You Can’t Bail Out Wall Street and Main Street at the Same Time


Alan Benjamin

The following talk was presented by Alan Benjamin to the May 9 Teach-In in San Francisco to “Bail Out Working People — NOT the Banks!” Benjamin is a member of the Executive Committee of the San Francisco Labor Council and is a co-chair of the Council’s Economic Crisis Committee. This talk was presented on behalf of the Teach-In Organizing Committee in the opening segment of the program.

Dear Sisters and Brothers,

In mid-January, the Economics Crisis Committee of the San Francisco Labor Council (SFLC) issued a report that underscored one central point: You can’t bail out Wall Street and Main Street at the same time “because Wall Street is about profiting from speculation — and the bailout is about funding the speculation.”

We said that you cannot meet the needs of working people and all the oppressed — especially in this period where the economy is heading from an epic recession to a Depression — in partnership with Wall Street and the bosses. This fundamental principle — which is at the origin of the trade union movement — led us to organize this teach-in under the banner of “Bail Out Working People — NOT Wall Street.” You cannot become partners with Wall Street and the corporations because the interests of workers and those of the bosses are separate and opposed.

This three letter word “NOT” is perhaps the most important word for us to keep in mind if we are to build a fighting movement — with the unions as the anchor, as Brother Sal Rosselli explained just a few moments ago, of a powerful labor-community alliance that can turn things around in the interest of the working-class majority.

Last October, when the Bush administration asked Congress to approve the first Wall Street bailout — known as TARP 1 or the Paulson Plan — the anger of millions of people forced Congress to reject the Paulson bailout. Letters poured in to members of Congress 100-to-1 urging a vote “NO” on the bailout. You must not throw billions of dollars at the very same fat cats whose speculative orgy has led our economy to the abyss, people insisted.

It took a Wall Street provocation, a 770-point drop in the Dow Jones, and the intervention of all-too-many politicians who should have known better to force a new vote, one week later, to reverse this vote and give Wall Street its first mega-bailout with our taxpayer money. We were told then, just as we are told today, that we must first “stabilize the banking system” before we can do much of anything else. This rationale for rescuing the super-rich has produced $4 trillion in bailouts to Wall Street to date — and we are told by the financial press that as much as $8 trillion more may be needed in further bailout funds by the end of 2010.

Sure, some funds have gone to Main Street — to the real, non-fictitious economy and to budget stimulus. But this amount is woefully insufficient. State and city budget deficits are still huge. The situation is worsening, with no end in sight.

Our Labor Council’s Economic Crisis Committee urged the government to enact a real jobs-creation program. But the various Obama stimulus plans have resulted, and will result, in relatively little job creation at a time when unemployment continues to soar. These are not job-creation plans.

If the government did not give $1 trillion in PPIF funds to the banks, for example, it could put 20 million people back to work for one year at a living wage of $50,000 to rebuild schools, bridges, hospitals, public services — not to mention New Orleans and the Gulf Coast region. And I use the 20-million figure here because by year’s end this could be the real number of people whose jobs have been lost since the most recent recession began. Wouldn’t this be a far more effective stimulus program to get our economy out of this recession?

When our union leaders accept this snake oil, this fraudulent notion that we can bail out Wall Street AND Main Street at the same time, this leads to paralysis — at a time when we should be mobilizing in defense of our own interests. Or worse, it leads our unions to go along with and accept the unacceptable.

Take the crisis in the auto industry, which concentrates all the bailout problems facing working people today. Wall Street banker Steve Rattner, who headed up the Obama task force to bail out GM and Chrysler, put a gun at the head of the autoworkers’ union and said, “Put up your union’s retirement and VEBA healthcare fund as equity to shore up the failing corporations. You have no choice but to join the employers in a ‘restructuring partnership’ venture if you want to save your jobs and prevent something worse!”

But this corporate restructuring, formulated on Wall Street and implemented by the Obama administration, is all about destroying jobs — tens of thousands of union jobs. It is about destroying entire communities and the autoworkers’ union itself.

The unions are being asked to take direct responsibility, side by side with the Wall Street overseers and the bosses, for laying off workers, forcing speed-up, and putting the retirement and healthcare funds at great risk. They are being asked to pit retirees, who are worried about their pensions and healthcare benefits, against the workers now working under what one retiree called “slave labor contracts.”

Unfortunately, the autoworkers’ leadership accepted the unacceptable — and with no perspective of how to fight back and with no support from any other labor quarters, the union members at Chrysler voted to accept this rotten bailout deal. Only a small percentage voted against the deal — and they were right to vote “No.”

No. It’s not the role of a union to bail out the corporations and to do their dirty work. That’s why in our program booklet you can read a piece by our Economic Crisis Committee in which we insist that a fight can and must be waged by the entire labor movement — today, before we have another PATCO, or worse. The labor movement can and must mobilize its members nationally to demand NOT ONE SINGLE LAYOFF IN AUTO (AND ALL SECTORS)! PUT ALL LAID-OFF WORKERS BACK TO WORK! NATIONALIZE THE BIG 3 and retool the industry, with electric cars, rapid mass-transit systems, solar and wind equipment, and more. We can retool and “green” our industry and economy — not just in words but in deeds. [See more detailed presentation in the teach-in program booklet, reprinted below.]

And this insistence on the central importance of helping workers in Detroit to organize the fightback is one reason our Teach-In Organizing Committee is proposing to organize on June 13 a march and rally here in San Francisco — from the Federal Reserve Building to the new Federal Building — as part of a nationwide protest against the business and bankers’ summit in Detroit from June 14 to 16. [See in your packets the message to the teach-in from the Bring the Troops Home Movement, based in New York.]

Sisters and Brothers:

Today all-too-many political leaders tell us that given the economic crisis it is important for working people, and the trade unions in particular, to be more “understanding” of the needs and role of Corporate America. We are told that Wall Street and the bosses are vital “partners” in the effort to get us of this crisis.

We have been told, for example, by the president and his main economic adviser that the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA) may be too “divisive” and that we should find a “compromise” arrangement that addresses the employers’ “legitimate concerns.” These politicians, alas, have now been joined by voices within the house of labor who explain that the fight for EFCA — which is anything but over — should be dropped and that we may have to consider “alternatives” to EFCA.

We are also told that labor’s long-held demand, however limited one may consider it, for a major overhaul of NAFTA and other “free trade” treaties (an overhaul aimed at inserting enforceable labor and environmental demands in these treaties), is off the table. Obama and his advisers told us just a few weeks ago, reversing their earlier stance, that NAFTA is a “fundamentally sound” agreement. But it is nothing of the sort. It’s a dagger aimed at the heart of the labor movements at home and in the other signatory countries.

Sisters and Brothers:

The only way we’re going to turn things around is if labor reclaims its independence in relation to the government and the bosses — independence that is summarized today in those three letters — “NOT” — on our banner.

Bailing out working people — NOT the banks means stopping all new bank bailouts and repossessing the overwhelming bulk of the $4 trillion disbursed by the Treasury Department and the Federal Reserve to bail out the banks over the past two years — as these bailout funds were used improperly. They have not saved jobs, created new jobs or stimulated the economy. [See in the program booklet, also reprinted below, the SFLC Economic Crisis Committee’s call for the nationalization of the banks as a means of confiscating those funds and placing them at the service of a real jobs-creation program.]

Labor’s reclaiming its independence in relation to the government and the bosses is the necessary condition, moreover, for being able to champion and mobilize the working-class majority in an effective fight for our demands:

Not One More Layoff!

Massive Jobs Program to Put Every Unemployed Worker Back on His/Her Job!

Employee Free Choice Act Now!

Single-Payer Now!

End the Wars and War Funding Now!

Moratorium on Foreclosures and Evictions Now!

Affordable Housing For All Now!

Legalization of All Undocumented Immigrants! Papers for All Now!

This is the only basis for building a solid labor-community alliance with labor’s community allies.

Over a month ago, Brother Mike Casey, the president of our Council who is here today, invited some of us on the Executive Committee of our Council to a meeting at City Hall with Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis. Mike asked Ms. Solis what it would take, given the strident opposition of the Chamber of Commerce to EFCA, for labor to win passage of EFCA.

Ms. Solis’s reply was short and simple. “You must build a national movement,” she told us. How true!

Tomorrow, Ms. Solis may come back to tell us that the “alternative” currently being worked out in Washington may be the best we can do at this time. If that happens, we will have to remind the Secretary of Labor that we will not accept anything less than what is just — and that, following her advice, we are out there building a movement to attain our objective.

Yes. We will have to fight like hell for what we want — NOT accept what we don’t want, especially without a fight to the finish.

Sisters and Brothers:

In San Francisco, our Labor Council began to set the example of what can be done. On May 6-7, union members and their allies were out in the streets in a 24-hour vigil in front of the Federal Building to demand that Senator Dianne Feinstein support EFCA. This was a powerful action.

We will need to be out in the streets in mass actions in greater and greater numbers in the coming days and months. We will need to ignite a nationwide movement, with similar teach-ins and mass actions around this independent, fighting program. Only through such mass actions will our voices be heard; only in this way will we be able to change the direction that the Wall Street bankers are imposing on our country.

Sisters and Brothers:

This is not pie in the sky. Working people have been re-energized. There is a new mood of hope in this country. People want real change. They voted for change; they expect it. At the same time there is great anguish. And here and there many people are beginning to understand that change won’t be handed down from above, from the bankers or politicians in Washington; if there is going to be change, they — the working-class majority — will have to make that change happen by mobilizing in their own name.

We need to understand that we don’t get bites at the apple every day like the one we have today. If we don’t mobilize today to win EFCA, single-payer and our other demands — at a time when these demands are within our reach — the situation tomorrow will be far more difficult for us to prevail.

We must give voice and an organized expression to this clamor for change. We can — and we must — ignite this movement for our just demands, this movement for change. This is the meaning of this teach-in today. Let’s get to work. The time is NOW!

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