I doubt many of us consider what Labor Day is about or think about what the labor movement did to build the middle class. It astonishes me that people who’ve unwittingly benefited from unions spend so much time demonizing them. Government statistics will tell you that a union worker’s family gets 10% to 15% higher wages, and they bring nonunion members along. Divided we fall.
Some of my proudest moments have come from my brothers, one of who helped unionize Wall Street Journal print plants, the other who was active in a teachers union, trying to bring a measure of financial and workplace respect to these valuable public services. As goes education, so goes our country.
I search and can’t find a political memory from my middle-class upbringing. Six kids. A father who in some ways I think worked himself to death. To this day, I don’t know how my parents voted. But we learned through their example to do the right thing and to stick up for “the little guy.”
There’s a split in America between political parties, but the vast majority — the workers in these parties — are fighting the wrong fight. Slowly but surely, the rewards for their labors have been appropriated by ever-increasing consolidated monopolies. Powerful companies that lobby to strengthen their position and profits.
We’ve seen immense tax cuts for corporations and the wealthiest families that puts pressure on the safety nets that help the poor, sick and elderly. It’s like clockwork. Big tax cuts, a deficit and then an attack on Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare, programs that the wealthy don’t care about because they don’t need them.
They’ve got the clout to manipulate the system. When the corrupt investment banking industry nearly destroyed the global economy with a manipulated housing bubble, taxpayers bailed them out. The very taxpayers who lost homes in the Great Recession. Investment banks — not the small town banks on Main Street that traditionally build communities — got bigger and more profitable. They defrauded the country en masse. One, just one, banker went to jail.
There’s been attrition, and anyone with kids just starting out, understands that this generation has it tougher. College loans are predatory. College educations out of reach for many. We’ll bail out criminal bankers but not students. Families are working multiple jobs for less and are losing ground. The percentage of American adults who live in middle-income households decreased from 61% in 1971 to 51% in 2019. The trend continues.
According to Pew Research, “From 2007 to 2016, the median net worth of the richest 20% increased 13%, to $1.2 million. For the top 5%, it increased by 4%, to $4.8 million. In contrast, the net worth of families in lower tiers of wealth decreased by at least 20% from 2007 to 2016. The greatest loss – 39% – was experienced by the families in the second quintile of wealth, whose wealth fell from $32,100 in 2007 to $19,500 in 2016.” Today, the top 1% has an annual income of $43 million, 1,807 times more than the bottom 20%.
The last time that happened was in the Gilded Age. Trust-busting and and unions helped level the playing field and ushered in the middle class. But, once again, the deck is systematically stacked against “the little guy.” Globally, 81 billionaires own half of the wealth. Half. And they’re paying just 4 cents in taxes on the dollar.
That kind of imbalance is unnatural in any ecofinancial system and it creates infighting. The thing is though, we’ve got distracted, ill-informed working families fighting over the last cookie. I don’t know how long Americans will be placated by big screens and cell phones before they realize that what’s good for billionaires isn’t necessarily good for them. It ain’t trickling down, folks.
Warren Buffett pointed out that the system is rigged in such a way that his secretary pays a larger percentage of her income in taxes than he does.
There’s abundance enough, but greed has created classes of economic slaves and economic royalty. Hamsters on a treadmill too busy and distracted to understand that their rainbow flag flying neighbor isn’t the problem. They’re not the ones eating your lunch. Heck, if you’re sick, they’ll bring you a hot dish.
People are generally good. Our differences are artificially amplified in the media. We need to remember that we don’t inhabit that big-screen hyperbolic world. Our reality is the neighborhood, the grocery store and the pantry. It’s not about hard and fast economic theories — capitalism, socialism, or any other “ism.” It’s about the human condition. About fairness.
© Tony Bender, 2023