If you’re watching the calendar, you’ll notice that President Clinton has
entered the final year of his presidency. And with the clock ticking away, the
President is now hard at work trying to promote his "legacy." How
will he be remembered? For his deeds? For his scandals? As a memorable leader,
or just an office-holder? A great guy? Or a bum?
Like everything here in Washington, D.C., this
"legacy" business is all relative. For Big Business and the wealthy
elite, the Clinton era has been one nonstop goldrush. This thin layer of
extremely rich people became even more shockingly rich under Clinton’s
regime. But it should be noted that most of them dislike or even despise him.
Not too many of these folks are likely to help Bill Clinton achieve the kind
of legacy he’s looking for.
So how did working people and union members fare during
Clinton’s tenure? How are we likely to remember the President? Let’s take
a good look, subject by subject.
The Jobs Legacy. Clinton
inherited several trends destructive to good unionized jobs, and he proceeded
to speed them up. The decade of the ’90s saw the net destruction of more
than one million manufacturing jobs, replaced by millions in the service
sector. In almost every case, the new jobs paid less, with few if any
benefits. Clinton’s support for schemes like the North American Free Trade
Agreement (NAFTA) and the current "NAFTA for Africa" bill have led
directly to an epidemic of plant closings, hundreds of thousands of jobs lost,
and the exploding trade deficit. The unemployment rate has declined in most
areas of the country, due largely to the eruption of the service economy, as
well as demographic trends like mass retirements. Clinton also proudly takes
credit for cutting more than 300,000 jobs from the federal workforce.
The jobs legacy: Today,
it’s easier to get a low-paid job (or two or three), but harder to find a
good job with benefits.
The Health Care Legacy. Clinton
did make a stab at health care reform during the first two years of his
administration. The problem is, he cooked up a scheme that nobody could figure
out, and his push for reform collapsed when the corporate lobby went on the
counterattack. His mistake was not just the complexity of his plan and his
rejection of a much simpler Canadian-style "single payer" plan, it
was his willingness to believe that corporate America would actually support
reform. Did you ever think that your boss was in favor of a national health
care plan? Clinton did. And for those of us with health insurance, our costs
have gone up, up, up, with less and less quality and satisfaction.
The health care legacy:
Today, 44 million people are without any health care coverage, the rest of us
are paying too much for lousy service and too little care, and health care
workers — including the doctors — are fed up with employers who only care
The Safety Net Legacy.
Clinton led the charge to abolish our welfare system, and with the cooperation
of both Republicans and Democrats, he succeeded. Welfare rolls have certainly
dwindled. But studies are showing that about a third of those who’ve left
(or got pushed off) welfare aren’t working, and most of those who are have
part-time jobs that often pay less than welfare did. And the next time we are
subjected to a good old-fashioned recession, watch out: Millions of poor
working people, mostly children, will end up destitute and without access to
Clinton has taken a stand against the most outrageous attacks
on Social Security. But he has dabbled with the dangerous notion of
privatizing some of it, instead of waging a full-blast campaign to defend this
successful, popular, and efficient system. The privatization push is largely
on hold not because of Clinton but because of the sky-high stock market. Many
in corporate America fear that too much money flowing into Wall Street from
Social Security would burst the bubble. The Medicare system is still in danger
of being gutted, with little leadership provided by the White House.
The safety net legacy:
Today the welfare safety net has been shredded and our Social Security and
Medicare programs are still wide open to attack.
The Labor Rights Legacy.
When the Strikers’ Bill of Rights bill came to a vote in the Senate in 1994,
Clinton was on a trip to Europe. There is no evidence that the President did
anything to get this important bill through the Senate, and it got four fewer
votes under Clinton than it did under the Bush administration. On labor law
reform — the need to improve and enforce the laws that make it possible to
organize — we got nothing, not even lip service. We did, however, get the
now-forgotten "Dunlop Commission," a sad effort at political
haymaking that ended up squandering taxpayer dollars in order to flirt with
the notion of legalizing banned "company unions"! When Republicans
passed the "Teamwork" bill to do just that in 1995, Clinton
thankfully vetoed it. As for the underfunded National Labor Relations Board
(NLRB), the agency that enforces labor laws, it still gives employers plenty
of time to smash union organizing drives and fire workers without penalty.
(This is the result of a desperate shortage of NLRB staff due to Al Gore’s
"reinvention" of government.)
The labor rights legacy:
Today, it’s still pretty easy for the boss to fire you if you go on strike,
so hardly anyone does it anymore, and it remains difficult and dangerous to
try to join a union in the first place. Consequently, wages are stagnant and
the labor movement continues to shrink.
Odds and Ends. Clinton
redefined "sex." He promoted policies that helped the stock market
rocket to the ozone. He broke a couple of rail and airline strikes. He got
impeached, and beat the rap. He felt our pain. He stopped jogging and eating
at McDonald’s. He piled up millions of dollars in legal bills. He tried to
be friends with the Republicans, and they still hate him. He was good at
raising millions and millions of dollars for political campaigns. He outlasted
Newt Gingrich. He’s still married. He liked to play golf with corporate
So all that said about Clinton’s legacy, what’s the bottom
line for most people? Today, if you’re looking for a job for the first time,
or because your plant closed, you were laid off, you got fired in a union
organizing drive or for striking, or you were forced off welfare, you may be
able to find a job at lower pay or a crappy job (or two) with low pay and no
benefits. Our health care "system" is the most expensive shambles on
earth and welfare has been liquidated. Working people went to bed in 1992
praying that they would not lose their jobs or get sick. We are still saying
that prayer seven years later.
Just remember that organized labor overwhelmingly endorsed
Bill Clinton for president, not once but twice. When the AFL-CIO endorsed
Clinton in 1992, he promised to deliver "a high wage, high growth, high
opportunity" future, as opposed to the Bush plan for "hard work, low
wage, low growth" for the country. He didn’t promise very much else,
and we sure didn’t get it. So why don’t you endorse the Labor Party by
asking someone to join? At least we shoot high.
Chris Townsend is Political Action Director of the United
Electrical, Radio, and Machine Workers of America (UE).