Why Become Active?
By Eric Wolfe
It’s a weird time for workers in America. Consider the following:
- Worker productivity is rising, but workers’ income is not.
- Medicare is one of the most successful programs in history, but there’s a serious move underway in Congress to dismantle it.
- Republican superstar Paul Ryan is proposing huge new tax cuts for the rich—at the expense of middle-income workers.
- Municipal governments are eliminating the bargaining rights of public workers.
- Even very profitable corporations are forcing concessions from workers.
- The Supreme Court now says that corporations are “persons” and gives them unlimited power to use their money to influence American elections.
The challenge we face is to look at the data, figure out who’s screwing us and how, and then do something about it.
The rich are getting richer, like they always do. But this time it’s much worse than ever before.
In 2010, as the Great Recession was dragging us down, the wealthiest 1% of taxpayers captured 93% of the additional income created in the United States that year. That is the equivalent of a single-year pay increase of 11.6% for each of these super-wealthy households.
And the super-rich got rich even faster than the merely rich. In 2010, 37% of these additional earnings went to just the top 0.01 percent, an elite group of about 15,000 households with average incomes of $23.8 million. These guys saw their incomes rise by 21.5%.
The bottom 99%–which is to say, the rest of us—received an average increase in pay of just $80 per person in 2010, after adjusting for inflation.
Who’s screwing us, and how?
People with power are lining up to take our money. But they always find ways to make it sound like they are doing us a favor.
House Speaker John Boehner announced in May that House Republicans will establish a fast-track process for “tax reform.” Sounds good at first, but look a little deeper. The key elements of the plan would reduce taxes for the wealthy and for corporations, and would contribute an additional $2.5 trillion to the federal debt over the next 10 years. This so-called “tax reform” would create enormous pressure to cut social programs.
And look which social program is directly in the cross-hairs.
Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan introduced a budget this year that would kill Medicare. He says he wants to “save” Medicare, but that’s not what his plan does. Ryan’s plan would start changing Medicare into a voucher program with a cap. Instead of serving as an insurance program to help us afford medical care in our old age, the voucher program would give us a small chunk of money for buying insurance in the private insurance market. That’s going to be great for insurance companies, as they continue to jack up premium prices, but not so good for us when our voucher money runs out.
This isn’t quantum mechanics, it’s simple arithmetic: With one hand, take money from a successful program that helps millions of us, and with the other hand give it to the richest Americans in the form of more tax breaks.
Other federal programs that help us are also in jeopardy. Federal money, including emergency spending under President Obama’s stimulus program, helped states maintain social services and keep teachers in the classroom in the wake of the Bush economic collapse. Diverting that money into more tax breaks for the rich means that states will be under increasing pressure to cut social services and force public sector workers to make even further concessions in wages and benefits.
What can we do?
We can start by paying attention to what’s happening to our money.
We’ve all been taught that America is the land of opportunity, where we can achieve our dreams through hard work. This remains one of the great values of our country, but few Local 1245 members will ever become wealthy by rising to the top of a corporation or taking a start-up company public. Working people have three main avenues to a better life: improving our skills, demanding a bigger piece of the pie through collective bargaining, and knowing who our allies are when we go into the voting booth on election day.
Here are some qualities to look for in the candidates vying for our votes this November:
Which candidates support the right of workers to organize and bargain collectively for a bigger piece of the pie? If a politician wants to restrict the bargaining rights of “greedy” public employees, but is happy to let bankers gamble on Wall Street, that’s a pretty good clue to which side he is on.
Which candidates speak clearly about taxes? If a politician hollers for tax reform, check out whose taxes she wants to cut. The tax burden has been shifting from the richest 1% onto the rest of us for many years now and it’s time to reverse course. (Rush howls when people talk about shifting more of the tax burden onto the richest Americans. But that’s about what you’d expect from a guy who has a net worth of $300 million and makes about $40 million a year.)
Which candidates want to protect Medicare and Social Security, two programs that are the bedrock of the American middle class? If a politician proposes cutting these programs, while at the same time proposing more tax cuts for the rich, consider voting for someone else!
Which candidates think that corporations are people, and think it’s a great idea to give corporations unlimited power to buy elections?
People may think it’s impossible to clean up the weirdness in Washington. But it’s not impossible, just hard. It means we have to start figuring out which politicians keep taking away our money and giving it to the rich.
And it means we have to stand up for our rights as workers, individually and through collective action. Yes, things are getting weird in Washington. But if we keep surrendering our power, they will only get weirder.