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Economics & Finance

Green shoots in the trenches?

Shellie Karabell |

Economists look at the Dow Jones Industrial Average hovering over the 8,000 points level, as well as at signs of a pick-up in retail sales and housing starts, and see “green shoots.” Union leaders look at unemployment nearing 10 per cent, escalating bankruptcies and a middle class facing poverty and see quite another picture.

“Those tough statistics reveal just how serious this recession is for millions of workers and their families,” says John Sweeney, President of the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO). “It’s affecting basic industries, a broad range of industries worldwide.”

John Monks, General Secretary of the European Trade Union Confederation, goes even further. “People are talking about ‘green shoots,” he says, “but I see things getting a lot worse over the next 12 months. There is summer seasonal work available now but, come winter, the cold winds will blow. I see a lot more businesses going bankrupt, and I think it’s going to be fairly general, with the probable exception of food and pharmaceutical companies because consumers need those. And I foresee huge cuts in public spending because there is pressure on governments to cut back. They can’t keep printing money to keep the economy going.”

But the US government is still talking about a second stimulus package – something Sweeney supports, with reservations. “There needs to be broad accountability and transparency,” he says. “We can’t be just turning money over to people without any accountability and without any cooperation on their part,” he continues in an oblique reference to former US Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson’s initial handout of some $350 billion to distressed companies such as AIG – whose subsequent executive bonuses raised eyebrows the world over. 

The US auto industry is a sensitive one for Sweeney, whose members have given back millions in benefits and salary cuts. After all is said and done, was General Motors worth saving?

“I believe GM is a major employer, and has been a successful producer of cars for many years. Any company that wants to protect jobs deserves consideration for support.”

Sweeney wants to see changes in the way businesses are run, including management. “CEO compensation has to be addressed,” he says. “If corporations are receiving taxpayer money from the government, they have to be accountable and they have to share in the sacrifices that others make.”

Monks is more concerned with the financial sector, which he says needs much more regulation and oversight. “I see a lot more regulation,” he says. “No more offshore, off-balance sheet transactions to avoid taxes, and I can just hear Wall Street and the City (London’s financial district) screaming. I love to hear that noise. It’s a lot better than the complacency you hear coming from boardrooms as soon as things start to pick up and they think it’s business as usual again.”

Both point the finger at financial leaders for causing the crisis in the first place. Monks blames former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan’s policy of cheap money. “And the financial services sector had a lot to do with it,” he adds. “They got far too big and self-serving.”

Not surprisingly, Sweeney firmly blames the Bush Administration. “This didn’t start under Obama,” he says. “It started with the prior administration, and they were part of the problem. A number of factors got us into this mess: changes with regulations that had been firmly in place for years contributed to it – the situation with banks and financial institutions. We need now to start focusing on resolving the crisis and avoiding another.”

Monks says that means avoiding protectionism, especially because of its drastic impact on the already-poor. “The impact on the developing world (of the crisis) is horrendous,” Monks points out. “Western Europe and the US must remember the effects on the poorest countries of the world. We cannot be protectionist on trade. We’ve got to keep the trade markets open with these countries.”

He sees a hard row ahead. “Getting out of this is going to take longer than most people think. And that will make it harder because indebtedness will be increasing all the time. All this government spending is at best going to create equilibrium. It’s not going to create growth; it’s just going to stop further decline. We need to see some provisions for the future – I would spend money on education and on re-training for the job force.”

“I’d do pretty much what the Obama Administration is doing,” says Sweeney. “Regulation of the financial markets and more accountability; making sure that labour and management and the government work together. We didn’t push in the direction of an economic crisis,” he says. “We had been warning business and government for years that we were on the verge of a crisis, but not many paid attention.”

He now believes the voice of organised labour has been strengthened as a result of the recession and vast job cuts. “Workers see the need for collective bargaining; they see they can’t resolve workplace issues themselves, so I think the Labour movement will see tremendous growth.” One bill currently pending in the US Congress could ensure that growth: The Employee Free Choice Act, which would prevent employers from penalising employees who vote to join a union. “An average 25,000 workers a year have been fired over the past several years because they expressed a desire to join a union. That’s a disgrace!”

Looking forward, both labour leaders say “never again!” to the financial excesses of the past. “The emphasis now is on how to recover from the crisis,” Sweeney says. “Workers covered by collective bargaining agreements continue to bargain. I don’t think they think they’ve given everything up for the rest of their lives.”

“The financial sector has to realise they’ve gone through a sea change,” says Monks. “I’d like to see some humility and self-control, not paying themselves a fortune again. We must say ‘never again in the financial services world can this take place!’ It may be boring, but we need to make the financial world serious and solid, not wild like a badly-run casino!”


John Monks and John Sweeney were speakers at the OECD Forum 2009 held recently in Paris (June 23-24). Between them, Monks and Sweeney have a total of nearly nine decades in the labour movement.

John Monks joined the Trades Union Congress in the UK in 1969; he became Deputy General Secretary of the TUC in 1987 and served until 1993, when he was elected General Secretary – a post he held for 10 years, until being elected General secretary of the European Trade Union Confederation in 2003. He was re-elected to that office in 2007. He has a degree in history from Nottingham University in England.

John J. Sweeney has a degree in economics from Iona College in New Rochelle, New York. He joined the labour movement in 1961 in New York City, as a member of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers, which later merged with the Clothing and Textile Workers Union. In 1995 – in the first contested election of the organisation’s history – he was elected president of the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), an organisation with 56 affiliated unions and 10.5 million members. He was re-elected to his fourth term in July 2005. Concurrently, in May 2000, Sweeney was elected President of the Trade Union Advisory Committee (TUAC), an international organisation representing some 70 million workers and which includes more than 55 national trade union centres in 30 countries. TUAC has consultative status at the OECD and coordinates worker and union input to the G8 economic summits.

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