The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

President Obama’s ‘grand bargain’ for the middle-class

Today, President Obama will head to an Amazon distribution center in Chattanooga, Tenn., to propose a “grand bargain for middle-class jobs,” where he’ll offer corporate tax reform in exchange for new investment in infrastructure and education. The details of the proposal are straightforward: For Republicans, he offers a cut to corporate income taxes, from 35 percent to 28 percent, along with fewer loopholes and a preferred rate for manufacturers. And to gain Democratic support, he includes a series of projects meant to “invest” in the middle-class and boost the economy.

While it’s hard to say how much ordinary Americans would gain from the proposal if it were to become law, what is apparent is the extent to which this “grand bargain” is a boon for business, which wants tax cuts and new investments in infrastructure (which makes it easier to conduct business). Indeed, if Amazon is any indication, the kinds of jobs that might come out of this “better bargain for the middle class” aren’t great. Last year, as investigative journalist Mac McClelland detailed for Mother Jones, warehouses are home to difficult, low-wage jobs, with dangerous conditions, few (if any) benefits, and little security. Here are just a few of the safety concerns:

“Give forklifts that are raised up several stories to access products a wide berth: ‘If a pallet falls on you, you won’t be working with us anymore.’ Watch your fingers around the conveyor belts that run waist-high throughout the entire facility. People lose fingers. Or parts of fingers. And about once a year, they tell us, someone in an Amalgamated warehouse gets caught by the hair, and when a conveyor belt catches you by the hair, it doesn’t just take your hair with it. It rips out a piece of scalp as well.”

Employees work long hours for less than the minimum wage, when you factor in time required in things like security checks (to prevent stolen goods). The United States still faces an employment crisis — with joblessness above 7 percent — but these are not the jobs that will provide a path to the middle-class for hard-working Americans. Indeed, Amazon warehouse positions are reminiscent of the jobs Americans fought to escape in the first half of the 20th century.

If there’s anything unfortunate about the Obama recovery, it’s the extent to which it’s been fueled by low-wage jobs and corporate profits. But it would be misleading to place all of the blame on the president. More government investment in the economy is a precondition for a stronger, better recovery. But at no point in Obama’s presidency has he had Republican support for improving the economy. Instead, at every turn, the GOP has worked to block any measure that could create demand, boost growth and put pressure on employers to offer better jobs.

That’s not to say that the White House record has been perfect. But the world where the GOP isn’t committed to blocking every aspect of Obama’s agenda is one where the recovery doesn’t rely on the kind of employment Amazon has to offer.