This Is Our Mainstreet Here

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CommonDreams.org

This Is Our Mainstreet Here

At Greater Grace Temple in Detroit this Sunday, Pentecostal Bishop Charles H. Ellis III stood at the altar surrounded by three shiny SUVs. He concluded his sermon, leading the congregation in singing, "We're Gonna Make It," the New York Times reported. Hundreds of worshipers who work in the automotive industry then gathered 'round the altar to have their foreheads anointed with holy oil.

Meanwhile, across Motown, the sign outside the Corpus Christi Catholic Church invited people to hear about "God's bailout plan," a week after Cardinal Adam Maida got together with Christian, Jewish and Muslim congregations in the Detroit-area to call on Congress to approve the $34 billion in government-backed loans for the Big Three.

They're praying for a bailout in Motown because the $700 billion lifeline thrown to Wall Street has not loosened up credit, as is evident by the dearth of car loans available to potential purchasers. Car and truck sales have fallen to their lowest level in 25 years.

Lord, hear our prayer.

The automakers may get the billion-dollar bridge loan they seek but not before concessions are extracted. Majority public opinion is against a bailout, as pundits rail against the unions. Lost in the noise is that these same union workers have been taking it on the chin for years now to pay for the mistakes made by their bosses.

Mark Brennan and Jane Slaughter of Labor Notes (www.labornotes.org)  point to data from the Harbour Report - the industry's gold standard - that show even if you include autoworkers' benefits, "labor costs in the Big Three's plants account for less than 10 percent of the sticker price."

The Big Three have been trying to cut labor costs for years, Brennan and Slaughter remind us. "They have slashed at least 200,000 jobs since 2004, and they last year wrung billions of dollars in concessions from the United Auto Workers. The union instituted a second-tier wage of $14.50 an hour for new hires, lower than pay in the nonunion, foreign-owned auto companies in the South."

"The impact is all too apparent in auto communities across the Midwest. Forty thousand Detroit homeowners are in foreclosure, and the unemployment rate has hit double digits in many auto towns. That suffering will multiply if one of the Big Three collapses."

Lord, hear our prayer.

In Chicago, they're praying with their feet, hands and posteriors. Workers at Republic Windows and Doors continue (as of this writing) to occupy their Windy City workplace, refusing to leave until they are given severance pay they are legally entitled to under Illinois' Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act (WARN) Act.

Turns out, The workers - who make energy efficient doors and windows, by the way - were given just three days notice before the factory closed, even though the WARN Act says employees must be given 60 days' notice or severance pay in the event of a plant closing or mass layoff.

The company can't pay the severance owed the workers because Republic's creditor, Bank of America, canceled its $5 million line of credit, even as B of A - weeks after getting $25 billion in federal bailout dollars itself - issued a press statement announcing it wasn't responsible for Republic's financial obligations to its employees.

So the workers decided to stage a good old-fashioned sit-in. They say they're staying until they get paid. Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich has ordered all state agencies to stop doing business with Bank of America to pressure the company to restore Republic's line of credit so the company can meet its legal obligation to the workers. The Illinois Attorney General's office has launched an investigation. Lawmakers, labor leaders, people sympathetic to the workers' plight, and even President-Elect Obama have voiced their support for Republic's newly unemployed.

Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois said he would talk to fellow senators about reminding the banks what the taxpayer-funded bailout of Wall Street was supposed to be about.

"We have been sending billions of dollars to banks like Bank of America, and the reason we have sent them the money is to tell them that they had to loan this money out to companies just like Republic so that we can keep these companies in business...," he said.

Add it all up and it equals a $700 billion bailout of Wall Street that has not unclogged the credit markets, which we were told was necessary to keep the economy from swirling down the drain. Then, come to find out, instead of using the money to make car loans or business loans so employers can pay their workers so that workers can buy things, some of these bailout banks are hoarding the cash!

Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill. told CBS' The Early Show: "Look, you guys are reporting on what we did for the financial industry. $700 billion, another $15 billion or $20 billion for the automobile industry. Who is standing up for workers?...Let's make sure the federal government does its job with these workers, not with just those on Wall Street. This is Main Street here."

We like to pretend that we live in a classless society but it's hard not to notice how differently denizens of Wall Street are treated compared to those who live and work on Main Street. One wears a white collar. The other wears blue. One wears a tie to work and showers in the morning. The other wears a plaid shirt to the job and has to shower after work too. One creates things like collateralized debt obligations and credit default swaps. The other makes real things like cars, doors and windows. One gets offered hundreds of billions while the other has to grovel for a fraction of that.

Lord, hear our prayer. This is Main Street here.

Sean Gonsalves

Sean Gonsalves is a columnist and editor with the Cape Cod Times. He can be reached at sgonsalves@capecodonline.com

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