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Why Is the Recovery So Feeble? Ask (Laid-Off) Public-Sector Workers

Tuesday, April 17th, 2012

Roger BybeeThe slashing of public-sector jobs—concentrated in states Republicans took control in 2010—is accounting for a major slowing of the nation’s economic recovery. In a recent report issued by the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), economist Josh Bivens calculated that the U.S. has lost 584,000 government jobs during the recovery, an “unprecedented drag.”

Bivens argues that if America had emulated the strategy used to strengthen previous recoveries, it would have added 1.2 million public-sector jobs since the recovery’s start in June 2009. And the expanded buying power of these workers would have led to an additional 500,000 jobs in the private sector.

“If we had been following normal path, we’d have 1.7 million more jobs,” Bivens told In These Times last week. “Given that we have a shortfall of 10 million jobs in this country, we would have created nearly one fifth of the jobs we need.”

The drop in public employment further reduces consumer demand at a time when American households and small businesses are only reluctantly spending. Families are devoting more of their income to getting out of debt caused by credit cards, underwater mortgages and skyrocketing college tuition.

Of, course the nearly three-year “recovery” is still far from solid, as David Moberg has shown on the website:

The official unemployment rate in March [2012] fell one-tenth of a percentage point to 8.2 percent—the only good political news for President Obama. But that gain largely reflected the numbers of people who dropped out of the labor market. The 120,000 increase in jobs [are] about half the recent rate and a third of what’s needed to return to relatively full employment in three years…

While most of the cutbacks have occurred at the state and local levels thus far, federal jobs and federal programs that stimulate the economy will be increasingly under the gun. President Obama appears to be acceding to vast cutbacks in the U.S. Postal Service demanded by Republicans, which will be “a further drag on the recovery,” Bivens says.

Moreover, there are several stimulative federal programs that will be ending in January 2013, Bivens stated. “The payroll tax cut will be ended, the unemployment compensation extensions will be halted, and all of the Bush tax cuts, including those for moderate income families, will be stopped. This will all be contractionary for overall employment,” Bivens said.

In part, cutbacks in government employment during the current recovery are the result of the extraordinarily devastating impact of the economic meltdown and its connection to the deflated housing bubble.

“The budget gaps have been deeper for the states, and have required more fiscal contraction,” Bivens noted. “The impact on housing values has created a laser targeting of states that are so dependent on property taxes, as property values have declined so steeply. At the same time, “There has been a conscious decision this time to target public workers.”

Public workers targeted

Over the last several years, the Right and Republican-allied politicians like Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker have tried to focus public anger against supposedly privileged public employees, much like earlier Republican-led crusades against “welfare recipients” receiving benefits from the public, as Adam Bessie has pointed out.

Along with stigmatizing public employees including teachers, nurses, firefighters and police officers, GOP lawmakers have promoted a number of remarkably hollow slogans that assert the need for draconian cuts in public spending and public employment. To wit:

  • “Spend Less, Owe Less, Grow the Economy” (title of Republican commentary by Republican members of Joint Economic Committee.
  • “Deficit reduction is part of job creation.” (Rep. Jeb Hensarling, R-Texas)
  • “Taxes cost jobs,” (Republican billboards in Wisconsin in 2010)

Cutbacks in public employment have been heavily concentrated in Republican-controlled states, as Mike Konczal and Bryce Covert document:

Of the eleven states in which Republicans came into power in 2010 – Alabama, Indiana, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin – five were among the seven states that lost more than 2.5 percent of their workforce from December 2010 to December 2011. The remaining 42 states lost an average 0.5 percent (there is no data for Mississippi).

The cutbacks in public employment have not produced economic miracles for any of these states. Particularly noticeable is the failure of Gov. Walker, who faces a recall election in June, to make any progress on his pledge of producing 250,000 jobs. In fact, Wisconsin, after cutting its public employment by about 2.8% has had the worst overall performance in job creation of any of the 50 states.

Nonetheless, Republicans can find important gains for their corporate constiutents.

In a paper called “Spend Less, Owe Less, Grow the Economy,” Republican members of the Joint Economic Committee hailed the benefits of  “decreasing the number and compensation of government workers”:

The effects of this will ripple into the private sector in the form of lower wages: A smaller government workforce increases the available supply of educated, skilled workers for private firms, thus lowering labor costs.

In Wisconsin, this stance is especially stunning, as Walker campaigned on the notion that public employees should absorb the same kind of pay and benefit cuts inflicted by corporations upon private-sector workers. But in this report, Republicans argue that reductions in public-sector jobs and compensation will pave the way for yet more pay slashing among private-sector workers.

Funding for corporate tax cuts

In states ruled by the new crop of hard-line Republican governors, the GOP has claimed to be enacting massive cuts—especially reductions in allocations to education, cuts in public employment and reductions in public employees’ pay and benefits—to close budgetary deficits.

But Wisconsin’s Walker, leading the wave of anti-worker attacks, essentially transformed pay cuts for public workers into corporate tax breaks, as Bessie insightfully argued before the enactment of Walker’s program:

Walker’s tax cuts for private business appear to be underwritten by cuts in public sector benefits. If he succeeds, the money will literally be handed from the pockets of public servants to private business owners.

While Democrats may be enjoying Walker’s mounting problems, the weakness of the recovery will also be a problem for President Obama. His failure to defend the USPS is emblematic of his larger failure to consistently make the case for a strong public-sector that serves the 99%.

This blog originally appeared in Working in These Times on April 16, 2012. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Roger Bybee is a Milwaukee-based freelance writer and progressive publicity consultant whose work has appeared in numerous national publications, including Z magazine, Dollars & Sense, Yes!, The Progressive, Multinational Monitor, The American Prospect and Foreign Policy in Focus. His e-mail address is [email protected].

The Great Training Wreck: Job Skills Deficits and Corporate-Backed Tech Schools

Thursday, April 5th, 2012

Roger BybeeWorker training has emerged as a major flashpoint between labor and corporate leaders, igniting conflicts over low corporate tax rates, the offshoring of jobs and the low-skilled nature of most future job growth in America.

First, corporate leaders have been insisting that a significant part of the unemployment problem is due not to the massive offshoring of jobs or lack of effective consumer demand caused by low pay, but under-skilled U.S. workers. The CEOs sometimes blame workers themselves: PIMCO investment fund founder Bill Gross has stated: “Our labor force is too expensive and poorly educated for today’s market place.”

Second, corporate leaders—although intransigent about paying higher taxes (or, quite often, any taxes) to help provide funding for education and training—seek to convert technical education into short-term retraining that benefits corporations while workers fail to learn portable skills.

This latter issue has emerged in a new law passed just before the end of the recent legislative session in Madison, when Wisconsin Republicans engineered a last-minute takeover of technical education at Milwaukee Area Technical College.

The long-term implications of the MATC takeover for working people will mean a shift from seeking skills that increase long-term opportunities to quick re-training to suit corporate needs, said Michael Rosen, president of American Federation of Teachers Local 212 at MATC and a member of Wisconsin’s Technical College Board.

“This restructuring will move MATC away from upgrading skills into training programs that will flood labor markets,” Rosen says. “It doesn’t bode well for comprehensive technical training. Our mission has been to provide industry with skills they want from their workers, but also to provide workers with skills that are portable and will build their careers.”

However, the new restructuring will take power away from a board appointed by area School Board presidents to a new entity selected by four county executives, giving power to two leaders from wealthy, conservative counties far out of proportion to the amount of funding and number of students they provide for MATC. Ozaukee and Washington counties account for only 6 percent of students, but 18 percent of funding. Milwaukee County supplies 82 percent of the funding, but accounts for nearly all MATC students.

“Two of the county executives are hardcore Republicans who don’t care about urban education at all,” Rosen asserted.

LITTLE FUNDING, BUT BIG VOICE FOR CORPORATE PRIORITIES

But despite the low funding that they provide, the new appointees will likely champion the view that technical education should be trimmed to fit immediate corporate priorities.

Rosen notes that even as corporate leaders complain about the shortage of skilled workers, CEOs have insisted on lower taxes that drain the funding base for technical education at both the high-school level-—where it is the most expensive component of education—and at two-year technical colleges.

Routinely using the threat of relocating jobs and capital to extort tax reductions that drain educational funding, corporate leaders have nonetheless escalated their complaints about the technical education provided in high schools and technical colleges.

“The very people complaining about the lack of tech ed have been fighting against increases in their own taxes, corporate and personal,” fumed Rosen. In Wisconsin, more than 60 percent of the corporations netting $100 million or more in revenues wind up paying no corporate income taxes, according to the Institute for Wisconsin’s Future.

But corporate leaders in Wisconsin, led by the Metropolitan Milwaukee Chamber of Commerce and helped by Republican legislators, have nonetheless blamed MATC to justify the hostile takeover.

Corporate leaders, led by Tim Sullivan, the former CEO of  Bucyrus-Erie and chair of Gov. Scott Walker’s Workforce Investment Council, has been sounding the alarm for producing more skilled labor. This revitalized technical education system would be based on the reallocation of federal dollars, not new funding from corporations, which are a primary beneficiary of a skilled workforce.

Further, corporations in Wisconsin—despite occasional shortages in skilled labor—are failing to generate jobs that require advanced skills and command family-sustaining wages. As Rosen, an economist, recently pointed out in a briefing paper:

Of the 10 fastest growing occupations in Wisconsin, 9 cannot be considered skilled labor. These include, in order of total openings: cashiers, waiters and waitresses, customer service reps, food preparers including fast food service workers, laborers, office clerks and bartenders. Only nurses, ranked number 6, can be considered a skilled labor occupation.

As America’s job crisis continues, expect future battles over the role of education to be fought across the nation. CEOs will insist that technical schools should be dedicated to enlarging the pool of narrowly-skilled workers to meet their needs (and boost their profits).

How forcefully educators and students demand a broader education that empowers citizens and provides portable skills remains to be seen.

This blog originally appeared in Working in These Times on April 4, 2012. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Roger Bybee is a Milwaukee-based freelance writer and progressive publicity consultant whose work has appeared in numerous national publications, including Z magazine, Dollars & Sense, Yes!, The Progressive, Multinational Monitor, The American Prospect and Foreign Policy in Focus. His e-mail address is [email protected].

Replacing Factories With Jails: Just 44% of Milwaukee’s Black Men in Workforce

Wednesday, February 1st, 2012

Roger BybeeCity has lost three-fourths of its manufacturing jobs since 1960s

MILWAUKEE—Wisconsin’s economic problems are only deepening the political crisis for Gov. Scott Walker, already the target of a massive recall campaign that gathered 1.1 signatures from Wisconsinites.

Despite Walker’s pledge to preside over the creation of 250,000 jobs by 2015, Wisconsin has lost jobs for the past six months as the rest of the country has added them, and job losses have totaled more than 35,000 since he signed his highly controversial state budget last June.

But there is a more specific economic (and social) crisis facing Milwaukee: Just 44.7 percent of African-American males are still part of the workforce, reflecting the long-term decimation and relocation of the city’s industrial based and the lingering effects of the Great Recession.

Even for African-American males in their prime working years (25 to 54), only 52 percent were in the workforce. “That took me aback,” stated Marc Levine, author of the new study illuminating the appalling level of joblessness in the city’s black community.

“The most striking finding was the extent to which black employment rate has declined across all the heavily-industrialized cities of the Northeast and Midwest, like Milwaukee, Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, and Buffalo,” said Levine, director emeritus of University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s Center on Urban Development.

These cities have been hit by three waves of industrial shifts, first to the suburban ring, then to “the right-to-work states of the anti-union South,” and finally offshoring to low-wage, repressive nations like China and Mexico, said Levine.

With 54 percent of Milwaukee’s black workers employed in manufacturing in 1970, “The unraveling of manufacturing affected blacks here more than in other cities,” Levine noted. “All of the old industrial cities have been hit across the board, but Milwaukee with its especially large industrial base was really affected.”

As the study documents,

No metro area has witnessed more precipitous erosion in the labor market for black males over the past 40 years than has Milwaukee. The 2010 data, however, revealed a new nadir for black male employment in Milwaukee.

Milwaukee has lost a three-fourths of its manufacturing jobs since the 1960s, representing a giant canyon of destroyed opportunities. In the city long called “the Machine Tool Capital of the World” in recognition of its highly-skilled industrial workforce, only about 26,000 manufacturing jobs remain.

The loss of these jobs has been accompanied by a substantial drop in family incomes in the city. Milwaukee’s median household income, adjusted for inflation, plummeted
a stunning 21.9 percent since 1999, according to new U.S. Census data. That’s well over twice the national average of 8.9 percent.

But along with the impact of de-industrialization and de-unionization affecting the entire working class, African Americans in Milwaukee have faced “hyper-segregated conditions, with 88 percent of the blacks in the metro area concentrated in the central city, said Levine. With many lacking cars and public transportation to the suburbs—where almost all employment increases have occurred—the inner city economy has radically changed over the past four decades.

“In the new economy of the inner city, there are only 4,800 blacks employed in production now,” a small fraction of a once-huge African-American industrial working class, said Levine. “At the same time, every year we have about 5,000 African-American males entering the prison system. … We’ve seen the twin phenomena of the loss of factory jobs and a poorly-conceived war on drugs. As a result, almost 50 percent of Milwaukee’s black males are in jail, in prison, on probation, on parole, somewhere in the system.”

Milwaukee’s corporate leaders and media have continued to promote job training as the central solution to both high unemployment in the central city and a shortage of skilled workers:

The new chairman of Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, the state’s biggest and most vocal business lobby, … vowed to tackle an issue that’s infuriated plant managers for years: a chronic inability to fill manufacturing jobs for lack of qualified or willing candidates.

Todd Teske, president and chief executive of Wauwatosa-based Briggs & Stratton Corp., said he would make the skills mismatch his top priority during the two-year rotating chairmanship of the 101-year old business group….

Industrial jobs are the core of Wisconsin’s middle class, Teske said: “But those jobs are threatened by a number of factors including a shortage of skilled industrial workers to fill existing and expected job vacancies.”

But for Levine, the training strategy championed by Teske and WMC is bound for failure. “It represents the tried and true approach for those who won’t face up to the fact that the private sector isn’t filling the need for jobs, but don’t want to challenge the private sector or their investment decisions.”

Briggs, for example, has moved thousands of jobs to Mexico and China.

“It’s not a skills shortage, it’s a shortage of private-sector job creation,” Levine says.

With Corporate America clearly opting out of domestic job creation—2.9 million jobs were eliminated in the United States since 2000, while 2.4 million were created offshore—local, state, and federal officials could confront the jobs crisis with a strategy that directly creates jobs, boosts consumer demand, and repairs America’s deteriorating infrastructure.

“We need Keynesian measures to build consumer demand, said Levine. “We need direct government involvement to rebuild the infrastructure, renovate our transportation systems, and update our communications system. All of these will also build broader consumer demand.”

The absence of jobs and income so acutely afflicting blacks in Milwaukee—and Americans of all colors across the nation—will not be cured by wishful thinking about the “insourcing” of jobs hailed by President Obama in recent speeches.

“Insourcing is a very, very minor trend,” Levine, pointing out that Milwaukee’s Master Lock (also see here ), although much celebrated (sometimes incorrectly) has only brought back a small share of the jobs it sent to Mexico. Still, the vastly-downsized United Auto Workers Local 469 is grateful for the addition of about 100 jobs over the last year;  a minimum of 800 Master Lock jobs had been shipped off to Mexico and China.

The depth of suffering in Milwaukee’s African-American community and elsewhere caused by the jobs shortage demands urgent action, not hope that “the private sector” to step forward. But when President Obama has talked about the need for job creation in recent months, he has stressed the need for private-sector” involvement.

Meanwhile, indifferent CEOs of major corporations sit on unprecedented trillions in reserves, and continue exporting jobs south of the border and overseas.

This blog originally appeared in Working in These Times on February 1, 2012. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Roger Bybee is a Milwaukee-based freelance writer and progressive publicity consultant whose work has appeared in numerous national publications and websites, including Z magazine, Dollars & Sense, Yes!, The Progressive, Multinational Monitor, The American Prospect and Foreign Policy in Focus. Bybee edited The Racine Labor weekly newspaper for 14 years in his hometown of Racine, Wis., where his grandfathers and father were socialist and labor activists. His website can be found here, and his e-mail address is [email protected]

Occupy the Hood: Fighting for Those at the 'Bottom of the Bottom'

Friday, December 2nd, 2011

Roger BybeeMILWAUKEE—The “We are the 99%” message of the Occupy movement has provided a unifying umbrella under which people of widely-varied backgrounds can connect their experience of America’s appalling economic and social inequality.

One of the most interesting offshoots of the Occupy movement has been the national emergence of the “Occupy the Hood” movement composed of young African-American and Latino activists. They have expanded the movement’s range of concerns beyond the politically-safe theme of the shrinkage and downward mobility of “the middle class,” by addressing the issues of “working-class and poor people,” explained Kahlil Coleman, 25, a leader of Milwaukee’s “Occupy the Hood” chapter.

“You look at cuts in jobs, schools, services, and it’s mainly affecting the bottom of the bottom of the 99%,” Coleman declared.

Exemplifying its focus on empowering the poor and pushing for new family-sustaining jobs, Occupy the Hood led a multi-racial crowd of 400 mostly young people on October 29 to the site of the former AO Smith (later Towner Automotive plant) to protest the flight of family-supporting jobs from Milwaukee and to simultaneously spotlight SB 207, a repressive piece of new state legislation that , in the words of Milwaukee School Board member Larry Miller, “gives employers the right to legally discriminate against over 62,000 Wisconsin residents.”

MORE JOBS WOULD BE CLOSED OFF TO PEOPLE OF COLOR

“The bill would enable employers to reject job applications of convicted felons even if there was no connection between the offense and the responsibilities of the job, and would further allow them to fire current employees with felony records, Coleman said.

Despite its progressive reputation, Wisconsin’s jails and prisons contain a proportion of African-American males that is among the nation’s very highest. The proposed law would add new barriers to employment for African-American males, when unemployment of 60 percent or more prevails in Milwaukee.

The former AO Smith plant—a giant wasteland of ghostly, empty buildings and vast, weed-grown parking lots—symbolizes the destruction of opportunity on a massive scale.

The site holds enormous significance for the African-American community. At one point, the unionized auto-frame plant supplied 7,800 high-paying jobs, providing incomes that lifted thousands of African-American families into “middle class” living standards.

But beginning in the 1980s, AO Smith began shifting more and more of these family-supporting jobs to Mexico, converting them into mere subsistence-level jobs for desperate Mexican workers in cities like Ciudad Juarez. By 1991, Smith employed more workers in Mexico than its home base of Milwaukee. Tower Automotive bought the Milwaukee plant, and it shipped the last 500 jobs to Mexico in 2004.

“It left behind a giant ‘Dust Bowl’ in the middle of the community, with the result being much more youth violence, high infant mortality, and the closing of many other factories, shops, and restaurants,” said Coleman. (The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel recently  ran a major article focused on the Third-World level rate of infant mortality in the area, called “Where city factories, and now babies, die.“ However, theJournal Sentinel refrained from drawing the obvious conclusion that the factories and their jobs were killed off through conscious decisions by the top 1 percent, rather than just mysteriously disappearing.)

The vacant factory space held promise a year ago as the new site for manufacturing mass-transit rail equipment by the Spanish firm Talgo for a new fast-rail route between Milwaukee and Madison. But ultra-reactionary Gov. Scott Walker, now the target of a fast-growing recall campaign that has already gathered 300,000 petition signatures of the 540,000 needed to call for a new election, turned down more than $800 million in federal funding for the route, crushing the dreams of Milwaukee residents desperately hoping for an upturn in job opportunities.

The building and maintenance of the rail plan and its equipment would have generated between 5,000 and 13,000 jobs.

READY FOR THE LONG HAUL

For Occupy the Hood, the march to the Smith site and subsequent activities have illustrated its mission of both fighting concrete legislative battles of immediate importance to the African-American and Latino communities and performing educational outreach about the root causes of widespread misery in these communities.  The deindustrialization of Milwaukee—which has lost 80 percent of its factory jobs since 1977—has had a devastating impact particularly on people of color.

Occupy the Hood envisions a long-term strategy in educating and activating the African-American and Latino communities as full partners in the broader Occupy movement, Coleman stressed. “We want to be reaching more of the masses. How do we galvanize those people who won’t show up a mass meeting?”

Milwaukee’s communities of color, already in desperate shape before the last four years of ongoing high unemployment and wage-cutting, are hungry for fundamental reforms that improve their lives, but need to see proof that the Occupy movement is serious and does not serve as a political vehicle for any politician. “People want to be part of something where they can say, this really represents my interests,” observed Coleman.

“In some ways, the {African-American] community is more solid than Occupy movement itself” in its readiness for a massive movement challenging inequality, Coleman said. “People are so eager for change, but they’re not sure if this is going to be the movement that will represent them. For example, how do you keep it from being something traditional run by a politician?”

These are questions that will have to be answered over the long haul, Coleman readily admits. “The main thing is to build something long-term. After all, we are up against a system that runs most of the world,” a reflective Coleman stated.

This blog originally appeared in Working in These Times on December 1, 2011. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Roger Bybee is a Milwaukee-based freelance writer and progressive publicity consultant whose work has appeared in numerous national publications and websites, including Z magazine, Dollars & Sense, Yes!, The Progressive, Multinational Monitor, The American Prospect and Foreign Policy in Focus. Bybee edited The Racine Labor weekly newspaper for 14 years in his hometown of Racine, Wis., where his grandfathers and father were socialist and labor activists. His website can be found here, and his e-mail address is [email protected]

Alleged 'Skills Gap' Takes Spotlight Off Who's to Blame for Massive Jobs Shortage

Friday, October 21st, 2011

Roger BybeeLately, the usual stream of stories about America’s jobs crisis has been displaced by a story about the shortage of crucial skills among the jobless.

This new narrative—fed by new studies from corporate sources like Deloitte & Touche—has seemingly displaced information about the plight of the unemployed. Suddenly, stories about the unemployed—except for jobless college graduates who are carrying part of the country’s $1 trillion in outstanding student debt—have virtually disappeared from the mainstream media.

What’s happening to the growing numbers of “99-ers,” people whose unemployment benefits have expired? How are families and communities coping with a rising tide of mortgage foreclosures—that, as GOP presidential hopeful Michelle Bachmann of all people reminded us—painfully force families from the security of their “nests”?

Worry not, a new hook for economic coverage has arrived. A major study on the perils posed by the “skill gap” to our economy warns:

American manufacturing companies cannot fill up to 600,000 skilled positions, even as unemployment numbers hover at historic levels, according to a survey released Monday from Deloitte & Touche and The Manufacturing Institute.

…Some companies are not bidding for projects because they lack skilled manpower to do the work, according to Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce.

It’s the “jobs paradox,” said WMC President and CEO Kurt Bauer.

“We have high unemployment, yet companies can’t find the skilled help they need,” he said.

Another report from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce National Chamber Foundation and Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce received prominent play in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, as have a number of other recent stories on the predicted shortage of skilled workers looming soon in Wisconsin’s future:

The report also warns that the state’s workforce is aging, an ominous sign for a labor market that faces an ongoing shortage of skilled workers.

New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman quotes the CEO of Caterpillar about the dangers of inadequate education in what Friedman calls “The Age of Austerity”:

Doug Oberhelman, the C.E.O. of Caterpillar, which is based in Illinois, was quoted in Crain’s Chicago Business on Sept. 13 as saying: “We cannot find qualified hourly production people, and, for that matter, many technical, engineering service technicians, and even welders, and it is hurting our manufacturing base in the United States. The education system in the United States basically has failed them, and we have to retrain every person we hire.”

The highly influential Fareed Zakaria, columnist, TV host and “apostle of globalization…, who has long argued that free trade and globalization are win-win propositions and good for America, now argues that while globalization has been good for American companies, the way it has been operating has not been so good for American workers and job creation,”  notes former globalization enthusiast Clyde Prestowitz. Prestowitz goes on to point out:

Astoundingly, Zakaria says this is because the U.S. workforce is not well enough educated. He quotes Pimco bond fund founder Bill Gross as saying that: “Our labor force is too expensive and poorly educated for today’s market place.”

One could easily conclude from these stories and accompanying headlines that a substantial part of America’s unemployment problem is caused by jobless workers’ individual failures to update their skills.

Further, the public schools and the unionized teachers—under attack not just from Republicans like Scott Walker, but also Education Secretary Arne Duncan (see here, and here) and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel (see here and here)—have been failing to properly provide 21st century skills to their students.

Perhaps far too much attention has been devoted to the government role in job creation and retention, when American CEOs need to demand more from their employees and from the U.S. educational system to solve the jobless problem over the long term, this narrative suggests.

But in reality, this whole “Education, Training, and Skills” narrative serves to divert attention from the massive shortage of jobs and Corporate America’s misdeeds to “failing” teachers and supposedly under-educated workers. Corporate America has failed to produce virtually any net gain in U.S. jobs since 1999; the period was the only decade when U.S. employment grew by less than 20 percent.

In short, the Education, Training and Skills “frame” on our economic problems plays several useful functions for the CEOs and the rest of the richest 1 percent. It takes the spotlight off CEOs’ decisions to wipe out decent-paying job opportunities. As Gordon Lafer writes in The Training Charade,

Workers are encouraged not to blame corporate profits, the export of jobs aboard, or eroding wage standards—that is, anything that they can fight—but rather to look inward for the source of their misfortune and the seeds of their resurrection.

It also distracts from a few other things:

THE PROBLEM IS MICROSCOPIC

With 15 million Americans officially unemployed (the number rises to about 25 million when you include the discouraged jobless and those involuntarily working part-time), the relative number of positions going unfilled is infinitesimal in comparison. Just 5 percent of all current manufacturing jobs are unfilled due to a lack of qualified applicants.

Conceivably, a firm commitment by Corporate America and the federal government to maintaining and expanding America’s industrial base, accompanied by an equitable sharing of the massive productivity gains accruing almost solely to corporations, would make work in skilled manufacturing once again attractive. But as illustrated by the direction of leading corporations like General Electric, major firms seem less committed than ever to keeping their manufacturing production in the US. Moreover, leading figures in both political parties resist the notion of an “industrial policy” to foster U.S. manufacturing, as economist Jeff Faux has emphasized.

THE LIMITED VALUE OF TRAINING

When displaced workers successfully complete retraining programs, they are generally unable to find jobs comparable in pay and benefits to the ones they lost. “Out of a hundred laid-off workers,” says New York Times economics writer Louis Uchitelle in his book The Disposable American: Layoffs and Their Consequences, “27 are making their old salary again, or more, and 73 are making less, or not working at all.”

COMPANIES DON’T WANT TO PAY FOR BETTER SCHOOLS

CEOs like Caterpillar’s Oberhelmer feel free to demand that our schools produce well-trained workers. However, corporations like Caterpillar and GE are unwilling to pay the taxes necessary to support quality education for all children. These and other corporations have skillfully avoided paying any federal taxes in some years, and paying minimal taxes in others.

Caterpillar’s Oberhelmer used a frequent corporate ploy in response to tax increases in Illinois. Despite massive increases in profits for the Peoria-based firm, he sent a letter to Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn with a thinly-veiled threat to relocate the corporate headquarters because of a 2 percent tax increase for wealth executives.

Without corporations paying their fair share of taxes, how can they expect a top-notch workforce?

Let us be clear: more education, training, and skills for the unemployed will not produce job opportunities when Corporate America is unwilling to invest in new U.S. jobs, despite the deceptive arguments presented by corporations and allies like Friedman and Zakaria. Nor will public education be able to improve for the children of poor and working-class children when corporations like General Electric and Caterpillar use blackmail threats of relocation to reduce their taxes.

Lafer offers a cold splash of reality on the whole Education, Skills, and Training charade:

Whatever the problem, it seems job training is the answer. The only trouble is, it doesn’t work, and the government knows it. . . . Indeed, in studying more than 40 years of job training policy, I have not seen one program that, on average, enabled its participants to earn their way out of poverty.

This blog originally appeared in Working In These Times on October 20, 2011. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Roger Bybee is a Milwaukee-based freelance writer and progressive publicity consultant whose work has appeared in numerous national publications and websites, including Z magazine, Dollars & Sense, Yes!, The Progressive, Multinational Monitor, The American Prospect and Foreign Policy in Focus. Bybee edited The Racine Labor weekly newspaper for 14 years in his hometown of Racine, Wis., where his grandfathers and father were socialist and labor activists. His website can be found here, and his e-mail address is [email protected]

NFL Collision: Management Control vs. Player Safety

Tuesday, November 16th, 2010

Roger BybeeHere we have a multibillion-dollar industry. Where does their responsibility begin? Say you’re a kid and you sign up to play football. You realize you can blow out your knee, you can even break your neck and become paralyzed. Those are all known risks. But you don’t sign up to become a brain-damaged young adult. —Dr. Julian Bailes, neurologist who has studied football-caused brain damage

John Mackey is remembered as the founding president of the NFL Players Association union and a member of the NFL Hall of Fame. Mackey is generally seen as the best tight end in the sport’s history, combining an unmatched combination of strength, speed, and great hands hauling in passes from the Baltimore Colts’ legendary quarterback Johnny Unitas.

But now the past tense is often used when talking about Mackey, 69, who has been afflicted with concussion-induced dementia for more than a decade, reducing him to a shell of his former self. “John was a phenomenal athlete who defined the tight-end position and was a great leader,” recalls his long-time friend and colleague Ed Garvey, who formerly served as the Players Association director and masterminded the stunningly successful 1982 players strike.

The tragedy of Mackey was one of a string of highly-publicized cases that has eventually forced the NFL to end many years of intransigence on the issue, and come to grips with the debilitating brain damage resulting from the thousands of collisions players undergo thoughout their careers.

Watching the deterioration of Mackey has been particularly painful for Garvey, who worked closely with him in leading the NFLPA. “John was
a great strategist and a great orator who could inspire people,” says Garvey. “By the time he was done talking to players, they were ready to break down the walls to get to the bargaining table.”

NFL OWNERS ERECT BARRIERS TO DEALING WITH CRISIS

But the NFL owners erected formidable walls to deal with the issue of chronic brain injuries resulting from the constant high-speed collisions of NFL play and the frequent concussions they often produce. Repeated concussions result in memory loss, depression, disorientation and moments of uncontrollable rage.

Admitting the syndrome of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) —manifested in dementia, the early onset of Alzheimer’s, and episodes of bizarre and anti-social behavior—drew fierce resistance for years from the NFL and its owners. The NFL used panels of doctors utterly lacking qualifications in brain physiology to deny and minimize the effects of concussions, much like how the lead-paint industry systematically concealed the devastating effects of lead poisoning on children.

GAME PROMOTED ON BASIS OF ITS VIOLENCE

All the while, the league was actively promoting the game on the basis of its violent collisions, “smash-mouth football,”  and constantly-replayed “greatest hits”—often involving vulnerable players in mid-air being grotesquely speared helmet first and slammed to the turf, as Garvey points out.

Meanwhile, the players’ helmet surfaces became harder and harder, rendering them more devastating weapons, enhanced by increasingly larger faceguards as well. “Generally, it’s just evolved where helmets get harder and faceguards got bigger,” Garvey notes, with helmet-first contact stressed by coaches and more serious head injuries resulting.

Where football players in the early NFL wore only light leather helmets without face masks and therefore sought to avoid head-to-head collisions, coaches of the modern era taught and expected players to lead with the new super-hard plastic helmets in order to make the most devastating block or tackle possible.

The outcome has been an epidemic of concessions, as a hard collision sends the brain bouncing against the inside of the skull, with each concussion producing more and more damage.

ENORMOUS PRESSURE BUILDS ON NFL

Only under enormous pressure from former players’ wives and families, the public and Congress did the NFL begin to deal with the problem of brain injuries. Belatedly, the NFL finally responded to a mounting wave of bad publicity caused by the disabling and destructive impact on much-beloved former players like Mackey.

Only after appalling cases of neglect became public—like the immensely popular former Pittsburgh Steelers star center Mike Webster, a victim of brain damage after 15 years in the NFL who became homeless and eventually committed suicide—did the NFL begin to address the problem.

The league and the NFL Players’ Association finally initiated the “88 plan” – named after Mackey’s number. Under the program, the league provides $88,000 per year for nursing home care and up to $50,000 annually for adult day care. The NFL also finally adopted strict policies on monitoring players who had suffered concussions.

TOP-DOWN FIX: BLAME THE PLAYERS

This year, the NFL—led by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and New York Giants owner Wellington Mara, Jr.—has imposed a top-down “solution”—targeting the conduct of players who use their helmets as weapons.

But this step means fining and eventually suspending players who are simply engaging in the high-impact hits which they were constantly trained to inflict from the time they were eight years old playing in kiddies’ leagues, through high school, college, and NFL training camps—always with the threat of being benched or cut from the team if they failed to hit with maximum force at every opportunity.

“The players are put in very odd position,” observes Garvey. They risk losing their jobs if they fail to deliver as much pain as possible to opponents, while the NFL continues to market its violence as a central part of its appeal.

Moreover, the player-centered penalties conveniently sidestep theresponsibility of owners and coaches. “Coaches know their careers depend on winning, and they will teach whatever it takes to win games under the present rules, ” Garvey says. With the hard-plastic helmets a powerful weapon to use in blocking and tackling, the coaches are bound to demand helmet-first hitting that leads to concessions.

OWNERS SEE PLAYERS, EVEN STARS, AS REPLACEABLE

The owners could scarcely be more removed from the pain of players and the suffering of families of repeated concussion victims, Garvey says:

For the owners, they seem distant from the process, like the war in Afghanistan with someone else’s kids are out there being hurt and dying. The owners are relatively unaffected. They just bring in another player.

As John Mackey used to say, if you think of the NFL as a machine, it has replacement-parts factories known as colleges like Ohio State and USC and Wisconsin all over the country.

With a plentiful supply of eager and talented young players capable of making the fans forget the damaged and discarded super-stars of just a few weeks back, owners are content to make minor changes and blame the players for the concussions they suffer.

But the activism of families and players is certain to produce a vastly different game. The culture is going to change,” predicts Garvey. “Players and parents are realizing these injuries could be lifelong. Millions of youngsters are facing long term injury under the present setup—it will be a strange moment if Congress says we’re not interested in this.”

The long-term solution lies not in unilateral changes laid down from above by management, but by dialogue involving players and medical experts and coaches. “If you take the best medical minds and bring in players and coaches, you could come up with a series of recommendations that are better than what  Roger Goodell and Wellington Mara’s kid have done,” Garvey says.

Such discussions would cover equipment like the helmets, rules regarding hits on vulnerable players and medications to help treat concessions, among other issues.

But owners have seen all efforts to improve safety as encroachments on their essential management powers, says Garvey.

The introduction of plastic “Astroturf” by agri-business giant Monsanto was supposed to reduce ankle and knee injuries compared to natural turf, while saving money on maintaining football fields, the corporation promised. But the players soon discovered that being knocked to Astroturf was like landing on a thinly-covered concrete surface, meaning that players’ heads would be smacked against a totally inflexible floor again and again.

Further, knee and ankle injuries actually rose, because if a player’s cleats got tangled in Astroturf, there was no natural “give” as with natural sod. “But there was no way we could lead people out on strike over playing on Astroturf,” Garvey remembers.

“When we first talked about Astroturf, [the owners] went nuts,” Garvey says. “They said that it’s their game and they will make the rules.”

Garvey vividly recalls a discussion with the late Cleveland Browns owner Art Model about Astroturf. Modell responded by pointing to a nearby asphalt parking lot and declaring, “If I tell my team to go play on that, they had better do it.”

“We got together a team of medical experts with players and the owners wouldn’t yield, but it got discussion started,” says Garvey. Eventually, the NFL came to discourage the use of Astroturf.

MANAGEMENT CONTROL ABOVE ALL ELSE

Essentially, the NFL owners have perceived the introduction of brain injuries and other safety issues as an intrusion on sacrosanct management prerogatives and a challenge to their customary dictatorial rule.

But by now, public horror over the fate of much-beloved heroes like John Mackey and Mike Webster and anxiety about their children’s long-term health are fueling a full-scale challenge that will inevitably crack the owners’ vise-like grip over decisions affecting player safety.

Moreover, with more and more medical research on football-caused brain damage coming forth outside the NFL’s control, the league’s responsibility for their players’ long-term health is becoming undeniable.

“The liability issue now just jumps out at NFL owners,” Garvey argues. “If juries start awarding huge awards to permanently brain-damaged players, then the NFL will really have to sit up and take notice.”

This article was originally posted on Working In These Times.

About The Author: Roger Bybee is a Milwaukee-based freelance writer and progressive publicity consultant whose work has appeared in numerous national publications and websites, including Z magazine, Dollars & Sense, Yes!, The Progressive, Multinational Monitor, The American Prospect and Foreign Policy in Focus. Bybee edited The Racine Labor weekly newspaper for 14 years in his hometown of Racine, Wis., where his grandfathers and father were socialist and labor activists. His website can be found here, and his e-mail address is [email protected]

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