawing at least $216 million in personal pay this year. Corker and his ilk, however, saw no need to demand that Citi’s CEO take a whack in his pay.

What we have here is a class divide — a chasm, really. Right-wing pundits, echoed by such Congress critters as Corker, see the auto industry’s financial crunch as a golden opportunity for union-busting. They’re pounding the United Auto Workers, asserting that the good wages and benefits earned by UAW members are an anvil around the neck of U.S. carmakers, preventing them from competing with, say, non-union Japanese auto companies.

But, wait — labor costs are hardly the drag they’re portrayed to be, totaling less than 10 percent of a car’s price tag. If the highly skilled union members worked for free, that wouldn’t begin to save the corporations. Detroit’s problem is not on the factory floor, but up in the executive suite, where inept, $10,000-an-hour CEOs can’t come up with cars that the public wants to buy. UAW members don’t design the cars — they build what the geniuses upstairs put on the assembly line.

How bizarre that Corker thinks autoworkers make too much money and wants the government to knock down their pay. The senator is paid about three times what a UAW member earns, and he doesn’t have to have any real skill, do any heavy lifting or produce a product.

Yes, autoworkers make a good living — but isn’t that what we want for the people of our country? They define America’s middle-class ideal. They can afford to buy homes (and cars), send kids to college, take vacations — and pay taxes to cover Corker’s Senate salary.

Sustaining and expanding such a vibrant, productive middle class ought to be the goal of public policy. Yet the corkers of Congress are doing the exact opposite, pursuing a cheap-labor America that enriches the few at the expense of our nation’s true economic strength. They are doing the bidding of the corporate elite, whose only industrial idea for the past 30 years has been to kick labor in the shorts.

All who support such ugliness and mindless destructiveness should be given Henry Ford bobbleheads and reminded of the auto pioneer’s wisdom: Good wages are the lifeblood of the industry — and of our economy.

Jim Hightower is a national radio
commentator, columnist and author.

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