Thursday, September 07, 2006

The Undeclared War on America's Middle Class

Alternet has a great excerpt from Thom Hartmann's latest book, Screwed: The Undeclared War Against the Middle Class. It's a long read, so I'll just give you the highlights (with emphasis added). First, the statistics:
You can't be middle class if you earn the minimum wage in America today.

The American dream and the American reality have collided. In America we have always said that if you work hard and play by the rules, you can take care of yourself and your family. But the minimum wage is just $5.15 per hour. With a 40-hour workweek, that comes to a gross income of $9,888 per year. Nobody can support a family, own a home, buy health insurance, or retire decently on $9,888 per year!

What's more, 30 million Americans -- one in four U.S. workers -- make less than $9 per hour, or just $17,280 a year. That's not a living wage either. [...]

In the 1950s middle-class families could live comfortably if just one parent worked. Today more than 60 percent of mothers with children under six are in the work force. Not only do both parents work but often at least one of those parents works two or more jobs. [...]
Second, here is the argument the right often uses to justify our declining standard of living:
Cons argue that we have to choose between having high wages and having low prices. They are wrong.

Take the case of Wal-Mart. According to the United Food and Commercial Workers union (UFCW), Wal-Mart could pay each employee a dollar more per hour if the company increased its prices by a half penny per dollar. For example, a $2 pair of socks would then cost $2.01. This minimal increase would add up to $1,800 annually for each employee.

I wouldn't mind paying more for a pair of socks if it meant that my fellow Americans would be able to pay for good health care.

And I wouldn't mind paying one cent more for a pair of socks if it meant that parents could be home at night and on the weekends spending quality time with their kids. That's a real family value.

Here's what all this talk about wages really comes down to: Would you rather pay 10 percent more at Wal-Mart and get 30 percent more in your paycheck, or would you rather have lower prices and an even lower paycheck? That's the real choice: We're either spiraling up into a strong middle class, or we're spiraling down toward serfdom.

The choice is ultimately about whether we want to have a middle class in this country. [...]
Finally, some people will say we don't really have a choice because corporations are struggling to pay wages and benefits and stay in business. Not so, says Hartmann:
The problem isn't the economy. Corporations are making more money than ever. The real income of people whose net worth exceeds $100 million is doubling.

What's happening is simple: The rich are getting richer and the entire spectrum of the middle class is disappearing.

We can easily trace this decline to Reagan's first public declaration of war on the middle class when he went after the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO) in 1981. He broke the back of the air-traffic controllers' union and began the practice of using the Department of Labor -- traditionally the ally of workers -- against organized labor and working people.

Reagan liked to say he was against "big government." What he really meant was that he was against Roosevelt's New Deal. He was against Social Security, the minimum wage, free college education (he ended that in California as its governor), and programs like the WPA. He believed in the discredited concept of "trickle-down" economics -- the theory that if you create a corporatocracy, the rich will nobly spend some of their money to help the rest of us. The American people don't need handouts. Our workers just want to be paid a living wage for a fair day's work. We can't count on the corporatocracy to give us what we earn, so we need a strong labor movement to give us the power to negotiate our wages and benefits. Ultimately, it's all about power. [...]
So, what can American workers do? What kind of power do we have? Hartmann says to fight back we must battle on two fronts:
First, we must recognize and reclaim the government programs that create a middle class (I've abbreviated his list):
    - Return to the American people our ownership of the military, the prison system, and the ballot box.

    - Fight for free and public education...

    - Fight for a national single-payer health-care system based on Medicare.

    - Fight for Social Security -- do not let it be privatized or co-opted.

    - Fight for progressive taxation... and use the money to pay back the Social Security system and to fund an economic investment program.

    - Fight for a living wage and for the right of labor to organize.

    - Fight for a national energy program that puts people and the planet -- not Big Oil -- first.
When America has a strong middle class, democracy will follow. The opposite is also true. To fight back, we must also make use of the ballot box. We can achieve the economic programs that make the middle class possible by using the power of our democracy to vote for those politicians who support the middle class. We've been conned for long enough. It's time to take back America.
Think about this in November. YOU have the power to take back the American Dream for all working Americans.


Cathleen said...

I hope that people are finally waking up to what is going on around them and will use that power- I fear that it will take a long time to turn this ship back in the proper direction.

But we have to start somewhere, right?

November will tell if people are tired of the "big lie" yet- if not, we will have to fall farther before they finally get it.

Lew Scannon said...

People have exchanged cheap goods bought on easy credit for real economic growth. The Republicons have gotten people to go against their own self interests by offering "national security" in exchange for economic security. cathleen is right, people need to start to wake up and realize they have the power to change the course, not only for themselves, but for future generations as well.

Anonymous said...

Wow! I was just thinking of what book I was going to read next. Thanks for helping me out with that decision. Great thoughts!

abi said...

Great post. Right on the money (no pun intended).

This is what maddens me about our country. We - ordinary people - are the vast majority of voters. Yet we continue to vote against our own self interests.

An aside - the PATCO strike truly was a major conservative victory in the war on unions in particular and the class war in general. The argument for supporting the strikers wasn't black-and-white -- it was an illegal strike. But even at the time, everyone knew what Reagan was trying to do, and how high the stakes were.

I was working in the airline industry at the time of the strike, and working at Logan airport. I saw the strikers every day through my window. I saw their numbers dwindle every week. My own union didn't support them, but I always felt guilty not joining them, even for a day. I should have, and I regret not doing so.

One other thing I remember about the unpopularity of the strike. Many workers resented PATCO members because they made so much more than most other workers.

All in all, it was a brilliant move by Reagan, and a disaster for American labor.

Libby Spencer said...

Great post Kathy. Right on. It's reaching a critical point and I hope the voters are getting the message that they have to actively participate in order to save the middle class and the country really.

I hope that realization comes before November otherwise I'm afraid cathleen will be right. We will be in a free fall until 08.

The Disembodied Head of Dick Devos said...

Cry me a river ... but before you do, I'll have the minestroni and a salad.