With crucial midterm elections drawing near,
America's working families are being squeezed tighter every day by anti-worker
policy decisions from every branch of government.
From the aftershocks of tax cuts to a perilous new era for union members, choices being made by the White House, Congress, the Supreme Court and many state legislatures are threatening family budgets, affordable health care, retirement security, rights at work and other ways working people measure their quality of life.
Voters will decide in November whether the pain recedes or deepens.
"This is the most consequential election of our lifetime," International President Lonnie R. Stephenson said. "We know you've heard that before, but today the party that controls the federal government and most statehouses is doing unprecedented harm to working families, and I guarantee we haven't seen the end of it."
Like IBEW brothers and sisters in Illinois and Missouri, pictured, members across the country are using their political power to fight for pro-worker candidates and issues to protect their rights and economic security.
What kind of harm? Average non-management wages are down, not rising as politicians promised when they sold last year's GOP tax cuts. Companies are using the lion's share of tax savings to buy back stock, with little, if any, trickling down to workers. Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid are targeted to lose a shattering $1.5 trillion, putting their long-term viability at risk if lawmakers fail to act. And Obamacare's most popular provision — the protection of more than 100 million Americans with pre-existing medical conditions — is hanging by a thread after the Justice Department refused to defend it in court.
New laws, executive orders, agency-level rulings and court decisions are steamrolling worker protections. States are repealing prevailing wage laws and pushing right-to-work laws. Federal agencies, led by political appointees openly hostile to workers and unions, are revoking rules that keep workers safe on the job and ensure they're paid what they're owed. The Labor Department late last year killed an Obama-era rule that made 4.2 million deliberately underpaid workers eligible for overtime.
The most brutal blow to unions was delivered by the Supreme Court in late June in Janus v. AFSCME. On top of a rash of rule changes making it harder for workers to organize and bargain collectively, Janus is a crushing decision for public sector union members — including tens of thousands in the IBEW — that is reverberating throughout the labor movement.
There's nothing abstract about the ramifications, Stephenson said.
"You can draw a straight line from attacks on workers' rights to the financial anxiety of working families," he said. "When people are free to join unions and bargain for fair wages and benefits, it changes their lives."
Below, the Electrical Worker takes a closer look at just some of the fallout for working people 18 months into one-party government.
Tax-cut evangelists promised working people the moon.
"President Trump and the GOP promised that these huge tax cuts would primarily help the middle class, give workers a $4,000 raise, and lead to major business investment," said Frank Clemente, executive director of Americans for Tax Fairness. Six months later, "none of those promises have come true. The law gets an 'F' for failing to deliver."
Even Republican Sen. Marco Rubio — who voted for the bill — doesn't believe the tax cuts are reaching working America.
"There is still a lot of thinking on the right that if big corporations are happy, they're going to take the money they're saving and reinvest it in American workers," Rubio told The Economist in April. "In fact, they bought back shares, a few gave out bonuses; there's no evidence whatsoever that the money's been massively poured back into the American worker."
Most workers haven't seen a raise at all. For four out of five non-management employees in the private sector, wages fell 0.1 percent between May 2017 and May 2018, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics' June report.
On an hourly basis, that amounts to a few pennies. But they add up. The average full-time worker earning $45,000 annually is losing about $2.50 a week or $125 a year. When compared to the raises they were promised and the effect on the economy at large, that's significant, experts say.
"The falling wages promise to exacerbate historic levels of U.S. inequality. It means workers who were already making less are falling further behind, (and) gains are going almost exclusively to people already at the top of the economic ladder," The Washington Post reported June 15, based on interviews with economists across the political spectrum.
In other words, "Paychecks should be getting fatter at a time when unemployment is low."
"This is odd and remarkable," Steven Kyle, a Cornell University economist told the Post. "You would not normally see this kind of thing unless there were some kind of external shock, like a bad hurricane season, but we haven't had that."
Corporations are making record profits, but profits and tax savings largely aren't being spent on wages or investment in job-creation. Rather, they're being used to buy back stocks, lining the pockets of wealthy shareholders and Wall Street.
In the first quarter of 2018, the 500 richest U.S. companies announced $485 billion in stock buybacks. That's 70 times the $7 billion they have given or promised workers through one-time bonuses and small raises.
Working people aren't benefiting, even indirectly. "Stock buybacks usually go to the high earners, and high earners usually save rather than spend," said economist Beth Ann Bovino of Standard & Poor's. "Whether businesses do invest in areas that improve productivity remains to be seen."
Consider Harley-Davidson. Peddling the tax cut bill, Republicans heralded the iconic motorcycle maker as a business that would invest its tax savings in new jobs and factories. Instead, the company announced it was shutting down its plant in Kansas City, Mo., costing 800 jobs. That was before the political eruption this summer when Harley executives said the escalating trade war was forcing them to move thousands more jobs overseas.
Companies paid record dividends to shareholders in the first quarter of 2018, which means little to most Americans. Ten percent of households control 84 percent of all stock and the top 1 percent alone own 40 percent of shares, according to a 2016 analysis.
Meanwhile, growth in consumer spending has slowed since last year, with gas prices — about 60 cents higher per gallon and rising still — draining disposable income.
Little wonder that a Monmouth University poll in June showed that only 34 percent of Americans still supported the tax cuts, a 6-point drop from their April survey.
Holes in the Safety Net
With 10,000 baby boomers reaching retirement age every day, Social Security and Medicare face big challenges and fierce battles.
Alarming headlines aside, the programs aren't going bankrupt. The dispute is about how — or if — to fix and strengthen them.
There are viable long-term solutions that economists say are virtually foolproof, certainly for Social Security. Toward that end, Democrats have introduced more than a dozen bills in the 115th Congress.
Republicans have long wanted to slash benefits, raise the age of eligibility and even privatize programs they deride as "entitlements." Now they're arguing for swift action, based on the soaring deficit their tax cuts created.
A 10-year budget plan released by House Republicans in June would drain $537 billion from Medicare. Combined with cuts to Medicaid and other health programs, and $4 billion from Social Security, more than $1.5 trillion in safety net funds would disappear.
"It's day and night — the difference between helping working people or hurting them," Stephenson said. "One side is fighting to protect the benefits you've spent your entire work lives earning. The other wants to cripple Social Security and Medicare and put your retirement security in the hands of the same reckless financiers who collapsed the economy 10 years ago."
The programs' annual reports in May forecast that Social Security's trust fund will dry up in 16 years and Medicare's in half that time, predictions that have fluctuated wildly over the years.
Even if Congress did nothing, Social Security would have sufficient funds to pay 77 percent of benefits after 2034 and Medicare could cover more than 90 percent.
Gradually raising the Social Security payroll tax by 1 percent point would go a long way toward balancing its books, as would raising or eliminating the cap on the highest earners. Currently, workers earning more than $128,400 don't pay any additional FICA taxes.
Both annual reports were signed by the same four trustees, all members of the Trump administration. That's notable because the reports tie GOP tax cuts and attacks on the Affordable Care Act to the programs' troubles.
"The trustees made crystal clear that policies of congressional Republicans and the Trump White House have damaged the financial prospects of both programs," wrote Los Angeles Times business columnist Michael Hiltzik. While "the GOP continually claims that it's imperative to make both programs healthier, the truth is that Republicans are doing their best to cut the legs out from under both."
Failing Health Care
One of the most popular provisions of the Affordable Care Act is its protections for Americans with pre-existing medical conditions — a wide-ranging term that can include everything from cancer and heart disease to high blood pressure, depression, migraines, asthma, diabetes, even acne and countless other common maladies.
About half of adults under age 65 have one or more health problems that, until 2014, insurers could use to deny coverage or charge outrageous rates. Now a federal lawsuit filed by several states would once again put coverage out of reach for tens of millions of people.
Rather than defend the Affordable Care Act in court, as the government normally does when federal law is challenged, the Trump administration has joined the lawsuit — a colossal boost for insurance companies and their already staggering profits.
A bipartisan group of eight governors from Alaska, Colorado, Maryland, Montana, Nevada, North Carolina, Ohio and Pennsylvania signed a statement in June urging the White House to reconsider.
"We're asking the administration to reverse their decision and instead work with Congress and governors on bipartisan solutions to protect coverage and lower health care costs for all Americans, all while protecting those with preexisting conditions," the governors said.
In the States
States have their own agendas where workers are concerned.
Republican-controlled legislatures have used their power for decades to pass right-to-work laws that impede union organizing and workplace democracy. Increasingly, they're declaring war on prevailing wage laws, too.
In June, Michigan became the latest state to repeal prevailing wage. Missouri partially rolled back its law in May, with other repeals the past three years in Indiana, Wisconsin, West Virginia and Kentucky.
Four Republicans in Michigan's Senate and seven in the House joined all Democrats in opposing the bill, but there weren't enough votes to overcome the GOP's supermajority.
"A vote for this repeal is a vote to condemn the economic futures of workers across this state," Rep. Sam Singh said on the House floor. "You are telling workers across Michigan that they are not worth the cost of quality work."
Since Indiana repealed its law in 2015, average wages for construction workers have fallen 8.5 percent, according to an economists' study released in January.
Writing about the report in a column for the Kansas City Star, Marc Poulos of the Illinois Economic Policy Institute called out the "political lunacy of essentially advocating middle-class wage cuts."
"Repeal," he said, "is a self-inflicted wound on the economy, the construction industry and taxpayers."
Missouri voters go to the polls on Aug. 7 to try to repeal the right-to-work law passed by their Republican-controlled Legislature last year. Union members are banding together to encourage voters to say "No" to Proposition A.
In a 5-4 ruling by its conservative majority, the Supreme Court overturned 40 years of established law in a case intended to cut off the legs of public-sector unions.
The ruling in Janus v. AFSCME was the second to last decision handed down on the final day of the Court's term in June, but there was little suspense.
"With the most hostile anti-union forces in the country driving this case, union-busting billionaires paying the bills and
a Supreme Court that is now stacked against workers, we could hardly be surprised by this assault on workers' rights,"
The ruling means state and local government workers are no longer required to pay the agency fees that make it possible for unions to negotiate contracts, handle grievances and otherwise represent the interests of all employees in a bargaining unit. Agency fees cover representation work only, not political action that unions take on behalf of workers.
In effect, Janus aims to strip public unions of funds and power to fight for workers the same way that states use right-to-work laws to impede private-sector organizing.
Wealthy anti-worker foundations and powerful corporate lobbies engineered the case, making Illinois state employee Mark Janus its public face.
Janus was the third case the court heard on the issue in the last five years, which is virtually unheard of, said Celine McNicholas, labor law and policy director at the Economic Policy Institute.
She called it a "legal strategy by very determined plaintiffs with a lot of money to spend" who weren't giving up until they got the answer they wanted.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell made sure they did. Abusing Senate protocol, he stacked the court against workers by refusing to hold hearings on President Obama's nominee to fill the late Antonin Scalia's seat, keeping it open for a Republican president to nominate a new justice.
The ruling in Janus was the court's most far-reaching decision harming workers, but not the only one. Twisting an obscure 1925 law, the same 5-4 majority took away the right of workers to have their day in court. Under the ruling in Epic Systems v. Lewis, companies can now force employees to settle disputes through arbitration.
"The decision not only closes the courthouse door to workers, it effectively bars them from any tribunal where they can vindicate their rights," UCLA law professor Katherine Stone wrote in SCOTUS Blog, which covers the court. "It is depressing to see the Supreme Court majority give such short shrift to worker rights without any serious engagement with the issues at stake."
AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Liz Shuler, a member of Portland, Ore., Local 125, wrote, "I used to think the Supreme Court was the last institution left that was impervious to politics, but this proves otherwise. Now we have to fight even harder, come together and mobilize."
New York, New Jersey and California, took preemptive action to blunt the damage, passing laws that give public-sector unions a better chance of recruiting new members. Union organizers in those states will have access to contact information for workers and can talk to them during the workday about the benefits of joining.
All unions and the causes that matter to workers and working families are going to be hurt by Janus, Huffington Post labor reporter Dave Jamieson said.
"Republican lawmakers around the country have been trying to peel back collective bargaining rights and weaken the political clout of unions," he wrote. "The relative strength of the public employee unions has helped labor as a whole beat back some of those efforts. After Janus, those unions may be less able to provide mutual aid."
It's bad for the country as a whole, EPI's McNicholas said.
"I fear it will really be destructive to our notions of public services and state and local governments. And I think that eroding government as a force of good in people's lives is absolutely the end goal for many of these organizations."
I'm Union. I Vote.
Politicians at every level have the power to make our lives better or worse.
Our votes in November will decide who calls the shots over the next two, four and six years, decisions that can start the healing process for working people or inflict more harm.
Some IBEW members have been hitting the streets and the phones since primary season to campaign for pro-worker candidates on their states' midterm ballots, including IBEW brothers and sisters.
The entire labor movement is committed to change. In June, the AFL-CIO and thousands of union volunteers kicked off a massive voter education effort about the issues that matter to working families, a program mirrored by the IBEW's own efforts through the grassroots political program.
"We've always maintained that the IBEW isn't a partisan organization," Stephenson said. "If you support working families and the right for people to come together in union to fight for fairness in the workplace and a better shot at life, we'll support you whether there's an 'R' or a 'D' next to your name.
"But the folks in charge right now — they're running roughshod over our union rights, they're giving away the store to the top 1 percent and making it harder for people who need health care the most to get it at an affordable price. Working people are being left to fend for ourselves.
"That's why I'm asking each and every member of the IBEW to get educated on the issues for November. Volunteer with your local. Knock on some doors. Talk to your neighbors. Working families can't afford another two years like the ones we've just had."