November 21, 2023
Yesterday the United Auto Workers ratified their new contracts with General Motors, Ford, and Stellantis. The new contracts include wage increases of at least 25% over the next 4.5 years, cost of living increases, union coverage for electric battery plants, and the reopening of a closed plant. “These were just extraordinary wins, especially for those of us who’ve been studying strikes for decades,” Washington University labor expert Jake Rosenfeld told Jeanne Whalen of the Washington Post.
Union president Shawn Fain told Rachel Maddow of MSNBC, “It’s a sign of the times…. In the last 40 years…working class people went backwards continually…. There’s this massive chasm between the billionaire class and the working class and…when those things get out of balance, we need to turn it upside down. When 26 billionaires have as much wealth as half of humanity, that’s a crisis….”
Fain said the automakers strike was “just the beginning…. Now, we take our strike muscle and our fighting spirit to the rest of the industries we represent, and to millions of nonunion workers ready to stand up and fight for a better way of life.”
President Joe Biden, who stood on the picket line with UAW members, congratulated both the auto workers and the companies for their good faith negotiations. “[W]hen unions do well, it lifts all workers,” he said. In the wake of the agreements between the UAW and the Big Three automakers, nonunion automakers who are eager to prevent unionization, including Toyota, Honda, Hyundai, Nissan, and Subaru, also announced wage increases.
Following a tradition normalized in the 1980s, Biden also pardoned the turkeys Liberty and Bell yesterday, marking the unofficial start of the holiday season. The birds will move to the University of Minnesota’s College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences where they will become educational ambassadors for a state where turkey production provides more than $1 billion in economic activity and more than 26,000 jobs.
At the ceremony, Biden urged people to “give thanks for the gift that is our nation.” He offered special thanks to service members, with whom he and First Lady Jill Biden shared a Friendsgiving meal on Sunday.
Falling prices for travel and for the foods usually on a Thanksgiving table are news the White House is celebrating. Gas prices have dropped an average of $1.70 from their peak, airfares are down 13%, and car rental prices are down about 10% over the past year.
According to the American Farm Bureau, the price of an average Thanksgiving dinner has dropped by 4.5%. The cost of turkeys has dropped more than 5% from last year, when an avian flu epidemic meant nearly 58 million birds were slaughtered (this year, growers have lost about 4.6 million birds to the same cause). Whipping cream, cranberries, and pie crust have also dropped in price.
But plenty of grocery prices are still rising, and Senator Bob Casey (D-PA) has taken on the issue, documenting how “corporations are making record profits on the backs of American families.” In a public report, Casey noted that from July 2020 through July 2022, inflation rose by 14%, but corporate profits rose by 75%, five times as fast. A family making $68,000 a year in 2022 paid $6,740 in that period to “corporate executives and wealthy shareholders.” In 2023, that amount will be at least $3,546.
The report notes that the cost for chicken went up 20% in 2021 as Tyson Foods doubled their profits from the first quarter of 2021 to the first quarter of 2022; Tyson has been ordered to pay hundreds of millions of dollars in penalties and restitution for “illegally conspiring to inflate chicken prices.” PepsiCo’s chief financial officer said in April 2023 that even though inflation was dropping, their prices would not. He said “consumers generally look at our products and say ‘you know what—they are worth paying a little bit more for.’”
President Biden has launched a campaign to push back on corporate profiteering, including cracking down on the practice of so-called junk fees—unexpected hidden costs for air travel, car rentals, credit cards, cable television, ticket sales, and so on. (The airline industry collected more than $6.7 billion last year in baggage fees, for example.)
But Tony Romm of the Washington Post explained on Sunday that corporate lobbyists are warring with the Biden administration to stop the crackdown. An airline lobbyist testified at a federal hearing in March that changing the policy would create “confusion and frustration” and that there have been “very few complaints” about the extra costs for bags. The same lobbying group told the Department of Transportation that the government had no data to “demonstrate substantial harm” to passengers. A lobbying group for advertising platforms including Facebook and Google agreed that the Federal Trade Commission had failed to present “sufficient empirical evidence” that junk fees are a problem.
Much of the fight over the relative power of ordinary Americans and corporations will play out in the courts. Those courts are themselves struggling over the role of money in their deliberations. After scandals in which it has become clear that Supreme Court justices—primarily Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito, but a real estate deal of Neil Gorsuch’s has also been questioned—have accepted gifts from exceedingly wealthy Republican donors, the court on November 13 finally issued its own ethics guidelines.
That code of conduct echoes the obligations of judges in the rest of the U.S. court system, but it takes away the requirements for behavior imposed on the lower courts, and—crucially—it has no methods of enforcement. Legal analyst Dahlia Lithwick noted that the code appeared to be designed to assure the American people they were confused about the need for an ethics code. It appeared, Lithwick said, to be “principally drafted with the intention of instructing us that they still can’t be made to do anything.”
The Supreme Court has been packed with lawyers from the Federalist Society, established in the 1980s to push back on what its members believed was the judicial activism of federal judges who used the Fourteenth Amendment to defend civil rights in the states. Federalist Society lawyers were key to creating legal excuses for Trump to overturn the lawful results of the 2020 presidential election, and yet the society has never addressed how their people have turned into such extremists.
In the New York Times today, leading former Federalist Society lawyer George Conway, former judge J. Michael Luttig, and former representative Barbara Comstock (R-VA) called out both the Federalist Society for failing to respond to the crisis Trump represents, and “the growing crowd of grifters, frauds and con men willing to subvert the Constitution and long-established constitutional principles for the whims of political expediency.”
They announced a new organization to replace the corrupted Federalist Society, a significant move considering how entrenched that society has become in our justice system. The Society for the Rule of Law Institute, made up of conservative lawyers, will be “committed to the foundational constitutional principles we once all agreed upon: the primacy of American democracy, the sanctity of the Constitution and the rule of law, the independence of the courts, the inviolability of elections and mutual support among those tasked with the solemn responsibility of enforcing the laws of the United States.” The authors say that the new organization will provide a conservative voice for democracy and that they hope to work with much more deeply established progressive voices.
For now, the Biden administration continues to try to rebalance the economic playing field. Today the Treasury Department announced the largest settlements in history for violations of U.S. anti–money laundering laws and sanctions. Cryptocurrency giant Binance, which handles about 60% of the world’s virtual currency trading, settled over violations in transactions that laundered money for terrorists—including Hamas, Islamic Jihad, Al Qaeda, and ISIS—and other criminals, and violating sanctions, including those against Iran, North Korea, Syria, and the occupied Crimean region of Ukraine.
Binance will pay more than $4 billion in fines and penalties.
At the same time, the Justice Department obtained a guilty plea from Binance chief executive officer Changpeng Zhao, a Canadian national, for failing to maintain an effective anti–money laundering program. Zhao amassed more than $23 billion at the head of the company; he will pay $200 million in fines and step down. He could face as much as 10 years in prison, but his sentence will likely be less than 18 months.
U.S. officials say this is the biggest-ever corporate resolution that includes criminal charges for an executive.