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Red Ink: Bush Debt and the
Legacy of Robin Hood in Reverse


by Hans Johnson
Contributing Editor, In These Times
President, Progressive Victory

Late last year, in the scalped hills and scooped-out coalfields of western Pennsylvania, the father of a friend of mine passed away. Both in their eighties, his mom and dad were watching "The Price Is Right" one weekday morning. She got up and later called to her husband from the kitchen. He didn't answer.

For my friend and his siblings, receiving the call and returning to their childhood home was especially solemn. The trek was just a week after their Thanksgiving pilgrimage. Settling affairs meant not only laying him to rest, but also breaching the secrets of his financial planning.

However, this is not a story of hidden liabilities, lost assets, or a house of cards that tumbled with its architect's demise. It has a furtive element or two, like the safety deposit box key, found squirreled away in a jewelry box. But gradually, inquiries at various banks revealed a balance sheet maintained for years in the head of one retiree, a churchgoing steelworker, a son of Italian immigrants, a disciplinarian dad, a union man.

He had done well. Far from a pauper, he died a prosperous and modestly wealthy man. In rural western Pennsylvania, hit hard during the Bush years, few these days match his feat. Along with the simple integrity that often comes from living a long time in a single place, he bequeathed to his widow and his children a set of coins and several healthy account balances that reflect frugal living and sound investments.

His legacy also reflects labor values. His pension from the steelworkers' union and Social Security remittance based on strong, career-long union wages were predictable, reliable, and, in the words of the Declaration of Independence, unalienable. Anyone foolish enough to put their hands on his family's safety net would have risked getting, in the words of my own father, "a size 10 up side the rear end," or worse.

But unlike my own dad, a scientist who had little use for the labor movement, my friend's dad was an exemplar of the far-reaching benefits of union membership and activism. Long after he left the steel mill, he attended rank and file meetings and election forums, walked blocks and worked phones for union-backed candidates, and wrote letters to public officials, especially when they strayed from protecting working people.

Bush, in particular, made him see red. The Texan undertook an attack on unions since the very day of his drizzly inauguration: nixing labor agreements on a key federal project, reversing a Clinton directive holding would-be contractors accountable to past abuses or pollution, and undoing workplace safety requirements. Then came the tax breaks for the rich, the no-bid contracts to nonunion cronies, the defense of outsourcing, the rising trade deficits, and winks to corporate profiteers ("I call them my base!") while workers in those same concerns got just a pittance. Bush's ranking of payoffs to the privileged over the wealth and welfare of the rest got this union man so angry, it was a wonder he died watching Bob Barker.

According to a variety of estimates, being part of a collective bargaining unit boosts wages of members by as much as 20, 30, even 60 percent in some jobs. In states where unions are strong, based on a 2003 United Auto Workers study, all workers and their families benefit, on eight crucial measures of income and quality of life, including investment in schools, lower crime,  and health coverage.

Still, it has become vogue in economic debate to champion the middle class while overlooking or paying lip service to labor. Too often, the same unions that for 80 years have exerted a steady, upward pressure for all Americans' wages, work conditions, personal and domestic benefits, and retirement security get cut out of economists' snapshots or deleted from reporters' scripts. Unions are written off as relics, quaint benefactors, or vampires that crawl from their crypt at election time.

Likewise, many commentators lament the precious time for reading and playing with kids that parents lose when having to work two and three poorly compensated jobs just to make ends meet. But pundits like Lou Dobbs fail to link this trend to the exorbitant pay and bonus packages of CEOs and the widening gap between the very well-off and working people. They don't connect it to the money grab from the middle class, or the upward redistribution of capital: Robin Hood in Reverse. It was this very trend of taking from the poor to give even more to the rich that caused the late labor activist and scholar Tim Sampson to laud the legendary figure and proclaim "Robin Hood was right!"

Beyond the deep and deadly secrets of the Bush administration, its subversion of the status and aspirations of working people will be its epitaph. The toll of its attack on unions and the ripple effects of lower wages are as manifest on both coasts and in the quiet places in between where many fear themselves forgotten.

Where hope for prosperity falters, finger-pointing and scapegoating are not far behind. In Pennsylvania, for instance, the mayor of Hazelton, a descendant of Italian immigrants, has taken to blaming an influx of Latinos for recent woes and proposed punitive municipal measures that single them out as a diversion from the hard work of revitalization.

But one man who shares his heritage left a different legacy: economic stability, solidarity with fellow immigrants, and devotion to the democratic process to defend labor and equal opportunity. His life is a reminder that the American Dream is a work in progress. Like any dream, it can withstand reversal, even betrayal, and be passed along to a new generation.