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Mayday!

“Aggressive cost cutting really can make all the difference. That’s the lesson from Caterpillar’s fourth quarter earnings report, out Monday morning. The world’s largest maker of construction and mining equipment saw a 10% drop in fourth quarter revenue, but thanks to job cuts and other cost savings measures, Caterpillar beat the Street and grew its profit by nearly 50%. As a result, its shares have popped more than 6% in early Monday trading.”

This was what Forbes reported at the beginning of 2014 for the international heavy equipment manufacturer. Great news if you’re a shareholder. Not so great if you’re an employee, subject to so-called “restructuring” that has enabled Cat to post record profits. In 2013 Caterpillar reduced its workforce by close to 10,000 workers through job cuts, furloughs, and temporary shut-downs. The good news for shareholders and executives continued in 2014, with a first quarter profit of $922 million, exceeding forecasts. Analysts credit “very solid cost control” for the good performance. Read: job cuts, plant closings, reliance on “flexible workers” (i.e., temporary and part time workers), etc.

“Very solid cost control” did include executive compensation at Caterpillar. Key Executive compensation as reported by Morningstar was down a bit in 2013 to $52 million, but don’t look for the key players to be applying for food stamp assistance. Chief Executive Officer Douglas Oberhelman received nearly $15 million in annual compensation in 2013, though that, too, represented a reduction. Meanwhile, the average Caterpillar salary for all workers is $47,000.

Caterpillar has also been in the news recently for a tax avoidance scheme that allowed them to shelter profits overseas for over a decade in order to avoid paying $2.4 billion in taxes. A Senate report revealed that Caterpillar paid $55 million to tax consultant and auditor Price WaterhouseCoopers which helped it transfer $8 billion in profits to a Swiss subsidiary over a thirteen year period. (The New York Times, April 1). The bottom line in this whole story? Shareholders and executives win, workers and the American public lose. (Then there’s the sale of heavy equipment helping to maintain Israel’s occupation of the West Bank – building the separation barrier, home demolitions, settlement construction, etc. But that story is for another time.)

Caterpillar, of course, is not the only corporation following this script. This week Pfizer announced a bid to buy AstraZeneca, allowing it in part to keep profits overseas and avoid paying U.S. taxes. Pfizer’s last mega-merger in 2008 with Wyeth led to the loss of nearly 52,000 jobs by 2013. Is it any wonder that the stock market is booming, executive compensation is soaring, while post-recession employment drags and income inequality grows?

After adjusting for inflation, the average household’s take home pay in the United States declined from $55,627 in 2007 to $51,017 in 2012. This week The Times reported on the unbalanced recovery. During the recession 2 million low wage ($9.48 to $13.33 per hour) jobs were lost; since 2010 nearly 4 million new low wage jobs were created. During the recession 3.5 million mid wage jobs ($13.73 to $20.00 per hour) were lost; 2.5 million have been created since the recession. Meanwhile, 3.7 higher wage jobs ($20.00 to $32.62 per hour) were lost during the recession while just less than 3 million were added since. “In essence,” The Times reported, “the poor economy has replaced good jobs with bad ones.” The bad economy? Or is it more accurate to say that during the Great Recession, corporate decision making took the opportunity to replace good jobs with bad ones, or eliminate good jobs altogether?

May 1 – May Day – commemorates the Haymarket uprising in Chicago in 1886 that began as a march by workers in support of the eight hour workday. It continues to be celebrated in many places as a day to honor workers and to rally workers to the labor movement. But these days May Day is perhaps more aptly described as a collective “Mayday!” on behalf of workers who have been under assault for decades – lost jobs, suppressed wages, broken unions, attacks on collective bargaining, reduced benefits, and on and on it goes. The big yellow bulldozers may still thrill little boys. But more and more they represent the corruption of our economic system. May Day may no longer be much of a celebration for most workers, but rather a desperate cry for rescue in a country governed by an elite that seldom seems to be listening.

John H. Thomas
May 1, 2014

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