Tue, May

Point-Counterpoint: May Day and the Milken Institute Global Conference


EASTSIDER-Sometimes god just hands you the perfect juxtaposition of events that crystallize the state of our United States of America today. The overlap of the Milken Institute’s Global Conference (April 29 - May 2) with labor’s annual May Day (May 1) celebration is such an event. 

May Day 

Since the union movement has been seriously undermined by generations of attack, most people do not belong to a union and very few know the history of unions in the U.S. Truth is, although May Day is celebrated internationally as an international workers day, May Day actually originated here in the U.S.  

Back in 1886, there was a nationwide walkout of U.S. unions to demand the 8-hour work day. A few days later, someone threw a bomb at a Union rally, and the ensuing riot was used by authorities to savagely suppress unions. For the history, check out this summary at the IWW (Industrial Workers of the World) website.  

Remember, whatever your personal beliefs concerning unions, they brought us such key improvements as the 8-hour day, the 40-hour workweek, pensions, health insurance, sick leave, grievance procedures, and too much more to be covered here. 

It is worth noting, that with the rise if the “gig” economy, and a political structure which has eliminated defined benefit plans in the private sector, along with most union contracts, many people today who even have a job don’t really have an 8 hour day or a 40 hour workweek. Most don’t have good health insurance (or any at all), and woe to the employee who tries to stick to the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA).  

Pension? What pension. As even Forbes has noted, a 401(k) by definition is not a pension plan, and is not generally transferable either. And you can’t even rent a 2-bedroom apartment on federal minimum wage, unless you are lucky enough to have rent control. 

Michael Milkin 

Again, most people don’t remember Michael Milkin, or were even born during his time. He was a wheeler dealer Wall Street type back in the 80s and was the major developer of “junk bonds.” You can read more about them here, but the short version is that while Mr. Milken became a billionaire he and his junk bonds were at the heart of the Savings & Loan Crisis in 1989. There’s a good explanation of the whole shebang here.  

Mr. Milken was ultimately charged with racketeering, insider trading, and securities fraud in 1989.  Clever devil that he is, he cut a plea deal for securities violations only, was sentenced to 10 years imprisonment, fined $600 million dollars, and permanently barred from the securities industry. 

Even more telling about his character, he ratted out his colleagues and only served 2 years for “good behavior.” Even as you and I, the taxpayers, bailed the whole mess out in the biggest financial services industry collapse up until the 2007-2008 Housing Crash that beggared us all. 

The Milken Foundation 

You might ask, why do I bring all of this up in the context of May Day? Here’s why -- Mr. Milken, who’s now beloved of everyone, has set up a nicey-nice Foundation, the Milken Institute, with the hundreds of millions that the government let him keep, and he is now reputed to be worth something like $1 billion dollars, which argues that crime indeed can pay. So, what is the purpose of the Institute? According to Wikipedia,  

“It publishes research and hosts conferences that apply market-based principles and financial innovations to social issues in the U.S.and internationally. The Institute is a 501(c)(3)nonprofit organization and is nonpartisan and non-ideological.” 

So, it’s kinda like the annual Davos,Switzerland meeting, only LA Style, where the stinky rich and famous rulers of the financial world go shake hands and “do business.” Let’s take a look at the who’s who attending this year. How about Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, and our very own Chuck Schumer (D-New York). That’s right, the champion of the “little people,” Chuck Schumer. 

This is an event where the cheap seats go for $12,500 and the “President’s Circle” is a whopping $50,000. Even at these prices, there will be something like 4000 attendees. On May Day. If you are rich enough to be a Bloomberg Professional Service Subscriber, you can read their article proclaiming, “Billionaires Convene at Milkin Conference for Trump Report Card.”   

In other words, it’s all about the money, hosted by a convicted felon who now sits on a billion bucks and gets the rest of the stinky rich crowd to kiss his booty as they wheel and deal over your and my economic fate. What a contrast with labor’s May Day, which gets hardly a footnote in the media. 

And About Public-Sector Unions 

These days, all the talk is about greedy public-sector unions, and why they should not have real defined benefit plan pensions, and why the government should step in and regulate public-sector union membership. At the same time, we are told that Corporations are “people” and should have noregulation, rewriting the Constitution to provide for one dollar one vote, instead of one person one vote. 

Truth is, having pretty much destroyed private sector pensions and most unionization, the forces driving the Milken Conference and the financial services industry simply want to take away allpensions and allbenefits of all working-class people. 

We should be celebrating May Day as the real Labor Day it is and celebrate all the teachers and children and movements that are getting people together in groups to gain rights and right wrongs.  Such is the essence of collective bargaining. 

Most people don’t know that in the State of California, public-sector employees did not even have a right to unionize and bargain until 1969. That’s the day that a public-sector labor law was passed called the Meyers-Milias-Brown Act.  I kid you not. 

The Takeaway 

Instead of attacking what’s left of unionization, we should be celebrating the idea of workers organizing and collectively bargaining. We should be talking about restoring the pension plans and benefits that public-sector employees still have to allworkers in America, instead of dividing people and taking away these fundamental safety nets. 

The Milken Conference represents the 1/2 of 1% of the population who brought us the Savings & Loan Crisis in the late 80’s, the Financial Services Industry Crash in 2007-2008, and who will likely bring us the next financial crash sometime soon. Democrat or Republican, it doesn’t really matter much at this level. 

Not only is Chuck Schumer there, so is Al Gore. So, while the Dems may try to play this all off as Republicans vs. Democrats, it is not. This is about the uber-rich vs all the rest of us. Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi wouldn’t recognize a regular worker if they ever saw one, which is not likely. 

As noted in Richard Eskow’s recent article in the LA Progressive, 

“The party’s antipathy for progressive candidates and ideas seems to grow more conspicuous with each passing day. The party’s penchant for “centrist,” corporate-friendly candidates has long been the subject of Washington cocktail-hour talk, but a series of news reports has placed it squarely in the public eye.” 

And if you really believe that these pampered money manipulators have enough sense to prevent another crash, think again. Of particular interest regarding this piece, junk bonds are back, as reported by a good financial blog, Seeking Alpha.  

Their suggestion is to “Run Far, Far Away.” 

So, here’s my suggestion before you vote for any politician of any stripe. Ignore the party rhetoric, and judge the candidate by where he or she stands on the core rights that I have proposed that we all can agree on and should fight for: 

An education

A job

A place to live

Health Care

A decent retirement  

I have written about this before and would argue that these basics are at the heart of all labor union movements.


(Tony Butka is an Eastside community activist, who has served on a neighborhood council, has a background in government and is a contributor to CityWatch.) Edited for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.

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