Organized labor has spent years trying to hold Wall Street accountable for the harm it did to this country. It wasn’t until a month ago, however, that the seeds we planted grew into a grassroots uprising against economic injustice.
The Occupy Wall Street movement — which began as a small group of young protesters and has grown into a national cause — could become a strong political force. It has tapped into the raw nerves of many Americans who are fed up over the rich few taking advantage of the rest of us. The protesters’ core issue — economic inequity — is what fueled the early days of labor organizing, and their efforts have awakened a broad new sense of social activism.
Wall Street is not the only target. New Yorkers are being told that the state’s millionaire’s tax must be allowed to expire — and the $4 billion in annual revenue it generates — while 66,000 state workers belonging to the Civil Service Employees Association are forced to lower their already moderate living standards in order to provide less than $73 million in savings.
The majority of Americans would not call this shared sacrifice.
Protests are forming all over the country — D.C., Boston, Philadelphia, etc. The participants come from many backgrounds and have many different ideas, but the message is clear: It’s time for this country to be taken away from the wealthy special interests and given back to the people.
It is the responsibility of organized labor and public-sector workers, to develop and implement a practical course of action to achieve our goals: a vibrant middle class and dependable public services. In the protesters’ words, it is about taking care of 99 percent of Americans and not just the top 1 percent.
Public employees are not even in the top 10 percent of income earners. We are members of the shrinking middle class. We provide the services that keep all communities safe and livable, whether they are rich or poor. We also understand that those services cost money, and that revenue must come from somewhere.
Too many of the very wealthy are not taxed enough. As billionaire investor Warren Buffet has said, he pays a lower percentage in taxes than his secretary. A little over 10 years ago, before President George W. Bush, the rich paid a higher rate. A decade before that, they paid higher still. Taxes for them are not going up, but down. To say that an increase now would be a great burden is both untruthful and unethical.
As the wealthiest amass ever greater fortunes, others are slipping out of the middle class. According to a recent report by the Pew Charitable Trusts, nearly one in three Americans who grew up middle-class has slipped down the income ladder as an adult.
The wages of middle-income Americans had been stagnant since the middle 1970s, but recent census data show that from 2000 to 2010, they actually regressed. The median income fell to $49,445 last year, down 7 percent over a ten-year period.
As the cost of living increases, so has income disparity. The people that are getting squeezed are not those at the very top or the very bottom, but those of us in the middle. Public-sector workers are one of the last strongholds for the middle class and we need to protect that way of life.
If we want a country where parents can hope for a better future for their children, where our communities are clean and safe, then it is imperative that we continue the millionaire’s tax at the state level and let the federal Bush tax cuts expire. The revenue increase would be substantial, enough to save the jobs of many police, firefighters, teachers and other public employees. It is equally important that our leaders allocate precious tax money wisely, and that includes maintaining a strong civil service system. How many times must it be proven that privatization schemes cost more, deliver inferior services and open the door to corruption?
Our demands are not unreasonable — just the ability to take care of our families and retire with the dignity that all human beings deserve.
What would America be like if we had no middle class? How would our neighborhoods run if we did not have the people to police our schools and hospitals and keep our towns running? These basics in our life are at stake. We must continue to hold the 1 percent accountable for what they have done, but we should band together with the other 99 percent and make the shared sacrifices we need to protect our way of life. We need to occupy more than Wall Street; we need to create a brighter future.