I recently had the opportunity to participate in a panel discussion about Volkswagen unionization and the future of labor in Chattanooga. The very organization of such a panel discussion was itself symptomatic of the great power inequalities in our society.
Five years ago, local and state government gave over $500 million in public subsidies to Volkswagen, the largest taxpayer handout ever given to an auto manufacturer in United States history. And yet, five years ago there were no panel discussions, there were no public debates, there were no outside groups buying billboards and penning editorials attacking the government for undermining “free markets” and “free enterprise” or pleading with Chattanooga tax-payers to stop the deal.
No, it is painfully obvious to anyone paying attention that corporate front-groups — like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Competitive Enterprise Institute — are only dedicated to fighting publicly for “free markets” and “competition” in the event that working people decide to get together to fight for a better future and form a union. It’s classic Orwellian doublethink: Public subsidy and private profit for the rich and “free markets” for the rest of us.
Even more scandalous were the vapid attacks leveled against unions in the Chattanooga Times Free Press by William Ozier, chairman of the Tennessee Chamber of Commerce. Mr. Ozier tries to somehow paint unions as a huge source of political campaign contributions, but anyone living in the real world knows that lobbying by the super rich and corporations vastly exceeds labor lobbying. In fact, in July the U.S. Chamber of Commerce became the first organization in the world to report total lobbying expenditures of more than $1 billion according to the Center for Responsive Politics. For comparison, consider the next biggest spender, General Electric, which over the same period of time has “only” spent $294 million. Of the top 20 groups buying off our political process, none of them are unions.
What makes Mr. Ozier’s comments even more embarrassing is that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce openly brags on its own website that it “leads the pack on lobbying expenditures” in Washington and employs “hundreds” of lobbyists to promote it’s “pro-business agenda”. What does it mean to be leading the pack in lobbying? Well, here is one example: according to Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Chris Hedges, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce spent more money in 2010 on federal and state elections than the Democratic National Committee and the Republican National Committee combined.
And our politicians were happy to take their dollars. In “The Democracy Project: A History, A Crisis, A Movement”, former Yale professor David Graber describes how the average U.S. congressman and U.S. senator must raise $10,000 a week from the time they enter office to the time they run for reelection in order to retain their position.
That money is raised almost exclusively from the top 1 percent of income earners in the United States. In fact, over 80 percent of all campaign contributions are raised from the top half of the top 1 percent of income earners. Our political system is so thoroughly corrupt that politicians in Washington now spend, on average, over 20 hours a week soliciting money from corporations and the super wealthy. The vicious cycle of wealth translating into power (and securing even greater wealth) continues on and on through our pay-to-play political system.
But, according to groups like the Chamber of Commerce, we should be concerned not with the influence of corporate money in politics, but with the United Auto Workers. This all makes sense if we see the world by the standards of the elite, who openly conflate unions, that is, workers working together to better their lives, as an attack on democracy itself, because they assume that the political and economic system is supposed to be run by the rich and the powerful, not by working people.
That is why so many corporate front-groups have come to Chattanooga and are spending huge sums of money to keep us from acting on what we know to be true: that our state and federal politicians are really just paid employees of the corporations that run our country and that corruption is the very foundation of our political system. Instead, we must work to place our faith and trust in the power of people. And that is the power that is inherent to a union, since unions are nothing more than working people working together to fight for a better life and a better future. That is the real reason why the 1 percent is so afraid of the UAW coming to Chattanooga. They recognize that the greatest threat to their interests is the threat of a good example.
Chris Brooks is a Chattanooga activist and blogger. You can read more of his writing at www.chactivist.com and can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org