Tuesday, November 21, 2006

The American Dream and the Economic Divide

In a time of record corporate profits, one of the first things Democrats will be addressing is the minimum wage. In a free, democratic country, a livable wage is just plain fundamental. Jordan Barab of Firedoglake has a post on the janitors strike in Houston:
You've heard it all before. Unions can't organize in the South — maybe Florida, but never in Texas. Immigrant workers are too intimidated to organize. Blah, blah, blah.

5,300 janitors in Houston just proved everyone wrong yesterday with an amazing contract victory in Houston, Texas. After months of negotiations and failure to reach a contract, the janitors went on strike last month for higher pay, more guaranteed work hours and health insurance. The janitors, who currently earn $5.30 per hour, were organized by the Service Employees International Union last year in what was the largest union organizing campaign in the South in years.

The victory came only two days after mounted police on horseback violently broke up a peaceful demonstration by strikers and their supporters, throwing dozens into jail.

The janitors have been cleaning buildings owned by some of the biggest corporations and wealthiest Americans and they have been getting paid some of the lowest wages in the nation. There's something that's broken in this country and it's time to get out some tools and get some repairs done. For those who think unions are left wing nonsense, consider this recent Wall Street Journal article by newly elected Senator Webb, a former Republican who worked for Reagan:
The most important--and unfortunately the least debated--issue in politics today is our society's steady drift toward a class-based system, the likes of which we have not seen since the 19th century. America's top tier has grown infinitely richer and more removed over the past 25 years. It is not unfair to say that they are literally living in a different country. Few among them send their children to public schools; fewer still send their loved ones to fight our wars. They own most of our stocks, making the stock market an unreliable indicator of the economic health of working people. The top 1% now takes in an astounding 16% of national income, up from 8% in 1980. The tax codes protect them, just as they protect corporate America, through a vast system of loopholes.

(snip)

As this newspaper has reported, the average CEO of a sizeable corporation makes more than $10 million a year, while the minimum wage for workers amounts to about $10,000 a year, and has not been raised in nearly a decade. When I graduated from college in the 1960s, the average CEO made 20 times what the average worker made. Today, that CEO makes 400 times as much.

In the age of globalization and outsourcing, and with a vast underground labor pool from illegal immigration, the average American worker is seeing a different life and a troubling future. Trickle-down economics didn't happen. Despite the vaunted all-time highs of the stock market, wages and salaries are at all-time lows as a percentage of the national wealth. At the same time, medical costs have risen 73% in the last six years alone. Half of that increase comes from wage-earners' pockets rather than from insurance, and 47 million Americans have no medical insurance at all.

I hope the Democrats hold hearings on what has happened to American wages and jobs in the last twenty-five years. There are still many good things about America but we slowly have been losing our way for a long time. When we hear of Fox TV pandering to the almighty dollar by offering O.J. Simpson $3.5 million to inflict pain and suffering on his children, something is very wrong in America. We need to restore the balance. We are a nation of energy and ideas but we are also a nation of all the people and not just the special few.

I hope the voters, and especially the Democrats and working Americans, think carefully about the choice for president in 2008; for one thing, we need a president who cares about workers and who isn't anti-union and who isn't quick to look the other way when jobs flee overseas. We need a president who remembers that it's often small companies, farming areas and shops that generate jobs. We need a president who's smart about trade but who doesn't lose sight of the fact that we're not just a nation of wealthy corporations but we are also a nation of workers, farm workers, textile workers, auto workers, electricians, carpenters, store clerks, teachers, nurses, programmers, police officers, fire fighters and yes, janitors.

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