The People’s Bailout: A May Day Speech*

*A slightly shortened version of this speech delivered in downtown Iowa City on the evening of May First, 2009.


I’d like to thank Wild Rose Rebellion and others who participated in planning this May Day event for inviting me to speak on this day that so few Americans have been allowed to know as the original labor day, born right here in the United States in connection with the struggle for the Eight Hour Day – for a human work day.




You know, if you go back and look at the original arguments that working people and their organizations – unions – made for shorter hours, you find something very interesting. They didn’t just talk about the physical and psychological and family problems that came with constant overwork under the control of their bosses. They didn’t just talk about the fact that the bosses cheated them out of extra hours and minutes every day. They didn’t just talk about how shorter hours would mean spreading out the work which would mean more jobs and thus less unemployment and poverty for working people. 


They talked about all of that but that also said two others things that are worth remembering and reflecting upon today. First, they argued that you can’t have a democracy if people don’t have the time to participate in it. They said that the democratic promises of the American Revolution didn’t mean anything for people who are denied the free time and the energy to study and discuss and organize and form associations about the great issues of the day. 


Second, the Haymarket Martyrs and other Eight Hour leaders said that when you have and use the time to study history and current events and the society in which you live you often come to see that democracy can’t really be reconciled with the capitalist profits system. You find, they said, that the glorious democratic ideal of popular self-rule doesn’t mix very well with the class system of bosses and workers of rich and poor, and of order givers and order-takers. It doesn’t blend with an economic system that concentrates ever more wealth and power in the hands of the privileged and corporate Few.





These are things to think about and act upon today, more than 130 years after Haymarket. The United States, believe it or not, has the longest working hours in the industrialized world.  Americans routinely report being too busy and exhausted and overworked to meaningfully follow much less understand current events. The top 1 percent owns 40 percent of the wealth and a probably larger percentage of the elected officials and politicians in the U.S. We live in a "democracy" where six giant corporations own more than half of all U.S. media print and electronic and where both of the dominant corporate-funded political parties sign off on trillions of dollars worth of taxpayer giveaways to the very same financial Wall Street financial institutions who drove the economy over the cliff. 


Last Sunday’s New York Times reported on page one that pay at the nation’s leading investment banks, after falling off last year, is, bouncing back to "stratospheric" heights. Wall Street paychecks and bonuses are soaring back to 2007 levels, more than $560,000 a year at Goldman Sachs! 


It’s party time again on Wall Street because the bankers can borrow cheaply, with all those federal guarantees that Bush, Paulsen, Obama and Geithner have given them. It’s back to "eat drink and be merry" for the lords of finance thanks to the $600 billion committed under the TARP, the vast credit lines proffered by the Fed, expanded F.D.I.C. guarantees, the government bailout of AIG, and so on…thanks to not-so Temporary Assistance for not so Needy Banks.


Meanwhile, 600,000 more Americans lose their jobs every month. Tent cities, modern-day "Hoovervilles" have appeared in more than a dozen cities across the U.S., "the richest nation on Earth.". I can point you to fifteen neighborhoods in Chicago were more than a quarter of the children are living at less than half the federal government’s notoriously inadequate poverty level.


Millions of ordinary Americans today are asking simple and powerful questions. You hear it at lunch counters, at the bar, at the coffee shop, in factories, in offices, on job sites. "Where’s my bailout Timothy Geithner? Where’s my sister’s bailout Larry Summers? Where’s our town’s bailout Ben Bernake? Where’s the people’s bailout President Obama?" 


And by the way, Obama set a new record by getting more than $38 million from the finance, real estate, and insurance industries, including nearly $1 million just from Goldman Sachs alone.




Where’s your bailout? Where our economic recovery? A big chunk it has gone to AIG and Goldman Sachs and Bank of America and Morgan Stanley and Citigroup. Another part is going to the officially unmentionable Pentagon War and Empire machine, which is actually expanding under our new so-called "peace" president, who is finding new ways to prolong the occupation of Iraq and who is increasing the level of violence in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The Pentagon System maintains more than 760 military bases located in more than 130 countries around the world and it accounts for nearly half the military spending on the planet — all in the name of something they like to call "defense." It is itself a giant welfare system for the rich, funneling billions of for gigantic global high-tech corporations like Raytheon, Boeing, Lockheed Martin, General Dynamics, and Halliburton – and like Rockwell Collins up in Cedar Rapids.





Now typically when you dare to raise these sorts of basic problems in public, the leading lights of the political class, the media class, and the academic class will accuse you of cynical and negativistic bickering. You’ll be called a carper — someone who who complains about what is wrong, but does not present solutions.  But there’s nothing inherently cynical or negative in telling the truth about existing dominant institutions and the behavior of the power elite. It could mean that you have faith in peoples’ ability to understand and act against oppression on the models of the populist movement in the 1890s, labor movement in the 1930s, the peace movement, the women’s movement during and since the 1970s and the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and 1960s.. That’s what it means to me. 


As for the charge that we have not solutions, that’s slander. I tell anybody who asks that I am a dedicated democratic and libertarian socialist and will be happy to discuss with you ways that we can and must structure our local, regional, national and international communities beyond pre-historic hierarchies of class, gender, race, and empire. There’s no shortage of wonderful ideas on how to go beyond empire and inequality and how to undertake what Dr. Martin Luther King called "the real issue to be faced" beyond "superficial" issues: "the radical reconstruction of society itself."


Beyond that radical reconstruction, which is a long-term project, however, we on the Left also support numerous critical reforms to make life more democratic and tolerable and to open up more space for real change. Like the Haymarket leaders of the 1880s, we oppose reformism, but we’re not opposed to reform. 


I support basic, decent, and progressive measures towards a peoples’ bailout right now, I support a moratorium on foreclosures, a capping of credit card interest rates and finance charges, and the rollback of capital income tax rates to 1981 (not just 1993) levels.


I support government entering into the business of making affordable direct housing loans to working people.


I support serious campaign finance reform on the public financing model to take private money out of public elections.


I support breaking up the corporate media monopoly through antitrust measures and the provision of government resources for a peoples’ communication system beyond the control of Viacom-CBS, Disney-ABC, General Electric-NBC, and The News Corporation/FOX.


I support a number of related electoral reforms that would allow third and fourth and fifth parities to grow and become a part of a more diverse and democratic political culture. Two business-controlled parties do not and cannot adequately reflect the real spectrum of opinion in this country!


I support a significant reduction of the American Empire budget and the provision of a major peace dividend to put millions to work on socially useful projects now. As Dr. King said in 1967, a nation that spends more money on the military than on social uplift is "approaching spiritual death." We should launch a massive public works program construct homes, schools, roads, rail lines, and hospitals to put millions to work — at union wage rates!


I support regular cost-of-living hikes in wages and benefits to counter the impact of rising prices.


I support the immediate removal of U.S. troops from illegally occupied Iraq and Afghanistan and from other countries where they are stationed.


I support legal interventions to re-write corporate charters to require businesses to serve the public interest and the common good.


I support the diversion of federal dollars from Wall Street welfare and the Pentagon budget to fund federal investigation and prosecution of gender and race discrimination in the U.S.


I support the dismantlement of the nation’s giant, globally unmatched system of racially disparate mass incarceration and the shifting of resources from "the war on drugs" to drug treatment, rehabilitation, job-training and other measures to the meaningful re-integration of prisoners and ex-prisoners into the American community.


I support ending the regressive method by which we currently fund Social Security and Medicare. 


I support immediate legalization for all undocumented immigrant workers.


I support shortening the work week with no cut in take home pay to spread the work around.


I support the obvious cost-cutting and social democratic health care solution – single-payer national health insurance, which is nothing more than improved Medicare for all. I’m not interested in any half-assed pseudo reforms that leave the leading private for profit insurance corporations in charge of our medical lives! I want us to join the rest of the world’s industrialized democracies by undertaking serious reform on the single payer model advanced in U.S. Congressman John Conyers’ House Bill 676. 




Last but not least, I adamantly support the Employee Free Choice Act, on which Barack Obama campaigned and which actually ought to be – it isn’t but it ought to be – at the heart and center of his economic recovery plan. As John Edwards said over and over again in Iowa in 2007, the labor movement is the single greatest anti-poverty program in American history.


Why do grocery clerks at the Jewell Osco on Route 23 in DeKalb, Illinois make a livable, family supporting wage while grocery clerks at the Super Wal-Mart a mile down Route 23 in the same town scratch by on minimum wage? There’s no difference in skill or education requirements or the basic nature of the task. If anything the job is tougher at Wal-Mart because the clerks there don’t have bag boys to help them out. The difference is one thing and one thing only: the grocery clerks at the Jewell Osco are enrolled in a union, the United Food and Commercial Workers, and the workers at Wal-Mart don’t get to be in a union because management there fires anyone who tries to form one.


It’s the same thing across the occupational board and across the country…in auto, in meatpacking, in steel, in retail, telecommunications…you name it. Workers with unions have considerably better, more proximately decent wages and benefits than do non-union workers doing the same tasks with the same skill set and education levels. 


Working people know about this difference very well. That’s why the great majority of American workers say they’d rather be in a union than not.  It’s why a majority of Americans think unions are a good thing.


Union membership has been falling in the U.S. over the last three decades not because working people reject unions but because employers repress unions and because the government does not protect union organizing and collective bargaining rights and has not protected those rights for close to four decades now. The Employee Free Choice Act would fundamentally transform that situation. It has the potential to significantly re-expand American’s single greatest poverty-righting institution: the labor movement. 


Keep your eyes on the prize of a world beyond profit and exploitation. The Haymarket Martyrs were right: we ARE going to have to choose between (1) the  profits system and death on one hand and (2) democracy and life on the other hand. Albert Parsons was right when he said that the building that housed the Chicago Board of Trade had been "carved out of the flesh and blood of labor and cemented in the tears of the women and children of toil," who were fed on by the "vampires and parasites" of capital. That’s as true today as it ever was 


But you still need to let the president and your other elected officials including David Loebsack (D-IA) and Tom Harken (D-IA) and Bruce Braley (D-IA) and even Chuck Grassley (R-IA) understand that you demand basic progressive reform measures like single-payer health insurance and the Employee Free Choice Act. 





Please remember that the politics, the real politics, the politics that matters most, is about a Helluva lot more than going into a voting booth and choosing between one of two slates of candidates who have been carefully selected in advance for you by the business class.


And it isn’t about begging the government and the politicians to help us out from the top down. It’s about demanding and its about taking action. 


Here’s a prediction for you: if we do get the Employee Free Choice Act passed this or (more likely) next year, it will be because more and more workers dropped respect for the vampires’ "private property" enough to occupy their workplaces like the workers did at the Republic Door and Window plant in Chicago last December.  It’ll happen because the capitalist parasites and their government protectors will realize that working people’s anger has become too dangerous to ignore and that the cost of labor reform is less than the alternative.


Please remember, it’s like Edwards and Obama said in Iowa in 2007: "change doesn’t come from the top down. It happens from the bottom up." As the antiwar activists and writers Tariq Ali and Anthony Arnove said about the Iraq War a few years back: "We can’t look for saviors on high to get us out of this mess…we’re going to have to do it ourselves." And as I’ve been saying again in Iowa and Chicago for the last year, brothers and sisters, we need to Fight the Rich, Not Their Wars. Thank you very much.


Paul Street‘s first book was Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11 (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2004).  His latest book is Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2008).


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