A Desperate Fight for the Middle Class

Between a Congress dominated by Tea Party extremists and a Supreme Court controlled by corporate partisans, hopes for addressing America’s worsening income inequality are dim. But union leader Richard Trumka says the fight is more crucial than ever, writes Michael Winship.

By Michael Winship

“It’s time to turn America right side up!” AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka exhorted those in attendance at the labor alliance’s quadrennial convention in Los Angeles on Monday. Time, he said in his keynote address, to change the ratio of power, to put the 99 percent in charge rather than let the richest one percent dominate government, politics and society.

“Since 2009, the pay of America’s corporate CEOs has gone up nearly 40 percent,” Trumka noted. “Imagine for a second what kind of country we would live in if ordinary people’s incomes had increased like CEO’s. Almost no one would live in poverty.”

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka.

Trumka recognized that the number of Americans in unions continues to decline although the AFL CIO is “13 million strong — we are today, as we have been since the time of Abraham Lincoln, the biggest, strongest, best organized force for economic justice in America.”

But, Trumka continued, “We are a small part of the 150 million Americans who work for a living.  We cannot win economic justice only for ourselves, for union members alone.  It would not be right and it’s not possible.  All working people will rise together, or we will keep falling together.”

To that end, and in perhaps the most radical restructuring of labor since the AFL and CIO merged almost 60 years ago, the convention endorsed the expansion of the AFL-CIO’s membership to include non-traditional labor organizations, including non-profits organizing low-wage workers.

As described by AFL-CIO senior writer Kenneth Quinnell, “The AFL-CIO is going to expand existing forms of participation in the labor movement and create new forms of membership that are available to any workers not already covered by a collective bargaining agreement or who are not members of unions or represented by unions.”

Monday was the first full day of the AFL-CIO convention. The Syrian crisis prevented President Obama from making a scheduled appearance (he sent brief videotaped remarks instead) but Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Massachusetts, despite Syria-related intelligence briefings and negotiations, was able to move her planned Monday address to Sunday afternoon at the convention’s opening half-day. It was a barn-burning call to arms.

“When important decisions are made in Washington, too often, working families are ignored,” she said. “From tax policy to retirement security, the voices of hard-working people get drowned out by powerful industries and well-financed front groups. Those with power fight to take care of themselves and to feed at the trough for themselves, even when it comes at the expense of working families getting a fair shot at a better future.”

Warren bluntly condemned the government sequester as “stupid” and sharply criticized the Supreme Court. “According to a recent study,” she said, “the five conservative justices currently sitting on the Supreme Court are in the top ten most pro-corporate justices in a half century — and Justices Alito and Roberts are numbers one and two — the most anti-consumer in this entire time.

“The Chamber of Commerce is now a major player in the Supreme Court, and its win rate has risen to 70 percent of all cases it supports. Follow this pro-corporate trend to its logical conclusion, and sooner or later you’ll end up with a Supreme Court that functions as a wholly owned subsidiary of big business.”

She concluded: “Our agenda is America’s agenda. The American people know that the system is rigged against them and they want us to level the playing field.  That’s our mandate! I’ve already fought and lost my share of battles in Washington, and I’ve been around long enough to know that Washington is a tough place.  Real reform isn’t easy.  But I also know this:  If we don’t fight, we can’t win. But if we fight, we win.”

Before the convention began Sunday afternoon, the morning was devoted to a short conference on inclusion and diversity, important to a labor coalition for too long criticized as “pale, male and stale.” Today, women and minorities play a prominent role in organized labor, although when it comes to age it was pointed out that reportedly only seven percent of union members are under 35.

The older among us at the convention are half-jokingly described as “seasoned,” so a highlight of the morning was the appearance of civil rights hero the Rev. James Lawson, soon to be a seasoned 85. He trained many of the movement’s leaders, including John Lewis, in the techniques of non-violent civil disobedience.

At the conference, he condemned what he called the “spiritual wickedness of plantation capitalism. … Seven of ten people in the world work at or below a poverty level that is simply another name for slavery.”

Serving up two aphorisms relevant to all in attendance at this year’s convention, Rev. Lawson pointed to the words of the Greek philosopher Thucydides, who when asked when justice would come to ancient Athens, said it would come when the uninjured were as outraged as the injured. And the Methodist pastor cited Proverbs 29:18 — where there is no vision, the people perish.

Moyers & Company senior writer Michael Winship is president of the Writers Guild of America, East, and is attending the AFL-CIO convention as a delegate.

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12 comments on “A Desperate Fight for the Middle Class

  1. scott frost on said:

    I’ll take the tea partie’s agenda over the AFL-CIO extreme communist agenda any day. There is no economic or social justice utopia and there never will be as long as man has anything to do with it. Too many people have an entitlement mentality these days. They expect everything to be handed to them on a silver platter. Its a doggy dog world. Get use it. Ben Carson is a perfect example of what it takes to rise above poverty. The bleeding heart liberals would do well to quit whining learn from him.

    • “extreme Communist agenda?” Even today, union states enjoy higher education, health, and wages. If that is communist, the majority want more of it. No one feels more entitled than the rich. The depression occurred when wealth became centralized, and that is where we are headed now. Were you alive in the fifties and sixties when the US had a manufacturing base and a man could earn enough to support a wife and kids? If so, what is wrong with that? Like most on the right, the stereotyping is simply pretext for looking the other way.

    • rosemerry on said:

      How sad that even among the readers of this site, we have an ignorant, extreme rightwing very limited, cliché-ridden comment defending the worsening inequality in the USA. Every week the IPS produces a bulletin called “Too Much”, which Mr Frost would do well to read, though I suppose he would rejoice at the top dogs in his doggydog world living in luxury while the real workers try to get by.

      btw who on earth is ben carson?

      • Rosemerry: tried to answer yesterday but the computer took a vacation. Carson came from an unprivileged background to become a brilliant neurosurgeon. I heard him speak at a conference in Baltimore. One of his outstanding and successful surgeries was removing half the brain of a boy suffering from status epilepticus. Right wingers habitually point to some unusual example like Carson to say no one has an excuse for being poor. If we all had Carson’s brilliance, we would have no excuse, but for average guys that lost an $80K/year job due to bank fraud that cost trillions and can find nothing comparable as he looks for work is just ridiculous. Right wingers’ interest goes no further than their epidermis.

        • WMcMillan on said:

          And that is the fallacy of the whole Ben Carson story. While I have a lot of respect and admiration for Dr. Carson, the reality is that if the nation and the economic system worked the way it was supposed to, then Dr. Caron’s story would be the rule, not the exception! This is what seems to get lost in the argument.

    • Alfredo Villanueva-Collado on said:

      I assume, of course, you are not a Crhistian. Your argument is pure social Darwinism.

  2. elmerfudzie on said:

    This is a totally idiotic commentary! A specially created division of the AFL-CIO was conjured up by the Pentagon and the CIA, they made quite a bit of trouble in Brazil and Chile. Trade union’s, imported by our Intel agencies, had a major role in defeating socialist ideals of grass roots labor movements in countries south of our border, this is well documented.I include the AFL’s interference and meddling for Asian nations as well. They encouraged non Communist trade unions to subvert the politically independent leader, Sukarno who was regarded by Washington as just another closet Socialist. In the early 50′s and perhaps earlier,it became associated with the CIO, back then, the AFL was in South America, creating a union organization called Regional Organization of Workers or ORIT. It slowly evolved into the AIFLD who leader was Serafino Romualdi. Hewas principally responsible for the overthrow of President Jacobo Arbens, another socialist type who threatened western Occident and business interests in the USA. There are many similar examples in France, African continent and even Viet Nam, so please! get the history straight.

  3. Without even responding to the two corporate shills above, I would like to announce to you that the middle class is long gone. Our long decline began in 1980, when Ronald Reagan, the most anti-union, pro-business president up til that time, took office. Our last chance to save ourselves was 1984, when somehow that incompetent, senile clown convinced enough of you to re-elect him. Not me though, I voted for Mondale.
    My Dad was a union tool-and-die maker. He made a good living, our Mom never worked, we had a decent, respectable middle class life. He put my brother through college, who is now a tea-party millionaire who is so anti-union and insulated by wealth that he wouldn’t know inequality if it bit him in his rich ass.
    I’m turning 62 this year folks, I’m out of the rat race. I’m gonna collect my social security,(which I’ve earned, thank you), be a greeter at Walmart, and smile at people all day. But beware all you young’uns, it ain’t gonna be there for you. All these corrupt big shots in Congress with their corporate backers, even democrats who were once champions of the middle class, are all bought and paid for. And it all started in 1980 when an actor, of all people, managed to convince your dads and grandfathers that he could be trusted.

    • rosemerry on said:

      Tell me why you would help 6 people in the Walton family to “earn” as much as the lowest 100million americans by being a greeter at Walmart????
      I am a lifelong unionist (luckily NOT living in the USA) now retired. Solidarity is one big characteristic missing from the individualistic US typical person.

    • Alfredo Villanueva-Collado on said:

      Nietzsche said it clearly: the age of the actor is upon us and with us to stay. The whole of the American Governement functions as an endless farce.

  4. I would like to add that both union success and the success of the labor force as a whole, are largely dependent on our current economic depression. With persistent lower than usual employment that is still stagnating for years now, employment has become a buyer’s market – the employer being the ‘buyer’ in this context. That gives employers in general an even stronger bargaining position in setting wages than they might have already had.

    Because of this we can realistically expect labor interests (union or not) to make less progress during this time. Not saying anyone should throw up their hands and give up; just addressing reality.

    So during these depression times, it is urgent that government be a real part of the solution; and that means the Federal government acting at least temporarily as employer, either directly, or indirectly by way of infrastructure and other contracts, and also subsidies to state and local governments. I would suggest the top two catagories of general government employment which are education and public safety workers, but of course those are just a starting point. The alternative if we don’t is to create a “new normal” of both lower wages and lower employment, which will take much longer to recover from.

    Although there are employers who are underpaying/unerhiring, the whole picture isn’nt necessarily all the fault of all employers. Un-employed people spend less, which in turn is less revenue for employers to spend on employment. Tax incentives for employers is a popular but bogus argument. Employers will not hire people to do nothing, reegardless of tax breaks, period. This closed loop cycle of low and under-employment and low consumer spending is part of a condition known as a Liquidity Trap, by Krugman and others, which is aggravated by the fact that interest rate policy cannot effect an improvement, since interest is already too close to zero (the so-called ‘zero lower bound’).

    • Note: I should have said, above, largely handicapped by our current economic depression (instead of ‘dependent on’)