Class Warfare, Republican Style

Republicans, as they are wont to remind us repeatedly, oppose what they call "class warfare," a disreputable form of politics said to be practiced by liberals, populists, progressives, and others on the left side of the philosophical spectrum. As defined by GOP partisans, class warfare involves the use of incendiary polemics to incite envy and resentment among society's have-nots (or have-lesses) against the economic good fortune achieved by their betters, the haves (or have-mores), through dint of hard work and clean living. Employed by an unscrupulous practitioner -- usually someone from the democratic wing of the Democratic party, such as Jesse Jackson -- this envious class warfare has the presumed potential to produce undesirable social division and dangerous policies inimical to the entrepreneurial spirit, the business climate, and the creation of wealth.

Such class strife, say the Republicans, has no place in America and should be banned from our politics by a gentlemen's agreement between the major parties. There is another type of class warfare to which the GOP has no objection, however, and it's being waged right now by George W. Bush and his congressional supporters. This supposedly benign form of the genre consists of a non-rhetorical, but very real, attack on the material well-being of working Americans for the benefit of corporate business interests and the upper echelons of American society.

After only a few weeks in office, the smooth Bush veneer of compassionate conservatism has been stripped away, revealing a familiar rough Republican underside of pro-corporate, antiworker activism. Cozy bipartisanship has been replaced by the assertion of a nonexistent rightwing mandate and a naked grab for policy autonomy. It's the Gingrich revolution all over again, this time with a smiley face.

The centerpiece of the GOP's new, unbridled offensive against ordinary Americans is, of course, the tax-cut plan, incorporating marginal rate reductions (mostly at the upper end) and elimination of the estate levy. Packaged as an effort to return "their money" to the people, it is really just the latest conservative stratagem to redistribute wealth upward to the top income brackets. The tax cut's salient feature has been remarked upon many times by now, but it bears repeating; nearly half of the money (43%) is reserved for the wealthiest 1% of taxpayers -- those earning in excess of $300,000 a year -- and almost two-thirds of it (62%) is earmarked for the top 10%.

The lower orders would get a small fistful of dollars to be sure, but they would pay a steep eventual price in the form of Social Security and Medicare cuts, and less money for a whole host of public needs, including education assistance and prescription-drug benefits. All this assumes, moreover, that the surplus needed to offset the tax reduction will actually materialize five to ten years down the road. If it doesn't (and it certainly won't if the floundering economy slips into recession), truly draconian program slashing will be the order of the day in Washington. So much for the compassionate concern of "Landslide George" for average Americans.

Couched as it is in broad, inclusive language, the Bush tax-cut offensive is a subtle and indirect tactic in the Republican class war, but GOP strategists are planning (or have already carried out) several others of a more direct nature. Some of the nastiest frontal assaults have been aimed at the only institutional support structure many workers have: the labor unions. Bush forces know that if they can immobilize organized labor, top-down class warfare can't fail.

Among the very first executive orders issued by the White House was one requiring federal contractors to post notices informing union workers of their right, under an obscure 1988 US Supreme Court ruling, to withhold that portion of their membership dues used to sponsor presumably pro-Democratic political activities. This essentially nuisance order (since most union members support their leadership's political initiatives) was accompanied by the more meaningful revocation of the "project labor agreement," which had required contractors in federally financed work projects to be unionized -- a variation of the closed shop. A third Bush order dissolved the National Partnership Council, a government body set up to mediate disputes between federal agencies and public-sector unions.

More recently, the war against unionized workers has been carried to the private sector. Using his executive powers once again, our appointed president almost gleefully slapped a 60-day injunction on Northwest Airlines mechanics about to strike their employer and simultaneously promised a similar response in the event of job actions by unhappy pilots and flight attendants at other airlines. The inference is clear: Strike the transportation system, no matter what the justification, and a crackdown on union activity reminiscent of the Reagan firing of the air-traffic controllers will be forthcoming.

Non-union members of the working class have also been targeted by the Republican class warriors, most prominently the estimated 600,000 Americans, many of them unorganized office workers, who annually suffer repetitive motion injuries on the job. In early March, the president affixed his signature to legislation rolling back OSHA's long-awaited ergonomics rules set forth in the last weeks of the Clinton administration. The regulations, which required employers to spend money, if necessary, to eliminate workplace hazards causing such ailments as carpal tunnel syndrome and back strains, were voted down by every single GOP senator (along with six renegade Democrats) and all but 14 GOP congressmen.

These are not the only manifestations of the ongoing GOP offensive against average Americans. The Bushites and their congressional cohorts are laboring mightily, for instance, to slow down (or water down) any enactment of a medical patient's bill of rights, fearing their corporate HMO allies might be saddled with annoying and expensive lawsuits. As for an overdue increase in the federal minimum wage, the president has cynically said he favors one provided individual states are permitted to opt out, knowing full well that heavy business lobbying in state capitols will prompt many to take exactly that route.

Barely three months into a new administration, the battle lines in American politics are already being drawn as they haven't been in decades. Control of the presidency and both houses of Congress for the first time in half a century has emboldened Republicans and given them the courage of their ideological convictions; they feel free to show their true class colors and allow full expression to the power of big money.

But what of the Democrats? If the GOP exists as a party to champion the cause of capital and comfort those at the top of the socioeconomic ladder, its opposite number exists to fight for labor and defend the interests of ordinary Americans. Democrats, however, have not effectively fulfilled that historical role for the better part of a generation, which is why Ralph Nader made such an impact in last year's election. The party of Jefferson and Jackson needs to reestablish a justification for its existence, and the time to start is now, when its natural constituency is under siege as never before.

Wayne O'Leary is a writer in Orono, Maine.

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