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Q&A with Veteran Labor Organizer Stewart J. Acuff

July 8, 2010  July 6, 2010

Leo W. Gerard: Stewart, you talk about power in a book you’ve written with economist Dr. Richard A. Levins. You called the manual, “Getting America Back to Work.” What’s the relationship between power and getting people back to work?

Stewart J. Acuff: A big part of the problem we have with this economy or the biggest problem is that most of the money has gone to the Financial Elite — and the power as well. To get America back to work we have to reinvest in our country and our workers. That necessarily means that the Financial Elite get less of the wealth generated by the economy and workers will get more. If you intend to take wealth from the richest people in the history of the world, you have to have enough power to do so.

Gerard: You say in the introduction that there are two kinds of power: “The first is lots of organized money. That is the kind of power the Financial Elite have used to bring the rest of us to our knees. The other source and form of power is lots of people: organized, mobilized, united, and taking action.” Do you really think that organized people can succeed in a wrangle with the financial elites?

Acuff: Absolutely! The economic history of the twentieth century is crystal clear. When unions were strong, working people had the lion’s share of income and the economy worked well. When unions were weakened, we have seen the Financial Elite take over and run the economy into the ground.

That’s why passing the Employees Free Choice Act is more important than ever. When we strengthen unions, we strengthen the economy.

Gerard: Now, Stewart, you sound like some kind of Socialist talking about the fact that at times in the nation’s history the financial elite received collectively as little as 9 percent of the total income earned by Americans but at other times – like right now and right before the Great Depression – the financial elite grabbed more than 23 percent of all income. I mean, aren’t you afraid the likes of Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck will accuse you of opposing just rewards earned by the barons of capitalism?

Acuff: Well, my friend, those aren’t just rewards. As my friend Jim Hightower said, members of the Financial Elite were born on third base and say they hit a triple. It’s beyond comprehension that the trading of phony financial instruments like derivatives produces rewards. What produces just rewards is manufacturing and producing goods and services that people need and want. The person who needs just rewards today is the hotel maid who cleans rooms for a living or the overstressed nurse who can’t get to all her patients or the skilled but out-of-work construction worker waiting for the chance to earn an honest day’s pay.

Gerard: Okay, but then you start talking about income tax rates. Are you really suggesting that the current maximum of 35 percent be raised to the 90 percent that it was during the 1950s? Would that not just enrage the financial elite?

Acuff: Yes, it would enrage the Financial Elite and Dr. Levins and I haven’t made that case in this book. Certainly the income tax rate for the richest among us is far too low. When Warren Buffet himself says he pays a lower percentage of his income in taxes than does his secretary, that’s a problem.

We wouldn’t need to rely on taxes to redistribute income if we had the right mix of union power and corporate power. Instead of a few massive fortunes, we would have millions of working people being productive and using fair wages to stimulate economic growth.

Gerard: Since the days of Reagan, Republicans have told us that taxes on the financial elite should be cut because they need all that money to “re-invest” in the system. That way, the GOP line goes, wealth will trickle down on the “little people.” This hasn’t really worked, has it?

Acuff: No! Not at all! Since the days of Reagan workers wages have stagnated and declined while our productivity has increased. Wealth does not trickle down. Have you seen any of the TARP billions trickling into your pocket lately? I sure haven’t. All I saw was obscene bonus payments to those who caused the mess in the first place.

Gerard: Halfway through the book, you suggest working people can have it all – family-supporting jobs, health insurance, even Social Security. Those on the radical right tell us daily that’s impossible because of the national debt. How can you justify such a vision?

Acuff: More income means more tax revenue, more economic growth and economic activity. We lift the economy from the bottom, not from the top.

Gerard: Then you have the audacity to quote some old economists claiming, “An efficient and humane society requires both halves of the mixed system – market and government.” We know, because the right-wing has told us repeatedly, that government is bad, that it should be shrunk and drowned in a bathtub. Where did you and Professor Levins come up with this new-fangled idea that government could help?

Acuff: It’s not a new idea. It says right in the ECON 101 text that Dr. Levins used in his classes that “markets without government is just one hand clapping.” From the destruction of 2 trillion dollars of America’s wealth by Wall Street to the incessant pouring of oil from BP’s hole in the bottom of the Gulf, we know that capitalism must be regulated and constrained for the sake of everyone.

Gerard: Which brings us to organized labor. You quote President Kennedy saying, “Those who would destroy or further limit the rights of organized labor – those who would cripple collective bargaining or prevent organization – do a disservice to the cause of democracy.” Isn’t that exactly what has happened since the days of Kennedy, a slow destruction of the labor movement with corporations, union-busters and sometimes government regulators all working together to rob labor unions of the power they built between the 1930s and 1950s?

Acuff: Yes, you’re absolutely right. The results are the mal-distribution of wealth and power and massive recession, a shrinking middle class, a starved consumer demand, and a weaker America.

Gerard: The book was written and published before the explosion on the Deepwater Horizon rig that was drilling for BP in the Gulf of Mexico. Is it somewhat prophetic, then, that you discuss the need to move from a fossil fuel-based economy to one that creates jobs with renewable energy sources?

Acuff: I can’t speak to prophecy though I am a huge fan or both Isaiah and Jeremiah. We’ve long known that America needs to generate its own free energy from free resources like the wind that never stops blowing on Great Plains, the sun that never stops shining in the deserts of Arizona, and incessant pull of the ocean’s tide.

Gerard: I was glad to see the chapter discussing the importance of maintaining and supporting manufacturing in America. For those still unconvinced, why is that so important?

Acuff: Well, we don’t need to maintain just current manufacturing capacity. We need to increase manufacturing capacity. That is how to generate wealth. We create wealth by making things that other people want to buy and that is the best way to build a sound economy.

You sound a little bit like a preacher at the end where you state the four values that Americans can believe in. Do you think America can organize around those values and take on the financial elite?

Acuff: Yes, I do! I think what we need is a reinforcement of fundamental human values. We’re all in this together; there is a common good; we are our sisters’ and brothers’ keepers, and workers win and have always won by exercising collective power against the individual power of the Financial Elite.


Stewart Acuff is chief of staff for the Utility Workers Union of America. He has organized for 30 years, beginning in 1982 with the SEIU. In 1990, he became president of the Atlanta AFL-CIO. There he led the campaign to organize the 1996 Olympics. A decade later, he went to work for the national AFL-CIO, serving as organizing director from 2001 to 2008. He led the AFL-CIO campaign to pass the Employee Free Choice Act.


Dr. Richard Levins is professor emeritus of applied economics at the University of Minnesota. He is an award-winning author of books about policy and market power.


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One Comment
  1. The Destructionist permalink

    This morning, I watched the Dow Jones climb into positive territory for about an hour before it slid back down into the negative, even after reports of billions of dollars in merger acquisitions were made public. Such good news should have bolstered the markets, right? Well, it didn’t work out that way and I seriously doubt it will work out that way any time soon. There seems to be no traction at all in the markets these days: with rising unemployment, home foreclosures at an all-time high, and consumer confidence going down the toilet; even seasoned investors, used to the fickle nature of business, seem to be abandoning ship.

    This economic slide into no-man’s land has been going on for quite some time now, yet brokerage houses, hawkish economists, and media outlets refuse to tell the truth: that America is in trouble. (And by trouble, I’m not talking about a “double-dip recession” or “depression”, but an ever-increasing and continued downward spiral into a dark economic abyss from which there is no return…)

    Using an analogy, I’d say that our global economy is more akin to the Titanic right after hitting that iceberg: those in charge either refuse to believe what is happening, or have decided not to share it with the rest of us for fear of a panic. Naturally, there aren’t enough lifeboats to go around, so seating is limited: corporations get first dibs (bailout), followed by government officials and people of importance and then, finally, people like you and me (that is, if there are any more seats left).

    And yes, just like in that ill-fated tale, wherein the band is told to continue to play to mollify passengers as that great ship sinks into the cold, dark oblivion, our media outlets will continue their vigil as well: soothing our anxiety-ridden nerves by serving up filth and fodder – both the glib and the non-sensicle – all in an effort to divert our attentions from the inevitable horrors yet to come. And when the need arises to actually explain to the masses what is happening with the economy, the talking heads will be instructed to say, “Don’t worry everyone. It’s just a small financial leak (er, dip)… Nothing to really worry about….”

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